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Category Archives: Philosophy

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Zeno, Paradox, and Contemporary Confusion

by March 22, 2019

Zeno of Elea constructed several arguments that result in absurdity. They are paradoxical, contradicting, and just plain-strange. Oh, and did I mention that they are logically consistent, too?

One such paradox, perhaps the most well-known, is called the Achilles Paradox. Achilles was thought to be the fastest runner in Ancient Greece, and as such he should have no problem running down a tortoise, right? Zeno thinks not, and has a really good argument for why not.

Zeno of Elea

Alright, imagine Achilles and the tortoise, and let’s refer to the tortoise as Tom, because, well, a tortoise that races Achilles should probably have a name. Okay, so it is Achilles and Tom the tortoise at the starting line for this historical race. Since Achilles is the fastest man in Greece, he decides that it would only be fair to give Tom a head start.
Tom starts his crawl while Achilles poses and flexes for the crowd! What a showman! After a few moments Achilles takes off after Tom. According to Zeno, Achilles will never catch up to Tom because there is an infinite number of points between Achilles and Tom. Therefore Achilles can never reach Tom, because he cannot traverse an infinite number of points!
Before Achilles reaches Tom, he must first get half way to Tom. Before he can get half way to Tom, he must get a quarter of the way to Tom, before he can get a quarter of the way, he must go an eighth of the way… and so on ad infinitum. According to Zeno’s logically consistent argument, Achilles will never reach Tom. Sorry to all you runners out there.

The Achilles Paradox

But wait just a minute… We all know from experience that a faster runner can, and will, catch a slower runner. So just what in the world-of-Hades is going on here? As I mentioned earlier, Zeno remains logically consistent within his argument. So it is not a problem of logic. Let’s look at his assumptions.
Zeno is constructing his argument on the foundational assumption that the world is infinitely divisible. If we change this assumption, the problem magically goes away. Hey, Zeno… the world isn’t infinitely divisible, therefore there is only a finite number of points that Achilles must travel in order to catch Tom. (Sorry, Tom.)
It may be worthwhile to point out that some mathematicians overcome this paradox with calculus and something called the convergence of finite-infinite series. Others argue against this method. But I digress. Let us explore the world of abstraction and the world as experienced.
When we first encounter the Achilles Paradox, we become suspicious. After all, the paradox is fundamentally at odds with the way we experience the world. The logic of the argument works, but it doesn’t coincide with the way the world really is. Arguments which are logically sound and logically true, don’t always accurately represent nature, reality, or the world. The same can be said for mathematics.

Artistic Depiction of a Singularity

Let us look at the mathematical concept of a singularity as an example. Black holes are said to contain a singularity at their center, and the Big Bang supposedly started with one, too. Many physicists don’t actually believe that the Big Bang started with a singularity, and others question the whole idea that singularities exist in nature at all!

We all experience the mathematical singularity of draining our tub. When you drain the tub, the water spirals into the drain, moving faster and faster, and at a certain point, according to consistent mathematics, the water will be moving infinitely fast. This doesn’t actually happen the way that the math tells us it will. The world gets in the way, and the water doesn’t actually converge into a singularity like the math tells us it should. For some physicists and mathematicians, singularities are nothing but mathematical artifacts, as opposed to something that actually exists in nature.

Like Zeno’s argument, it is through the use of pure rationality that the existence of such a phenomenon is posited. Further, the argument rests on a set of assumptions that themselves have not been proven to be true.

In using the term rationality, I am referring to the epistemic view that regards the use of pure reason as the foundation of truth and the method for uncovering reality. Contrast this with the epistemic method of empiricism, which claims that truth is revealed to us through the senses.

Okay, so what does this all mean? Just like Zeno’s paradoxical arguments, there exists a great many of contemporary paradoxical arguments and contradicting concepts in logic and math. The assumptions used in creating an argument, concept, or mathematical equation are, from a historical point of view, usually false or only sort-of-true. If an assumption is false, the logic can maintain consistency and seem true within the logical context, but it might not be true of the world, and it might not be an accurate representation of nature.

It isn’t all for naught, however. Sometimes we are right (or sort of right)… and that’s something.

Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism and Pain

by March 15, 2019

By Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, discusses strategies for coping with pain derived from the ancient wisdom of Stoicism.

The physical frailty of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was notorious, and of great concern to his subjects.  Around 174-175 AD, he was in such poor health that false rumours that he was dying, or already dead, actually spread throughout the empire. These were taken seriously enough for his most senior general in the eastern provinces, Avidius Cassius, to have himself acclaimed emperor, leading to a short-lived civil war in which Marcus and his loyalist army were victorious.

We know that Marcus suffered from chronic chest and stomach pains, problems sleeping, and poor appetite, among other symptoms. While it’s not clear what illness he suffered from, modern scholars have speculated he may have been describing the symptoms of stomach ulcers, among other things. Curiously, the historian Cassius Dio praises Marcus Aurelius for the remarkable physical resilience that he showed despite being “extremely frail in body”.

 

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

 
To be sure, he could not display many feats of physical prowess; yet he had developed his body from a very weak one to one capable of the greatest endurance.
He concludes his account of Marcus’ reign as follows:
He did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.
Indeed, Marcus lived to be nearly sixty, at a time when war or plague claimed many of his contemporaries at a younger age. For example, his adoptive brother Lucius Verus, despite being a stronger, fitter man, dropped dead aged thirty-eight, and Marcus’ son Commodus was assassinated at thirty-one.
 

Bust of Seneca, a Stoic philosopher.

 
So how is it possible that Marcus Aurelius could both be renowned for poor health and yet praised for his endurance?  We can find an answer in his personal notes practicing Stoic philosophy, The Meditations, where he refers many times to psychological strategies for coping with pain and illness.
Stoic philosophy had a sophisticated repertoire of psychological therapy techniques at its disposal. Indeed, it was the inspiration for modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which first appeared in the 1950s. CBT is currently the dominant evidence-based form of psychotherapy, and provides some surprisingly robust techniques for coping psychologically with chronic pain and illness.
However, one of the best illustrations of the basic Stoic approach to pain actually comes from an early 20th century psychotherapist called Paul Dubois. Dubois used to assign his patients homework that involved reading the letters of the Stoic philosopher Seneca. One day when Dubois was explaining to a young patient how Stoic philosophy could help him cope better with illness, the man interrupted, saying: “I understand, doctor; let me show you.”
And taking a pencil he drew a large black spot on a piece of paper. “This,” said he, “is the disease, in its most general sense, the physical trouble – rheumatism, toothache, what you will – moral trouble, sadness, discouragement, melancholy.
“If I acknowledge it by fixing my attention upon it, I already trace a circle to the periphery of the black spot, and it has become larger. If I affirm it with acerbity the spot is increased by a new circle. There I am, busied with my pain, hunting for means to get rid of it, and the spot only becomes larger.
“If I preoccupy myself with it, if I fear the consequences, if I see the future gloomily, I have doubled or trebled the original spot.” And, showing me the central point of the circle, the trouble reduced to its simplest expression, he said with a smile, “Should I not have done better to leave it as it was?”
 

Image of Epictetus, another Stoic philosopher.

 
Dubois adds:
“One exaggerates, imagines, anticipates affliction,” wrote Seneca. For a long time, I have told my discouraged patients and have repeated to myself, “Do not let us build a second storey to our sorrow by being sorry for our sorrow.”
He says this diagram illustrates the Stoic doctrine that “He who knows how to suffer suffers less.” The burden of physical pain or illness is lightened when we are able to look at it objectively, without drawing concentric circles around it and multiplying our suffering by adding layers of fear.
Here is a rough outline of some of the key Stoic psychological techniques that Marcus describes using to cope with his own chronic pain and illness:
 
  1. Carefully distinguish what’s directly under your control from what isn’t. This is really the basis of the Stoic approach. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” That became the basis of the Serenity Prayer made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Marcus likewise tells himself, “It is necessary that those who wish to follow Nature and be of one mind with her should also adopt a neutral attitude” toward things like pain and illness, by accepting the sensations and focusing instead on their own response to suffering (9.1).

Stoic philosophy inspired the serenity prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous.

  1. Compare the consequences of struggling versus acceptance. The Stoics liked to say that it’s not really pain that’s our problem but rather the fear of pain. Struggling against things we can’t change can add to our emotional suffering. They want us to learn a healthy and rational attitude of acceptance instead. Of course, if there are practical steps that could potentially help your condition then take them. However, Marcus reminds himself, in vivid terms, of the futility of struggling against suffering that is beyond our direct control: “Imagine every man who is grieved at anything or discontented to be like a pig which is sacrificed and kicks and screams” (10.28). We commonly intensify our emotional suffering by struggling against events in futile ways and growing frustrated with life.
  1. Remember that it’s not events that upset us but our judgements about them. This ancient Stoic doctrine became the fundamental premise of modern cognitive therapy. Pain and illness are unpleasant but you add another layer of suffering when you allow yourself to indulge too much in negative thinking about your condition. We can learn a great deal from those admirable individuals who are able to view physical illness more constructively.  Marcus says that we should remember that unpleasant physical sensations, such as pain, are natural and inevitable in life, but that our conscious mind should not, “add to the sensation the opinion that it is either good or bad” (5.26).
  2. Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away. (4.7)

  1. Practice letting go of the inner struggle and actively accepting painful sensations. The Stoics compared life to a dog tied to a moving cart. If the dog tries to struggle and resist it will be pulled along roughly by the cart anyway. However, if it chooses to run behind at the same speed as the cart, things will go smoothly. If we struggle against unpleasant experiences such as pain and try to resist them or become frustrated or resentful toward them then we often just make our lives worse.
 

Practice letting go of the inner struggle…

 
  1. Contemplate how others cope well with pain and illness and model their attitude and behavior. Marcus must have seen countless examples of others coping with pain and illness throughout his life during the plague and wars that afflicted the empire. Some people cope with such adversity better than others, of course. The Stoics advise us to learn from the example of those who face adversity with wisdom and courage, and emulate their behavior.
    Nothing happens to any man which he is not formed by nature to bear. The same things happen to another person, and either because he does not notice that they have happened, or because he wants to show off his strength of character, he is firm and remains unharmed. (5.18)

    One of the Stoics’ favorite strategies is to ask what virtue, or resource, nature has given us to cope with a challenge such as facing chronic pain or illness. Contemplating the example set by others is one way of reminding ourselves of potential strengths and coping resources that we already possess.

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If you want to learn more about the life and Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, and how techniques from Stoicism can help you to deal with bad habits, manage anger, overcome worry and anxiety, cope with pain and illness, and even come to terms with your own mortality, check out How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.

Healthy Skepticism for Better Debates

by March 8, 2019

One would have thought that in this age of information, logical fallacies would cease to exist. But, amazingly, the exact opposite has happened despite our incredible access to information. After all, we can open up an internet browser and within a few minutes we have thousands of pages filled with data and arguments for some position or the other. The problem is, we can find thousands of pages of data and arguments in support of the opposing view, too.
A healthy dose of skepticism might do us some good…
The ancient skeptics varied in their particular doctrines, but they converged on the idea that it is a good thing to question both our beliefs and our ability to gain knowledge of the world. Much of Greek philosophy contains skeptical elements, but the term ancient skeptic generally refers to a follower of Pyrrho, who lived from 365 to 270 B.C.E., or to a member of Plato’s Academy during its skeptical period, which began sometime around 273 B.C.E., and began to fade around the 1st century B.C.E.
Pyrrho

The ancient skeptic Pyrrho.

The term “skeptic” is derived from the Greek word skepsis, which means examination, inquiry, and consideration. Ancient skepticism included two fundamental starting points:

1. Examination of our epistemic limitations.
2. A thesis regarding the suspension of judgment.

Examination of our epistemic limitation is just a fancy way of saying “examination of the limits of knowledge.” In other words, the skeptic attempts to take a step back from what we believe to be true knowledge, and asks a few questions regarding what we take to be true or certain knowledge.
Confused yet? Let me give you an example…
Some of the things the skeptic might ask include: What are we referring to when we use the words knowledge and truth? How can I be certain that what I believe to be true, is in fact true? How did I gain this perceived knowledge or truth? What are the reasons for this particular belief? What are the reasons against it?
The skeptic believed that by asking such questions, we could uncover weaknesses in our reasoning capabilities, and discover the fallibility of the senses in providing true knowledge of the perceived world.
Skeptics

Another famous skeptic.. Augustine of Hippo by Sandro Botticelli

Still with me? Great… so basically, the skeptical idea of suspension of judgment claimed that we should rid ourselves of our beliefs regarding certain knowledge and truth. For instance, if I believed the earth was spherical, I should suspend that judgment and examine honestly both the idea that the earth could be spherical or flat. The idea is to take both sides of the debate seriously, examine evidence for each side, and develop the strongest argument possible for each position.
Moderate skepticism would allow that upon completion of an honest and serious examination of both sides of the debate, I could then restore my belief.
Radical skepticism, on the other hand, would claim that no truth is possible, and would argue that no amount of evidence or honest inquiry would settle the matter. The radical skeptic could never restore a belief in anything. Is your anxiety setting in yet? ‘Cuz mine is…
Radical skepticism claims that we can never have true knowledge of the world. You can breathe a sigh of relief, however, because the position is doomed from the start. One could simply argue that because the radical skeptic claims that we cannot have true knowledge of the world, his statement regarding our inability to gain knowledge could not be true, either. It is a self-defeating position, and not very useful in our day-to-day lives. After all, if I was in constant suspension of judgment, I would be stuck and unable to live my life. I would die from inaction because we need basic beliefs and judgments in order to live in the world… like what to eat for dinner.
Moderate skepticism, however, is a powerful tool in establishing what we take to be knowledge and truth. It pushes back our knee-jerk reaction to something we might read on the internet, and provides us with a mode of calm and honest inquiry into the matter. This type of skeptical inquiry is more of a practice or activity, as opposed to a set of doctrines. It is the kind of skepticism that Sextus Empiricus claimed to be useful in life.
Who was this fellow Sextus, I hear you cry? Empiricus, as I like to imagine he preferred to be called, belonged to the Pyrrhonian skeptical tradition, and lived from 160-210 C.E.
Image of Sextus Empiricus

Sextus Empiricus, a skeptic of the Pyrrhonian tradition.

For Sextus Empiricus, skepticism was the act of discovering opposing arguments of persuasive force. This basically entails a time of judgment-free reflection, which leads to a peaceful acceptance of the conclusion. Empiricus would have us examine the reasons for supporting a claim, and the reasons for opposing it. He would have us steel-man (as opposed to straw-man) the opposing argument, thereby establishing the strongest position possible for both sides. By doing this, we can minimize our emotional investment in an argument, and focus instead on getting at the truth of the matter.
Although it might not be possible to suspend judgment entirely, and true objectivity seems impossible due to our subjective nature, perhaps through a concerted effort, our arguments and debates can become a bit more truth seeking, tranquil, and honest.
Image of angry person in debate

We should seek a tranquil conversation, as opposed to an angry debate.

So, next time you find yourself in an emotionally charged debate, whether it’s on some controversial topic like vaccines, climate change or whether Japanese organizing consultant and author Marie Kondo can ‘tidy up’ the Israeli-Palestinian mess, think back to Sextus Empiricus. Look at the argument from the perspective of your conversational sparring partner, examine their reasons honestly, and try to get at the truth of the matter…

Ancient Philosophy As a Way of Living: Cynicism

by February 28, 2019

By Jacob Bell, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
I’ve made some rather strange and unexpected decisions that fall outside of the social and economic norms of our 21st century. The American Dream, at least for me, is dead… and in a way, I may be loosely following the Cynic dream instead. I say loosely because the Cynics of Ancient Greece were a very radical group.
The school of philosophy known as the Cynics emerged sometime around the 5th century B.C.E., and began to fade out nearly one thousand years later, in the 5th century C.E. The Cynics played an important role in influencing several other schools of philosophy, such as the Stoics, who adapted and evolved many of the core tenets of Cynicism (and left out much of the craziness, such as public defecation)…
Statue of a Cynic

Statue of an unknown Cynic philosopher from the Capitoline Museums in Rome. This statue is a Roman-era copy of an earlier Greek statue from the third century BC.

As opposed to the speculative philosophy of figures such as Plato and Aristotle, Cynical philosophy was a lived philosophy. The Cynics developed philosophical theories as a means to living well, and they disregarded the majority of abstract philosophy.
The Cynics argued against a superficial life, in favor of “a life lived in accord with nature.” For them, living in accordance with nature meant following a path of self-sufficiency, freedom, and lucid reasoning. They believed that social conventions had the ability to hinder the “good life,” and could lead to corruption by, “compromising freedom and setting up a code of conduct that is opposed to nature and reason.” Kinda sounds like the hippy at the house party if you ask me…
Flower power girl

Are Hippies Cynics?

For the Cynic, nature could provide plenty of entertainment and pleasure. They found comfort and happiness in simple pleasures such as going for a walk, feeling the warmth of the sun, and drinking a glass of cool water on a hot day.
All of which I agree with by the way… except I would swap out the water for a nice cold craft beer, which would probably be too pretentious for the true Cynic. Oh well.
This is because the Cynics denounced luxury and wealth. They believed that in its pursuit, man had to busy himself day in and day out with unnecessary tasks. For the Cynics, a life of frantic action for the sake of wealth or power was absurd. This sort of living would cause both the ancient and modern man to stray from nature, and would instill in him a need for superficialities that would never be satisfied. Never being satisfied, and always wanting more, man would become a slave unto his desires.
Painting of Diogenes

Diogenes Searching for an Honest Man (c. 1780) attributed to J. H. W. Tischbein

The most famous among the Cynics was a man named Diogenes of Sinope, often referred to as Diogenes the Dog due to his radical behavior, including public defecation. Clearly, he took Cynical philosophy to the extreme. He embraced pain, hardship, and poverty. He lived in a ceramic tub, ate scraps, and gained most of his goods through begging. Diogenes the Dog passed the time by making fun of social convention, and calling attention to the absurdity of robotic-like behavior by those around him (even to the likes of Alexander the Great!)

“Alexander and Diogenes” by Caspar de Crayer. Diogenes once asked Alexander the Great to stand out his light.

Diogenes viewed much of mankind’s pursuits in a Sisyphean manner. That is, just as Sisyphus carried the boulder up the mountain day in and day out, just to have it roll back down, man’s pursuits for wealth and power were just as futile and meaningless.
We needn’t follow the exact values set forth by the Cynics in order to benefit from their wisdom, because, well, that would be following a social convention and would defy the whole idea of Cynical philosophy! Instead, we can see the benefit in simplicity, and we can look inward to our own values. We can unchain ourselves from restrictive social convention, and cultivate a life that we find fulfilling, and which brings us meaning.
I’m not suggesting that you quit your day job, or that you pursue an ascetic life. In staying true to the Cynics, it would be wrong for me to tell you how to live. But it’s not necessarily a bad idea to take a Cynical perspective and reevaluate things from time to time in order to pursue what you find internally fulfilling and meaningful. After all, no matter our state of wealth or poverty, none of us gets out of this alive, and so we might as well be the ones to choose the boulder that we carry up the mountain day in and day out.

Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism and Anger

by February 22, 2019

By Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, discusses strategies for coping with anger derived from the ancient wisdom of Stoicism.
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was renowned for his ability to remain calm in the face of provocation. On one such occasion, a notoriously hot-tempered, and extremely wealthy, aristocrat called Herodes Atticus lost his temper with Marcus, who was presiding over a legal dispute between him and the citizens of Athens. Herodes did the unthinkable and lunged at the emperor as though he intended to strike him. The praetorian prefect guarding the emperor, instinctively reached for his sword. He would have cut Herodes down in an instant but Marcus quickly signaled him to step back. The emperor rose from his chair completely unfazed and said only “My good fellow, an old man fears little”, before declaring the hearing adjourned. He meant, perhaps, that having come to terms with his own mortality he wasn’t easily flustered by threatening behavior.
We can surmise that Marcus’ lifelong training in Stoicism contributed to his remarkable composure in tense situations like this. Indeed, we know that as a young man he struggled to control his temper because he tells us so at the beginning of The Meditations, the private record of his reflections on Stoic philosophy. Marcus says that he frequently became angry with his beloved Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus, and was grateful that he never lost control and did something that he would have regretted. Marcus had probably heard the notorious story about his adoptive grandfather, the emperor Hadrian, who once flew into a rage and stabbed some poor slave in the eye with the point of a metal stylus. When Hadrian finally calmed down and came to his senses he apologized for this horrific act and asked the man if there was anything he could do to make amends. The slave, however, said that all he wanted was his eye back. That was something even an emperor couldn’t grant him. Although our anger may sometimes be fleeting, the harm done by it can nevertheless be permanent.
Marcus Aurelius

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

Indeed, the Stoics described anger as temporary madness. It’s perhaps no surprise therefore to find Marcus returning to psychological strategies for managing anger over and over again throughout The Meditations. At one point, though, he actually provides a list that he describes as ten “gifts from Apollo”, the god of healing, and his Muses (11.18). All of these are arguably still relevant today. Indeed, some of them resemble techniques used in modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anger management. When you’re offended by someone else’s actions, he says, consider the following…

1. We are naturally social animals designed to help one another.
The Stoics believed that humans naturally form communities and have deep-seated social instincts. We should always bear in mind that we’re adapted to work together for mutual benefit rather than conflict and destruction. Elsewhere, in one of the most famous passages of The Meditations, Marcus tells himself to prepare each morning for the day ahead by imagining all sorts of encounters with troublesome individuals while reminding himself “Neither can I be angry with my kinsman nor hate him for we have come into being for cooperation” (2.1).

Marcus Aurelius on Horseback

2. Consider their character as a whole.
Marcus thinks we should imagine the person with whom we’re feeling angry in different situations – eating meals, sleeping, relieving themselves, having sex, etc. We should particularly bear in mind how their opinions and values shape their behavior throughout the day. When we broaden our perspective beyond the behavior that’s annoying us, we tend to dilute our feelings of anger. We also understand their actions better by placing them in a wider context, and to understand all is to forgive all.

3. Nobody does wrong willingly.
This is one of the central paradoxes of Socrates’ philosophy, which greatly influenced the Stoics. Socrates believed that no-one does wrong knowingly. It arguably follows from this that nobody does wrong willingly either. This ancient principle of moral psychology is hard for many people to accept but it’s the basis of Stoic forgiveness and empathy, and a key part of their remedy for anger. Marcus notes that everyone is offended when accused of wrongdoing. Even murderous dictators typically believe that their actions are justified, though they may seem morally egregious to everyone else.

Murderous Dictators

Even murderous dictators typically believe that their actions are justified

4. Nobody is perfect, yourself included.
It’s hypocrisy to criticize others without recognizing your own imperfections – a double standard. Marcus actually said that when you notice yourself becoming angry with another person you should take it as a signal to pause and examine whether or not you’re guilty of similar, wrong-headed thoughts or actions. Acknowledging our own flaws, and bearing them in mind, can moderate the anger we feel towards others.

5. You can never be certain of other people’s motives.
Marcus had studied jurisprudence and acted as a judge in many legal disputes. He therefore knew very well how difficult it can be to know another person’s intentions. Anger, however, assumes an unwarranted certainty. Keeping an open mind, by contrast, will help weaken these feelings so that we can deal with the situation more calmly and rationally.

As the old saying goes, ‘best to walk in a mile in their shoes’

6. Remember we all will die.
The Stoics like to remind themselves that all things are transient, nothing lasts forever, including our own lives and those of the people with whom we’re angry. Before long both of you will be dead and the whole thing long forgotten. When we think about the bigger picture, it doesn’t seem worth getting very flustered about other people’s actions.

7. It’s our own judgement that upsets us.
This is perhaps the most famous doctrine of Stoic psychology. It became the philosophical inspiration for modern cognitive psychotherapy, which is based on the principle that our emotions are determined to a large extent by our underlying beliefs (cognitions). Marcus reminds himself that it’s not really the actions of others that make him feel angry but his own opinions about them, more specifically, opinions that are based upon negative value judgements. Noticing this fact alone can weaken the hold that strong emotions have on our mind but it should also encourage us to examine our beliefs and question whether there might be more healthy and constructive perspectives that we could adopt concerning the same situation.

8. Anger does us more harm than good.
This was another very common Stoic technique. Other people’s actions might harm us physically, damage our property, or our reputation. However, anger injures our own moral character. According to the Stoics, therefore, it hurts us much more deeply than another person’s actions ever could. Anger does us more harm, in other words, than the things we’re angry about. Focusing on the negative consequences of our anger can help motivate us to let it go.

Anger does us more harm than the things we’re angry about…

9. Nature gave us the virtues to deal with anger.
The Stoics frequently reminded themselves to contemplate how a wise person, such as Socrates, would deal with challenging people or events, and what strengths or virtues he might employ in specific situations. We all have inner resources that can be used to deal more constructively with difficult people, such as the capacity for patience, tolerance, empathy, and kindness. Reminding ourselves of these positive qualities and contemplating how they could be applied, can help us find an alternative to anger, and a better way of coping.

10. It’s madness to expect others to be perfect.
The Stoics were determinists who believed that the wise are seldom shocked because they view whatever happens in life as inevitable. There’s good and bad in the world. Marcus tells himself that “to expect bad people not to do bad things is madness because that is wishing for the impossible.” It’s therefore irrational to act surprised but when we’re angry we say things like “I can’t believe someone would do that!” Marcus thinks that’s naive and foolish. When someone acts in a way that’s objectionable we should tell ourselves that is to be expected from time to time. It’s just a part of life. Acting less shocked makes it easier to respond calmly and rationally to events that might otherwise make us feel enraged and offended.

It really does seem that Marcus dedicated himself to practicing psychological techniques like these every day. It’s easy to see how they could have helped him overcome the quick temper of his youth and transform himself into the embodiment of Stoic equanimity that he reputedly became. There are no accounts of him losing his temper despite the enormous challenges he faced throughout his reign. Instead, we’re told that he earned a reputation among Roman citizens for having been an exceptionally wise and gentle ruler.
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If you want to learn more about the life and Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, and how techniques from Stoicism can help you to deal with bad habits, manage anger, overcome worry and anxiety, cope with pain and illness, and even come to terms with your own mortality, check out How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.

Ancient Sophistry & The Car Salesman

by February 15, 2019

By Jacob Bell, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
My recent venture into the world of car sales caused me to realize that sophistry, in its most shameful guise, is still alive and well today. I am speaking of the sophistry that seeks to deceive in order to profit… either in sales or politics.
During the second half of the fifth century B.C.E., sophistry began to gain its reputation as a means of rhetorical persuasion. It was, and still is, used in politics, and speaks to the emotions, often leaving logic out of the conversation. Plato and Aristotle regarded sophistry with disgust because for them, the term signified the “deliberate use of fallacious reasoning, intellectual charlatanism, and moral unscrupulousness.”
Illustration of Plato Gorgias

Gorgias is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato around 380 BC. The dialogue depicts a conversation between Socrates and a small group of sophists at a dinner gathering.

Is this starting to sound like your last car salesman?
Although the term sophist is derived from the word sophia, meaning wisdom, “sophia” was often used, long before the rise of the Sophists, to describe “disingenuous cleverness.” To be fair, in other circles the Sophists were known for their poetic ability, and were paid to teach the youth how to speak with authority and persuasion. The distinction between sophistry and philosophy wasn’t quite as distinct as one might imagine, and in Aristophanes’ play titled The Clouds, Socrates is depicted as a Sophist. Some of the prominent Sophists of Ancient Greece included Protagoras, Gorgias, Antiphon, Hippias, Prodicus, and Thrasymachus.
Illustration of Socrates and Gorgias

The Philosopher Socrates with the Sophist Gorgias

Whatever controversy there might be regarding sophistry then, today I am interested in the type of sophistry that seeks to poke and prod at your emotions in order to persuade you to make a decision that logic might not permit… The kind that Plato and Aristotle characterized as fallacious, charlatanistic, and immoral…. The kind that gets politicians elected and car salesmen sales.
As noted above, the Sophists were paid teachers of rhetoric. They would teach someone how to speak to the emotions, and how to profit from this persuasive speech. In short, it is the same sort of training in rhetoric that I have received since becoming a car salesman. These teachers of rhetoric aren’t stupid, but they aren’t intelligent in the formal sense, either. They have an insight into human nature. They understand the power of the emotions, and they know how to invoke the passions. It is both impressive and frightening at the same time.
Mosaic of Men discussing

The Philosopher’s Mosaic, villa at Torre Annunziata near Pompeii

In clear opposition to Plato, the Sophists claimed that truth was relative, and they didn’t seem very interested in defending that claim. They were more interested in winning an argument or debate without much regard for the truth of the matter. In Plato’s dialogue titled Euthydemus, Euthydemus and his brother Dionysiodorous “deliberately use egregiously fallacious arguments for the purpose of contradicting and prevailing over their opponent.”
This was a deceitful method of argumentation used by many Sophists, in which they would force their opponents to abandon their position or accept both positions by establishing a contradicting argument. This is the confusing art of deceitful speech. Yes, in a way it is an art. It takes practice, skill, and a bit of natural ability to wield words that not only breakdown logic, but cause one to forgo logic in favor of the emotions.
Socrates teaching

Crop of Alcibiades being taught by Socrates, by Marcello Bacciarelli c. 1776

I have seen such a Sophist single handedly disarm a defensive consumer with such language. I have witnessed logic leave the conversation in such a profound manner that an unaware customer signed to purchase a vehicle without even knowing the final price! These are modern Sophists with decades of practice in the skill of deceitful speech, and for many of us, we will encounter them at some point during our lives.
I might suggest a few preparations if you find yourself in this situation… and for the sake of brevity, I will generalize. Write down your questions, stipulations, and requirements, and then write the answers and responses in the appropriate place. Don’t accept vague answers, demand the specifics. Follow these guidelines and you may survive the Sophist’s onslaught of slimy speech.
picture of a car salesman

Know how to talk to a car salesman/sophist…

Appealing to the emotions, removing logic from the conversation, and profiting from rhetoric… is it all bad? I don’t think so. Just like any tool, it can be used for good or evil. Our emotions and passions are integral to life. They help us navigate the world, and help us make decisions. If we can learn something positive from the Sophists, it is that sometimes we must appeal to the emotions in order to succeed within a conversation. But we must do this with a guiding moral principle, else we may find ourselves deceiving our fellow man for personal gain.