Wisdom in Playing the Fool

by Tom Swift

“If you would improve, submit to be considered without sense and foolish with respect to externals. Wish to be considered to know nothing: and if you shall seem to some to be a person of importance, distrust yourself. For you should know that it is not easy both to keep your will in a condition conformable to nature and (to secure) external things: but if a man is careful about the one, it is an absolute necessity that he will neglect the other.” -Epictetus, Enchiridion, Chapter 13

There is such freedom in letting go of the notion that you are an expert.

Not only do you not need to put forth the idea that you are smart about something, but you should actively guard against any trifling sense that may come to you that your are smart — even if others tell you they believe it to be so! That construct — that inflated sense of self — is so limiting. More to the point, it’s exhausting. For to maintain such a belief, to retain such stature (if you have it at all to begin with; much of this falls into the category of fantasy) you have to focus on the very wrong things — things you cannot control — others’ views of you among them. It’s a never-ending hunger you would need to feed — to attain expert status and then, if achieved (see above point about fantasy), retain it. (Meanwhile, you would have to guard against contrary views to your construct. Such a posture is tiring even to describe much less to endeavor to take up!)

So we have a futile exercise that takes more than a little time and energy. Meanwhile, you could instead be focused on things no one can deny you: your reason, your friendship with your self, your work.

It’s the ultimate trade.

No wonder Epictetus suggests not merely to shun this chest puffing but in fact to seek the opposite — to seek to seem “foolish.” Wish, he says, to seem to “know nothing” — what an antidote.