B. writes: “I’m not sure if foolishness deserves a post but I shall put it out there. I’m a naturally social person whose brazenness leads to offense. I don’t intend to confront those who I end up offending, I just generally try to make a point of an issue and end up being meaner than I both intend to and should be. Perhaps it is no more than attempting to being cleverer than I actually am, but I’m sure that I do more harm than good. If others point out the silliness of a comment I’m happy to accept it. I just seem to have an issue between the mind and the mouth. Can you think of any Stoic advice for someone like myself?”
Yes, I can, brother. And this is very close to my heart, since I suffer from a similar problem. You see, I’m a university professor. Which means that, probably as a matter of temperament just as much as out of professional habit, I talk too much (some would say I write too much as well), and I have a tendency to lecture people. Which people in turn have a tendency not to appreciate.
Just a few days ago, for instance, I was having a nice dinner with friends, after we all attended a play. One of them at some point made a comment about the fact that we don’t know whether there is or there isn’t a god, so that the atheist position is indefensible. Now, I’m an atheist, but one of those who tries really hard to respect other people’s beliefs. For instance, I’m on record as a strong critic of the brazen so-called New Atheist movement.
But I’m also a philosopher who teaches, among other things, epistemology and critical thinking. So I just had to point out to my friend that — to put it as David Hume famously did — a wise person proportions her beliefs to the evidence, and since I simply don’t see sufficient reason or evidence in favor of the existence of gods then I am perfectly justified in non believing — even though, of course, I could be wrong.
To try to get my point across by way of an analogy (see the professorial mode?), I asked her if she believed in unicorns. (The idea was that I know she doesn’t; then I would ask her why not, since she can’t prove that there are no unicorns; at which point she would begin to see the parallel between a a-unicornist, someone who lacks a positive belief in unicorns, and an a-theist, and eventually agree that they are equally sensible positions.)
Her response was a peeved “oh, here we go with the Socratic method!” Seriously, the whole exchange was beginning to look like Tim Minchin’s Storm. At some point I realized that: i) there was no way in hell I was going to convince my friend; ii) she was getting upset; and iii) the rest of the table was beginning to look uncomfortable. So I stopped. Indeed, I later apologized to her and to another friend for the degree of discomfort I caused. With hindsight, I should have never even started, unless someone explicitly asked for my opinion.
Which brings me back to your own, I think very similar, problem, and the Stoic take on it. Let’s begin with Epictetus:
“Lay down from this moment a certain character and pattern of behavior for yourself, which you are to preserve both when you’re alone and when you’re with others. Remain silent for the most part, or say only what is essential, and in few words. Very infrequently, however, when the occasion demands, do speak, but not about any of the usual topics, not about gladiators, not about horse-races, not about athletes, not about food and drink, the subjects of everyday talk; but above all, don’t talk about people, either to praise or criticize them, or to compare them. If you’re able to so, then, through the manner of your own conversation bring that of your companions round to what is fit and proper. But if you happen to find yourself alone among strangers, keep silent.” (Enchiridion 33.1-3)
Also: “In your conversation, avoid talking at length or overmuch about your own exploits or the dangers that you’ve faced; for pleasant though it may be for you to recall your perils, it is not as pleasant for others to listen to everything that has happened to you.” (Enchiridion 33.14)
Epictetus is telling us a number of things here. First off, notice the opening sentence, where he advices to choose a pattern of behavior we wish to follow and then stick to it. In other words, it is far better to think ahead of time whether, say, to engage or not engage with friends and acquaintances on certain topics (think politics at Thanksgiving dinners!), because we deal better with situations if we are mentally prepared.
Second, the injunction not to talk too much, particularly about yourself. Few people enjoy being lectured at, especially when the relationship is symmetrical (friend-to-friend) rather than obviously asymmetrical (teacher-to-student).
Third, the suggestion to steer, whenever possible, the conversation toward topics that are worthwhile conversing about, and definitely away from gossiping. But this needs, again, to be done gently, not by beating others on the head with a Stoic stick.
Fourth, your last option should be, in many circumstances, your default one: just stay silent. You are under no obligation to talk, especially about issues, or with people, that you know are likely to result in the very pattern of behavior you are trying to avoid.
I realize, of course, that following Epictetus to the letter is both difficult (tell me about it!) and may even make you somewhat unwelcome at dinner parties. After all, it’s called being “in the company” of people because one expects some contribution to the common intercourse. But perhaps you can keep in mind Epictetus’ advice in order to simply moderate your interactions, a reminder of practicing the virtue of temperance in social occasions.
There is another way of looking at these situations. If you are like me, you get frustrated by this sort of interaction because it is hard to believe how an intelligent person like your interlocutor would advance such an argument, or incur into such an obvious logical fallacy. From there, the temptation to consider others as not quite at your own level is strong. And from there the slippery slope is open to become conceited in your opinions and obnoxious in your behaviors.
That’s where we may want to adopt a milder version of Socrates’ idea that people don’t engage in evil on purpose, but out of lack of wisdom. As I explained here, the Greek word is amathia, and it is often applied to weighty matters, as when Socrates told his friend, the general and politician Alcibiades:
“Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity (ἀμαθίᾳ) my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs.”
Alcibiades was most definitely not “stupid,” and the word Socrates uses (the one in parentheses above) implies that Alcibiades’ problem is a lack of awareness of the consequences of his thoughts and actions — which is not stupidity.
Perhaps we should extend the same courtesy to our friends and acquaintances. Rather then jump into quick judgments about their intellectual capacities (or lack thereof), we should remember that nobody engages in bad reasoning or logical fallacies or in the support of questionable notions on purpose. They want to be right in their judgments just about as much as we do. And sometimes, let’s not forget, they indeed are, and the joke’s on us. So rather than focus on the person, let’s re-direct our attention to the argument or position under discussion, in a way analogous to this further advice from Epictetus:
“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?” (Enchiridion 45)
In the end, though, keep in mind one of the most fundamental doctrines of Stoicism: the dichotomy of control. Other people’s opinions — regardless of whether they are or are not well founded — are not under your control. But your behavior, and especially your ability to exercise temperance in order to have courteous interactions with others — very much is under your control.