Don’t judge others, but don’t keep bad company

Roman bathsSo here are two passages from Epictetus that might present a problem for the modern Stoic:

“Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” (Enchiridion 33.6)

(Please note that “philosophers” here is to be interpreted as people seeking to live a eudaimonic life, Epictetus isn’t talking about professional academics, and at any rate there simply was no such thing back then.)

“Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious? This will save you from perceiving one thing clearly, but then assenting to something different.” (Enchiridion 45)

Now, I understand that Epictetus is talking about being “dirty” in a metaphorical sense in the first case and in a literal one in the second. That’s not the problem. The issue is that the first quote seems to be in some sort of tension with the second one. I mean, how is one supposed not to judge other people, while at the same time studiously avoiding the company of fellow humans that one has judged not being worthy of one’s company? Moreover, doesn’t the advice at 33.6 smell, if you pardon me the pun, of precisely the kind of aristocratic philosophy that people so often accuse Aristotle of engaging in?

I have thought about both passages quite a bit, especially in terms of making my own judgments and decisions about which company to keep. And I think there is a sense in which Epictetus was right on both counts. One way to achieve reconciliation is to ponder another Roman Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, who in Meditations II.1 famously wrote:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

Here Marcus is reporting what he takes to be an observation about human nature: plenty of people are, shall we say, less than completely virtuous characters. Presumably, it would be a “preferred indifferent,” therefore, to avoid their company, because they are not helping our pursuit of a eudaimonic life (except in the sense that they provide us with endless opportunities to exercise our self control…). This is similar to what Epictetus is saying in 33.6 above.

Then again, we do not need to add any judgment to this observation, because we do not have access to their inner thoughts and motivations, and we have not had the same experiences that they have had. This, then, squares well with Epictetus at 45 above.

Of the two pieces of advise, seems to me that not judging others is the most uncontroversial for a Stoic, as much as it is not at all surprisingly rather difficult to practice! But what about the idea of not associating with certain people because they might cause us to “sink to their level”? Isn’t that a bit snobbish, Epictetus?

I don’t think it is, and I’ve tried to be more conscientious about who I spend my time with and how. Here, perhaps, Aristotle’s own conception of “friendship of virtue” might help. In the Nichomachean Ethics he refers to three types of friendship, all of which are valuable: friendship of utility (you associate with someone because the association is mutually beneficial), friendship of pleasure (you like some of the same things that the other person does, and enjoy doing them together), and friendship of virtue (you are friends because you admire and want to learn from each other).

Friendship of virtues are the “highest” type, according to Aristotle, because they are not based on practical interest or pleasure (which the Stoics also would not consider “goods,” though they may be preferred indifferents), but rather on the goal of becoming a better person through the aid of others.

This strikes me as eminently sensible, and perfectly compatible with Stoic ideas such as those expressed by Epictetus above. By all means, do associate with what Marcus called “busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial” people to the extent you must, and remind yourself, as he did, that they are simply misguided souls. But if you have a choice, follow Epictetus’ advice and cultivate company that can help you become a better person.


Categories: Social living

12 replies

  1. IMHO I think you are confusing Epictetus’ “fraternizing” with Aurelius’ association. Fraternizing is thru choice and for pleasure, Aurelius is referring to the unavoidable contact with associates that ‘one shall meet with’. Epictetus specifies ‘friends’ and ‘companion’ in 33.6 while in 45 and in Aurelius no such potentially culpable intimacy is implied. Association and fraternization are completely different concepts. As for judgments, in (45) Epictetus merely indicates that judgment is not to be made on the superficial observation of particular actions without deeper knowledge of motives.

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  2. Astro, well, yes, Epictetus and Marcus are referring to different kinds of situations, but I don’t seem them as radically irrelevant to each other, I guess. Indeed, fraternizing is through choice, while Marcus was talking about social encounters one cannot avoid. But the underlying idea in both cases is that one needs to pick one’s company as carefully as possible, while at the same time not judging too harshly those one is not inclined to partake with.

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  3. Is there anything in Stoicism that is not already ’eminently sensible’?


  4. Not sure. Do you think the idea that virtue is the only conduit to happiness is eminently sensible?


  5. Given certain definitions of virtue and happiness, yes. However, people can differ about what ’eminently sensible ‘ purports.


  6. On second though I withdraw the second sentence.

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  7. Massimo, I appreciate your meditations on these necessary subjects. They also parallel biblical teachings in an intimate way.

    For one thing, we make a similar distinction between associating and entering into binding relationships. The latter can only be contemplated with those who share our vision and values.

    We also make a critical distinction between judging and condemning. Judging of our children, subordinates (and others) we must do. It’s a necessary part of human relationships. However, condemning is another thing. We are just not in a position to condemn others as are the courts.

    I think that we might be able to agree with these generalizations, not because we share a common culture, but because we share a common humanity which can apprehend common, objective, moral law. It just doesn’t feel right for us to disdain others. We rightly sense that there is something WRONG with this – not simply that it doesn’t give us pleasant psychological fruit.

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  8. The value of judgement is always dependent on the understanding, clarity and equanimity of the one doing the judging. The problem is that we often make judgements without a good awareness of own motivations most of which are unconscious. Avoiding ‘negative’ people is a very common meme right among ‘new age’ folks & those in the positive psychology community. I feel it is often just a way of not dealing with our lack of self awareness.

    So I think a key to applying judgements wisely lies in own capacity for self evaluation. This requires consistent ongoing work. When judging others we should first evaluate how clear we are regarding the sources of our own motivations that are behind the judgement.


  9. Seth, indeed. A Stoic would say that the value of a judgment would depend on your own virtues, one of which is equanimity, and there are explicit Stoic writings were one is encouraged to be careful to learn from others and not to overestimate one’s own worth.


  10. Thanks Massimo,

    I wasn’t suggesting that the Stoics didn’t have within their own philosophical doctrine means for resolving the conflicting quotes. I do think however the first quote is prone to be abused based on human nature, and would benefit from a supporting context at a minimum. In addition to my prior comment I think it separates folks into categories to easily which can play into our tribal instincts. Maybe the context is there in adjacent paragraphs, but I myself wouldn’t defend the quote as a standalone concept.

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  11. Aren’t you trying to make the distinction between judgment and discernment? I imagine that a judgment would involve the virtue of justice (as in, not judging others without knowing their circumstances) and a discernment would involve the virtue of wisdom (as in, knowing with whom to associate). I can see this as two different and separate actions.
    I see the first quote as advice against “peer pressure”–to be involved with people whose behaviors are healthy and beneficial rather than unhealthy and harmful to one’s character. I guess this does involve a “judgment” of the person’s character in that case. But isn’t it a wise thing to not associate with people who might live a life that is not based on developing into a virtuous person? Most parents choose friends for their children until they reach a certain age based on this principle, and it makes sense to continue it into later life.
    Also, there are times when I might have a duty to someone (for instance, a family member) but not want to associate with them because I don’t want to be exposed to their behavior, which I see as harmful to me and/or others. I see this as not making a judgment of that person, as much as making an informed decision about how I wish to spend my time/money/attention. Granted, this is a difficult decision but sometimes it is healthier not to associate with someone who is being destructive (or “dirty,” as Epictetus calls it).


  12. vienna, I don’t see anything to disagree with in your comment…

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