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The Value of Common Advice

March 18, 2014

As many of you know, I believe that much of what is good and true has been found in the past. I also believe that aphorisms– though not perfect – are quite useful. In that vein, I’ll be using the famous Seneca’s words, as AOM did recently. Read it, then reread it and my annotations that are commented off separately, and then I’ll talk about it a bit.


People say: “What good does it do to point out the obvious?” A great deal of good; for we sometimes know facts without paying attention to them. Advice is not teaching; it merely engages the attention and rouses us, and concentrates the memory, and keeps it from losing grip. We miss much that is set before our very eyes. Advice is, in fact, a sort of exhortation.The mind often tries not to notice even that which lies before our eyes; we must therefore force upon it the knowledge of things that are perfectly well known. [1]

You know that friendship should be scrupulously honored, and yet you do not hold it in honor. You know that a man does wrong in requiring chastity of his wife while he himself is intriguing with the wives of other men; you know that, as your wife should have no dealings with a lover, neither should you yourself with a mistress; and yet you do not act accordingly. Hence, you must be continually brought to remember these facts; for they should not be in storage, but ready for use. And whatever is wholesome should be often discussed and often brought before the mind, so that it may be not only familiar to us, but also ready at hand. And remember, too, that in this way what is clear often becomes clearer. [2]

Precepts which are given are of great weight in themselves, whether they be woven into the fabric of song, or condensed into prose proverbs, like the famous Wisdom of Cato: “Buy not what you need, but what you must have. That which you do not need, is dear even at a farthing.” Or those oracular or oracular-like replies, such as: “Be thrifty with time!” “Know thyself!” Shall you need to be told the meaning when someone repeats to you lines like these:

Forgetting trouble is the way to cure it.

Fortune favors the brave, but the coward is foiled by his faint heart. [3]

Such maxims need no special pleader; they go straight to our emotions, and help us simply because Nature is exercising her proper function. The soul carries within itself the seed of everything that is honorable, and this seed is stirred to growth by advice, as a spark that is fanned by a gentle breeze develops its natural fire. Virtue is aroused by a touch, a shock. Moreover, there are certain things which, though in the mind, yet are not ready at hand but begin to function easily as soon as they are put into words. Certain things lie scattered about in various places, and it is impossible for the unpracticed mind to arrange them in order. Therefore, we should bring them into unity, and join them, so that they may be more powerful and more of an uplift to the soul. [4]


[1] We all know phrases like ‘do unto others what you would have them do unto you’ … yet we are selfish. We know that writing well means sticking to the point, but we don’t always get good marks. Why? Because we forget. Let’s continue listening to Seneca.

[2] That last line is so, so true. By reminding ourselves we clarify things for ourselves. By application we learn. There is a great deal in the science of memory retention to support such ideas. So do does the science of integrity back the idea of moral reminders ‘ready for use’ . How do you do that though?

[3]What Seneca is doing to discussing is how proverbs and aphorisms remind us of what we forget. I have others to add to the list – principles, habits… these things – as part of our daily lives and trials – constantly are in the mind. In this way, we hold ourselves and achieve to higher standards.

[4]This is a more subjective matter, but I believe Seneca is right to say we carry the seed of all that is honourable. We do have the capacity for brilliance, we can be extraordinary. But to become brilliant we must constantly have the advice that creates brilliance at hand.

There’ll be more on this in my conclusion.


I find that all too often principles get a bad hearing. People are very quick to point out the flaws in principles – when a principle leads to a moral quandary, when it fails, when it contradicts something else… Such criticism is very easy. It is much harder to actually construct an alternative.

While principles have their flaws, I think we must remember just how difficult a purely pragamatic approach is to pursue. As Seneca says ‘certain things lie scattered about in various places, and it is impossible for the unpracticed mind to arrange them in order’ , because practice makes what is clear… clearer. The pragmatist, I find, is best advised to fall back on principles and weigh them against each other. To evaluate situations without simplifying principles… is impossible for the unpracticed mind.

A very good example of this was a student in the mock trial team I was helping last night. Simple truths like – have a clear line of attack, stick to that line of attack, repeat it, make sure to listen to witnesses – are paramount, not just to mock trial, but writing, speaking and communication. Instead, at times, he wandered into the paraphernalia – tangential issues, details… which is all well and good, once you’ve sorted out the foundations. Far more is to be gained by getting the foundations right than looking for technical, higher level tricks. And getting foundations right means remembering the common advice and principles that have driven solid foundations for generations.

Remember, “Certain things lie scattered about in various places, and it is impossible for the unpracticed mind to arrange them in order.”


From → Foundations

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