What Should We Praise in Others?

The two features that make a quality or achievement praiseworthy, according to Seneca

Beautiful woman's face
Image by Irina Gromovataya from Pixabay

“Praise in him what can neither be given nor snatched away.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

You have such a beautiful house.

You’re gorgeous like a model.

Wow, you have so many followers. You’re famous!

Your dad’s awesome. He’s such a popular and powerful governor.

These, according to Seneca, are not the right things to praise.

Wealth. What better example than money of something that can be given and taken away? Such is the case with easy money as well as hard earned money. The easy kind is easily pilfered -which is one reason millionaires create strictly worded trusts for their kids.

Even the hard earned kind can vanish, and not just through theft. It can easily and unexpectedly shrink, as is happening with many people’s nest eggs during this crisis.

Looks: As my mom says, age is unforgiving to all.

Fame: The famous depend on followers and fans to be famous. Their devotion is not guaranteed. They can as easily give it as withdraw it.

Political power: Whatever the system, power depends on others. In a democracy, those in power must be elected. The military dictator needs the support of the military. No matter the size of the coalition, the powerful need enough of it to back them.

Seneca asks us not to praise lightly.

This is especially difficult for me. I enjoy praising people often and profusely.

Sorry Seneca, but I believe I’ll continue to do so, even if the achievements I praise are not praiseworthy according to you.

What I will do is think long and hard about which virtues and achievements adhere to Seneca’s guidelines and try to call attention to them more.

I’ll start with the following four individuals: my son who’s sheltering in place in New York City, and the three people I’m quarantined with:

To my husband: You are uniquely generous.

To my son Diego: The purity of your affection is a gift.

To my friend Pati: How did you become so brave?

To my son Andres: You’re the best listener I know.

What praiseworthy qualities do those around you have?


Seventh piece for a 30-day writing challenge on a single topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic.

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them.

 

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A Warning from Seneca to Those Who Employ the Fear Tactic

Sowing fear has unavoidable repercussions

Fearful girl sitting
Image by Hans Kretzmann from Pixabay

“To be feared is to fear: no one has been able to strike terror into others and at the same time enjoy peace of mind himself.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

Fear drives what we do in many ways, especially when the fear is justified. Think of authoritarian leaders and their subjects or of an abusive marriage.

The dictator’s cronies and subjects fall in line because they know the dictator will take their property or their life if they don’t. The dictator has done so before, many times. It’s to be expected.

What’s interesting -and reassuring- about Seneca’s reflection is that fear goes both ways: The dictator lives in fear also. So does the mafia boss, the head of the cartel and the cruel boss.

This dynamic is at play even in relationships between two individuals -a parent and child, or a husband and wife, for example.

What would the terrorizer fear?

First, those under him find that the only way to rise to the top is by displacing him, getting rid of him, making him disappear. Think of the kingdoms of old or the drug cartels of today.

Second, the oppressed and terrorized will only take so much. They may plot to do him harm. He never knows when they may hit back in a moment of rage, or when the self-defense instinct will take over.

The terrorizer lacks peace of mind not out of empathy or regret, but out of fear for his own life or position of power. He can’t enjoy peace of mind due to fear of reprisal.

Often, the fear turns into paranoia, which leads to more terror and violence.

Relationships based on fear are destructive. We should support laws and initiatives to help victims of such relationships.

We must also watch out for, and call out, this tendency in those in power.


Sixth piece for a 30-day writing challenge on a single topic: Quotes from Seneca the Younger’s Letters from a Stoic.

Why this topic? Because I can’t get over how timely and brilliant Seneca’s words are -2,000 years after he wrote them.

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