In his letter to Lucilius, “On the Proper Style for a Philosopher’s Discourse” (Letter XL), Seneca comments on Lucilius’s complaints to him about a lecture he heard recently. The speaker–a philosopher by the name of Serapio–“[was] wont to wrench up his words with a mighty rush,” not letting them “flow forth one by one, but mak[ing] them crowd and dash upon each other. For the words come in such quantity that a single voice is inadequate to utter them.”

We all know that feeling when you are trying to follow what someone is saying but they way they speak makes it impossible. Personally, I sometimes tend to doubt my own abilities when this happens: “If only I weren’t so dim-witted, I might be able to follow! If only I could be as passionate as this person, who is getting carried away by their own speaking!” How annoying for Lucilius that Serapio’s speech happened to take place in Lucilius’s own living room. As you might have guessed, Seneca frowns upon such frenzied, disorganized speech: “That forceful manner of speech, rapid and copious, is more suited to a mountebank than to a man who is discussing and teaching an important and serious subject.”  A philosopher’s speech, “like his life, should be composed; and nothing that rushes headlong and is hurried is well ordered.”

Interestingly, Seneca goes on to note: “But how can that speech govern others which cannot itself be governed? May I not also remark that all speech which is employed for the purpose of healing our minds, ought to sink into us?” It is more apparent why one’s speech might be intended to govern others, in a broad sense: control, direct, or strongly influence actions and conduct (Merriam-Webster). Less prevalent is the concept of speech being used to heal minds. I would argue that we need more of the latter approach as a back door to governing or influencing others.

Seneca again, describing what effective speech should do: “My terrors should be quieted, my irritations soothed, my illusions shaken off, my indulgences checked, my greed rebuked. And which of these cures can be brought about in a hurry?” My sense is that a speaker who is able to accomplish these feats with his well-paced, well-organized manner of speaking can also reach the hearts and minds of his listeners in a way that verbal trapeze artists cannot.

Show me a person who is free from terrors, irritations, illusions, indulgences, and greed, and I suppose you show me a person who is immune to having his mind influenced or heart touched by an effective speaker. But how does this “cure” approach work? Isn’t that manipulating the audience, to prey on their fears and weaknesses? Perhaps it is a deceitful ploy, but we are also told to consider our audience whenever we write or otherwise broadcast our opinions. Considering the audience means perceiving it as it really is, not as it would like to be. It’s good advice not just for when you have to deliver a speech, but when you are delivering any sort of communication, even, or especially, one-on-one. By anticipating the listener’s fears, weaknesses, desires, and so on–and attempting to soothe or simply acknowledge them–you are not just “talking at” someone, but making an effort to connect.

Ultimately, Seneca’s advice is straightforward: “[J]ust as a less ostentatious gait becomes a philosopher, so does a restrained style of speech, far removed from boldness”; the “ultimate kernel” of his recommendation is that Lucilius should “be slow of speech.” That’s easy to remember, but for myself I’m more worried about being too slow and veering into the territory of what Seneca describes as the “poverty-stricken and thin-spun style” characterized by “stammering slowness” that is at the other extreme from Serapio’s frenzied display of oratory passion. At the very least, while it may not soothe, I won’t exactly incite anyone’s terrors, covetousness, or desire that way!

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