“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.