Bob: Hi. Thoughts on this quote from How To Think Like a Roman Emperor?:
The Sophists, as we’ve seen, sought to persuade others by appealing to their emotions, typically in order to win praise. The Stoics, by contrast, placed supreme value on grasping and communicating the truth by appealing to reason. This meant avoiding the use of emotive rhetoric or strong value judgments. We usually think of rhetoric as something used to manipulate other people. We tend to forget we’re doing it to ourselves as well, not only when we speak but also when we use language to think. The Stoics were certainly interested in how our words affect others. However, their priority was to change the way we affect ourselves, our own thoughts and feelings, through our choice of language. We exaggerate, overgeneralize, omit information, and use strong language and colorful metaphors: “She’s always being a bitch!” “That bastard shot me down in flames!” “This job is complete bullshit!” People tend to think that exclamations like these are a natural consequence of strong emotions like anger. But what if they’re also causing or perpetuating our emotions? If you think about it, rhetoric like this is designed to evoke strong feelings. By contrast, undoing the effects of emotional rhetoric by describing the same events more objectively forms the basis of the ancient Stoic therapy of the passions.
Adam: So the idea here is that strong emotional or metaphorical framings of situations help create emotional reactions?
Bob: Yes. You might have some automatic emotional reaction in the moment, and that’s not particularly easy to control, but you’re much more able to control your reactions in the subsequent moments. One of the decisions that you can make regarding that control is how to frame things. How you choose to frame things - whether you use objective, neutral descriptions or emotional/metaphorical/strong descriptions - will affect how you see things.
Adam: Doesn’t what description you use reflect how you see things, instead of affecting how you see things?
Bob: Your description serves both purposes. Your description reflects how you saw something in the moment, but will also affect how you remember the thing when the moment passes, which will affect how you think about it in the future.
There’s no way to guarantee being free from error in how you evaluate some situation, but it’s important to use good methods and do your best. One way go about doing that is to try being as objective as possible - ruthlessly objective, like a judge. Avoid any metaphors, emotional rhetoric, any “gloss” on what’s happening - as a first step, take the approach of “Just the facts, ma’am”.(Tangentially, this is supposedly one of those “Beam me up, Scotty” things that was never actually said in the show it’s attributed to. https://www.strategicamerica.com/blog/2012/10/just-the-facts-maam/) This gives you the best chance of getting an accurate assessment of the facts in the moment, and having an accurate recollection of what happened later.
So my point here is that you can affect how you see things by the mental attitude you bring to evaluating some situation. Are you trying to be objective and fair and impartial, or are you giving into bias and rhetoric? Are you engaging with all the facts in front of you or evading some?
How you see things, how you judge some situation, isn’t something that’s totally autonomous from the mental habits and processes that you bring to that situation. There is of course always a large background context of ideas that you use to interpret some situation. But you can also affect how you see things by making your best effort to be honest, mentally focused, and clear-headed (or not). People know this, and will often take a minute, go for a walk, count to 10, or whatever, when they fear that they are on the verge of saying or doing something rash, because they don’t want to be the sort of person that makes rash decisions in anger, and would prefer to be calmer and more clear-headed instead.
Suppose you have a dispute with someone about how they acted. You can’t directly see things the same way they did because their perspective is in their mind, and has a bunch of their background knowledge involved in terms of what they’re paying attention to, what they think is significant, and so on. So what can you do? One concrete thing is to avoid the sort of language described above. Every emotional, rhetorical framing could be put in a calmer, more neutral, more objective way. “She’s always being a bitch!” could, for example, become “She frequently makes statements I take to be unkind.” “That bastard shot me down in flames!” could be “That person rejected my proposal.“ “This job is complete bullshit!” could be “This job has various downsides, some of which I regard as serious.” In choosing to frame things in a calmer, more objective tone, you are making your descriptions of events correspond more directly to reality, and thus avoid enflaming passions that might cause you to react in a problematic manner.
Adam: Are metaphors or strong value-laden framings of things inherently bad?
Bob: No, but they are overused. Most people could benefit a lot from practicing thinking and talking about things in a more neutral and objective manner.
Here is more from How To Think Like a Roman Emperor to consider:
Indeed, one way of understanding the contrast between Stoic philosophy and Sophistic rhetoric is to view Stoicism as the practice of a kind of antirhetoric or counterrhetoric. Whereas orators traditionally sought to exploit the emotions of their audience, the Stoics made a point of consciously describing events in plain and simple terms. Cutting through misleading language and value judgments and stripping away any embellishments or emotive language, they tried to articulate the facts more calmly and soberly. Marcus likewise told himself to speak plainly rather than dressing up his thoughts in fancy language. Indeed, nothing is so conducive to greatness of mind, he said, as the ability to examine events rationally and view them realistically by stripping them down to their essential characteristics in this way.24 In the Discourses we’re told that a philosopher, presumably not a Stoic, once grew so frustrated with his friends questioning his character that he screamed, “I can’t bear it, you’re killing me—you’ll turn me into him!,”25 pointing at Epictetus. That was a sudden display of histrionics: a blast of emotional rhetoric. Ironically, though, if he’d been more like Epictetus, he would have just stuck to the facts without getting worked up and said something like, “You criticized me; so be it.” In truth, nobody was killing this man and he could bear it.
Adam: That’s interesting - the bit about the non-Stoic becoming really frustrated. It seems like he was feeling really threatened in some way.
Bob: Yes. I think that kind of thing is common. People feel pressured by reason and philosophy - pressured to change, to be more consistent, to be more rational, to have integrity, to change their habits, to reconsider their assumptions - and they feel like if they keep going then they’ll lose some essential part of themselves. They are attached to parts of themselves. They are attached to particular habits and activities and beliefs. They don’t want to reconsider those things. If they follow the rational path consistently, they might have to. So they resist doing so, and one of the techniques they use, per the quote above, is emotional rhetoric.
Adam: Yeah. The stuff about killing him and being unable to bear it.
Bob: Yes. Imagine if he framed the situation as “I am troubled by your criticism. I don’t like the idea of being more like Epictetus.” Then you might be able to have a discussion about exactly what’s troubling him, or what exactly he doesn’t like about Epictetus. In other words, you could try solving the problem and coming to agreement. But his emotional rhetoric makes it difficult to figure out how to proceed. It’s clear that he doesn’t like the criticism he’s getting, and he doesn’t want to be more like Epictetus. But does he want to discuss it? Is he so upset he doesn’t want to consider or talk about the issues? I think a person saying that kind of thing probably wouldn’t want to discuss it. But they don’t want to say that they don’t want to discuss it. They want other people to back down without them having to say “I am opting out of reason now; leave me alone.”
Adam: Because they feel pressured to be rational?
Bob: Yes. They don’t actually want to say “I prefer to follow my whims; reason be damned!” They want to have the self-image of someone who is open to reason without having to earn it. So the emotional rhetoric helps with this because it is a way of asking people to back off with the expectation of rationality without having to say the words that make that request clear. The emotional outburst muddies the waters about what happened - possibly for the other participants in the conversation, but most importantly for the person who is engaging in the outburst.
If you stay calm, clear, objective, and neutral in your statements, it’s much easier to figure out what’s going on in a conversation. All your statements are anchored closely to reality, rather than being connected only loosely to reality through layers of metaphors that you have to untangle in order to figure out what’s actually being referred to. But the obfuscatory attributes of emotional language and metaphor are the actual thing that people want when they are feeling defensive, attacked, pressured - they want to confuse things. The more unclear they can make things, the more they can obfuscate, and so the less pressured they’ll feel.