One of the rules that drives evolution is that of conservatism. Here, I am referring to real conservatism, not the greed-driven political practices of your conservative acquaintances. “Waste not, want not” may bespeak an air of stinginess in its expression, but exemplify efficiency in its application.
Apply that idea to the statement Epictetus made: Because we use far less energy squatting down and daydreaming than if we get up and move around, we evolved into a bunch of lazy louts. Because it’s safer, easier, and faster to store food inside your body if you need to run and hide from a predator, we evolved to become prone to large guts and constant hunger. Because improving yourself is a lot of work, people feel threatened by such a long-running use of energy. Such unusual activity may draw predators’ attention and appears to be wasteful, so those closest to you will begin to withdraw and distance themselves.
To discredit someone for making an effort in their own behalf, then, appears to be an entirely natural response. The same goes for the one whose studies led him/her away from the flock. That it requires less energy to write or say a memorized putdown than to make an attempt to gain understanding, to see what he/she knows that might benefit you, or attempt to join the effort, all require going beyond evolution’s tuning.
“To improve the world,” one of these signs says, “first improve yourself.” Rather than what we expect, what we lazy louts need to fear is that those who make the effort to improve themselves will stop there and forget about the world. After all, a place that seems to be nothing more than a source of wagging fingers, one-liner barbs and putdowns can hardly be worth the energy and risk.