When people hear Epictetus quoted to justify not watching the news—“If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters”—they get upset. It’s understandable. For generations, especially in America, people have been conditioned to think that consuming journalism, be it in newspaper or television or online form, is the duty of every informed citizen.
Unfortunately, only the second half of this supposition is correct. Yes, it is the duty of every citizen—especially those with voting rights—to be informed. No, the news is not the way to do that. In fact, in today’s world of clickbait and sensationalism it may be the worst. Just a few years ago, the head of CBS (who also happened to be a serial sexual harasser) noted glibly how a certain presidential candidate was clearly bad for America but “damn good for CBS.” “This is going to be a very good year for us,” he said, faux apologizing. “It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on… Keep going.”
If that isn’t evidence for you that you should not keep going, and should definitely stop watching so much news, there’s not much else to be said. But perhaps there’s another way to think about it: The best way to be an informed citizen is to follow the path of the Stoics, who had no such thing as real-time journalism. You should study history. You should study the law. You should study human nature. As Machiavelli, who was forced into a retreat from public affairs, once observed, “Anyone who studies present and ancient affairs will easily see how in all cities and all peoples there still exist, and have always existed, the same desires and passions.” Marcus Aurelius said very much the same thing: History is the same thing happening over and over again.
If you want to be an informed citizen, if you want to actually understand—rather than know trivia about—what’s going on in the world, then pick up a biography. Pick up Thucydides. Pick up Plutarch. Pick up Robert Caro or Edward Gibbon. Read Doris Kearns Goodwin. Forget tweets about political witch hunts, read Stacey Schiff’s new book about actual witch hunts. Read Machiavelli. Read Seneca. Read about Seneca and Nero and their complicated relationship. Read psychology. Go read the actual constitution of the country you live in—read The Federalist Papers or the Magna Carta.
Go deep. Go backward. Go to the real truths. That’s what informed people do. And they are fine being seen as ignorant about every other silly thing.