Letter XXXVIII. On Quiet Conversation

This letter is very short. The use of text as a teaching medium contrasts Seneca with two of his contemporaries. It is known that Epictetus and Musonius did not write books, but delivered speeches that were recorded by others.

He states that oratory is useful for attracting students, but not for instructing them:
when the aim is to make a man learn, and not merely to make him wish to learn, we must have recourse to the low-toned words of conversation. They enter more easily, and stick in the memory; for we do not need many words, but, rather, effective words.” (XXXVIII,1)

In the second half, Seneca responds indirectly to Plato’s criticism of the written word. He makes use of the image of the teacher as a sower. He first compares words to seeds, then to reason and finally to precepts. Seeds must find a suitable soil in the listener’s mind, they have their own power (you see them) and grow from something small to something big. In fact, in a good mind, they will return more than was invested. Seneca repeatedly says that he is a sower. Seeds must find a suitable soil in the listener’s mind, have their own power and grow from something small to something big.

In fact, in a good mind, they will return more than was invested.

SĂȘneca repeatedly emphasizes that not many words are necessary, only effective ones, and he reinforces this argument through the short nature of the letter itself.

(image: Cicero denounces Catilina by Cesare Maccari. Cicero was famous for his oratory)


XXXVIII. On Quiet Conversation

1. You are right when you urge that we increase our mutual traffic in letters. But the greatest benefit is to be derived from conversation, because it creeps by degrees into the soul. Lectures prepared beforehand and spouted in the presence of a throng have in them more noise but less intimacy. Philosophy is good advice; and no one can give advice at the top of his lungs. Of course we must sometimes also make use of these harangues, if I may so call them, when a doubting member needs to be spurred on; but when the aim is to make a man learn, and not merely to make him wish to learn, we must have recourse to the low-toned words of conversation. They enter more easily, and stick in the memory; for we do not need many words, but, rather, effective words.

2. Words should be scattered like seed; no matter how small the seed may be, if it has once found favourable ground, it unfolds its strength and from an insignificant thing spreads to its greatest growth. Reason grows in the same way; it is not large to the outward view, but increases as it does its work. Few words are spoken; but if the mind has truly caught them, they come into their strength and spring up. Yes, precepts and seeds have the same quality; they produce much, and yet they are slight things. Only, as I said, let a favourable mind receive and assimilate them. Then of itself the mind also will produce bounteously in its turn, giving back more than it has received. Farewell.

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