March 4th: Simplicity and Over-simplifications
I’ll start today with a quote I used yesterday.
“These things don’t go together. You must be a unified human being, either good or bad. You must diligently work either on your own reasoning or on things out of your control — take great care with the inside and not what’s outside, which is to say: stand with the philosopher or stand with the mob!” Epictetus, Discourses, 3.15.13
Yesterday I criticized Epictetus’ view as expressed. Today I’m going to moderate and expand on that.
This morning a concept popped into my head: “cognitive dissonance.” The concept was developed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. Cognitive dissonance occurs when two contradictory ideas live unhappily within us. A simple example would be the person who thinks, “smoking kills” but smokes two packs a day.
Our minds do not like that; it makes us internally anxious and uncomfortable. So we tend to kill off one or the other of the conflicting ideas. The smoker in the example above either quits or finds a way to justify his smoking: “It’s not that bad,” or “it won’t happen to me,” or some such thing.
I think Epictetus’ quote reflects discomfort with cognitive dissonance. He’s saying, “You can’t have it both ways: you have to believe it’s all about fixing your own thinking or fixing the world.” For him, those conflicting basic tenets could not exist together in his mind. One of them had to go. Philosophers, and sometimes even teachers, like a world of intellectual coherence, even if the real world isn’t that simple.
Overall, I’d say we should take Epictetus’ statement for what it’s worth. Yes, often the way to fix our thinking and emotions is to concentrate on thinking correctly, and I agree that we should separate what we can and can’t control and focus on what is in our power.
But I also think, as I said yesterday, that every situation or person is not identical, and we have to put up with the “cognitive dissonance” generated by that reality to be good and effective. We can’t boil life or people down to patterns that are convenient for us — that’s where stereotypes (like racism) come from. We want and should be clear-headed in our thinking, but we shouldn’t favor apparent clarity at the expense of actual truth.
Or, as one great “philosopher” of the 20th century said:
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
Who said that? Albert Einstein. Epictetus, eat your heart out.