Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The only way philosophy will be of any profit

Here is another selection from the Stoic/Cynic philosopher Musonius Rufus, this one under the catchy rubric "That it is not necessary to give many proofs in regard to one matter." Presevere, the best parts are at the end.

Once, when a discussion arose about the proofs that those starting out should hear from the philosophers in order to apprehend with certainty what they are studying, Musonius said that it was not appropriate to pursue many proofs for each subject, but rather a few compelling and clear ones. For neither is that doctor praised, he said, who prescribes many drugs for the sick, but rather the one who assists them in a worthy fashion with the few drugs which he prescribes. Nor is the philosopher who instructs his students with many proofs, but rather the one who leads them to what they truly want with a few proofs. So too in the case of the student: the brighter he is, the fewer proofs he will need, and the quicker he will agree to the conclusion of the argument, if it is sound. But the person who requires proofs at every step, even where matters are transparent, and wants to have demonstrated to him with many proofs what could be done with a few, he is altogether a dim and dull-witted fellow.
The gods, it is likely, require no proofs of anything, because nothing for them is hidden or unclear, and for such things alone are proofs needed. Men, however, must seek to discover things that are not apparent and not immediately accepted by all through those things that are apparent and are manifest beforehand. That is the job of a proof. Consider, for example, the proposition that pleasure is not good. At first sight this does not seem to be credible, since in fact pleasure strikes us as being good. But if we take as an accepted premise that every good is choiceworthy, and add to it as another premise that some pleasures are not choiceworthy, we prove that pleasure is not good. Through things that are accepted we prove what was not accepted.
Or again, it does not seem at once to be plausible that toil is not an evil. For its opposite, that toil is an evil, seems much more plausible. But having laid down the obvious premise that all evil is to be avoided, and added to it the even more obvious claim that that many kinds of toil are not to be avoided, it follows that toil is not evil.
This being the nature of proof, since some human beings are quicker and others duller, some raised in better circumstances, others in worse, those who have an inferior character or nature will need more proofs and more diligence in order to embrace these doctrines and be molded by them. In just the same way, I think, the infirmities of the body require much more care when you want it to be probable that you will preserve your health. But those of the beginners who are better endowed and have enjoyed a better upbringing will more easily and rapidly and with fewer proofs assent to what it is being put forward properly and will follow it.
That these things are true we may easily discover if, let us suppose, we were to become acquainted with a boy or young man who has been raised in total luxury. His body has been made soft as a woman’s, his spirit enfeebled by habits conducive to weakness, and he displays a disposition that is lazy and slow to learning. Suppose on other hand we also came to know a young man who had been brought up in the Spartan mold. He is unaccustomed to luxurious living, trained to endure, and disposed to listen to what was said appropriately. Now what if we made both these young men listen to a philosopher who was saying of death and toil and poverty and alike that they are not evils, and, on the other hand, of life and pleasure and wealth and of similar things that they are not goods? Would both young men take in the words in similar fashion, and would each be persuaded to nearly the same degree by what was said? That could not happen. The first one, reluctantly and slowly and as if being pried loose by a 1000 arguments might perhaps in the end give his assent. He is the duller one. The second one, by comparison, will quickly and readily accept the things that were said as proper and appropriate to him. He will need neither many arguments nor further study.
Was it not a child of just that sort, a Spartan boy, who asked the philosopher Cleanthes if toil was good? For that question made it plain that the boy was so favored by nature and so well raised with a view toward virtue that he would consider toil to be closer to the nature of good than of evil. He had posed his question, whether toil might be good, after the manner of someone conceding that it was not evil. In admiration of the boy Musonius said to him, “of noble blood you are, dear child, such things you say.” How could such a youth not be easily persuaded not to fear poverty or death or any of the other things that seem fearful, and again, not to chase after wealth and life and pleasure?
But let me return to the beginning of our discussion. I said that the teacher of philosophy should not recite a volume of arguments to his students. He should instead talk about each matter in its due measure, and touch the mind of his listener, and utter arguments [ that are persuasive] and not easily refuted. But most of all, he should show himself in this way to be someone who talks about the most useful things and acts in accordance with what he says, and in this fashion guides his listener. The student, for his part, should exert himself to grasp what is being said and be on the lookout lest, without noticing it, he accept something false. But with respect to things that are true, he should not, by God, try to listen to many proofs, but only those that are perspicuous. And whichever of the things commended to him he is persuaded are also true, to these he should conform his life. For only in this way will anything profitable come from philosophy, if to words one accepts as true one adds deeds that harmonize.


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