May 3, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Understand Why Logic Is Important (Epictetus’ Discourses In Plain English 1.17)

Key ideas of this discourse

It is important for us to study logic so, when we engage with others, we can understand what is valid and what is not.

Key ideas of this discourse

We need to study logic to understand what is true and what is false and to analyze ambiguous arguments.
We study philosophers not to master their works, but to understand what they are trying to teach us. We are interested in the interpretation, not in the interpreter.
If you want it to be so, you can be free; you need to blame no one, accuse no one, and everything will happen according to your plan.

Why we should study logic

“Reason analyzes and coordinates everything. Therefore, reason should not go itself unanalyzed.”
“By what? By itself or by something else?”
“It cannot be by something else, because there is nothing superior to reason. If it is some form of reason, what will analyze that reason? If it is by something else still, then that something has to be analyzed by yet another something and the process can go on forever.”
“True. But it is more urgent to attend to our judgments and the like.”

All right then. I can talk about them instead. But if you then say to me “I am not sure if your arguments are true or false,” or ask me to clarify one of my ambiguous expressions, I am likely to say “But it is more urgent to attend to our judgments and the like.” This is why Stoics put logic first, just as we agree on a standard of measurement before measuring a quantity of grain. If we don’t establish standards for measuring weight and volume, how are we going to measure or weigh anything? It’s the same here: if we don’t fully understand and refine the instrument that analyzes and understands other things, how can we hope to acquire precise knowledge about them?

“But the measuring bowl is made of wood, and bears no fruit.”
“It measures grain though.”
“But matters of logic can also be unproductive.”

Well, we will see about that. Even if you are right, logic has the power to distinguish and analyze other things, acting as weights and measures for abstract matters. Who says so? Is it only [the Stoic philosophers] Chrysippus, Zeno and Cleanthes? Does not Antisthenes [the Cynic] say it too? Did Socrates not say that the beginning of education is the examination of terms? Did not Xenophon not say that Socrates began his talks with examining the terms to find what they mean?

“Is this the ultimate achievement then, understanding philosophers like Chrysippus?”
“No one is saying that.”
“What then is the ultimate achievement?”
“To understand the will of nature. Can you understand it all by yourself, without help? If so, you don’t need anyone else. Clearly, you could use help because we all make mistakes. If you already knew the truth, others would be able to see it your flawless behavior.”
“But I don’t understand the will of nature. Who would explain it to me? Someone says that Chrysippus can, so I go to find out what he says. But then I have trouble with one of his passages. I ask someone to explain the explanation as if it were in Latin. What right has the commentator to feel superior? Even Chrysippus himself has no right to feel superior because he only explains the will of nature but does not follow it.”

Philosophers are not important, what they say is

It is not Chrysippus per se we need, but his writing to the extent it helps us understand nature. We don’t need prophets for their own sake, but through them, we can divine the future and understand the signs sent by God. We don’t need the victim’s entrails for their own sake, but for the signs they convey. We don’t worship the crow or the raven but the God who communicates through them. Therefore, I come before this diviner and interpreter and say, ‘Please examine the victim’s entrails; what are they telling me?’ After carefully spreading and examining them, he says, ‘You have a will incapable of being restrained or compelled.’ Let me show this starting with assent.

“Can anyone stop you from agreeing with what’s true?”
“Or force you to believe what is not true?”
“Clearly, then, in this area your will cannot be forced or hindered. Now let’s look at desire and impulse. It is just the same. One impulse can be overcome only through another impulse. One desire or aversion can be overcome only by another aversion or desire.”
“What if someone threatens me with death? Does he not compel me then?”

It’s not the threat of death that compels you but your own judgment that it is better to do something else than die. Your values compelled you, and therefore you acted according to your will. If God had made it possible for his own fragment (that he gave us) to be hindered or compelled by anyone including himself, then he wouldn’t be God, looking after us the way he has been.

The diviner says “That’s what I see inscribed in the sacrifice. This is God’s signal to you: If you want, you are free. If you want, you will blame no one; you will accuse no one – if you want everything will happen according to your plan, as well as God’s.” That’s why we go to a diviner and a philosopher. Not to admire the interpreter, but to admire the interpretation.

Think about this

“If you want, you are free. If you want, you will blame no one; you will accuse no one – if you want everything will happen according to your plan.” Discourses 1.17.28. Epictetus/Robert Dobbin