Stoic advice: I get into arguments and then I regret it

[To submit a question to the Stoic advice column send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

B. writes: “I’m not sure if foolishness deserves a post but I shall put it out there. I’m a naturally social person whose brazenness leads to offense. I don’t intend to confront those who I end up offending, I just generally try to make a point of an issue and end up being meaner than I both intend to and should be. Perhaps it is no more than attempting to being cleverer than I actually am, but I’m sure that I do more harm than good. If others point out the silliness of a comment I’m happy to accept it. I just seem to have an issue between the mind and the mouth. Can you think of any Stoic advice for someone like myself?”

Yes, I can, brother. And this is very close to my heart, since I suffer from a similar problem. You see, I’m a university professor. Which means that, probably as a matter of temperament just as much as out of professional habit, I talk too much (some would say I write too much as well), and I have a tendency to lecture people. Which people in turn have a tendency not to appreciate.

Just a few days ago, for instance, I was having a nice dinner with friends, after we all attended a play. One of them at some point made a comment about the fact that we don’t know whether there is or there isn’t a god, so that the atheist position is indefensible. Now, I’m an atheist, but one of those who tries really hard to respect other people’s beliefs. For instance, I’m on record as a strong critic of the brazen so-called New Atheist movement.

But I’m also a philosopher who teaches, among other things, epistemology and critical thinking. So I just had to point out to my friend that — to put it as David Hume famously did — a wise person proportions her beliefs to the evidence, and since I simply don’t see sufficient reason or evidence in favor of the existence of gods then I am perfectly justified in non believing — even though, of course, I could be wrong.

To try to get my point across by way of an analogy (see the professorial mode?), I asked her if she believed in unicorns. (The idea was that I know she doesn’t; then I would ask her why not, since she can’t prove that there are no unicorns; at which point she would begin to see the parallel between a a-unicornist, someone who lacks a positive belief in unicorns, and an a-theist, and eventually agree that they are equally sensible positions.)

Her response was a peeved “oh, here we go with the Socratic method!” Seriously, the whole exchange was beginning to look like Tim Minchin’s Storm. At some point I realized that: i) there was no way in hell I was going to convince my friend; ii) she was getting upset; and iii) the rest of the table was beginning to look uncomfortable. So I stopped. Indeed, I later apologized to her and to another friend for the degree of discomfort I caused. With hindsight, I should have never even started, unless someone explicitly asked for my opinion.

Which brings me back to your own, I think very similar, problem, and the Stoic take on it. Let’s begin with Epictetus:

“Lay down from this moment a certain character and pattern of behavior for yourself, which you are to preserve both when you’re alone and when you’re with others. Remain silent for the most part, or say only what is essential, and in few words. Very infrequently, however, when the occasion demands, do speak, but not about any of the usual topics, not about gladiators, not about horse-races, not about athletes, not about food and drink, the subjects of everyday talk; but above all, don’t talk about people, either to praise or criticize them, or to compare them. If you’re able to so, then, through the manner of your own conversation bring that of your companions round to what is fit and proper. But if you happen to find yourself alone among strangers, keep silent.” (Enchiridion 33.1-3)

Also: “In your conversation, avoid talking at length or overmuch about your own exploits or the dangers that you’ve faced; for pleasant though it may be for you to recall your perils, it is not as pleasant for others to listen to everything that has happened to you.” (Enchiridion 33.14)

Epictetus is telling us a number of things here. First off, notice the opening sentence, where he advices to choose a pattern of behavior we wish to follow and then stick to it. In other words, it is far better to think ahead of time whether, say, to engage or not engage with friends and acquaintances on certain topics (think politics at Thanksgiving dinners!), because we deal better with situations if we are mentally prepared.

Second, the injunction not to talk too much, particularly about yourself. Few people enjoy being lectured at, especially when the relationship is symmetrical (friend-to-friend) rather than obviously asymmetrical (teacher-to-student).

Third, the suggestion to steer, whenever possible, the conversation toward topics that are worthwhile conversing about, and definitely away from gossiping. But this needs, again, to be done gently, not by beating others on the head with a Stoic stick.

Fourth, your last option should be, in many circumstances, your default one: just stay silent. You are under no obligation to talk, especially about issues, or with people, that you know are likely to result in the very pattern of behavior you are trying to avoid.

I realize, of course, that following Epictetus to the letter is both difficult (tell me about it!) and may even make you somewhat unwelcome at dinner parties. After all, it’s called being “in the company” of people because one expects some contribution to the common intercourse. But perhaps you can keep in mind Epictetus’ advice in order to simply moderate your interactions, a reminder of practicing the virtue of temperance in social occasions.

There is another way of looking at these situations. If you are like me, you get frustrated by this sort of interaction because it is hard to believe how an intelligent person like your interlocutor would advance such an argument, or incur into such an obvious logical fallacy. From there, the temptation to consider others as not quite at your own level is strong. And from there the slippery slope is open to become conceited in your opinions and obnoxious in your behaviors.

That’s where we may want to adopt a milder version of Socrates’ idea that people don’t engage in evil on purpose, but out of lack of wisdom. As I explained here, the Greek word is amathia, and it is often applied to weighty matters, as when Socrates told his friend, the general and politician Alcibiades:

“Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity (ἀμαθίᾳ) my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs.”

Alcibiades was most definitely not “stupid,” and the word Socrates uses (the one in parentheses above) implies that Alcibiades’ problem is a lack of awareness of the consequences of his thoughts and actions — which is not stupidity.

Perhaps we should extend the same courtesy to our friends and acquaintances. Rather then jump into quick judgments about their intellectual capacities (or lack thereof), we should remember that nobody engages in bad reasoning or logical fallacies or in the support of questionable notions on purpose. They want to be right in their judgments just about as much as we do. And sometimes, let’s not forget, they indeed are, and the joke’s on us. So rather than focus on the person, let’s re-direct our attention to the argument or position under discussion, in a way analogous to this further advice from Epictetus:

“Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?” (Enchiridion 45)

In the end, though, keep in mind one of the most fundamental doctrines of Stoicism: the dichotomy of control. Other people’s opinions — regardless of whether they are or are not well founded — are not under your control. But your behavior, and especially your ability to exercise temperance in order to have courteous interactions with others — very much is under your control.


5 thoughts on “Stoic advice: I get into arguments and then I regret it

  1. Daniel Dennett’s famous advice applies here(

    1) First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

    2) Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and

    3) third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent.

    4) Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

    By taking the time to examine and understand his position you are showing respect. That same pause allows you to tone down the vehemence of your opinion. And your respectful consideration of his point of view makes him more responsive to your point of view.

    To pursue the first point you will normally need to question him further, asking for elaboration and explanation. Use encouraging filler pauses like ‘I hadn’t thought of that’, ‘I like that insight’, or, ‘that is another way of looking at it’.

    As for point (4) I would change it as follows:

    4) Look for at least three alternative conclusions, list them and ask your interlocutor which one he thinks is most likely the correct conclusion. Now, and only now, you may state which conclusion, in your opinion, is most likely to be correct. But express it in a tentative way so that you do not provoke opposition. I say that because, as a Stoic, your goal is not to win the argument, but to practice wisdom by demonstrating your grasp of all sides of the position.

    You will never win the argument but you can win respect for your wisdom. That is the Stoic goal.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I needed this. I just visited my parents and as much as I try I still fall into the same patterns of argument with them. It’s slightly better. Now when they start railing against our current administration (even though I agree with them it’s the “railing against” that gets old) I try to steer it more in a direction of what are they DOING about it? You subscribe to a paper? Great! You give to NPR? Cool? You donate to ACLU? Awesome! Let’s talk about what you can DO rather than just going off on stuff and spinning in circles.

    But other arguments (always silly ones by the way, from driving directions to how to load the dishwasher) come up and I am TRYING to be quieter about it, Epictetus knows, I really am! It’s just sometimes hard with those guys…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great advice. This really affects me and has been one of the points I’m struggling with as I adopt Stoicism as a philosophy of life.

    With family is even harder, since I believe that due to the intimacy we tend to be harsher during arguments. I always regret them later.

    The worst part is that I’m always changing my mind and I’d probably be angry at myself in past arguments! 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Here is another way of looking at it.

    The problem is that we framed this as an issue of right and wrong, good and bad. Essentially one is arguing – I am right, the other is wrong, my position is good, the other position is bad. I suggest that framing the matter in this way is the heart of the problem:

    1) By labelling the other position as bad or wrong one immediately creates antagonism and resistance in one’s interlocutor. He feels our communication as an adverse and unfair judgement. This arouses his emotions which become a barrier to one’s arguments. He responds by returning the labels, arousing our emotions with similar results and the result is pugnacious polarisation.

    2) Can one be so sure that one’s position is right and good? Every single group in history has made that claim. Perhaps all we are doing is exhibiting the typical tribal behaviour that all other tribal groups show(why should I believe that I alone am different?). I watch, with amusement, the many duels between Massimo and Coel. Both are highly intelligent, well informed people, motivated by goodwill. Both believe their position is right and so they continue to strongly disagree. Which one of them is right? Can their disagreements ever be resolved? Intelligence and information are not enough to resolve their disagreements.

    As long as we insist on framing the issue as right and wrong, good or bad we place the matter beyond resolution.

    The first step towards resolution is sincerity. That means having a sincere desire towards understanding the other person’s position. If we don’t understand it we cannot possibly be sincere in our opposition to it.

    The second step is sympathy. We need to feel how the other person does. If we are not sympathetic towards the other person’s feelings we will never understand him.

    Having adopted a position of sincerity and sympathy we are ready to examine his position free from the emotional barriers our mind would normally erect.

    Now the third step is a crossover step, that of empathetic understanding. With crossover we carefully examine his facts, arguments, motivations and values, from his point of view. We will never understand them if we do not crossover and adopt his point of view. But do this in depth so that we fully understand the context and history, at least as well as he does.

    And finally we adopt a practice of judicious weighing up which can be summarised as ‘on the one hand this, on the other hand that‘.

    One will return from this experience a changed person. We will have discovered that the world is a complex, nuanced place of innumerable competing interests that defy simple judgements or categorisation. We will have discovered that how the world looks depends on where we stand. We will have discovered that there is no privileged viewpoint, even though each person naturally thinks their viewpoint is privileged. Most importantly, our sincerity, sympathy and and empathetic understanding will have changed the way the other person sees us.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t share Epictetus’s low opinion of small talk, since it functions as social lubricant. Which I think is relevant to the present discussion. What useful functions are there to arguing?

    Firstly, I would suggest, the hope of learning something from the other person, even if it’s only something about how they see the world. In Massimo’s example, an intelligent woman is using a lousy argument to defend a doubtful proposition (that God exists). Why does this sort of thing happen so often, and can this example help Massimo understand it? After all he has both a human and a professional interest in what’s going on when people use bad arguments. Questions like “Have you always believed in God?” might have elicited some useful information. (Incidentally, on one occasion I did actually learn some useful hard science from a Young Earth creationist.)

    Secondly, the benefit of organising your own position in order to put it forward, and, I would suggest, developing the skill of doing so in a way that will be as acceptable as possible to the other person. It is unwise, for example, as recent events show, to tell your opponents that you find their attitude deplorable. Of course, the other person may consider that (s)he has a right to express an opinion but that others don’t have the right to challenge it. This happens a lot with religion, and with quasi-religions like patriotism. Unwise, in such a case, to even try.

    Thirdly, the chance to make your views known to bystanders, and fourthly the possibility that the person you are arguing with will change their mind (this does not happen very often. I can recall one occasion when my opponent changed their opinion, but cannot, alas, recall ever having done so myself).

    Of course, there is a complete spectrum from casual batger to formal academic disputation. And let me echo Labnut, quoting Dennett, on the value of using Rapoport’s rules as far as possble, whatever the frum.


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