Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 7
How to find the truth and properly examine the premises on which a conclusion can be drawn? In this discourse we can see Arrian highlighting the importance of the truth and that we should cut no corners in going after it. Our ego shouldn’t prevent us from going back on previous ideas and concepts when we find that the outcome can be false.
“For what we seek in every matter is how the virtuous man may find the path he should follow and the way he should behave with regard to it.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 7.2
We must try to hold our standards to that of the Sage, to make sure that we are living a truthful life. We can’t take what we know for granted and we should not behave in a casual manner when engaging in an argument or discussion. The Stoics lean on the Socratic way of questions and answers. Which the wise person would apply and which is why it is often said that asking the right question is more important than getting an answer. Because it is our responsibility to find the truth when we apply reason to life around us.
“For what is required in reasoning? To establish what is true, to reject what is false, and to suspend judgement in doubtful cases.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 7.5
This three-pronged view on what is required in reasoning is simple yet therein lies its difficulty. To find the truth is the first part, but then we must also learn to reject what is false. Sometimes it isn’t just about finding what is true, but also learning to see what is false. And when we do, then we can discard that side and move on. People are trying to discover what their purpose is while being stuck in endeavors that they know it isn’t. Yet, they refuse to let it go and stick with what is wrong for them to spend their precious time on. Knowing what is true or false, are data points. There is no need to get upset about something being either one or the other. We should learn to accept the first and reject the latter.
The third part is an interesting one as well. To suspend judgement on those things that we are not sure about. Don’t be too quick to put a label on things. And the labels we are talking about here are again, true or false. Any other label comes from personal judgment and fails to be an objective analysis of the matter under investigation. This is where the emotions come in and they cloud our reasoning faculty. No, we should remain open-minded and find out what the facts are, and read the nature of it all.
Is this enough?
Epictetus was asked whether this was enough. Knowing and understanding this will make us live virtuous lives, like the Sage, and relax a bit. Well, knowing Epictetus, we can be sure that the answer is no. But what he says is quite interesting and one of the reasons why Stoicism can be viewed as a pragmatic philosophy. Arrian points us to an example of learning how to deal with money. We should know only to accept genuine ‘drachmas’ and to reject the false ones. But what needs to be added here is the faculty of being able to distinguish the difference between genuine and false drachmas.
“Therefore, in reasoning too, mere speech is not enough, but it is necessary that we should become able to test and distinguish between the true and the false and the doubtful? It is necessary.Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 7.8
In our day and age of the internet, we can find any piece of information just lying about. Like me, people can write whatever they want, put it on the internet, and there it is. The problem comes when people are ready to accept anything they see and read online as facts. Take quotes for example. We can find all the quotes people copy and paste without a thought. And let me be honest, I used to do the same until I was corrected about using one that is presumed to be said by Socrates. “Know Thyself”, it was. After that, I always make sure I know where the true source is. This lesson I’m now trying to apply to everything else I do.
Become an expert in truth
We all have it in our power to become experts in truth. Although some are better at it because they have a more inquisitive mind, we can still ask questions. Find the right sources and dig a little deeper than we would otherwise. In most cases, it is a matter of listening more and assuming less. Here we can apply first principle thinking. We need to make sure that the premise of our thoughts is true. Peel back every layer of the argument until we hit the foundation that we know is true. One important skill is required here. That is the deferral of judgment. Because if we are not sure whether something is true or false, we cannot place an opinion on it. But if we do so before reaching this vital conclusion, this judgment will stand in our way of discovering the truth.
We must become guardians of the truth and how we find it. That is our responsibility, and we don’t carry that for ourselves, but for the whole of the community. In the age of mass communication, we should see ourselves as controllers of what is being said. For it is our quest to become as close to the Sage as we can. And finding the truth plays a key role. Only then can we give our approval on the right impressions. Which will allow us to live closer to nature and thus find that peaceful life that we are after. As Arrian closes this discourse he shares a conversation Epictetus had with Musonius Rufus after someone told him that he hadn’t killed anyone. That finding the truth isn’t a big fault.
“This is the very thing that I myself said to Rufus, when he reproved me for not finding the single missing step in some syllogism. Why, said I, have I burned down the Capitol then? Slave, answered he, what was missed out here is the Capitol!”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 7.32
He ends it with one final call to show the importance of finding the truth.
“And is it no fault to treat the impressions presented to our minds in a random, senseless and haphazard manner, and to be unable to follow an argument, a demonstration or a sophism, in short, to be unable to see in question and answer what is in accordance with one’s own position and what is not – is there no fault in any of these?”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 7.33