The Merriam-Webster offers a few definitions for the term “to educate”, but the most fitting one is: “to develop mentally, morally, or aesthetically especially by instruction and to persuade or condition to feel, believe, or act in a desired way”.
When we share our knowledge with someone, we are taking part in this person’s education. It doesn’t matter if this knowledge was requested or not. In the case of Stoicism, sharing what we know is a way to aid in a person’s moral development and help them along the path to self-improvement.
This is not unique to Stoicism, as the idea of philosophy in general is to gain knowledge and understanding, but Stoics particularly stressed education as a high priority. The only way to help others develop as members of society is by teaching them. Even if you don’t believe you know much, you can participate in this process by seeking out teachers and learning for yourself. One day, you might learn enough to become a valuable teacher for someone else.
The Importance of Education
Epictetus knew the importance of teaching by passing on his knowledge to other men in the hope they would spread it to others. For Epictetus, each one of us is both teacher and student. We are all on a path of personal development, but this path is not linear; it is a spiral. You follow someone ahead of you and someone follows you in turn.
Seneca talks about education in a number of his Moral Letters to Lucius, but the most useful discussion occurs in Letter 52, where he explains the importance of the student, but also the importance of having the right teacher:
“Let us choose … men who teach us by their lives, men who tell us what we ought to do and then prove it by practice, who show us what we should avoid, and then are never caught doing that which they have ordered us to avoid.”Seneca
Seneca talks about acting as you preach. This advice applies perfectly to education. There is no point in teaching someone to act or think a certain way if the teacher then fails to follow their own advice. Therefore, the best way to teach is by living as an example.
A Philosopher’s Perspective
It is important to remark that when Stoics speak of education, they are not talking about the formal education we know. From a philosopher’s point of view, the act of educating is not about delivering a lecture about concepts and facts.
For a Stoic, education has to do with developing the student’s thought process by teaching them to question everything, share their ideas, and listen to others. It is about keeping an open mind. A successful teacher will make a student feel eager to learn more and discover truths for themselves; it is not about blindly accepting what your teacher has told you.
“All men are made one for another: either then teach them better or bear with them.”Marcus Aurelius
The Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius offers another perspective on education. If you don’t attempt to improve the people around you, then you must be ready to deal with the consequences of their uninformed actions.
We are each personally responsible for the improvement of the people around us, and if we chose to not help them, then we are equally responsible for their continued state. Do you want someone to behave better? Then teach them. Remember, living by example is the most effective way to educate others. If we all adopt the Stoic approach to education, the world would become a much better place.