April 1, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Distinguish the important from the incidental (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English 1.8)

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

Training in logic helps us spot incorrect and incomplete arguments, so we are not misled. Therefore, we need to train ourselves in logic.
Yet, if a person who is not ready for it is trained in logic, he may use it to demonstrate his superiority rather than use it the right way.
We need to distinguish the essential qualities that make a philosopher and not blindly imitate the incidental qualities we find in one.
What makes a person good? It is the quality of choices he makes.

Different arguments can mean the same thing

The same argument can be presented in different ways. The following two arguments are variations of the same idea:
You have borrowed from me and did not repay it; therefore, you owe me the money.
You have not borrowed money from me and did not repay; therefore, you don’t owe me money.
You need training in logic because not all arguments are stated in their complete form. Many arguments leave out a premise (and are called enthymemes). This is not a problem for a philosopher who is skilled in logic. She can still handle incomplete arguments as well as the same arguments presented differently. Because it is possible to vary the forms of arguments and arrive at the same conclusion, we should train ourselves in logic.

Why is it then that we fail to train each other this way? Even though we are not being distracted – not by me in any case – we are not making much progress towards achieving the right and the good. Under these conditions, what can we expect if we take on this additional project? It may not only distract us from studying more important matters, but may prove to be the cause of pride and egotism.

Skills, in the hands of the untrained, can lead to pride

Logic and rhetoric can be powerful, especially when combined with elegance of language. However, if such skills get into the hands of the morally weak, there is the risk that they may become vain and presumptuous. How can we persuade such people they are supposed to use these skills well rather than be used by them? Would not the morally weak ignore such advice and showcase their learning with conceit and pride?

Distinguish what is important and what is incidental

Just because I am a philosopher who happens to be lame, must you be lame to become a philosopher? Take care not imitate a philosopher blindly. If a philosopher like Plato also happens to be strong and handsome, don’t assume that you have to become strong and handsome to be a philosopher. Did Hippocrates express himself eloquently because he was a physician? Don’t you want to understand what makes someone a philosopher and adopt those qualities, and not imitate accidental qualities? Am I suggesting that other positive qualities are of no value? No! No more than I would suggest the gift of sight is of no value. But if you ask me what makes a person good, I can only say it is found in the quality of choices he makes.

Think about this

If you ask me what human good is, I can offer you no other reply than to say that it lies in a certain quality of choice. Epictetus Discourses I.8.16/Robin Hard