Plutarch: On Curiosity

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I have just finished reading the section of Plutarch’s De Moralia “On Curiosity.” The Greek word in question is a bit difficult to translate, so you also see “On Being a Busybody” used.

You can read it here:  http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/De_curiositate*.html

The thrust of the essay, is an argument against the sort of curiosity which feeds on knowing the failings of others.  The gossipy nature, the uncovering of secrets, etc.  So the essay both argues against this, showing how this nature is at the extreme leading to things like adultery; and it offers a therapy to undo these habits.

 The fact that gossiping and nosiness are habits is an important one.  If you will permit the liberty, I’ll transpose some of his exercises to the utility of today as well as note the examples given.

Plutarch suggests that we not read every bit of graffiti, or signage that we pass.  That this little intrigue reduced our ability to study and descent important things, and trains the moral will into insinuating ourselves into things not our business.

He suggests that when we’re walking, we don’t peek in the doors of neighbors.  We might also practice not checking out the workspace of our colleagues, and keeping our attention outside of their offices, cubes, or desks where we might work.  Turn the gaze inward, to the self, and not to others.

Plutarch suggests that when a letter arrives, we delay opening it for a time.  This can be true for email, push notifications for smart phones, and the other ten-thousand digital intruders of the day.  We may even block those things into chunks: to check email once or twice a day, turn off the push notifications from Facebook, YouTube, or our favorite Stoic blogger, and instead only give a set amount of time to these things each day.

One of the things which Plutarch mentioned, is that the person who loves to uncover secrets also loves to share it.  I suspect that the second part is easier to wrangle than the first.  We might adopt an purposeful silence, not sharing the social tidbits which we might uncover.  This will lead in time to a reduction in the former.

I suspect that part of the allure of sharing gossip is being perceived as the person “in the know.” Restricting such speech, then, will immediately curtail this feedback.

Plutarch remarks that the very people who seek out such knowledge are the ones we hide it from, and so the work of the gossip is twice as hard.

While not a Stoic work per se, this fits nearly into many philosophical settings.  It’s short, and I recommend it to your reading.

It is important to remember how we train the moral will, and what small things lead to greater.

Reading: Plutarch, “How a Man May Become Aware of His Progress in Virtue.”

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How a Man May Become Aware of His Progress in Virtue.

This is an argument against several Stoic positions are relates to the Sage and the conversion to wisdom.  Plutarch takes issue, as most folks might, with the idea that all vices are equal, and if one has one vice you effectively have them all.

Who would deny the degrees of difference between a lie about a man's beard, or condemning Socrates to death?  Or a lie to your boss about something in your personal life, and murder?

Our common sense experience of the world and the systems we've created in it recognize these distinctions.  But the classic Stoics did not.  Let's look at why that might be. 

The problems with the common conception and Plutarch's argument are the external focus of them.  The Stoic positions is not to be used in matters of jurisprudence, or punishment, or to correct the behavior of others.  Rather, it's a tool for ourselves to correct vicious intent.

If we are trying to divest ourselves of vice, and instill virtue, then we must account for every wrong, no matter how small.  The Stoic position that all evils (here as always, our own moral evil) are equal prevents us from deluding ourselves about the nature of our intent.

"Well, I may have lied to my spouse about this small thing, but at least I stopped doing something worse.  So that's okay…"

The Stoic cannot with any intellectual integrity make such a justification.

Plutarch's opening assumption focuses on comparing the actions of two humans, which is an inappropriate use of the doctrine.

Despite that, and the general polemic nature of the piece, this discussion does tell us quite a bit about the Stoic positions which we don't see in many other places.

It's well worth the read time.