One feature of great men is that they generally know how to handle themselves in a variety of situations. They tend to be flexible and agile; they will know when to scold, when to chastise, when to use the velvet glove, and when to use the hammer. Only the experience of life can impart this kind of wisdom. But we can at least prepare ourselves in some ways. One of these ways is to read the letters of such men. See how they interact with their peers. Study how they solve various problems or issues that fall on their desks. You will spend a good part of your life “putting out fires” at work and at home, so you might as well learn from the masters.
Those in positions of authority or responsibility will have dealt with all types of people. They will know how to express themselves in a way that gets their point across without alienating their addressee. These qualities–we can call them tact or diplomacy–are in short supply these days. I have learned a great deal by studying the correspondence of men like Abraham Lincoln, Seneca, Petrarch, and one man who may not be as familiar as these others: Libanius. Libanius (c. 314–392 A.D.) was a professional rhetorician and court official of the Eastern Roman Empire. He wrote one of the first “autobiographies” in history, but his chief importance for posterity lies in the voluminous correspondence which he maintained with a great number of people. More than 1500 of his letters survive, a vast corpus. Taken together, they show him to be a master of diplomacy and diction.
I like this letter below. Some background is necessary to put it in context. Libanius was a close personal friend and confidant of the emperor Julian (“Julian the Apostate”) a zealously pagan emperor who had abandoned his early Christian upbringing in favor of the traditional deities of ancient Greece. For this, and especially for his open advocacy of paganism, he had earned the sullen wrath of the eastern Christian community. Julian led a military expedition to Persia and was killed while campaigning in 363. In the letter below, Libanius responds to an earlier letter written to him by a Christian named Julianus. In the earlier letter, Julianus had made some derogatory comments about the death of the emperor Julian.
Libanius was stung by these remarks, but he did not respond in kind. He did not fly off the handle. Instead, he penned this measured, dignified response, which strikes the perfect balance between firm rebuke and formal courtesy. (The translation below is by A.F. Norman).
A fine letter from a fine fellow has been slow in arriving. As for the change of fortune that you say has befallen me, whereby I no longer have people to defer to me, I found it hard to realize that you were referring to the death of the emperor. I loved him no less than my own mother, and I was loved far more than those who really seemed to be. Anyway, I never employed my audiences with him to raise up some [people] to undeserved heights, or to depress others.
Nor yet did I turn this into a traffic for gain, nor can it be alleged that I became a penny the richer from the imperial coffers, for I never asked for the return of all my grandfather’s fortune which lay there, nor did I accept it when he pressed it on me. Even that paltry grant to Aristophanes was the consequence of an oration, not a request from me. So I concede that I am unfortunate in the loss of such a friend, but I have not lost any flatterers, for I never had any.
My earlier friends are my friends now, and more pleasing to me now in their commendations of my conduct, which was not inspired to insolence by the accident of Fortune. By writing to me now you give me pleasure, as you did then. But had you wished to honor me in the same manner, you would have got a name for honoring a friend, not of truckling to fortune.
Libanius gets his point across very clearly. He defends the memory of the emperor Julian, and refuses to let Julianus’s insult slide, but he does it in a diplomatic way. The stern hand is gloved in velvet. It seems to me that we should try to emulate this ethic in our dealings with others.
 Libanius’s grandfather’s estate had been confiscated by the imperial authorities.
 “Truckling” means “to submit or behave obsequiously.”
Be a man of substance. Read something substantial for a change: