One of the recurring themes in the Stoic literature is the notion that doing philosophy exposes us to the risk of becoming preoccupied with trivial digressions and being distracted from the true goal of life.
For example, one of the most frequently quoted passages in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius says:
Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one. (10.16)
Be not a man of superfluous words or superfluous deeds. (3.5)
Elsewhere he even says:
Away with your books! Be no longer drawn aside by them: it is not allowed. (2.2)
And again, “But away with your thirst for books, that you may die not murmuring but with good grace” (2.3).
Do the external things which befall you distract you? Give yourself leisure to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around. But then you must also avoid being carried about the other way. For those too are triflers who have wearied themselves in life by their activity, and yet have no object to which to direct every movement, and, in a word, all their thoughts. (2.7)
The Stoics believed that philosophy should aspire to be clear and simple, where possible, and focused on the most important practical questions in relation to ethics.
In the ancient world a sharp contrast was often made between Diogenes the Cynic and Plato, to illustrate two very different attitudes toward philosophy after the death of Socrates. Diogenes sneered at Plato for being too “Academic”, in the modern sense – too concerned with abstract or long-winded arguments and not enough with practical training in virtue. In return, Plato called Diogenes “Socrates gone mad”. Cynics apparently rejected the study of Physics and Logic, and bookishness in general, as intellectual vanity, not unlike Sophistry, and as diversions from practical philosophy.
Zeno of Citium, who was originally a Cynic and later studied in the Platonic Academy, appears to have adopted a middle ground. He did encourage his Stoic followers to study Physics and Logic but the Stoics also appear to warn us that we should not become lost in these subjects but should be careful to keep the goal of virtue in mind. Philosophical debate of the kind practised at Plato’s Academy, in other words, is good if it actually enhances our practical wisdom and virtue but can also be bad, a vice, if it doesn’t, and just indulges our vanity or wastes our time with trivialities. We shouldn’t indulge in arguments like the proverbial “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” or become so engrossed in philosophical wordplay that we “disappear up our own backsides”, as it’s crudely put today.
Marcus Aurelius was apparently introduced to philosophy by his painting master, Diognetus, aged around twelve, who seems to have been influenced by Cynicism. He says that one of the first things he learned was “not to busy myself about trifling things”. He repeatedly counts his blessings that he’s been lucky in his education to avoid getting sidetracked by scholastic trivialities.
[I’m grateful to the gods…] that when I had my heart set on philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of a sophist nor sat alone writing, nor untangled syllogisms nor preoccupied myself with celestial phenomena. (Meditations, 1.17)
Epictetus taught that we should constantly remind ourselves that reading books is a means to an end, for attaining eudaimonia, and avoid getting sidetracked by frivolous subjects.
For what purpose do you choose to read? Tell me. For if you only direct your purpose to being amused or learning something, you are a silly fellow and incapable of enduring labour. But if you refer reading to the proper end, what else is this than a tranquil and happy life? But if reading does not secure for you a happy and tranquil life, what is the use of it? (Discourses, 4.4)
Although the Stoic curriculum covered Logic and Physics, the Stoics consistently attach the caveat that these subjects should be approached with caution by students. They should serve Stoic Ethics, and not become a diversion from it. We shouldn’t get caught in hairsplitting arguments about logic or become absorbed in idle speculation about metaphysics or theology. To do so would be the opposite of Stoicism.
What does it matter to me, says Epictetus, whether the universe is composed of atoms or uncompounded substances, or of fire and earth? Is it not sufficient to know the true nature of good and evil, and the proper bounds of our desires and aversions, and also of our impulses to act and not to act; and by making use of these as rules to order the affairs of our life, to bid those things that are beyond us farewell? It may very well be that these latter things are not to be comprehended by the human mind, and even if one assumes that they are perfectly comprehensible, well what profit comes from comprehending them? And ought we not to say that those men trouble in vain who assign all this as necessary to the philosopher’s system of thought? […] What Nature is, and how she administers the universe, and whether she really exists or not, these are questions about which there is no need to go on to bother ourselves. (Epictetus, Fragment)
Marcus Aurelius likewise warns himself to remember, with humility, that many philosophical subjects remained obscure even to the greatest Stoic thinkers.
Things are in a sense so wrapped up in mystery that quite a few philosophers, even the exceptional ones, have concluded that they are wholly beyond our comprehension. Even to the Stoics themselves they seem difficult to understand. Indeed, every assent we give to the impressions of our senses is liable to error, for where is the man who never errs? (5.10)
Marcus even describes those as “wretched” or “struggling” in life, who preoccupy themselves with things that cannot be known with any certainty.
Nothing is more wretched than a man who goes all around and “pries into the things beneath the earth”, as the poet [Pindar] says, and speculates about what is in the minds of his neighbours… (2.13)
Elsewhere Marcus says that not only Stoicism and Epicureanism, but indeed all other schools of philosophy, were in agreement that nothing should divert us from the pursuit of wisdom, especially “not chatter with the ignorant and those who have no understanding of nature” (9.41). We should not cast our pearls before swine, if you like.
Moreover, in addition to avoiding pointless hairsplitting debates and idle chit-chat, Epictetus advised his students to speak less in general:
Be mostly silent; or speak merely what is needful, and in few words. (Enchiridion, 33)
Today, Epictetus’ warnings about associating with uneducated people in a way that leads us to become swept along with their habits and conversation could be applied to social media networks such as Facebook.
If a man frequently interacts with others for talk, or drinking together, or generally for social purposes, he must either become like them, or change them to his own fashion. For if a man places a piece of quenched charcoal close to a piece that is burning, either the quenched charcoal will put out the other, or the burning charcoal will light that which is quenched. Since the danger is therefore so great, we must cautiously enter into such intimacies with people of the common sort, and remember that it is impossible that a man can keep company with one who is covered with soot without getting soot upon himself. For what will you do if a man speaks about gladiators, about horses, about athletes, or what is worse about men? “This person is bad, this person is good; this was done well, this was done badly.” Further, what if he scoff, or ridicule, or show an ill-natured disposition? (Discourses, 3.16)
This is reminiscent of the old saying: “If you lay down with dogs you get up with fleas.” I don’t think Epictetus means to be dismissive of all common people. He also thinks Stoics should debate in public, and should marry, have children, and engage with public life, if nothing prevents them. However, he’s warning his students to avoid bad company, and being drawn into time-wasting activities, particularly joining in with badmouthing other people, etc.
The Stoics in general were wary of gambling and spectator sports, which became an obsession for many in the ancient world. For example, Lucius Verus, the co-emperor and adoptive brother of Marcus Aurelius, was obsessed with supporting his favourite chariot racing team and criticized for neglecting his duties as emperor. Marcus says he’s thankful he was taught early in life not to get too into supporting one team or another, or to waste his time in pursuits like gambling. He also repeatedly warns himself not to be overly concerned with what other people say or think unless it actually contributes to the common good.
Fritter not away what is left of your life in thoughts about others, unless you can bring these thoughts into relation with some common good. (3.4)
Many of these aspects of Stoicism seem to be ignored by modern readers. Inevitably, we make excuses for our vices. For instance, if someone posts an article about Stoicism on Facebook, they’ll probably get a mixture of helpful comments and unhelpful ones, such as lame jokes, or pedantic arguments, etc. We all know these things can waste our time. They also tend, in many cases, to derail conversations and actually inhibit or sidetrack more constructive debates. It would be like the difference between having a serious debate about Stoicism in a philosophy seminar versus trying to talk to a room full of drunk people about it. It might be good to speak to a wider audience but not if the conversation is effectively spoiled by too many interruptions and digressions from people who don’t understand or don’t really care about the philosophy. We can reach a far wider audience using social media but it’s somewhere in-between in terms of the type of responses we get to articles on Stoicism. Sometimes we have to be careful to prevent the background noise from drowning out the philosophy. I think one way of doing that is by gently reminding people who are just becoming acquainted with Stoicism why teachers like Epictetus warned their students to be wary of wasting their own and other people’s time with trivial, unproductive, conversations. It’s not the Stoic way to derail a philosophical debate by making lame jokes, for instance, although even the Stoics could enjoy humour when used appropriately.
Free Email Course
Sign up today for our free email course on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on this classic Stoic text.