Enchiridion XLVI


Never proclaim yourself a philosopher, nor make much talk among the ignorant about your principles, but show them by actions. Thus, at an entertainment, do not discourse how people ought to eat, but eat as you ought. For remember that thus Socrates also universally avoided all ostentation. And when persons came to him and desired to be introduced by him to philosophers, he took them and introduced them; so well did he bear being overlooked. So if ever there should be among the ignorant any discussion of principles, be for the most part silent. For there is great danger in hastily throwing out what is undigested. And if anyone tells you that you know nothing, and you are not nettled at it, then you may be sure that you have really entered on your work. For sheep do not hastily throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much they have eaten, but, inwardly digesting their food, they produce it outwardly in wool and milk. Thus, therefore, do you not make an exhibition before the ignorant of your principles, but of the actions to which their digestion gives rise.

Note that the discussion of principles is not itself to be avoided, but talking about them among the ignorant. Discussions among those interested in philosophy can be beneficial, and of course for those who wish to become students they are necessary. One can only learn by being exposed to the arguments, and one learns best by working them through with a good teacher.

So if a teacher must talk about principles in order to educate the student, and the student must by necessity begin as ignorant, how can it be wrong to talk among the ignorant about principles? The difficulty is not in talking to a single student, but in talking 'among' the ignorant. The dynamics of the crowd make it difficult for a crowd to hear and learn anything. What is popular will often seem to have the greatest force. Education comes in a different environment than the crowd. 

There is a parallel here in Jewish philosophy. Moses Maimonides notes the tradition among the wise of his faith to teach the interpretation of the vision of the prophet Ezekiel "only viva voce," and not to commit it to writing. (He then, of course, commits a great deal of his interpretation to writing; it makes up the first section of Part III of The Guide for the Perplexed.) It was sometimes said that this particular subject should never be taught in the presence of two (or more). Serious matters require a serious, intent discussion among people with the right kind of relationship of trust and respect. 

Epictetus is giving two pieces of advice here: the first on how to prevent philosophical thought from coming under mockery by the ignorant, which could bring disrepute upon most worthy ideas and ideals. More importantly, though, he is showing you how to prove your philosophy. If it is the right thing to do, then do it, don't talk about it. By observing your actions, people will come to understand your ideals; and by seeing how well they work, they will better understand their value than by having them explained.

Like the sheep who produces milk and wool, a Stoic who lives his ideas is creating real good in the world. Aristotle's ethics also turns on the importance of actually being virtuous, not just understanding what is and is not a virtue. Practice is essential; it is what makes the real good, virtue, so that the world has virtuous men to rely upon.

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