Stoicism: Day 17 – On not being a pretentious ass to your friends

I watched the first few minutes of the State of the Union the day before yesterday, and I read some of the day-after commentary on the State of the Union.  Of course, some of the commentary irritated me, so during my ice bath, I thought about all those times I’ve participated in asinine political conversations with friends and acquaintances.

Most of my friends are Democrats, while I fall more into the Libertarian camp, so of course, I like to “educate” them on the wisdom of the free market and the inefficiency of government.

Are my friends better off for this conversation?


Am I better off for this conversation?

Absolutely not.

Seneca wrote a wonderful letter titled “On quibbling as unworthy of the philosopher.” In the letter, he advises his good friend to avoid getting into a “debate” with dialecticians about minutia.  Here’s a particularly hilarious passage:

‘ Mouse’ is a syllable. Now a mouse eats its cheese; therefore, a syllable eats cheese.” Suppose now that I cannot solve this problem; see what peril hangs over my head as a result of such ignorance! What a scrape I shall be in! Without doubt I must beware, or some day I shall be catching syllables in a mousetrap, or, if I grow careless, a book may devour my cheese! Unless, perhaps, the following syllogism is shrewder still: “‘ Mouse’ is a syllable. Now a syllable does not eat cheese. Therefore a mouse does not eat cheese.”

What childish nonsense! Do we knit our brows over this sort of problem? Do we let our beards grow long for this reason? Is this the matter which we teach with sour and pale faces?  

I am absolutely guilty of these “logic” games when trying to persuade whoever I’m talking with to realize the errors of their views. Actually, it’s less for their benefit than mine. By making them feel silly, I can feel smart. It’s very petty, and makes me look like an ass.

For what else is it that you men are doing, when you deliberately ensnare the person to whom you are putting questions, than making it appear that the man has lost his case on a technical error?

I would instead be better off, and more virtuous, if instead I helped my friends and other wrestle with real problems, problems that affect them personally.

Would you really know what philosophy offers to humanity? Philosophy offers counsel. Death calls away one man, and poverty chafes another; a third is worried either by his neighbour’s wealth or by his own. So-and-so is afraid of bad luck; another desires to get away from his own good fortune. Some are ill-treated by men, others by the gods….

This friend, in whose company you are jesting, is in fear. Help him, and take the noose from about his neck. Men are stretching out imploring hands to you on all sides; lives ruined and in danger of ruin are begging for some assistance; men’s hopes, men’s resources, depend upon you. They ask that you deliver them from all their restlessness, that you reveal to them, scattered and wandering as they are, the clear light of truth.  

It’s easy to feel like debating politics and economics and all these other “high-minded” fields are important, but it’s not. Mankind will be plagued by the same types of problems regardless of the political party in power, or whatever economic theory is in vogue.

The next time someone annoys me with his socialist nonsense, I’m going to do my best to avoid persuading him that syllables eat cheese.