Damn. A couple of nights ago I had the perfect opportunity to practice my Stoicism, in the quiet of my home, surrounded by friend, and I blew it. Big time. Let me tell you what happened, as a learning lesson for myself and as a warning to other practicing Stoics.
We invited over for dinner a good friend of ours and her recently anointed new boy friend. My daughter (who has been asked by her professor of philosophy to do an in-class presentation about Stoicism!) was there too. The occasion was my invitation to the sophist — we shall call him Hippias — to come over and discuss a documentary on the 2008 financial collapse over dinner and a good scotch (I promised at the least a 15 years old, turned out to be 18).
The invitation itself was borne out of a previous episode which should have given me plenty of reasons not to engage with Hippias again, something that took place a few weeks ago. On that occasion, we were out at a restaurant and somehow we got on the subject of the above mentioned crisis. Hippias’ girlfriend (i.e., my friend mentioned above), my companion, and myself were making fairly uncontroversial and well documented statements about the role of subprime mortgages (and therefore of banks) as well as derivatives and similar financial instruments (and therefore of traders) in the collapse. We were met with a barrage of objections, denials, rephrasing, and questioning of our sources (which included the New York Times, National Public Radio and the Wall Street Journal), with the bottom line been that — according to Hippias — banks and traders were just doing their job, the fault was obviously all on the side of the consumers who got greedy and borrowed money they couldn’t repay (for the record, I do think consumers were partially responsible for that memorable debacle). The discussion became animated, but since Hippias, like his counterpart from the 5th century BCE, claimed world class expertise on anything and everything, we decided to resume the conversation after we had all watched a documentary that more clearly and systematically described the situation. That, as it turns out, was a predictably futile, indeed even downright counterproductive move.
Okay, now let’s shift back to the action as it took place at our apartment the other night. We never actually even got to watch the documentary or have a discussion about the ’08 disaster. That’s because as soon as we sat down at the table the conversation veered toward another set of topics around which Hippias and I locked horns. We touched on women’s equality and access to education, transgenderism, and a number of other fun controversies. The last one of these had to do with the current status of journalism, a profession that Hippias proceeded to characterize as increasingly irrelevant and made up of a bunch of people who lie because of their agendas, across the board, no distinctions made between, say Fox News and National Public Radio. We also talked about the ethics (or lack thereof) of being Rupert Murdoch.
The important point isn’t what the content of the conversation was (it never is, with sophists), but the style of “arguing,” as well as, in this case, my failure as a Stoic.
In terms of arguing, by the end of the evening I figured out what Hippias’ modus operandi is, regardless of what the topic of conversation happened to be. It rotates around these points:
- Present yourself an an expert on whatever topic, possibly of world class stature
- Whenever someone brings up facts or opinions from actual experts, deny their expertise and go postmodern: you can’t trust anyone because it’s all about powers and interests so everyone’s lying (except, of course, the sophist himself)
- In case your interlocutor manages to pin you down with a straightforward question or point, complexify: everything is more complicated than it seems, which somehow means nobody other than the sophist can possibly make a point worth making
- If someone insists in getting an answer out of you no matter what, pretend you are addressing the point by shifting the discourse onto something that has little or nothing to do with the issue, but that sounds sufficiently close as to be plausible
- Shift among points #1-4 above, possibly in random order, as the occasion demands
This went on for close to three hours of increasingly heated discussion, at the end of which I did the un-Stoic thing: I lost it. With a clearly emotional tone of voice I doggedly ignored all of Hippias’ attempts to deploy his favorite strategies and I insisted that he answered a very simple, very clear question about ethics. He just wouldn’t. So I got up and said that this was the end of the conversation as far as I was concerned, and used the s-word (sophist) to describe him, apparently to the delight of my daughter.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because there are a few lessons for me and fellow Stoic practitioners to be learned here.
First lesson: I failed to manage my anger at Hippias, something that not only I should not have done as a host (bad manners), but most importantly as a Stoic. I should definitely go and re-read Seneca’s On Anger.
I went over the evening’s events with my mind later on, and clearly appreciated why the Stoics thought of anger as a temporary madness, and something with no redeeming values (contra to some currently popular opinion). Yes, when you are angry you are motivated to do something about whatever it is that you are angry about. But consider the situation under discussion: most certainly my anger did not persuade Hippias, and indeed may simply have convinced him that he hit his target (which is true in terms of evoking a passionate response, although in terms of landing a good logical argument).
Moreover, even though the other three people present were sympathetic with my positions against Hippias’, I risked losing their support once I let my arguments be clouded by my passions. I was reminded of the recent documentary on the famous television debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal, and in particular of the “crypto-Nazi vs I’ll knock you in your goddamn face” comment (see this video, especially 0:41-0:58). Hippias and I didn’t come even close to that (and besides, in a re-enacment I would have to play the part of Vidal, not Buckley), but still.
The second lesson I re-learned from the other night’s debacle was one that Lawrence Becker has considered so important in his A New Stoicism that he used it as an axiom of modern practice: “The Axiom of Futility represents the stoic doctrine that we ought not to try to do things that are known to be impossible.” I most definitely violated that axiom because I knew from the beginning, and with a high degree of confidence, that it was literally impossible for me to change Hippias’ mind about pretty much any of the topics we discussed. Which means I ought to have used my time more proficiently, doing something entirely different.
The third lesson comes from Epictetus: “Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” (Enchiridion 33.6)
Sometimes I missed Epictetus’ refreshing directness… As I pointed out in a separate essay discussing this and other passages from Musonius’ student, “philosophers” here is to be interpreted as people seeking to live a eudaimonic life, Epictetus isn’t talking about professional academics. The advise, then, is to keep the company of people from whom you can learn, not that of people who are likely to drag you down by triggering anger, or by engaging in useless conversation.
Aristotle made a similar point when he said that the highest form of friendship is that of virtue, where friends hold each other’s soul up to a mirror, each attempting to help the other become a better person. This is definitely not what happened with Hippias the other night, and it’s my fault for having forgotten that I am in control of my words and actions, not of those of others.