The Truth Hurts

A philosophical dialogue on psychological pain and engaging with philosophy.

Bob: Here’s a quote from How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (footnotes omitted):

By contrast, Epictetus, in typical Stoic fashion, continually warned his students not to confuse academic learning with wisdom and to avoid petty arguments, hairsplitting, or wasting time on abstract, academic topics. He emphasized the fundamental difference between a Sophist and a Stoic: the former speaks to win praise from his audience, the latter to improve them by helping them to achieve wisdom and virtue. Rhetoricians thrive on praise, which is vanity; philosophers love truth and embrace humility. Rhetoric is a form of entertainment, pleasant to hear; philosophy is a moral and psychological therapy, often painful to hear because it forces us to admit our own faults in order to remedy them—sometimes the truth hurts. Epictetus’s own teacher, the Stoic Musonius Rufus, used to tell his students, “If you have leisure to praise me, I am speaking to no purpose.” Hence, the philosopher’s school, said Epictetus, is a doctor’s clinic: you should not go there expecting pleasure but rather pain.

Adam: I’m not sure I buy the bit about how a connection between philosophy and pain.

Bob: I think that’s assuming a typical context of a person who doesn’t yet know tons of philosophy. They’re going to be ignorant of a lot of problems in their life, and engaging with philosophy in an effective way that relates to their problems and life is going to mean realizing the existence of problems that they have been evading and trying to deal with them instead of just constantly putting it off. As you get better at philosophy, I would guess that things would not be so painful. That’s not to say that you still wouldn’t realize and deal with new problems in ways that might be challenging and difficult, but once you’ve got some philosophical perspective it’s a different sort of thing.

We can consider an analogy between starting to work on philosophy and starting to work out. At the very beginning of working out, everything is hard, and you might not even be able to do “basic” exercises, or only manage them with great difficulty. As you make progress in your fitness, you’ll still hopefully be challenging yourself, but you won’t be desperately struggling to do a single pushup. You’ll eventually be stronger overall, and have a better sense of your strengths and weaknesses. However, if you approach working out with a big fear of pushing yourself too hard, such that you never find out what your limitations are, then your progress will be much slower. You need to approach the project smartly, and not take dumb risks, but you also need to be resilient, and not be afraid of a little pain or a minor setback.

Adam: Are you saying that you shouldn’t try to avoid psychological pain when engaging in philosophy? And instead you should be resilient and try to shrug it off if it does happen?

Bob: Basically, yeah. I don’t think it’s really practical for most people to not experience any psychological pain, and I don’t think it’s practical not to engage at all with philosophy. You have to make improvements in your life with the mental equipment (in terms of ideas and emotional reactions) that you have, and try to improve from there. And philosophy can reduce the amount of psychological pain you experience, so overall, in the long run, I think it would lead to less pain if you engaged with philosophy, even if it increased your pain in the short run.

Remember that the Stoics were all about emotional tranquility as a great virtue. So I don’t think their idea was that you should have to experience constant agony in order to be philosophical. But if you need to learn a lot of philosophy and have lots of problems to wake up to, there is going to be a rough transition period.

People have ongoing psychological pain in their lives. They have various problems that are not getting solved. They might have stress from work. They might fight with their spouse. They might have arguments with their children. Sometimes they can push away thinking about their problems, but sometimes not. Lots of people put on a front and pretend to be okay when they’re frequently upset. Engaging with philosophy might bring these problems more to the forefront in a way that people find difficult to deal with, but it’s not the engagement with philosophy that’s causing the pain. If anything, it’s the prior lack of engagement with philosophy that’s causing the pain. Extending the workout analogy, people deal with problems related to weakness all the time in their daily lives. But the instances of dealing with those issues, like not being able to lift a heavy bag easily or at all, might be spread out, so people don’t notice it too much. But then if you start working out in a more deliberate way, you might notice it more and be pretty sore at first. But the problem of your weakness was pre-existing. And by working out you are making progress on the problem. So that is progress.

Adam: So if psychological pain occurs in relation to the helpful activity of learning philosophy, then that may just be a sign that you are starting to deal with problems that you already had, and is thus fine?

Bob: Yes. Another way to think about the issue is that being able to experience some psychological pain and shrug it off increases our freedom. If we just shy away from psychological pain and avoid anything that causes us pain, then we are being controlled by the psychological pain. If, on the other hand, we have tolerance for some pain, and can shrug it off and continue with our plan, we are more able to do things despite the pain.

People say you shouldn’t ignore pain and that’s true. If you’re working on philosophy, that includes things like working on your emotions and psychology. So that’s not ignoring the pain, but directly addressing it!

Adam: Interesting. One of the things the quote above talked about is a distinction between rhetoric and philosophy. What did you think of that?

Bob: I am reminded of something people do in order to make philosophy less threatening. They try to engage with ideas that sound sophisticated or impressive. They want to deal with big sweeping abstractions like the meaning of Justice. They want to think and talk about complicated ideas in metaphysics or epistemology. But they don’t want to carefully consider things that might apply to their own life, like lying, dishonesty, evasion, and other vices. Consideration of moral errors that people make is a part of philosophy, but it is a part that people find threatening. Expressed in terms similar to the quote above, people prefer pleasant rhetoric to painful philosophy. But that’s a mistaken preference if their goal is to improve their lives.