Manvotional: Seneca on the Value of “Obvious” Advice

by Brett & Kate McKay on February 8, 2014 · 21 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals

Editor’s note: Our recent posts on the simple power of aphorisms and the need to direct your attention towards that which matters most brought to my mind these excerpts from the writings of Seneca. In them, the ancient Stoic philosopher answers the question of why we should continue to study things we already know and continually remind ourselves of advice that the less wise dismiss as merely common sense.

From “On the Value of Advice”
Letter 94, Moral Letters to Lucilius
By Seneca

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.

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.

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.

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.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tim February 8, 2014 at 11:03 pm

“The soul carries within itself the seed of everything that is honorable, and this seed is stirred to growth by advice”

I wrote this one down in my Journal before I could lose the feeling of it’s meaning. What a great nugget to keep with you, and to pass on to my Son as some advice! Thanks for the great post !

2 Jeff February 8, 2014 at 11:35 pm

Having a least one point of Calvinism to my credit, I’m not sure that I buy that “the soul carries within itself the seed of everything that is honorable.” But I don’t think that Christian belief is needed to know that words not only have the power to sow and nurture the ideas supporting virtue but to weed that mental garden from others that would choke and crush virtue.

3 Tim February 9, 2014 at 7:32 am

Always interesting and thought provoking, and good advice

4 M. Catlett February 9, 2014 at 8:02 am

I can’t congratulate you on the profundity of Seneca, obviously, but I can congratulate you for bringing this back to us – even remembering the value of the obvious is one of those obvious things I needed to be reminded of.

5 Matt from Poland February 9, 2014 at 8:56 am

Thanks for reminding me the obvious! No, seriously – this is the final nudge towards my long simmering plan of re-watching all the movies that used to inspire me to be the man I am today. I suspect re-watching the best movies I ever saw would be far more inspiring than watching the mush that they serve me in the cinema of the past decade. I’m thinking of stuff like the original RoboCop vs. the new one.

Keep up the good work guys! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – you’re the most useful website in the world right now. Greetings from Poland.

6 jerry February 9, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Value sanity first and all other things are possible.

7 Gus February 9, 2014 at 2:53 pm

I love to see the classical authors given a hearing again! They summed up so much timeless wisdom and we moderns neglect it at our own peril.

8 Scott February 9, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Regarding the statement: “the soul carries within itself the seed of everything that is honorable,” Seneca might mean a couple of things: (1) the idea that all things have natural ends based on the kinds of things they are (a teleological view that he shares with most thinkers from ancient Greece until well into the modern period). It has been codified in natural law thinking (whether of the Greek variety or of the Hebrew, expressed in the “golden rule”), but is most directly (to Western societies) embodied in Aristotelian thought, which when applied to man as “rational animal” implies that the virtues of human beings will be found in recognizing what is unique about humans (the hybrid of two domains of reality – “animal” and “rational” or divine). For man, then, the virtuous life involves living a bodily life according to the dictates of reason (as distinguished from either animals, who are not rational, and so live solely according to their impulses, or divine beings, who do not have bodies and so live lives of pure intellect). For Stoics like Seneca, this simply meant that one’s bodily appetites (for food, drink, sex, etc.) and one’s emotions ought to be governed by (and so subordinated to) reason. This, it seems to me, is the point of Seneca reminding us to look to our soul (which determines the kind of thing we are, i.e., men – rational animals) in order to find knowledge of the best life, which is the honorable (or virtuous) life.

Alternatively, he might mean (2) the Platonic notion that human souls possess all knowledge from birth due to the eternality of the soul.

It is likely that most people can find some variation of (1) that is acceptable, while virtually no one in the West holds to (2). Possibly, there are other ways to take the line as well, though I think these are the two most likely intended meanings. When approaching great thinkers like Seneca (and I admit that I am a fan), it is customary to try to understand them, first, as best as possible, according to their intention, but secondly (especially since intention is difficult to settle), according to the best possible / most plausible interpretation. This is known as the “principle of charity.” If there are several ways of taking his advice, go with the one that seems most reasonable, the wisest. In this way, we can learn even from those with whom we tend to disagree, extracting the best from them even when we do not expect it.

Seneca, it seems to me, because he is rather eclectic (like Solomon, he liked to collect wise sayings from many different thinkers, including the Epicureans with whom he was in opposition), sometimes seems to offer advice that could easily be dismissed on some grounds or other. If we follow this road, we will miss out on some of the kernel of truth that might be buried within. Few aphorisms are entirely false – if they were, they would not stand the test of time. Most contain some wisdom gleaned from experience. Our job is to sift and select.

9 Nikola Gjakovski February 9, 2014 at 5:54 pm

I firmly believe that this things need to be read every day to reminisce yourself. A bit hard for reading but I like when I break my sweat and get the point.

10 James Erickson February 9, 2014 at 6:09 pm

University. The original intention and meaning of the word was unity in diversity. Integrity, in the university of life, is the capstone of one’s achievement. Integrity is internal and external homogeneity in action, thought, and intent. Verily, even in its most common usage, integrity means strength. Uniting all of the diverse elements of one’s life into one solid integral whole is what gives liberty and power to a man.

11 theophilus February 10, 2014 at 6:32 am

Am not a man yet, but this website is full of uplifting wisdom.

12 Kyle February 10, 2014 at 11:20 am

Article made me think of the quote “People who do not read good books are no better off than those who cannot read good books.”, when it comes to not being a student of life. Most of the answers are already out there, we are just too lazy to look them up.

13 Nate February 10, 2014 at 12:20 pm

The modern application for this must be facebook: fill your feed with good advice by following beneficial pages.

14 Brett McKay February 10, 2014 at 1:47 pm


“Alternatively, he might mean (2) the Platonic notion that human souls possess all knowledge from birth due to the eternality of the soul.”

Well, Mormons essentially believe this, but we are perhaps so small in number as to constitute “virtually no one.” So I myself admittedly like to interpret his words through the lens of #2. But since most Stoics rejected Platonic ideals, he most likely means something closer to interpretation #1.

The great thing about philosophy is that people can read the same thing and disagree about what is “most reasonable” or “wisest,” and still both be edified.

Thanks for the insightful and thorough comment.

15 Nik Rice February 10, 2014 at 9:22 pm


I, also a Mormon, though the same thing and was going to respond but you took the words out of my fingertips!

16 volamor February 12, 2014 at 6:52 am

@Jeff: I believe this sentence is (among other things) meant to say that goodness, virtue and such come natural to us in the sense that they are already present in us and part of our nature rather than foreign, alien concepts which we first have to learn. And doesn’t Christian theology usually agree on that much? That at the core we are good because we were made good? I mean, sure, that this seed doesn’t thrive in everyone and is atrophied in many is obvious (and thus maybe worth pointing out after all, haha). But that does not make this notion of goodness being part of us, only waiting to be stoked/watered/fed, any less true, now does it?

17 Bram February 13, 2014 at 10:22 am

You misunderstand Jeff’s theology. He admits he is at least in partial agreement with the doctrine commonly called Calvinism. I am assuming from his post, that he is questioning the validity of Seneca’s statement against the Calvinist sub-doctrine of Total Depravity or Corruption. Like you said, we were created good, but due to the Fall of Adam (according to Calvinists, with whom I agree), we are all tainted beyond the ability to do anything good in the eyes of God — perform righteousness. However, we do know that all men at some point do that which is good in the eyes of other men and society. And I think that is Seneca’s point, that the general grace God shows all men that restrains evil on our planet is in part achieved by sound reason and advice.
Jeff’s concern about Seneca’s statement is valid if someone were to confuse Seneca’s point with the Christian doctrine of salvation, but Seneca’s treatise is sound as far as how it descibes how men are stirred up to do good before the sight of themselves and the world.

18 Jacob Andrews February 13, 2014 at 9:19 pm

RE to Jeff: I share your concern, and as a Christian I, like you, would probably be more pessimistic than Seneca about human nature. But I don’t think what Seneca said has to go against total depravity. The way I see it, depravity means people have the potential to be good (the “seed”), but not the ability to actualize it completely apart from saving grace. And a potentially good person is still a wicked person (after all, the damned are potentially saved). Anyway, common grace lets us actualize a little of that potential, and one of the tools God gives even heathens for doing that is good advice.

19 Mohan February 14, 2014 at 3:24 pm

I do believe that the soul, the true you, “carries within itself the seed of everything that is honorable…” But, souls need to be cultivated, matured, just like fine wine. This, I believe is achieved through discipline, through struggle, through success, and through failure such that we are humbled to our own limitations and proud of our own skills.

20 Alex February 16, 2014 at 1:49 pm

Great post. Short and sweet, with much to reflect on.

21 David Naas February 18, 2014 at 9:39 am

My old psychology professor, Dr. C. Harrison Parmer used to say, “The way to avoid anxiety is to not indulge in it.”

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