Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Marc on opinion

So I was hanging out with my friend Marc again, and he had this to say about opinion (Meditations, book 3, paragraph 9):

Treat with respect the power you have to form an opinion. By it alone can the helmsman within you avoid forming opinions that are at variance with nature and with the constitution of a reasonable being.

Now, this far, I was on board. I was nodding along with Marc. We can't help forming opinions; they are very useful in navigating the myriad choices around us. And yet, to paraphrase another pal of mine, Lao, "opinion is the barren flower of the Way" (from Tao Te Ching #38). Once we form an opinion, it's hard to unform or revise it, even in the face of good evidence. So we need to be careful in forming opinions in the first place.

So anyway, I'm nodding away, then Marc goes on like this:

From it you may look to attain circumspection, good relations with your fellow-men, and conformity with the will of heaven.

Good relations with fellow men - okay. (Marc has a very sexist bent to him, I'm afraid, but it's easy enough to add "and women" or to substitute "fellow people" when listening to him.) But what about this "conformity with the will of heaven" bit?

Well, okay, I understand that Marc believes in the existence of gods. He says so very explicitly now and then. But it's jarring to be listening to something that fits my own position so well, and then hear something about the "will of heaven" thrown in as part of the same thought.

I like Marc, so ultimately I'm not too bothered by the odd literal reference to "gods" or "heaven"; I can just focus on the valuable part of what he's saying, and set aside the stuff I don't accept.

But what about when I'm talking to someone else, or reading someone else's writing, where I don't have that easy relationship with the person? This aesthetic aversion to casual god-talk could make it more difficult for me to hear the positive value in what they're saying.

Do you notice a similar tendency in yourself? Do you see it as a problem? How do you deal with it? Let me know.

Image credits:

Emblem of Stoicism created by DT Strain - see this blog post for an explanation of the elements in the symbol.

Yin and Yang symbol (associated with Taoism) from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

1 comment:

  1. Modern life has us all sorting through a vast amount of information coming at us from all directions on a daily basis. Even the most compassionate, understanding individuals are prone to having their eyes glaze over when they hear certain buzzwords that usually indicate that an essay or conversation is about to veer off into well worn territory that the reader/listener has rigorously examined, and determined to be mistaken.

    I try to remind myself that many people have the same good intentions as I do, despite the fact that I may disagree with them on certain philosophical positions, both premises and conclusions, and that I am also capable of being wrong.

    A little humility and charitable interpretation can facilitate actual communication between people with diverse opinions. Although, once someone lays out a moral or teleological thesis that (once again!) relies on the highly speculative premise of invisible entities who just happen to share the writer's opinions about life, well, I don't have time to waste listening to all of that again. Give me some new arguments that don't work just as unfalsifiably well for one's opponents, and I'll listen. I swear!


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