Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, is valuable reading for anyone trying to understand the meaning of life and our place in it. Whether you agree with him or not, his writing is clear and elegant, and his ideas are challenging and insightful. I had the great honor of being able to teach his book this semester and when I read through it this time, I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before. Tucked away at the end of his Enchiridion, his own summary of his philosophy, is this gem:
The first and most important field of philosophy is the application of principles such as “Do not lie.” Next come the proofs, such as why we should not lie. The third field supports and articulates the proofs, by asking, for example, “How does this prove it? What exactly is a proof, what is logical inference, what is contradiction, what is truth, what is falsehood?” Thus, the third field is necessary because of the second, and the second because of the first. The most important, though, the one that should occupy most of our time, is the first. But we do just the opposite. We are preoccupied with the third field and give that all our attention, passing the first by altogether. The result is that we lie – but have no difficulty proving why we shouldn’t.
And THAT, my friends, is why we all should read ancient philosophy. All too often I find myself, as a professional philosopher, engaged in exploring that third type of question. My research has been on questions of the third type. My classes have focused almost exclusively on questions of the third type. Many times, only half-jokingly, I have called Ethics (the second type of philosophy) “boring” and “messy.” Something not to be preferred to the rarified air of abstract epistemological reasoning. Perhaps it was my own pride interfering with my judgment. Or, perhaps, in my embrace of the third type of philosophy, and my dismissal of the second type, I forgot that the first type even existed. I forgot that proving “Do not lie,” means nothing if I still lie. The goal is to change my character and actions.
Ethical reflection that doesn’t make us want to change our lives seems of little value. Perhaps philosophy is best when it makes us into better human beings – braver, and less idle. Perhaps philosophical discourse should conclude with an altar call.