June 13, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Epictetus' Discourses ||

Freedom from Divulging Confidences

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. If someone confides in you, you don’t have to confide back.
  2. You confide in someone only if that person is trustworthy.
  3. As a rule, confidences require good faith and judgments that go with it.
If someone confides in you, you don’t have to confide back

When someone gives you the impression that they have talked frankly about their personal lives, we somehow feel compelled to share our own secrets with them. We suppose that we are being frank. In the first place, it seems unfair to receive our neighbor’s confidences without sharing your own with them. Next, we think that others wouldn’t think we are frank, if we keep quiet about our personal affairs. Indeed, people often say, “Now that I’ve told you all about my affairs. Aren’t you willing to tell me anything about yours? Why?” We also think that we can safely trust someone who has trusted us with their secrets. We feel that the other person would never reveal our secrets for fear we would reveal theirs.

It is in this way that soldiers at Rome catch out people who are not careful. A soldier in civilian clothes sits down beside you and begins to speak ill of Caesar. You feel you received from him a guarantee of good faith because he was the one who began the abuse. So, you tell him what you think and the next thing you know, you are restrained and put in prison.

We experience something similar in our daily life. Even though this person has safely confided his secrets to me, for my part, I won’t trust anyone who comes along. No, I listen, and keep silent (if I am that kind of person) but he goes out and tells everybody. When I learn what has happened, I tell his secrets to everyone, out of a desire for revenge. So, I defame him, and he defames me.

However, if I remember that one person cannot harm another, and that one is helped or harmed by one’s own actions, I achieve at least this much: I don’t act in the same way as the other person does. I get into trouble because of my own foolish actions.

“Yes, but isn’t it unfair to listen to your neighbour’s secrets and give him no share of your own in return?”

“Man, you didn’t invite his confidence, did you? Did the other person tell you about his affairs on condition that you tell him yours? If he is a chatterbox and takes anyone he meets as a friend, do you also want to be like him? If he did well to trust you with his confidences, but if it won’t be good for you to trust him in return, do you want to be so rash to do so?”

It is as though I have a water-tight barrel and you have one with a hole in it. You come and deposit your wine with me, for me to store in my jar. You then complain that I don’t deposit my wine with you. Of course, not! Your barrel has a hole in it. How are they equal? You deposited your property to a trustworthy man, a man of honour; a man who believes that only his own actions, not externals, can bring him harm or help. Do you want me to make a deposit with you, a man who has dishonoured his own faculty of choice? To someone who wants to get some money, some office, or some public recognition, even if it means murdering his own children, as Medea did? Where’s the equality in that?

You confide in someone only if that person is trustworthy

But show me that you are trustworthy, respectful, and dependable; show me that your judgments are those of a friend; show me that your vessel is not leaky. Then you’ll see that, instead of waiting for you to confide in me, I will confide in you first. Who doesn’t want to use a good vessel? Who despises a friendly and faithful adviser? Who doesn’t gladly welcome someone to share the burden of his troubles and make them lighter?

“Yes, I trust you, but you don’t trust me.”

“First of all, you don’t trust me either. You’re simply a babbler, that’s why you can’t keep anything to yourself.”

If you really trust me, then confide only in me. Instead, whenever you see someone who is at leisure, you sit by his side and say, “Brother, there’s no one who is kindlier disposed or dearer to me than you. I invite you to listen to my affairs.” And you do this with people whom you not have known even for a short while. Even if you trust me, it is clearly because you trust me as a faithful and honourable person and not because I have told you my affairs. Allow me, then, to have the same thought about you. Show me that, if a person tells someone about his own affairs, it follows that the person is faithful and honourable. If this was the case, I would go around telling everyone about my affairs.

But that’s not the case. To be faithful and honourable, one needs to have judgments that are not ordinary. If you see someone, then, who is concerned about things outside their area of choice, making his own choice secondary to them, you will find thousands of people constraining and obstructing him. You don’t need the pitch or the wheel [ancient methods of torture] to make him say what he knows. Even the slightest nod from a pretty girl, if it so happens, is enough to shake him. As will a friendly gesture from someone at Caesar’s court, a desire for public office, an inheritance, and thirty thousand things of that sort.

So, remember, as a rule, confidences require good faith and judgments that go with it. Where, these days, can you find them easily? Let someone show me someone who is of such a good way that he can say, “I care only for what is my own, what is not subject to obstruction, and what is by nature free. This is what’s truly good and I have this. Let all else happen as God wishes. It makes no difference to me.’

Think about this

One person does not harm another, but it is a man’s own actions which both harm and help him. Discourses IV.13.8. Epictetus [WO]

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