Do people commit evil out of ignorance?

Alcibiades and Socrates

[The text below refers to my presentation at Stoicon 2017 in Toronto. The full set of slides can be downloaded here.]

Epictetus wrote: “For if one shows this, a man will retire from his error of himself; but as long as you do not succeed in showing this, you need not wonder if he persists in his error, for he acts because he has an impression that he is right.” (Discourses, II.26) It is a striking reminder of just how forgiving and non judgmental Stoic philosophy is. When people do something wrong we ought to try to correct, not judge them, because they act under the mistaken belief that they are actually doing the right thing.

The notion is Socratic in nature, and it is found, for instance, in this famous phrase, which Diogenes Laertius attributes to the most famous Athenian philosopher: “There is only one good, knowledge, and only one evil, ignorance.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, II.31) But surely this can’t be right. Socrates, and Epictetus, cannot possibly mean that knowledge is the only good, and especially that ignorance is the only evil.

If one looks carefully, though, the two words translated respectively as “knowledge” and “ignorance” are episteme and amathia. Episteme means more than just knowledge, especially factual knowledge. It means understanding. And amathia is not really ignorance, it is closer to un-wisdom, the opposite of sophia (as in philosophia, love of wisdom). So what Socrates and Epictetus maintain here is that the best someone can do is to achieve understanding of how things work (and therefore of how to act in life), while the worst is being unwise, and therefore engage in actions that one mistakenly, as it turns out, thinks are right.

In the Platonic dialogue entitled Alcibiades Major, we get an even better idea of what Socrates means, within the specific context of politics. He is chatting with the future Athenian general Alcibiades, who is his friend, student, and former lover. Alcibiades is a fascinating figure (one of these days I’m going to write a book about him), who was instrumental in Athens’ fatal decision to attack Syracuse during the Peloponnesian war (though, in fairness, he was relieved of command by his fickle fellow citizens before the expedition got started). Alcibiades then defected first to the Spartans and later to the Persians, before returning once again to Athens. He was killed in Phrygia by Spartan assassins: when he saw himself surrounded by enemies he rushed at them with a dagger in his hand, and fell struck by a shower of arrows.

Anyway, here is a bit of the rather frank dialogue between Socrates and his famous pupil:

SOCRATES: But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before that you are not only ignorant of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?

ALCIBIADES: I am afraid so.

SOCRATES: 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, 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, except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.

Socrates is telling his friend that he is unwise, not ignorant. Alcibiades was a highly intelligent and educated man, and yet his lack of wisdom turned out to be disastrous for him personally and for Athens more generally. Countless politicians since, up to and including current occupants of the highest political offices in the Unites States, European countries, and elsewhere are suffering from the same malady as Alcibiades, and a proper response on our part should probably also begin with “Alack!”

Back to the Stoics. Epictetus uses an interesting example to get his point across his students, that of Medea, the mythological tragic figure at the center of a famous play by Euripides (and a later one by none other than Seneca). As is well known, Medea helped Jason steal the fabled Golden Fleece from her native land, in the process betraying her father and killing her brother. She did it for love and also to escape her “barbarian” country and come to civilized Greece (remember, the play was written by a Greek). One of the intriguing characteristics of the piece is that it can be (and has been) read either as a tale of misogyny and xenophobia (Medea is a woman and a barbarian) or as a proto-feminist story of a woman’s struggle in a patriarchal society.

Medea is eventually abandoned by Jason, and she kills her own (and Jason’s) children in desperation, for spite and revenge. Euripides has Medea say: “I know full well what ills I mean to do, But passion overpowers what counsel bids me.” Again, this is not ignorance in the usual sense, it is amathia. She knows that what she is about to do is horrible, but in her current state of mind she can’t think of a better way to make the unbearable pain of her existence go away. (Incidentally, Seneca’s version of the tragedy is significantly more sympathetic to Medea than Euripides’.)

Here is how Epictetus comments on Medea: “Here the very gratification of passion and the vengeance she takes on her husband she believes to be more to her profit than saving her children. … Why then are you indignant with her, because, unhappy woman, she is deluded on the greatest matters and is transformed from a human being into a serpent? Why do you not rather pity her — if so it may be? As we pity the blind and the lame, so should we pity those who are blinded and lamed in their most sovereign faculties.” (Discourses, I.28)

This, of course, is the crux of the discipline of assent: “What is the reason that we assent to a thing? Because it seems to us that it is so. It is impossible that we shall assent to that which seems not to be. Why? Because this is the nature of the mind — to agree to what is true, and disagree with what is false, and withhold judgment on what is doubtful. … Feel now, if you can, that it is night. It is impossible. Put away the feeling that it is day. It is impossible. … When a man assents, then, to what is false, know that he had no wish to assent to the false: ‘for no soul is robbed of the truth with its own consent,’ as Plato says, but the false seemed to him true.” (Discourses, I.28)

Contemporary philosopher Hannah Arendt hit on something similar when she described the horrors of Nazi Germany, after covering the famous Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker. My friend Amy Valladares translated for me from the German parts of the last interview Arendt gave, where she elaborated on the concept in terms that are reminiscent of both Socrates and Epictetus:

“There’s something really outrageous [empörend = shocking, revolting] about this stupidity. … Eichmann was perfectly intelligent, but in this respect he had this sort of stupidity [dummheit = irrationality, senselessness]. It was this stupidity that was so outrageous. And that was what I actually meant by banality.”

Another contemporary philosopher, Glenn Hughes, uses a similar concept, again in the context of Nazi Germany, talking about “intelligent stupidity” (not an oxymoron!): “Intelligent stupidity is no mental illness, yet it is most lethal; a dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself. [The danger lies] not in an inability to understand but in a refusal to understand, [and] any healing or reversal of it will not occur through rational argumentation, through a greater accumulation of data and knowledge, or through experiencing new and different feelings.” Instead, intelligent stupidity is a “spiritual sickness,” and in need of a spiritual cure. (From “Ignorance vs. Stupidity,” by Sherwood Belangia; the essay begins with the bit of Socratic dialogue transcribed above.)

Amathia, is the root of “intelligent stupidity,” or “ignorance” in the Socratic sense, the opposite of sophia, i.e., wisdom. The “cure,” then, is philosophy. But not the academic sort that a number of clever people engage in today, more as a kind of intellectual game than anything else. I’m talking about real, practical philosophy.

As a faculty in a philosophy department, I’m often asked by students and parents: why study philosophy? Epictetus had the answer, and it is connected to the need to avoid amathia, to cure ourselves from our spiritual sickness:

“This is the defense that we must plead with parents who are angered at their children studying philosophy: ‘Suppose I am in error, my father, and ignorant of what is fitting and proper for me. If, then, this cannot be taught or learnt, why do you reproach me? If it can be taught, teach me, and, if you cannot, let me learn from those who say that they know. For what think you? That I fall into evil and fail to do well because I wish to?’” (Discourses I.28)

What do we gain by curing ourselves of amathia, and moreover by recognizing that people who do bad things are not “evil,” but rather sick? A lot, as it turns out. We get what Epictetus promises his students that they will achieve by practicing and internalizing the precepts of Stoic philosophy, and particularly the dichotomy of control:

“Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. … But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.” (Enchiridion I.3)

That is why Stoic philosophy is both other- and self-forgiving. The Stoic understands that everyone who is not a Sage (and that’s pretty much everyone) suffers from different degrees of amathia. We are all partially blind and lame. By all means, let us restrain the Medeas of the world from killing innocent children, and more importantly the many Alcibiadeses, who have the power to affect the lives of millions, from doing too much damage. But let us also remind ourselves that these are spiritually sick people. They need help, and deserve our pity.


25 thoughts on “Do people commit evil out of ignorance?

  1. Amanda Parr (@Zaphod62)

    There are many layers of thinking, some more conscious than others. People prefer a sense of belonging to a defined group (political or taste, lately, though in the past it would have been more directly tied to landscape and economy). In times of fear, nowadays induced by rapid changes in society and a human tendency to be fascinated by morbidity combined with media opportunism, there is retrenchment and backlash, a desire to falsely “know for sure”. People will choose false but secure beliefs echoed by their group than unsettling truths, overwhelming information, or absence of knowledge. There’s a lot we don’t know and there’s also way too much to know and we can’t wait for closure. There’s a threshold of tolerance. It’s a socio-cultural. Only a few people prefer or sense the need to develop actual autonomy of thought and the humility that goes with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rchard E. Hennessey

    You noted, first, that the translation that has Diogenes Laertius attributing to Socrates and, therewith, Epictetus the doctrine that “There is only one good, knowledge, and only one evil, ignorance.” And then, after stating that “[S]urely this can’t be right. Socrates, and Epictetus, cannot possibly mean that knowledge is the only good, and especially that ignorance is the only evil,” you pointed to the need for an amended translation. You did not, however, provide it, perhaps because it is so obvious: “There is only one good, understanding, and only one evil, lack of wisdom.”

    I find myself wanting to say, “Surely this can’t be right. Socrates, and Epictetus, cannot possibly mean that understanding is the only good, and especially that lack of wisdom is the only evil.”

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Massimo Post author


    But that is precisely what they mean. And the reason is because understanding guides our action, and lack of wisdom makes us do bad things. So those two seem to cover pretty much everything, in the sense that every human action stems from one of those two properties.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. paul sailer (@paul_sailer)

    Very good piece. I could give you a long story about how I came to an understanding that agrees, but the short of my life lesson is, the people housed in our prisons are not their because they are evil, they are there because they walked a path based on the information available to them. But, re-educating an adult is impossible until he recognizes he needs re-educating.


  5. Rchard E. Hennessey

    I wasn’t so much worrying about whether or not that was exactly what they meant; I’m quite content with your reading of “episteme” and “amathia.” I’m concerned that the theses that “understanding is the only good” and that “lack of wisdom is the only evil” may be false, for two reasons. One is that it is not completely evident, at least to me, that the two, understanding and lack of wisdom, cover “pretty much everything” good or evil. There are, one might think, things that are good or bad (“bad” seems less loaded with baggage than “evil”) that fall outside the scope of, or even are or occur in complete independence of, human action.

    Another is that it is not completely evident, again at least to me, that understanding alone “guides our action” and that lack of wisdom alone “makes us do bad things.” A case can be made, after all, that in addition to the role of the possession or lack of knowledge, understanding, or wisdom, we need to take into account the role of acts of volition and so of benevolence and malevolence.

    I’ll admit, immediately, that an assumption of anything like, or even just functionally like, a volition or will, in addition to something like, or even just functionally like, an intellect or mind, raises some terrifying problems bearing on the causal relationships that might exist between acts of the one and acts of the other, should they both exist.


  6. Massimo Post author


    I don’t disagree with either of your two points, but I interpret the situation differently. On your first point, the Stoics were clearly referring to human evil. Natural catastrophes do not have moral salience, though obviously they have preferred and dispreferred consequences. So they are outside the scope of Socratic teaching by definition.

    As for your second point, “volition” is actually how modern scholars usually translate the Greek word prohairesis, which Epictetus uses to indicate our faculty of judgment. Now, the idea isn’t that everything we do is guided by our reason judgments, but that it ought to be. So when people do bad things it is because their judgment is impaired. And that, in turn, is the result of lack of wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Massimo Post author


    Taking drugs of that sort is the result of un-wisdom, wo it fits nicely. Once taken, the drugs become addictive and undermine one’s faculty of judgment (prohairesis, to use Epictetus’ favorite term). At that point one first needs medical help, then the practice of Stoicism. As I’ve argued before ( Stoicism is not a magic wand.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Patrice Ayme

    (Apologies presented for length of comment)

    Evil Is Not Always Out Of Ignorance
    The ethology of species evolve according to their environment. For more than two million years, starting earlier than Homo Erectus, human beings have used weapons (stone derived). Weapons kept other predators at bay (it is remarkable how bears detest stones and seem to view human mastery of them as witchcraft). Weapons made humans the top predators, and owners of Earth. Weapons also meant that the primary enemy of man became man, and human ethology evolved from that fact. To boot, humans were not just obviously dangerous to humans, but humans were also very dangerous to the environment itself. It became a paramount function of human ethology to keep human numbers down.

    In other words, human evolution made it crucially human to become inhuman, just so.

    Socrates may have said that:”There is only one good, understanding, and one evil, lack of wisdom.” However, when a land is in a state of distress, understanding acquires a sinister outlook. Consider the Roman empire at Christmas 406 CE, when many German nations (including the Vandals), galloped across the frozen Rhine, which the Franks were supposed to defend. What was there to understand then, what was the wise thing to do?
    Many countries of Africa and the Middle East present an evil overpopulation, from lack of resources, drought, war, or all the preceding. What is the wisest wisdom looking forward? Massive emigration? More war? Recolonization? Contraception? All the preceding? Wisdom, like other potentials in nature, can have local maxima.

    Human evolution has made it wise in the deepest sense, the sense of ethology, to sometimes succumb to ways which look inhuman, at first sight, on a shallow interpretation of what humanity is.

    An example is the ubiquitousness of cannibalism in ancient societies. More recently, around 1300 CE, population peaked, just as the first shocks of the Little Ice Age made themselves felt. Governments in Western Europe and Japan took drastic measures to save the ecology. Entire alpine areas were evacuated, under the penalty of death (to allow the regeneration of forests). When the Black Plague started in 1348, complete travel bans were implemented to prevent propagation; infringing them meant being shot by arrows from a great distance. Ancient Rome never got that fierce, that “evil”, so the ancient Roman empire collapsed.

    Hannah Arendt underestimated Eichmann’s intelligence. Eichmann played banally stupid during his trial in some ways, while harping on Kant, in other ways. In truth we have now access to documents which show Eichmann knew very well what he was doing and what was happening. Eichmann actually engaged several times, when in power, in complicated negotiations to save Jews (including a personal friend at Auschwitz, we have exchanges of letters to him and Himmler, to save him; more famously he tried to exchange a million Jews against 10,000 trucks)… This means that Eichmann was perfectly aware of the monstrosity of the system he was a very important operator of.

    “Intelligent stupidity” is a consequence of intellectual fascism: people binded around only a few ideas, which are perceived as all the justice there is, worth dying for.

    Intellectual fascism itself becomes a strength, in those crucial situation where wisdom calls for jumping out of the box… and especially when destroying the box is called for.

    We are on a spaceship among the stars. Sometimes there are mutinies, sometimes not enough food. Straws have to be drawn. Such is history. In the future, if we bathe ever more the plankton in too much carbonic acid from dissolved CO2, there may even be a lack of oxygen. Yes, it was bad before, but we can’t stop progress, and there is good hope that it could get way worse tomorrow. And that won’t be out of ignorance: this is plain science, freely available on the Internet.


  9. Massimo Post author


    I believe your comment makes an appeal to nature, which is logically fallacious. It is also pernicious, as it leads you to very objectionable statements, such as “Intellectual fascism itself becomes a strength, in those crucial situation where wisdom calls for jumping out of the box.” Sorry, no.

    and I have no idea at all what plankton and dissolved CO2 have to do with the topic at hand, science or no science.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Max Bini

    In Plato (which includes Plato’s Socrates but not necessarily Socrates) the idea that the highest good is wisdom which all other goods depend upon is based on the notion of the Forms (eidos) – our acquaintance with them before birth and thus our remembrance of them. In this context ignorance or lack of wisdom is equatable with forgetting. I would argue that this Platonic conception is neither Socratic nor Stoic as neither are committed to the existence of Forms.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Miguel Gonzalez

    Well expressed and argued academically and on that level understandable but ,dear reader, I Live in this world and cruelty, malisciousness, Sadism are real and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise.We do so because its impossible to look at it ,for some.Its not all to be converted to beauty by way of Reason.These are still questions without answers and Stoicism asks for courage to live in the world


  12. Massimo Post author


    “this Platonic conception is neither Socratic nor Stoic as neither are committed to the existence of Forms.”

    I don’t see why the idea that the chief good is wisdom depends on Plato’s theory of forms. Scholars I have read do not make that connection, the notion seems genuinely Socratic. Also, it is definitely Stoic, as it is found also in Cicero’s presentation of Stoic philosophy in book III of De Finibus.


    “Dear reader, I Live in this world and cruelty, malisciousness, Sadism are real and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise.”

    There is no denial of what the world is like. There is simply an attempt to reframe things in a way that does not de-humanize the perpetrators and make it easier for us in turn to rationalize every action we may take against them.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Rchard E. Hennessey

    I take your point that “Stoics were clearly referring to human evil.” That may, however, be a sign of a limitation in their thinking. There is the “problem of evil,” summed up in the theses that, if a perfect god exists, then evil cannot exist and that evil does exist. If any purported god, as purportedly somehow the cause of all else that exists, is a moral agent, then natural catastrophes do have moral salience.

    As for the word, “volition,” I again take your point that it “is actually how modern scholars usually translate the Greek word prohairesis, which Epictetus uses to indicate our faculty of judgment.” But that is not how I was using it. Rather, I was using it as a Latinate equivalent of the word, “will,” and, with that meaning in mind, not as a word that would “indicate our faculty of judgment.”

    I was just about to repeat something I said earlier, a clear sign that, for me, at least, it’s time to move on to another topic, though I invite you to have the last word.


  14. Miguel Gonzalez

    Reading IF Stones. Trial of Socrates. Inasmuch as Its connection to Stoic Philosophy demands at least a rudimentary examination of it all.Socrates disdain for democracy and his connections , as well as Plato’s relationships with Aristocrats of the time,are portrayed as a factor in his attitude towards democracy.Was quite dismayed and now I wonder what is the Stoic position towards that?


  15. Patrice Ayme

    don’t see how tying logic and nature can be logically fallacious, except if one believes as Plato did and many mathematicians do, that the world of mathematics and logics are “forms” outside of the “material” world. Then a distinction is made between “nature” (in the material world) and logic (somewhere else). Hence nature can’t establish logic.

    However contemporary research in formal and mathematical logic show that no firm conclusion about their nature has been established. In particular it has not been established that their nature is not part of nature.

    I do believe that logic is just quantum neural networks, firmly therefore in nature, but also as nebulously defined as Quantum Physics is. Not only Quantum Physics is nonlocal, but it is all about… forms (namely Hilbert spaces, and C* algebras, which are noncommutative generalizations of geometry). Thus nature itself is full of…”forms”. It’s not just ideas which are “forms”.

    The human condition, and more specifically its relationship with evil is more perplexing, and vast, than even the oceans of galaxies we can now contemplate.

    My contention is that evil is entangled with the very nature of any intelligence which comes to dominate the planet it evolved on. Domination of nature can bring a breakdown of the very ecology which brought said domination. Self-control is called for. I believe that another name for that self-control is evil.

    Right, there are other sources of evil, for example ignorance, as Socrates said. Call that accidental evil. It is excusable… Except when the ignorance is deliberate (as with common Germans in Nazi Germany).

    But to believe that ignorance is the only source of evil is not just incomplete, but, I believe, pernicious. And very objectionable. I know this is what the mythical Christ said on the cross (“forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they are doing”).

    Indeed identifying ignorance as the only source of evil leads to believe that our beloved great leaders are just clueless from ignorance. Thus ignoring at the outset, the possibility of their malevolence.

    However, surely deliberately malevolent leaders are legions in history, geography, the news. Sexual harassment and European intellectuals defending violent Islamism are the latest example. Deliberate malevolence can’t be “explained” by “ignorance”. Surely when Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia impaled 20,000 people, including babies, at Târgoviște, in June 1462, he was not acting out of ignorance. Instead, he was trying to impress the Turkish Sultan Mehmed with his malevolence.

    When Hitler and his minions murdered more than twenty million prisoners in their more than 42,400 camps and ghettos, it was surely not out of ignorance. It was pure malevolence, the will to destroy others. However that astonishing crime was made possible by allowing plausible deniability on the part of the German population.

    We look at the universe through not just nature, but our nature. What else? Believing there is something else besides nature is another name for God. Indeed the Gospel of John starts by claiming that God (who is not part of nature, as it created it) is the “Logos”. This boils down to Plato’s opinion.

    What would be the greatest possible evil? Surely the extinction of all humanity, thanks to the action of human leaders who decided to let it happen. Most CO2 produced by man goes into the ocean, where it reacts with water chemically to create carbonic acid. The acid, in turn, kills plankton, which produces oxygen. Already, vast expanses of ocean have not enough oxygen to support marine life. The observations, and the problem has been published in many scientific journals. However, it is ignored by the political leadership of the planet. Is it out of ignorance, or out of malevolence, or a cocktail of both?


  16. mpernd

    Isn’t the view that evil is only a matter of amathia way too naive?

    There are people out there that just want to see the world burn.

    Just look what horrendous acts ISIS is committing every day.
    Or psychopaths / sociopaths like Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, …

    Is this all just “wrong thinking”? And is compassion really the right response to that?

    To ask a polemic question:
    What is the stoic response when someone has just raped your wife?


  17. Massimo Post author


    “I take your point that “Stoics were clearly referring to human evil.” That may, however, be a sign of a limitation in their thinking. There is the “problem of evil,” summed up in the theses that, if a perfect god exists, then evil cannot exist and that evil does exist.”

    But that problem concerns Christian theologians, not Stoics. Since the Stoics did not postulate the existence of an all-powerful, all-benevolent, and all-knowing god, their metaphysics is simply neutral with respect to natural “evil.” Indeed, natural evil is a rather oxymoronic phrase, from the Stoic perspective: if it’s natural it just is. “Evil” is a human judgment, not something inherent in the facts of nature.

    “As for the word, “volition,” I again take your point that it “is actually how modern scholars usually translate the Greek word prohairesis, which Epictetus uses to indicate our faculty of judgment.” But that is not how I was using it. Rather, I was using it as a Latinate equivalent of the word, “will,””

    Fine, but I’d rather stick with the Stoic definition, since we are discussing Stoic philosophy. Also, I actually don’t think these two meanings are that different: our faculty of judgment is tightly connected with our will, and it certainly is a major feature of the human mind.


    “Socrates disdain for democracy and his connections , as well as Plato’s relationships with Aristocrats of the time,are portrayed as a factor in his attitude towards democracy.Was quite dismayed and now I wonder what is the Stoic position towards that?”

    That’s a whole different topic, and not really connected to the OP. However, Stoic philosophy is compatible with a number of political systems, it is neither inherently democratic or anti-democratic. That said, Zeno wrote in his Republic about a fairly open society in which men and women are treated equally. Only fragments remain, though, so we can’t really say much else.


    I did not say that tying logic and nature is logically fallacious, but the fact remains that those were two separate fields of inquiry for the Stoics, and since we are discussing Stoic philosophy, I think it is useful to keep them that way. Your speculation that logic “is” quantum neural networks does not really make sense to me. Perhaps it is “based on”? Even so, I’m not sure what you mean and, again, it is nothing the Stoics were concerned with.

    “My contention is that evil is entangled with the very nature of any intelligence which comes to dominate the planet it evolved on.”

    That’s a strong metaphysical claim with, so far as I can see, little to back it up.

    “there are other sources of evil, for example ignorance, as Socrates said. Call that accidental evil. It is excusable… Except when the ignorance is deliberate (as with common Germans in Nazi Germany).”

    Forgive me, but again I wish people actually read what I write before commenting. The OP makes it very clear that there is nothing accidental about amathia. And the Nazi are covered. Explicitly. So your comment that the Stoic poisition is “incomplete and pernicious” is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what I wrote. The same goes for your observation that there have been malevolent leaders in history. That’s covered as well.


    “What is the stoic response when someone has just raped your wife?”

    That he did it because he thought it was entitled to it, or for vengeance against me or my family. In other words, he had reasons, as does ISIS. To refuse to understand this point leads to demonizing people who do wrong, which ironically is precisely what we all say we don’t want to do.

    There also seems to be a fundamental confusion — despite several attempts on my part to clear it — between understanding and justifying. The fact that I can understand why someone would rape my wife does not entail that I condone or justify the act, nor does it entail that I’m not going to do everything I can to prevent or stop him. Or secure justice afterwards. The only thing that it entails is that I will do my best to have pity, rather than hatred, toward that person. Seems like a very healthy attitude to me.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Rchard E. Hennessey


    In response to the points you make to my two points: (1) the “problem of evil” is, of course, not just a problem for Christian theologians, but also for Jewish and Muslim theologians and for any theory affirming the existence of a sufficiently knowing, loving, and powerful god; and (2) I would think that discussions of Stoic philosophy might include a consideration of ways in which there might be some limitation therein.


  19. Massimo Post author


    You are correct, the problem of evil applies to the God of all three Abrahamic religions. But, again, not to the Stoics, hence my dismissal of it.

    And yes, of course discussions of Stoicism must also be (constructively) critical of the philosophy. But the problem of natural evil is not a criticism, for the reasons I pointed out.


  20. Patrice Ayme

    Dear Massimo:
    Amathia: who does not have the capacity to learn (math), that is, to acquire knowledge. We mathematicians are the opposite of amathists. From manthanein, to learn.

    Did Hitler or Stalin, suffer from amathia when they committed their crimes? Yes and no: they used similar methods. Stalin knew better what he was doing than Hitler: during the siege of Moscow, in December 1941, NKVD “blocking sections” shot to death any retreating Soviet soldier, no question asked. Even the Nazis found that inhuman (and got very scared). However, Stalin’s ferocity reflected a deep, quasi… mathematical knowledge of human nature: when Soviet soldiers got to fear retreating more than the Nazis, the Nazis were toast.

    Stalin won, in an essential part, because he was more cruel and devious than the German Nazis could comprehend. Stalin had a better knowledge (of human nature). The same sort of thing happened when the Islamists defeated, in a few months, both the Sassanid Persian and Roman main field armies: the Islamists killed systematically all the wounded (instead of ransoming them, as was customary), and then went throughout the Middle East, killing all and any man in age of bearing arms (so that the Romans couldn’t draft another field army).

    Arab generals were arguably evil, but that was not from lack of knowledge, just the opposite. And that’s why they won. Similarly when in Libya, only two centuries ago, slaves who had tried to escape were rewarded with impalement, that was not from lack of knowledge, far from it. Same when 6,000 ex-colleagues of Spartacus were crucified along the via Appia: that was done to foster the knowledge that rebellion brought difficult days and nights, rubbing on a cross.

    I fail to understand why misplacing pity where hatred is deserved, helps. I don’t pity Hitler, I hate him, and his most dedicated agents. I do agree with you that understanding, even empathizing, and justifying are, and should importantly be, distinct activities. However, it is high time to have empathy for hatred. Surely, sometimes hatred is highly effective: consider the examples above (Stalin, newly Islamized Arabs, Spartacus, etc.) When hatred clouds one’s judgment, or when hatred is unjustified, for example from prejudice, then it is bad. But otherwise? Hating hatred may be a love too far.

    Franklin Roosevelt passed financial reforms to separate speculation from banking. (Those reforms were removed by sexual harasser Bill Clinton, 60 years later, so we can all become poor again.) Bankers were full of hatred towards FDR. FDR famously repeated many times:”I welcome their hatred!” FDR was right, it is most pleasant to be hated by devils. Often, it’s all what the doctors should order.

    Stoicism, I believe, require equanimity to all emotions and passions, only their justification should be a consideration. Discriminations against some emotions is, ultimately, a matter of prejudice against situations. Yet what is, is. Discriminating against reality is amathia. I would suggest that there are no evil emotions, only inappropriate ones.


  21. Massimo Post author


    [note: please try to keep your comments shorter and a bit more focused]

    I really don’t think knowledge of math has anything to do with being wise or not, and therefore with amathia.

    From the Stoic point of view there is no difference between Hitler and Stalin. Just because one succeeded and the other didn’t, it doesn’t matter, they were both tyrants, and they both needed to be stopped, by all means necessary.

    But they were also, in their different ways, convinced that they were right in doing what they did. That’s the tragedy.

    The fact that Roosevelt welcomed the bankers’ hatred is irrelevant. Obviously, he wasn’t a Stoic, and neither were the bankers!

    No, Stoicism most certainly does not counsel equanimity toward all emotions. It very clearly counsels to eliminate the unhealthy ones (like anger, hatred and fear) and cultivate the healthy ones (love, concern for others, sense of justice).

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  22. Patrice Ayme

    Dear Massimo: I must admit I focus on the question of the OP, in the sense: do people commit evil [only] out of ignorance? As Socrates claim. There are actually three sources of evil: ignorance, stupidity, and (malevolent) intelligence. The latter is the opposite of amathia (math used to be identified to knowledge; a-mathia is lack of learning). For example Stalin knew extremely well was he was doing (he joked to Churchill that he killed more Russians than Hitler).

    The present world is ruled by plutocrats. The usual interpretation of “Pluto” is god of wealth. But he was also the replacement for Hades, god of evil. So plutocracy can be viewed as the power (kratos) of hell (not just wealth). People who deliberately do evil. Socrates definition was self-serving. In truth the Persian plutocracy had financed Sparta all along in its war against Athens (we now know for sure). Athens got half destroyed, came close to annihilation. We need a definition of evil big enough for the biggest crimes ever (as I said, cutting off the world’s oxygen by killing the plankton qualifies).


  23. Massimo Post author


    No. As I explained several times, amathia has nothing to do with not knowing what one is doing. It has to do with the lack of wisdom concerning what is best to do. So all three sources of “evil” fall under amathia, but — ironically — especially the latter, the one you think is an exception.

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