Reasonings About Philodemus’ on Arrogance

The practice of cataloguing the virtues is frequently seen in other traditions. Here Philodemus is summarizing and commenting on a writing by Ariston, whose identity is not entirely clear. Most of the text appears to be a summary of Ariston’s work titled On Arrogance, and the latter part appears to be Philodemus’ commentary.

The Sage Versus the Arrogant

The study of nature does not create men who are fond of boasting and chattering or who show off the culture that impresses the many, but rather men who are strong and self-sufficient, and who take pride in their own personal qualities not in those that depend on external circumstances. – Vatican Saying 45

The entire scroll appears to be a detailed elaboration of VS 45. Philosophers have throughout history been frequently accused of pedantry. This has resulted in very few people today wanting to identify as philosophers. This accusation is repeated in our own tradition, as we can see in the Pedantry of Aristotle quote from A Few Days in Athens. Because arrogance so often accompanies wisdom (or the appearance of wisdom), Philodemus had to first clearly distinguish between the person who suffers from the moral disease of arrogance and the true sage.

When we speak of virtue and vice, we are not only speaking of the habits that lead to pleasant and unpleasant existence, but also of the dispositions (diathesis) or underlying deeply-held beliefs that produce such behaviors. In our tradition, vicious dispositions that produce as symptoms the diseases of the soul, are treated with arguments and other therapeutic techniques. One technique we see frequently is the practice of “seeing before the eyes”, which was discussed in our reasonings on anger and which makes up the majority of this work.

The dispositions for the arrogant man have to do with how he despises others, feels superior, and is unwilling or unable to engage in relationships of mutual benefit and cooperation. He also frequently exaggerates and lacks moderation.

Some of the other dispositions that characterize many of the other major vices, as well as this one, have to do with ignorance about oneself and being unreasonable, so that Ariston says that the arrogant man or woman can’t be a good person, or happy.

The arrogant man seeks glory, entertains false pretensions, and hates all philosophers, even the ones undeserving of hate. He’s also inconsiderate toward others.

Having shown us all these symptoms, Philodemus then argues that the sage, on the other hand, is considerate towards others, does not give the impression of being arrogant and does not take others for fools. He does not admire himself, especially for reasons of fortune, since we should only take pride in our accomplishments and not those of fate.

In a later segment of the scroll, Philodemus compares highness versus arrogance by saying that those who have true grandeur disdain those who are arrogant by a gift of fortune, for this arrogance has nothing to do with moral greatness; therefore the arrogance of those blessed by Fortune who are morally inconsistent is laughable.

The sage shows no difference in any regard and does not avoid receiving others, does not avoid conversation or other exchanges with others. He does not proclaim others unworthy of him and he thanks those who help him.

If he does a favor to people more powerful than him, he tries to help and please them instead of seeking to obtain some benefit for himself. He expresses his own inferiority if needed and asks for forgiveness when appropriate. His friends, whom he trusts, are constantly with him.

He also takes care of his slaves, domestic workers and family members, aware that his inferiors express his will and represent him before guests and that he is ultimately responsible for how they treat his guests.

Different Mixtures of Vice

Arrogance can frequently be found together with other attributes and vices that, together, produce certain mixtures in our character. These various syndromes are treated as moral diseases of the soul.

A section of Ariston’s work dealt with the inconsiderate man, who is characterised by disdain for others, arrogance, irreflection and a feeling of one’s own value. This kind of man orders people to do things without asking politely; buys slaves without asking their names or naming them, simply choosing to call them “slave”; do not respond to favors or the hospitality of others in kind; do not employ common courtesies like “how are you doing?”, or like introducing themselves when they knock on people’s doors, or even in letters.

Another kind of moral disease is translated as l’homme suffisant, or the man who thinks he is enough. He is not entirely guilty of irreflection, but yet he won’t heed others’ advise or give it. He wants people to mind their own business and says that those who accept teachers remain as little children forever. Philodemus later adds that people disdain him because he thinks himself more intelligent and capable than everyone, and that many people are happy at his misfortunes. He ends up isolated and has difficulty succeeding.

Then there’s the know-it-all, who considers himself a genius, does everything on his own, and has many bad qualities that annoy people, including being an impostor and being disdainful toward others.

The hateful man is not always arrogant, but speaks with gravity and is condescending.

A critique of Socrates takes place under the heading the ironic man, where Philodemus characterizes his method as a kind of masked arrogance. He is described in the most detail. He is an impostor; says the opposite of what he’s really thinking and never means what he says; praises what he means to criticize; gives people aliases and uses dramatic cues to mock others, such as shaking his head, rolling his eyes, signaling to others, and so on. He also attributes his own ideas to others. Because of his theatrics, people often think the ironic man inventive and persuasive.

Finally, there is the man who treats others as imbeciles, or as nothings, as insignificant, as without merit. Like some of the other men described above, he likes to calumniate others with varying degrees of vehemence. This disposition to defamation, envy and cursing makes him hateful to others.

Treatment for Arrogance

As tools for self-correction, Philodemus offers the patient many scenarios to envision the potential negative repercussions to arrogance, as well as arguments that serve as cognitive therapy:

  • If you ever feel yourself floating in the air with arrogance, think back on your former humility and lowliness.
  • Think of how the arrogant will appear humble upon losing fortune.
  • Remember that only rhetors praise the glory that comes from fortune.
  • Consider that detachment from Fortune can free us from arrogance based on our good luck.
  • Consider the versatile, brutally-changing face of Fortune, which is compared to walking on a steep slope.
  • Consider that when Fortune turns on you, you may have to take refuge in your inferiors, the people you now see from a high vantage point. This has happened many times in history.
  • Think back about someone arrogant that you’ve met, and told yourself that you would never want to be like them. This may be other people’s reaction to us if we’re arrogant.
  • Don’t compare yourself to those poorer, but to those who are superior in all respects, whether in possession of lands or in power and ability to rule cities or other people.
  • Notice, and avoid, envy of others, for Philodemus says “how many ruins are provoked by envy, the whole world can see”.
  • Think of those who laugh at other’s misfortunes; consider the distrust they inspire.
  • Consider how it is unfair to gain prominence by humiliating others, instead of by one’s own grandeur.
  • Think of how failure frequently happens when one is isolated and how success frequently is due to the help of key allies.
  • Ask yourself what really makes you proud and arrogant.

It is frequently the case that the arrogant will not take the advise or help of others for reasons of presumption or disdain, or because they want all the glory. As a result, they only learns from their failures, and the lack of key allies also works against them in tribunals and assemblies.

In these treatments, we see that humility is an antidote to the vice of arrogance just as pride can at times be an antidote to excessive and undeserved humiliation.

Philodemus does not only use this technique of seeing before the eyes to show the harmful repercussions of vice. He also compares them versus the good repercussions of virtue. He does this by bringing to memory events from his recent history where the powerful acted as equals and won the trust and loyalty of others, versus the example of a king who had been abandoned by his army and lost its allegiance due to his arrogant speech. Another example is cited of Timocreon, an actor who suffered public mockery while on stage performing, for the same reason: his haughty speech had won him the ill-will of everyone present. These verses are reminiscent of how Confucius argued that shame played a very important role in humanist ethics.

The teaching here is that arrogance comes before the fall. It needlessly makes others our enemies and makes success in life more difficult. If we wish to maximize our chances of living a plasant life, we should treat this vice as an enemy of our souls.

Based on the French-language translation in Les Épicuriens titled L’arrogance, which itself is drawn from the tenth book of Philodemus’ work “The vices and their opposing virtues, those in whom they are found and the occasions where they are exerted”, otherwise simply The Vices


Back to the Main Page