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From Vol. 3, Issue 2, February 2021

Faith, Belief, and Truth


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The big lie

The storming of the United States Capitol with its mob violence and wanton destruction on January 6 sadly showcased the power of “The Big Lie” in action. “The Big Lie,” perpetrated by Hitler, Goebbles, and others during WWII is the notion that if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it and act on it.

How could people do that?

In the wake of the Washington siege many are wondering “how could those people do that?” Stoics recognize that we aren’t that different from the marauders, because, unchecked, anyone’s thinking can become beclouded, losing the distinction between blind faith, belief, and truth.

Are we any better...really?

We all like to think we come to our personal beliefs by independent thought: that we inform ourselves as best we can and arrive at our conclusions based on considered, dispassionate appraisal. But, I know when I take an honest look at myself, my views and my values prove to be almost completely congruent with those of my friends, my community, and with my upbringing, because we pretty much only let into our lives people and media who confirm our biases. 

When our minds are roiled up and we are imbibing a steady stream of information fanning our fears and mirroring our prejudices, it is hard to avoid having our view of the world and of other people petrify. We really think we’re right. We are scandalized by the behaviour, beliefs, and words of others. 

Yet everyone else feels the same way!

When our views harden, we can’t hear others

When our view of others and ourselves hardens, complacency expands, empathy dissipates, and we can’t hear other points of view. Of course, we have to affirm our personal moral convictions and live from them. And, not all points of view are equally good. But, the Stoics importantly alert us to the dangers of unbridled reaction and unexamined belief that pose as truth-based conviction.

Untrained minds to mix up  faith, belief, and truth

Aware of the tendency of our untrained minds to mix up faith, belief, and truth, the Stoics, especially Epictetus and Marcus, counsel us repeatedly to practice self-scrutiny by regularly focusing our attention inward and pausing from the blaring world.

This simple action of regular retreat and contemplation can open us to vast expanses of possibility and moral reframing. The practice of reeling in our attention from all the external events and conditions that whipsaw our hearts and minds helps us see the transitory nature of our current situations and the elevated possibility that whatever is happening out there can be marshaled somehow for goodness and meaningfulness.

Stoic thought describes a way of settling and training our minds 

Stoic thought describes a way of settling and training our minds in spiritual and moral contemplation as a way of living in the world with joy alongside ethical action. Every moment of our lives is an opportunity to attain this or to impede it. For society to be decent, orderly, and kind, not just driven by impulse, we need clear-minded citizens.  

Committing to practicing moral introspection grows our character and clears our thinking so that we can play our part in making a just and joyful world.

Sharon Lebell is the author of The Art of Living: The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, the first modern interpretation of Epictetus’ teachings. She Tweets@SharonLebell.