12 Dec These are the things we your friends ask of you, these become you, for these you are designed by nature [(Homer) PLUTARCH]
But since “neither,” to use the words of Euripides, “do all troubles proceed only from old age,” nor from the stupidity of our friends, we ought to observe not only the shortcomings but also the good points of our friends, aye, by Zeus, and to be ready to praise them first, and only censure them afterwards. For as iron receives its consistency and temper by first being submitted to fire and so made soft and then dipped into cold water, so when friends have been first warmed and melted with praises we can afterwards use gentle remonstrance, which has a similar effect to that of dipping in the case of the metal. For an opportunity will offer itself to say, “Are those actions worthy to be compared with these? Do you see what fruits virtue yields? These are the things we your friends ask of you, these become you, for these you are designed by nature; but all that other kind of conduct we must reject with abhorrence, ‘cast it away
on a mountain, or throw it into the roaring sea.” (Homer)
For nothing makes rebuke less painful or more beneficial than to refrain from anger, and to inveigh against wrong-doing mildly and kindly.
And so we ought not sharply to drive home the guilt of those who deny it, or prevent their making their defence, but even contrive to furnish them with specious excuses, and if they seem reluctant to give a bad motive for their action we ought ourselves to find for them a better, as Hector did for his brother Paris,
Unhappy man, thy anger was not good, (Homer)
suggesting that his absconding from the battle was not running away or cowardice, but only anger.
And Nestor says to Agamemnon,
You only yielded to your lofty passion. (Homer)
For it has, I think, a better moral tendency to say “You did it inadvertently,” than to say “You acted unfairly,” or “You behaved shamefully:” as also “Don’t contend with your brother,” than “Don’t envy your brother;” and “Avoid the woman who is your ruin,” than “Stop ruining the woman.”
Such is the language employed in rebuke that desires to reform and not to wound.
That rebuke which looks merely at the effect to be produced acts on another principle. For when it is necessary to stop people on the verge of wrong-doing, or to check some violent and irregular impulse, or if we wish to rouse and infuse vigour in those who prosecute virtue only feebly and languidly, we may then assign strange and unbecoming motives for their behaviour.
As Odysseus in Sophocles’ play, striving to rouse Achilles, says he is not angry about his supper, but
that he is afraid now that he looks upon the walls of Troy,
and when Achilles was vexed at this, and talked of sailing home again, he said,
I know what ’tis you shun: ’tis not ill fame:
But Hector’s near, it is not safe to beard him.
Thus by frightening the high-spirited and courageous man by the imputation of cowardice, and the sober and orderly man by that of licentiousness, and the liberal and munificent man by that of meanness and avarice, people urge them on to what is good, and deter them from what is bad, showing moderation in cases past remedy, and exhibiting in their freedom of speech more sorrow and sympathy than fault-finding; but in the prevention of wrong-doing and in earnest fighting against the passions they are vehement and inexorable and assiduous: for that is the time for downright plainness and truth.
Besides we see that enemies censure one another for what they have done amiss, as Diogenes said, he who wished to lead a good life ought to have good friends or red-hot enemies, for the former told you what was right, and the latter blamed you if you did what was wrong.
But it is better to be on our guard against wrong actions, through listening to the persuasion of those that advise us well, than to repent, after we have done wrong, in consequence of the reproaches of our enemies.
And so we ought to employ tact in our freedom of speech, as it is the greatest and most powerful remedy in friendship, and always needs a well-chosen occasion, and moderation in applying it.
Since then, as I have said before, freedom of speech is often painful to the person who is to receive benefit from it, we must imitate the surgeons, who, when they have performed an operation, do not leave the suffering part to pain and smart, but bathe and foment it; so those who do their rebuking daintily run off after paining and smarting, and by different dealing and kind words soothe and mollify them, as statuaries smooth and polish images which have been broken or chipped.
But he that is broken and wounded by rebuke, if he is left sullen and swelling with rage and off his equilibrium, is henceforth hard to win back or talk over.
And so people who reprove ought to be especially careful on this point, and not to leave them too soon, nor break off their conversation and intercourse with their acquaintances at the exasperating and painful stage.