Don’t Try to Philosophize with Everyone!

Seneca, Moral Epistle 29.1-3

“You have been inquiring about and want to know what our friend Marcellinus is doing. He rarely visits me, and there’s no other reason than that he is afraid of hearing the truth, a danger he is keeping his distance from. You can’t talk to someone unless they are willing to listen.

This is why some doubt whether or not Diogenes and the rest of the Cynics–who practiced an exceptional freedom of speech and gave advice to everyone they met–ought to have acted the way they did. Why carp on the deaf or those speechless from some disease since birth?

What, you say, should I be cheap with words when they are free? I cannot know if I will help anyone I advise, but I know that I will help someone if I advise many. Advice should be given by the handful. It is impossible not to succeed sometimes if you try a lot!”

Well, Lucilius my friend, I think this is exactly what a great person shouldn’t do. This dilutes their authority and there’s no enough weight any long to help anyone because it has  been compromised. An archer shouldn’t hit bullseye only sometimes; he should miss only sometimes. Something that works mostly by chance isn’t an art; and wisdom is an art. It should be aimed only at those who will make progress and give up on those whom it regards as having no potential. But, don’t give up on them quickly, only when you have tried extreme solutions amid fading hope.”

De Marcellino nostro quaeris et vis scire, quid agat. Raro ad nos venit, non ulla alia ex causa quam quod audire verum timet, a quo periculo iam abest. Nulli enim nisi audituro dicendum est. Ideo de Diogene nec minus de aliis Cynicis, qui libertate promiscua usi sunt et obvios monuerunt, dubitari solet, an hoc facere debuerint. Quid enim, si quis surdos obiurget aut natura morbove mutos? “Quare,” inquis, “verbis parcam? Gratuita sunt. Non possum scire, an ei profuturus sim, quem admoneo; illud scio, alicui me profuturum si multos admonuero. Spargenda manus est. Non potest fieri, ut non aliquando succedat multa temptanti.”

Hoc, mi Lucili, non existimo magno viro faciendum; diluitur eius auctoritas nec habet apud eos satis ponderis, quos posset minus obsolefacta corrigere. Sagittarius non aliquando ferire debet, sed aliquando deerrare. Non est ars, quae ad effectum casu venit. Sapientia ars est; certum petat, eligat profecturos, ab is, quos desperavit, recedat, non tamen cito relinquat et in ipsa desperatione extrema remedia temptet.

color photography of a small marble statue of the the philosopher Diogenes. He is old and nude, bent slightly forward with a dog by his left side
A small Roman marble statue (54.1 cm with plinth) depicting Diogenes the Cynic, in the collection of the Met Museum

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