August 9, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

How To Argue (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English II.12)

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. It is important that our arguments are logical.
  2. However, we don’t know how to argue logically. We confuse ourselves and others, become abusive and walk away.
  3. Socrates taught us how to do it right: Don’t use complicated words; be patient; don’t ever get angry or abusive, even if your opponent is.
  4. But remember, it may not be a good idea to argue with everyone, even if you are right.
Use logical arguments

Stoic philosophers have told us what exactly we must learn to argue logically. But we have no experience at all in applying it correctly. If we are given someone random to argue with, we won’t know how to deal with him. If he continues to challenge us after a little while, we resort to abuse or ridicule saying, “He is just a layman. It’s not possible to have a proper dialog with him.” If a guide finds someone who has lost his way, she would not ridicule or abuse him or walk away from him, but show him the right path. So, it is your job to show the other person the right path and you will see that he follows it. But as long as you have not done this, don’t make fun of him but recognize that you have not done your part. [Commentary: This confidence that people follow the wrong path only because of their ignorance but will change once you show them the right away, runs through Epictetus’ writings.]

Use plain language anyone can understand

Here is how Socrates acted. He would force the person he is talking with to be his witness and he needed no other. He could say, “I don’t care for others, but only for the person I am talking with. No one else’s vote counts except his.” Socrates then would make the implications of their views so clearly that everyone would see the how contradictory their arguments are and abandon them.

“Is an envious person happy because he is envious?”
“No, they are miserable.”
Socrates moved the person into admitting envy does not make him happy.
“Is envy being miserable at something bad? How can anyone envy something that’s bad?”
Now Socrates has moved his opponent into admitting that envy is feeling pain at something good.
“Does anyone envy things that don’t matter to them?”
“No, not at all.”

As soon as his opponent comes to a different understanding, Socrates would quit.

Socrates wouldn’t ask his opponent to define envy and then try to correct him. After all, these terms are technical and complicated and it is hard for a layman to follow, but we cannot resist using them. We don’t know to use plain language that any layman could understand and answer with a simple yes or no. When we realize that we are unable to express ourselves clearly, we give up, especially those of us who are cautious. But most of us are not. So, we persist, confuse ourselves and others, exchange abuses, and then walk away.

Never lose your cool

Socrates was well-known for remaining unprovoked in an argument and not being abusive even when insulted; he would be patient with the opponent and put an end to the conflict. Would you like to know how good he was at this? If you read Xenophon’s Symposium, you’ll see how many disputes he ended. Even poets praised this quality of his with these words: “He could cut short a dispute, however great, with his skill.”

Be careful who you argue with

Engaging in logical dialogues is not a safe business any more, especially in Rome. If you pursue logic, you cannot do it in a corner. You find someone rich and powerful and ask him:

“Sir, do you know who is looking after your horses?”
“I do.”
“Is it the first person who came along, whether he knew anything about horses or not?”
“Of course not.”
“What about your money? Your clothes?”
“No, I don’t hand over these to the first person who comes along.”
“Do you have someone who looks after you body?’
“Yes, of course.”
“I presume to an expert in exercise and medicine?”
“Are these the things you value most or do you have something even better?”
“What do you mean?”
“The faculty that uses, tests, and thinks about all these things.”
“You mean my soul?”
“Exactly. That’s what I mean.”
“Absolutely. It is by far the best thing I possess. Better than all other things.”
“Then tell me how you take care of your soul. Surely someone as wise and respected as you are would not neglect and ruin the most precious thing you have?”
“Certainly not.”
“Do you take care of it yourself? If so, did you learn how from someone else or did you discover it yourself?”

At this point, you are entering the danger zone with the other person responding with, “How is this your business? Are you my boss?” If you persist, he may punch you in the face. I am speaking from experience. I used to be keen on such discourses – until I met with such troubles.

Think about this

When a guide meets us with someone who is lost, ordinarily his reaction is to direct him on the right path, not mock or malign him. Epictetus II.12.3 [RD]