March 29, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Deal with arguments the logical way (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English 1.7)

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

We can easily be deceived by arguments involving questions and Arguments have a bearing on the way we should behave

Some arguments change over the course of the argument or are hypothetical and end with a question. You may not be aware that such arguments have a bearing on how we should behave. We seek in every matter a virtuous path so we may follow it. Therefore, a virtuous person would avoid question and answer sessions. If she is engaged in it, she would be indifferent to behaving casually and at random. If she accepts neither of these options, she needs to study more closely the topics of question and answer.

“What is the purpose of reasoning?”
“To establish what is true, reject what is false, and suspend judgment when we are not sure.”
“Is it enough to know this?”
“Then is it also enough to know that you should reject counterfeit money?”
“No, it is not. You also need to know how to test for its being genuine, fake, or doubtful.”
“So also, in reasoning, spoken word is not enough. Is it not necessary to know how to test for what is true, what is false, and what is uncertain?”
“Yes, it is necessary.”

What else? Because you need to accept the conclusions that are derived properly, you also need to know the rules of drawing conclusions; how they follow from one or more premises. Is it not then necessary to be able to offer proofs and demonstrations to others, and follow other people’s proofs and demonstrations, so you are not easily fooled by cleverly disguised false arguments? This is why we believe that inferential and other forms of logic are important and we study it.

Why logic is important

Sometimes, wrong conclusions appear to follow from what we believe to be the right premises. We cannot accept the wrong conclusion. Nor can we say that what we accepted earlier as right is wrong or that the logic is incorrect. What are we to do?
Examine the argument and see if the premises we accepted at the beginning have changed in some subtle way. If they have not, we have no choice but to accept the conclusion. If they have, you have no obligation to accept the conclusion, because we no longer agree with the premises. For example, a person who borrows money is a debtor. But not if he pays it back. The conclusion that he is a debtor was valid initially but not after he paid the money back. We need to examine premises of this kind because the very process of questions and answers can result in changing premises. This causes trouble to the ignorant, who cannot see what follows.

What are we to do so we may not become confused and act inappropriately?

This is true of hypothetical arguments as well. Sometimes it is necessary to offer a hypothesis as the basis for an argument. Should you agree to every hypothesis as proposed? If not every one, which ones should you agree to and which ones should you reject? Once you agree to a hypothesis, should you, forever, stand by the conclusions that follow? Or should you, sometimes, move away from them?

“Should you accept the results that follow from the hypothesis you agreed to and reject those that do not?”
“Suppose someone challenges you and says that they could prove something that’s impossible using your hypothesis. Should a wise person avoid all dialog and examination with the challenger? But the wise person is the only one capable of proving that the challenger’s arguments are false and nothing more than sophistry. Or will he engage in argument without caring whether he acts casually and randomly? If so, how can he be the man we imagined him to be?”

Without preparation, how can we maintain consistency in our arguments? If someone can show us that we can, then all our logical discussions are absurd and a waste of time. They serve no purpose and are at odds with what we think a good person is.

Why training in logic is important

Why are we still lazy, indifferent, and dull? Why do we give excuses and avoid training in logic?

“So what? I haven’t killed my father, have I?”
“No idiot, your father isn’t there for you to kill. Instead, you are making this mistake, the only one you have the opportunity to make.”

I once told my teacher Musonius Rufus, “It’s not like I burned the capitol.” He said “Idiot, the only thing missing here is the capitol. Are there no other mistakes than burning down the capitol or killing your father? Is it not a mistake to use the impressions presented to you in a random and senseless way? To fail to analyze an argument to see if it is true or not, and to fail to see what logically agrees and what conflicts with your position – don’t you see anything wrong with that?

Think about this

Establish what is true, eliminate what is false, and suspend judgment in doubtful cases.
(Epictetus I.7.5/Robert Dobbin)