August 5, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Have Standards to Evaluate Your Principles (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English II.11)

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. We have an innate sense of good and evil, honorable and dishonorable, appropriate and inappropriate.
  2. But this innate sense is not sufficient to apply these principles in specific cases, because different people see these things differently.
  3. We cannot go by our intuition either. It also varies from person to person.
  4. Therefore, we look up to philosophy which establishes standards by which you can judge the correctness of a proposition, which we should all follow.
We need to learn how to apply concepts to real life

When you come to study philosophy the right way, you begin by acknowledging your weakness with reference to important things in life.

We are not born with the knowledge of what a right-angled triangle is or with an understanding of what a half-tone scale in music interval is. We were trained to learn them. Those who are not so trained do not pretend that they know about these concepts.

We all agree on principles, but not on how to apply them

Has anyone come into this world without having an innate concept of what is good and evil, honorable and dishonorable, appropriate and inappropriate, happiness, duty and obligation? So, everyone applies these concepts to specific situations. We hear things likes this all the time: “He has done well,” “She has been unfortunate,” “She is a bad woman,” or “He is just a man.” We don’t doubt the meaning of these words or stop ourselves from using them. We don’t wait until we are taught their meaning, like we do when we deal with concepts relating to subjects like geometry or music. Why? Because we are born with some understanding of these concepts and to this we add our own interpretation.

“Do you mean to say that I have no idea about what is good and evil?”
“Yes, you do.”
“Can’t I apply this knowledge to specific instances?”
“Yes, you can.”
“I apply it rightly then.”

Something does not become correct just because we think so

“Ah, not exactly. Our opinions become an issue here. We all start with agreed upon principles, but we get into disputes because we apply them incorrectly. If you knew how to apply them correctly, then there would be no problem. Since you say that you can apply these principles correctly, tell me, how do you know it?”
“It feels right.”
“But someone else feels something else is right. So,, she feels she is correct in the way she applies the principles. Right?”
“You cannot both be applying the principles correctly, if you have different opinions.”
“So, you need to show me something more than your feeling that you are right. For a lunatic, what he does seem right. Would you say, then, that it is sufficient?”
“So, we need to move beyond our opinion.”
“What is that?”

We need a standard to decide whether something is right

This is the beginning of philosophy: We note that people disagree in their opinion. We want to understand why this is so. In doing so, we don’t rely on simple opinion but look for a way to decide whether the opinion is right or wrong. We want to have a standard of judgment – a standard similar to a balance for judging weights or a carpenter’s rule to judge whether something is crooked or straight – to see if it is the correct opinion.

“How can, ‘what everyone thinks is right,’ be the beginning of philosophy when people have conflicting opinions?”
“Then are our opinions correct?”
“Why ours rather than those of Syrians or Egyptians? Why mine rather than someone else’s?”
“There is no reason why.”

So, we cannot establish something is correct just because it feels correct to us. It is not sufficient evidence. Even in weights and measures, we are not content judging things by appearance. Rather we use standardized weights. So, we ask, don’t we have any higher standard in this case than our opinion? How is it possible that something so important in human life is incapable of determination and discovery?

It is clear then that there is some standard. Why don’t we then find it and, after finding it, use it forever without fail, and do not as much stretch out a finger without it? This will get rid of the madness that comes from thinking that our opinion is the truth. We will start with well-known and clearly defined principles and apply them to specific cases.

“What do you want to talk about now?’
“All right. Put it to the test, put it into the balance. If it is good, we should be able to rely on it and put our trust in it. It should be stable.”
“Is pleasure stable?”
“Then throw it out. Take it away from things that are good. But if you are not quick enough to see this and one test is not enough for you, let us try a different one. Shouldn’t something good be a source of happiness?”
“Can a momentary pleasure really bring happiness? And don’t say yes. If you did, I ‘d say you are not worthy of using the scale.”

This is how things are judged and measured when philosophy establishes standards. Wise and good people make it their business to make use of these standards.

Think about this

[T]he opinion each person holds is not sufficient criterion for determining the truth. Epictetus, Discourses II.11.16 [RH]