How Stoicism Teaches us to Welcome Refutation
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“Nobody likes being wrong, we’re told. Least of all those individuals who suffer from pathological narcissism. They have to believe that they were right all along, even when it becomes obvious they are very much in the wrong.
Figures who live in the public eye, such as celebrities and politicians, if they become overly-incentivized by praise, risk turning this into a habit. As Aristotle once said, habits become our “second nature”. They solidify into character traits if we’re not careful.
So do we always have to be right? The ancient Greek philosophers — who loved paradoxes — said the opposite: maybe true wisdom requires the capacity to delight in being proven wrong. My favourite expression of this idea comes from Epicurus:
In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most. — Epicurus, Vatican Sayings, 74
How crazy is that? Perhaps sometimes the person who gains the most is the one who loses the argument. The one who wins the argument gains nothing, except perhaps some praise — but what does that matter? The one who loses, though, gains knowledge, and perhaps gets a step closer to achieving wisdom. It wasn’t just Epicurus who had this paradoxical insight. The rival Stoic school of philosophers taught essentially the same thing. This article will focus on what one Stoic in particular, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, said about the benefits of being proven wrong. (For a more in-depth discussion of Marcus’ life and philosophy, see my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.)
The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius looked up to one man above all others: his adoptive father, the preceding emperor, Antoninus Pius. In his private notes, which we call The Meditations, Marcus carefully lists the qualities he most admires in Antoninus, despite the fact that by this time he had been dead for over a decade.
We can think of this as Marcus’ attempt to study and emulate what today we would call the Emperor Antoninus’ leadership qualities. He tells himself to be, in every aspect of life, a student of Antoninus (Meditations, 6.30). It’s a fascinating analysis of the man’s character. However, for our purposes, I just want to draw attention to one of the things that Marcus says:
[Remember] how he would tolerate frank opposition to his views and was pleased if somebody could point to a better course of action. — Meditations, 6.30
Earlier in the book we find something related:
And most admirable too was his readiness to give way without jealousy to those who possessed some special ability, such as eloquence or a knowledge of law and custom and the like, and how he did his best to ensure that each of them gained the recognition that he deserved because of his eminence in his particular field. — Meditations, 1.16
In other words, although he was a hard-working and intelligent ruler, the Emperor Antoninus also had the wisdom to know when to listen to experts. Marcus admired this as an example of the man’s strength of character, self-awareness, and humility. If someone showed him he was wrong, rather than being offended, he was pleased. It didn’t hurt his pride or damage his ego, as we say today. Antoninus was a big enough man, and emotionally mature enough, not only to deal with criticism but to actively seek it out and welcome it as an opportunity for personal growth. That was one of the qualities which made him such an exceptional leader.
Marcus says that it was his Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus, who first persuaded him that his own character required correction and even therapy. (Literally, he uses the Greek word therapeia.) He also tells us that he often became irritated or angry with Rusticus and was thankful that he never lost his temper with him over the years. Elsewhere, Marcus tells us that showing a man his moral faults is like telling him he has bad breath or body odour (Meditations, 5.28). People often don’t like hearing it and so there’s an art to communicating criticism effectively. It requires a delicate combination of honesty and tact. Rusticus was adept at this. Nevertheless, Marcus found that it required lifelong training to genuinely welcome plain speaking and criticism from others.
We enslave ourselves to external things and other people whenever we betray reason. True, absolute freedom would consist in doing what we know is right, regardless of the cost. Sometimes it takes courage to admit you’re wrong, and in that moment you’ve broken free. If you change your mind to please other people, sure enough, that’s a form of slavery. However, if it’s because you genuinely recognize that you were in error then the opposite is true — you’ve liberated yourself by admitting your mistake.
Full article here: https://medium.com/stoicism-philosophy-as-a-way-of-life/the-virtue-of-being-wrong-b115ed39d439