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Discourse for the Day

Here’s a beautiful selection from Epictetus (ca. 55 – ca. 135 CE) on logic and philosophical method; you might say this post is inspired by current events — if, by that, you mean things that are happening in my life at the moment, rather than whatever the latest gusts of newsmedia wind are being blown over. My students are wonderful, but no matter how wonderful they are, they always bring it to mind at some point; although I suppose it might also be worth keeping in mind when you deal with the pronouncements of Vice Presidents of the United States and public intellectuals, too.

Against the Academics

If a person opposes very evident truths, it is not easy to find an argument by which one may persuade him to alter his opinion. This arises neither from his own strength, nor from the weakness of his teacher: but when a man after being reduced to contradiction in the course of an argument, becomes as hard as stone, how shall we deal with him any longer by reason?

Such petrification takes two forms: the one, a petrification of the understanding, and the other of the sense of shame, when a person has obstinately set himself neither to assent to evident truths, nor to abandon the defence of contradictions. Most of us fear the deadening of the body, and would make use of every means possible to avoid falling into that condition: but the deadening of the soul concerns us not one bit. And, by Zeus, when the soul itself is in such a condition that a person is incapable of following a single argument or understanding anything, we think him in a sad condition: but if a person’s sense of shame and modesty is deadened, we go so far as to call this strength of mind.

Do you understand that you are awake? — No, he replies, any more than I do in my dreams when I have the impression that I am awake. — Is there no difference, then, between that impression and the other? — None. — Can I argue with this man any longer? And what fire or steel shall I apply to him to make him aware that he has become deadened? He is aware of it, but pretends that he is not; he is even worse than a corpse.

One man does not see the contradiction; he is in a bad state. Another does see it, but is not moved, nor does he improve; he is in an even worse state. His sense of shame and modesty have been completely extirpated. His reasoning faculty, indeed, has not been extirpated, but brutalized. Am I to call this strength? By no means; unless I am also to call by that name the quality which enables catamites to do and say in public whatever comes into their heads.

–Epictetus, Discourses, Book I, Chapter V

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