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How to win people over to virtue: Socrates vs Seneca

"To give a benefit is a social act that wins someone over."

- Seneca, On Benefits 5.11.5

One of the things I find extremely interesting about Seneca's thoughts on "winning someone over" is how radical an improvement it is to Socrates' ideas (as he is portrayed by Plato). As Socrates sees things, a wise person should try to persuade as many people as possible to become as wise as possible - by engaging in critical, philosophical discussion with them. Winning people over is done by challenging their assumptions vigorously and making good philosophers out of them. A major goal with this activity is to contribute to the best possible society since a society consisting of critical thinkers who have thought a lot about what is good for human beings - and tested their ideas in extensive critical debate with each other - will be the best society. Interestingly - and tellingly - Plato seemed to deeply doubt that it is possible to teach people virtue at all. Either they already have it and, so, don't need to have it taught to them or they don't have it and, so, can't be taught. 

As Seneca sees things, however, people can be won over to philosophy and wisdom by much simpler acts of kindness. Helping a man repairing his house, for example, is probably a better way to promote virtue and wisdom than to force him to give reasons for his beliefs about happiness and the good life. If that man gets more faith in virtue and wisdom - in short: in humanity - by us helping him we have done the best possible deed and made the brotherhood of man a little stronger.

Witness the following quote from Seneca as well. Although it confusingly talks about the living voice and conversation in the first line, the basic point is that virtue is better taught by example than by talk:

"the living voice and conversation will do you more good than the text. You must come to witness the real thing, first because men trust their eyes more than their ears; next, because the approach through recommendations is long, but that of examples is short and effective. Cleanthes would not have reproduced Zeno’s thought if he had only heard him. He shared in Zeno’s life and saw his private actions, he watched him to see whether he lived according to his own code. Plato and Aristotle and the whole crowd of philosophers each following his different path derived more from Socrates’ behaviour than his words. It was not Epicurus’ teaching but his company that made Metrodorus and Hermarchus and Polyaenus into great men."

- Seneca, Letters 6.5-6

Plato's Academy - mosaic fromt the villa of T. Siminus Stephans in Pompeii. 


  1. The quotes above are from the excellent editions of Seneca's "On Benefits" (translated by Miriam Griffin and Brad inwood) and "Letters on Ethics" (translated by Margaret Graver and A. A. Long) from Chicago University Press.


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