Popular Speech and Philosophy

Seneca, Moral Epistle 40.5-8

“This popular form of speech possesses no truth: it wishes only to move the crowd, to grab ahold of uninformed ears through speed–it does not offer itself for conversation, but discourages it. How can speech like that govern people when it is ungovernable itself? Shouldn’t any kind of speech, moreover, that tries to heal our minds, be able to sink down into them? They cannot offer remedies if they do not linger in our thoughts.

That kind of speech also contains an excess of nonsense and silliness, it makes more noise than impact. The things that scare me should be soothed; the things that irritate, softened; the desires that deceive me, should be inhibited; my greed should be curbed. What of these can be treated quickly? What kind of doctor rushes through a visit with the sick? On top of that, how can such a hodgepodge of poorly chosen sounds bring any kind of pleasure?

It is the same as you find some delight in witnessing tricks you thought were impossible to complete, so too it is possible to hear these word acrobats perform only once. What can someone want to learn or imitate in these people? What could you think of their minds, when their speech rushes out in complete chaos, impossible to keep in control?

Just as when someone is running down the hill, it is impossible to stop where they wanted too, and their steps roll along with the force of their body and are carried beyond where they wanted to stop, so too does speed of speaking operate beyond its own control. It is not right for philosophy, since philosophy should compose words with care, not throwing them around, but moving carefully, step by step.

Haec popularis nihil habet veri; movere vult turbam et inconsultas aures inpetu rapere, tractandam se non praebet, aufertur. Quomodo autem regere potest, quae regi non potest? Quid, quod haec oratio, quae sanandis mentibus adhibetur, descendere in nos debet? Remedia non prosunt, nisi inmorantur.

Multum praeterea habet inanitatis et vani, plus sonat quam valet. Lenienda sunt, quae me exterrent, conpescenda, quae inritant, discutienda, quae fallunt, inhibenda luxuria, corripienda avaritia; quid horum raptim potest fieri? Quis medicus aegros in transitu curat? Quid, quod ne voluptatem quidem ullam habet talis verborum sine dilectu ruentium strepitus? Sed ut pleraque, quae fieri posse non crederes, cognovisse satis est, ita istos, qui verba exercuerunt, abunde est semel audisse. Quid enim quis discere, quid imitari velit? Quid de eorum animo iudicet, quorum oratio perturbata et inmissa est nec potest reprimi? Quemadmodum per proclive currentium non ubi visum est, gradus sistitur, sed incitato corporis pondere se rapit1 ac longius quam voluit effertur; sic ista dicendi celeritas nec in sua potestate est nec satis decora philosophiae, quae ponere debet verba, non proicere, et pedetemptim procedere.

Person sitting at a desk outside debate me meme with Latin on his sign saying "Haec popularis nihil habet veri" the popular kind of speech possesses no truth."

2 thoughts on “Popular Speech and Philosophy

  1. Your references have introduced me to Seneca and I am very grateful. I could never have imagined I would be so fond of him. Thank you.

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