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Do Not Wish to Appear Wise

Chapter 13 / 53: Many of us are interested in philosophy and self-improvement not to become wise, but for the reputation of being wise. Epictetus saw that this pattern of behaviour is very counter-productive if one wishes to acquire true wisdom.
Do Not Wish to Appear Wise

Enchiridion Chapter 13 / 53

Many of us are interested in philosophy and self-improvement not to become wise, but for the reputation of being wise.

As we saw in Chapter One, reputation is outside of our control.

Since we are social animals and find validation/positive feedback from others so addictive, we can easily spend our whole lives obsessing over how we are seen by others.

Epictetus saw that this pattern of behaviour is very counter-productive if one wishes to acquire true wisdom.

Below, Epictetus gives us a three-step heuristic for managing our desire to appear a certain way to others.


I/ Accept Being Seen as Ignorant

If you want to make progress as a Stoic or a person who aspires to excellence of character, you must accept being perceived as ignorant or naive by others on matters of the world.

You may indeed be naive in areas such as:

  • The recent celebrity gossip
  • The current political happenings
  • Your neighbours new job
  • The latest finding in brain research

Many people only learn about things in the world so they can be seen to be knowledgeable and intelligent.

Such people waste many hours of their life in an attempt to create an image of themselves in the eyes of others.

Do not do this.

Maxim: I would rather have deep knowledge of philosophy, than shallow knowledge about worldly affairs.

II/ Take Praise with a Pinch of Salt

And if you so happen to enjoy learning and knowledge acquisition for its own sake (which is fine), you may find you develop a reputation for being wise without even trying.

But always remember:

If others are impressed by your knowledge and wisdom, don’t fall into the trap of believing it wholeheartedly.

The more serious you take praise from others, the more tempting it will be for you to start living a life designed to elicit more praise.

Validation is a drug that needs to be moderated.

Maxim: I appreciate praise from others, but I know it’s only half the story.

III/ Don’t Pursue Incompatible Goals

To seek the reputation of being wise is unwise, since reputation is out of our control.

If you wish to be truly reasonable and wise (great goal), then you must let go of the desire to appear so.

If you care about one, you will lessen the likelihood of achieving the other.

Maxim: I can pursue wisdom or the reputation of wisdom, not both.

ENCHIRIDION CHAPTER THIRTEEN, EPICTETUS, TRANSLATION BY ROBERT DOBBIN:
“If you want to make progress, put up with being perceived as ignorant or naive in worldly matters, don’t aspire to a reputation for sagacity. If you do impress others as somebody, don’t altogether believe it. You have to realize, it isn’t easy to keep your will in agreement with nature, as well as externals. Caring about the one inevitably means you are going to shortchange the other.”