In letters from a stoic 52, Seneca discusses two types of men who are in their path to becoming the best version of themselves – one who needs help from mentors and one who can do it by himself. He said that men who can do the latter are “first class” while the former “second grade”. I think almost everyone belongs to the second grade because even Seneca said he belongs to that category. “We ourselves are not of that first class, either; we shall be well treated if we are admitted into the second. Nor need you despise a man who can gain salvation only with the assistance of another; the will to be saved means a great deal, too.”
It’s very important to find the right mentors. He said that we should find teachers who practice what they preach. He said to find “men who teach us by their lives, men who tell us what we ought to do and then prove it by practice, who show us what we should avoid, and then are never caught doing that which they have ordered us to avoid.” We choose advice from people for a variety of reasons: They are older, good academic degrees, wealthy, powerful, famous, etc. However, Seneca argues that the best litmus test is to check whether they are actually doing what they preach. As Seneca puts it, “Choose as a guide one whom you will admire more when you see him act than when you hear him speak.”
In the last part of the letter, Seneca said we should be careful in taking praise from other people. For example, when one is giving a speech and receiving praise from an “ignorant” crowd, Seneca said “How mad is he who leaves the lecture-room in a happy frame of mind simply because of applause from the ignorant! Why do you take pleasure in being praised by men whom you yourself cannot praise? Of course, this does not mean we should stop these people and as a matter of fact, we should show them gratitude for the praise. It only means take any kind of praise with a grain of salt. Just as the stoics repeatedly advise us to be indifferent to the bad things people say about us, we should also be indifferent to the good things they say.
Recall that virtues or character is the only absolute good to the Stoics. Insults and praise are both external things we receive from other people. Seneca further went to say we can “tell the character of every man when you see how he gives and receives praise.” If we value too much praise, we might be doing things simply for the approval of other people and no longer in alignment with our values in life.
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