What Would a Stoic Do? I met a sophist, and it didn’t go well

Hippias the Sophist

Hippias the Sophist

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:

  1. Present yourself an an expert on whatever topic, possibly of world class stature
  2. 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)
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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.

29 thoughts on “What Would a Stoic Do? I met a sophist, and it didn’t go well

  1. 3dbloke

    Wow, Massimo, the new Chalkboard theme is a bit radical. I think I prefer the old look 🙂

    (I use the Clearly extension for Chrome to render long reads to something similar, white on black)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. sethosayher

    Excellent post Massimo. I have conservative family that I adore but never, never talk about politics with because of the “axiom of futility.” It just leads to nowhere. If a person isn’t willing to have a civil discussion, in good faith, you’re just going to make an ass of yourself in front of someone who wants exactly that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Cicely Berglund

    Ah well, what can you do but laugh. It’s not clear if Hippias was deliberately trying to frustrate you or just totally obliviously into self defensiveness. I have a neighbour who used to try those tactics with me-until I suddenly copped to his strategies and asked him if he was having a good time trying to frustrate people. He had the wit to laugh and he has never tried it again with me. Beyond philosophical (stoic) guidelines for ethics one seems to need the flexibility to see what is actually going on.


  4. Massimo Post author


    “In light of what you have learned how should you have spent the 3 hours with Hippias?”

    Well, following Epictetus I should simply not hang around much with Hippias, because he’s not good for my eudaimonia. The thing is complicated, of course, by the fact that he is the boyfriend of a good friend of mine, which means it is inevitable to run into him socially. I could try to avoid any substantive topic when we do meet, but a) that would make for rather boring encounters, and b) it would be next to impossible, since he is usually the one who brings up delicate topics for discussion. It’s a conundrum, I really don’t have a good answer at the moment.


    ” It’s not clear if Hippias was deliberately trying to frustrate you or just totally obliviously into self defensiveness”

    I tend to think the latter. I have good reasons to believe, on the basis of other evidence, that he’s a fundamentally good person. But that doesn’t really help my problem much. There are plenty of good people one doesn’t necessarily wish to hang around with.


  5. Greg Sadler

    Well, on occasion it happens to the best of us, lapsing into anger, after keeping cool though a lot of points where one might have gotten angry. And it happens even more often, I can say from experience, to the rest (rather than the best) of us.

    It strikes me as very generous – magnanimous even, in the classic sense – on your part to invite him over, offer him hospitality, and try to work matters through.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Liam Ubert

    Hi Massimo,

    If being a stoic means that one has to control passions, especially the negative ones, it is not going to be easy. Having spent hours with a dodgy Hippias it must have been aggravating that your superior reasoning was not acknowledged. What motivated Hippias? ? What motivates you?

    Aren’t passions what motivates us in all the things we do?


  7. viennahavana

    Massimo, the exchange you shared with us reminded me of Epictetus:

    At Discourses 2.5.2, in encouraging his students to appreciate that external things are indifferent (being neither good nor bad), Epictetus says that we should imitate those who play dice, for neither the dice nor the counters have any real value; what matters, and what is either good or bad, is the way we play the game. Similarly at 2.5.15–20, where Epictetus discusses the example of playing a ball game, no one considers for a moment whether the ball itself is good or bad, but only whether they can throw and catch it with the appropriate skill. What matters are the faculties of dexterity, speed and good judgement exhibited by the players, for it is in deploying these faculties effectively that any player is deemed to have played well. (See also Discourses 4.7.5/19/30–1.)


    Maybe the “good judgement” part was in knowing when to shrug your shoulders and talk about the weather?

    PS. I like this new theme better, if I have a vote.


  8. Sun Jul

    Hippias is a walking, talking demonstration of the futility of discourse in this age. I blame the Internet, which gives everyone’s self-published drivel equal weight, and Fox News, which trains people to misconstrue everything that happens in the world.

    I have met SO many Hippiases. (Hippiasi?) You, at least, have the luxury of choosing to stay away from yours. Imagine if he were your project lead, your department head, or your your city council rep. Hippiases seem to bubble up into these positions, with their brazen assertions of sagacity and their unalloyed self-confidence.

    I know you can’t tell your friend to break it off with her Hippias, even though it must be clear to your entire social set that she is doomed to a life of frustration and humiliation if she sticks with him. What will she think when she reads your blog post? Here’s hoping she dumps Hippias, not you.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Massimo Post author


    “If being a stoic means that one has to control passions, especially the negative ones, it is not going to be easy. Aren’t passions what motivates us in all the things we do?”

    No, Stoicism isn’t about controlling or suppressing passions, it is about not giving assent to negative, destructive passions — like anger — and instead cultivating positive ones — like love of learning, or justice. What motivates Stoics is a combination of reason and positive passions.


    “Similarly at 2.5.15–20, where Epictetus discusses the example of playing a ball game, no one considers for a moment whether the ball itself is good or bad, but only whether they can throw and catch it with the appropriate skill.”

    Indeed! This, as you know, also works well with Irvine’s advise to internalize one’s goals, because your goals are up to you, the outcome of your actions is not.

    “I like this new theme better, if I have a vote”

    I think I like it too, it will stay this way for a bit!


    “and Fox News, which trains people to misconstrue everything that happens in the world”

    Funny you say that, since at one point during our discussion Hippias did argue that the New York Times and NPR are just as bad as Fox News. At the least he didn’t argue Fox was *better*…

    “You, at least, have the luxury of choosing to stay away from yours. Imagine if he were your project lead, your department head, or your your city council rep”

    I have the luxury in this case, but I have my students, administrators, politicians, etc. to deal with.

    “What will she think when she reads your blog post? Here’s hoping she dumps Hippias, not you”

    That’s a serious question, which I have considered before publishing the post. I don’t think she reads my blog regularly, and if she does I think she has enough wisdom to realize why I do it (and to appreciate that I didn’t name any names, or give much in the way of particulars).

    I’m not sure whether to hope that she dumps Happias, he may be good for her for other reasons. I certainly hope she doesn’t dump me as a friend. But that’s an external action, not under my control.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. vadimkorkhov

    Your story is eminently relatable to me as I have been in such circumstances before, as I’m sure we all have. With me, the problem can be far worse because of my occupation. I’m a medical doctor and have to work with other physicians and have to convince them of the urgency to act in certain ways with a patient, and they do not always agree. Sometimes I have to convince patients themselves of the gravity of their condition when they fail to act. In the past, these sorts of encounters frustrated and angered me intensely. But some years ago, I began to notice that these encounters were not productive, and gradually, even before I embraced Stoicism, I began to distance myself from these encounters based on the premise that I cannot reason someone into an argument they never reasoned into in the first place. Instead, I’d leave the party to their devices, waiting for them to come to me when they realized their actions weren’t working. Suddenly, I didn’t have to be convincing. It has given me great insight and satisfaction to realize that Stoicism applies the same advice to all such situations.

    Just last week, another colleague approached me in the lounge, and saw I was watching “Wrath of the Titans” and commented on how even Greek mythology wasn’t even Greek (the movie is half-baked Greek mythology) but that this is a public misunderstanding. Instead, he claimed, it’s all Phoenician and that Greeks stole Phoenician culture whole cloth. He even claimed that Pythagoras was Phoenician. I knew enough history to know this was garbage, and asked him where he got this drivel from. He had no answer, and was quickly silenced when challenged. I realized by his accent that he was Lebanese, and probably learned all this as nationalist revisionist history. Rather than confront him, I just told him he was wrong, and ceased speaking to him without even waiting for him to counter. This would’ve frustrated me in the past, but now gives me not even a pause. What is telling to me about this encounter is that people who do not stand on facts and reason know they don’t, because he was too quickly silenced by even pitiful challenge. It is as if they do it just to establish their intellectual superiority.


  11. Paul Braterman

    Vadimkorkhov, you probably know that one thing the Greeks did steal from the Phoenicians (and greatly improve in the process) was their alphabet.

    But right now, this is serious stuff. We are all angry about Paris, as we were meant to be.


  12. Paul Braterman

    I thought I was taking it more from Massimo, and perhaps indirectly from Seneca, in remarking that anger, especially anger deliberately induced by your opponent, is not a good guide to policy-making. Was that not clear?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Massimo Post author

    Patrice, Stoicism may not be the know all, but as you know we disagree on the fact that being angry (as opposed to develop a positive feeling of justice) is ever a good thing.


  14. David Ottlinger (@DavidOttlinger)


    Fashionably late. I hope you don’t mind if I comment.

    I appreciate your willingness to share a personal anecdote. It helps get at real life. Actually this kind of episode encapsulates well something I find very difficult to accept in stoicism. It’s in Buddhism as well. There is a saying of the Buddha that desiring revenge is like drinking poison and hoping the other man gets sick. I think Marcus would agree with that. But I find that totally misstates my relationship to my emotions. I do not have my emotions in order to accomplish something for myself. I do not hold people in contempt because I find it is useful to myself to be contemptuous. I hold people in contempt because they are contemptible. I do not wish to cease to have contempt for what is low and crass because it does not serve me. It may make my life more convenient or smoother, but less admirable. It makes me less. That kind of thinking, If I may express myself, is in poor taste. It is, forgive me the term, baseness.

    There is much more, but suffice to say I would have laughed as well.


  15. Nanocyborgasm

    That is far more reflective of your ego, because you enjoy the feeling of superiority. But Stoicism doesn’t demand you have no emotion, but that you reserve emotional judgement to virtues and vices. It is still perfectly acceptable to laugh at Hippias because of his dishonesty.


  16. Massimo Post author


    I understand your point, but from a Stoic position there is no point in holding people in contempt, because people do what they do out of ignorance, itself caused by their circumstances. Much better to understand the causes of their actions and fight them appropriately.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. LucCogZest

    Here in Canada, we recently had a federal election. For 9 years in power, Harper Tories had basically waged war on Canada and its institutions (including parliament and the Supreme Court). I only have two friends who to my knowledge support Conservatives. We have reasonable discussions about politics without me losing my cool. I usually say a few things about the Tories. My friend will politely make his point. We’ll go on for a bit. And then he’ll say “Well, we agree to disagree”. And the conversation continues. This is to his credit, as I might not find it as easy to hold my peace, given that the Harper Government was in my opinion at war with Canada. (I know, that sounds like hyperbole from the outside, but not so much from within.)

    Related to Massimo’s “Much better to understand the causes of their actions and fight them appropriately.”
    I’m a cognitive scientist, but even so it really baffled me that my brilliant, principled friend, who is not cognitively miserly but a deep thinker, would support the Conservatives. It reminds me of the experience I had when I was a linguistics student. I had aced an exam, but had lost marks on a question. When I looked at it on the Friday, I couldn’t understand how my answer could be judged wrong. It **tormented** me all week-end. If my answer was truly wrong, then the whole foundation of my knowledge might be wrong, so certain was I that I was right. In fact, I couldn’t be sure of anything. (I was already a Popperian, so I should have been comfortable with that, but I wasn’t.) So I went to see the Linguistics prof not to argue about my wrong. I told him I didn’t care. It was just that I was so sure I was right. Sure enough, I was right. (not always the case, as you can imagine.)

    I can understand that a fool would vote Harper Conservative, or someone who is intellectually lazy (compare Keith Stanovich’s book, What Intelligence Tests Miss), and so on. But my bright, etc., friend?

    That lead me to work on a little essay to try to explain why intelligent, thoughtful people with reasonably good values would support the Harper Tories. So I published this work in progress “Psychology of the Base: Why Do Some Canadians Still Support the Harper Government?”
    It’s premise, which I don’t bother to substantiate, is that a Harper vote was self-defeating for the vast majority (i.e., against their personal and value interests, hence irrational). I.e., it’s a psychological piece, not a political article. It only touches the tip of the iceberg. My article isn’t great (yet), partly because it casts the net too wide. My intention in the book is to narrow the chapter, the type of voters in question to a more specific population.

    Incidentally, in the end, Canadians by and large made the right choice and Harper Conservatives are out and Justin Trudeau , the Liberal is in.

    Liked by 1 person

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