March 22, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Beware of rigid thinking (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English 1.5)

Key ideas of this discourse

Discourses is a collection of Epictetus’ conversations with his students and visitors, as recorded by his student Flavius Arrian. Discourses forms an excellent introduction to Stoicism and, in this series, The Stoic Gym presents Epictetus’ Discourses in plain English.

You can deny reality in two ways: by not seeing it and by denying it while seeing it. Denying something, knowing that it is false, is worse than not seeing it in the first place.

Denying reality consistently may pass for strength of mind, but it is no better than doing and saying whatever comes to your mind.

When a person does not see the contradiction in his thinking, we think it is sad. But when he sees the contradiction but still does not acknowledge it, we call it strength of mind. In reality, the latter is even more unfortunate.

Denying reality

If a person denies what is obviously true, no argument would change his mind. We cannot reason with him. This is not because he is strong, or his teacher is week. But when a person contradicts himself in an argument, and becomes hard as a stone, how any can anyone argue with him? Rigidity can come about in two ways: Either one’s intellect is frozen, or one’s sense of honor is. Such a person neither agrees to what is true nor leaves the argument altogether. Most of us will go to great lengths to avoid deadening the body; our souls, not so much.

Knowingly denying reality is worse

When a person does not see the contradiction in his thinking and is incapable of following an argument, we think he is in a bad way. But when someone sees the contradiction but still does not acknowledge it, when he has no sense of shame, we call it strength of character. In reality, it is even worse.

“Do you recognize you are awake?”
“No. No more than when I think in my dreams that I am awake.”
“Is there no difference at all between the two?”
“No, none.”

How can you argue with a person like this? What fire, what steel can I apply to make him realize that he has become deadened? When he knows and yet pretends not to, he is worse than a corpse. His sense of shame and moral feelings are gone, or brutalized in any case. He is in a worse state than one who does not see the contradiction at all. Should I call this strength of character? Not unless I say the same about the character of lewd people who do and say in public anything that comes to their mind.

Think about this

One man does not see the contradiction; he is in a bad state. Another sees it, but is not moved and does not improve; he is in an even worse state. Epictetus

NOTE: Epictetus directed this Discourse primarily against the Sceptics – Academics and Pyrrhonists – who maintained that we cannot know anything for certain. In broader terms, this discourse argues against sticking to one’s views, even when facts show otherwise.