Seneca on the Power of Words

We can use them to plant all manner of ideas

Seedling on hand
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

“Words need to be sown like seeds. No matter how tiny a seed may be, when it lands in the right sort of ground it unfolds its strength and from being minute expands and grows to a massive size… Yes, precepts have the same features as seeds: they are of compact dimensions, and they produce impressive results — given, as I say, the right sort of mind, to grasp at and assimilate them.” Seneca the Younger, in Letters from a Stoic

Oh, the power and mystery of words! Physically, spoken words are no more than a number of discrete sounds we produce and blend together. As for the written word, what we have is a collection of symbols representing such sounds.

The significance and potential of words, though, is infinite.

Seneca’s quote refers to words as the seeds one can use to grow ideas. Words can be minute, but ideas can grow to a massive size.

Ideas take many forms and can promote community and love just as much as they can sow death and destruction. That’s why a dangerous idea is never “just an idea.”

Ideas captured in words can drive people to do horrible things. The idea of racial superiority comes to mind. Ultimately, it has translated into tragedies like slavery, ethnic cleansing, holocausts and genocide.

In these United States we have something called “free speech,” which makes it possible for us to use words for good and bad. What a huge privilege and responsibility, especially when you’re in a position of power and influence.

I can’t help but think of some politicians, especially the one at the top of the Executive branch, who, instead of harnessing the power of words for good during the COVID-19 pandemic, uses it to sow confusion at all levels, from the risks involved to potential treatments.

Seneca’s quote focuses on words planted to produce good. For the Stoics, the good virtues to cultivate were wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. You may hold different ideals. Whatever they may be, though, if you care to promote them, then your words are your seeds.

Seneca also emphasizes that, to grow big, the seeds need to land “in the right sort of ground.” Just as seeds die when they land on the wrong ground, our words will be wasted on people who refuse — or are not ready — to hear them.

But what is the “right sort of ground” for our words and precepts? Seneca describes it as the mind able “to grasp and assimilate them.” In my view, the best mind is an open, critical mind. 

Likewise, we must remember that the effect of our words also depends on us. Are we meeting our audience where it’s at? Are we really listening?

Day 29 of 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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