The Virtue of Being Wrong

How Stoicism Teaches us to Welcome Refutation

How Stoicism Teaches us to Welcome Refutation

Nobody likes being wrong, we’re told. Least of all those individuals who suffer from pathological narcissism. They have to believe that they were right all along, even when it becomes obvious they are very much in the wrong.

Figures who live in the public eye, such as celebrities and politicians, if they become overly-incentivized by praise, risk turning this into a habit. As Aristotle once said, habits become our “second nature”. They solidify into character traits if we’re not careful.

Perhaps sometimes the person who gains the most is the one who loses the argument.

So do we always have to be right? The ancient Greek philosophers — who loved paradoxes — said the opposite: maybe true wisdom requires the capacity to delight in being proven wrong. My favourite expression of this idea comes from Epicurus:

In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most. — Epicurus, Vatican Sayings, 74

How crazy is that? Perhaps sometimes the person who gains the most is the one who loses the argument. The one who wins the argument gains nothing, except perhaps some praise — but what does that matter? The one who loses, though, gains knowledge, and perhaps gets a step closer to achieving wisdom.

It wasn’t Epicurus who first stated this paradoxical insight, though. Much the same attitude was characteristic of the famous method of Socrates, over a century earlier.

I’m certainly not less happy if I’m proved wrong than if I’ve proved someone else wrong, because, as I see it, I’ve got the best of it: there’s nothing worse than the state which I’ve been saved from, so that’s better for me than saving someone else. — Socrates, in Plato’s Gorgias, 458a

Socrates goes on to say that if someone proves him wrong, he won’t get cross with them, even if they did with him. Instead, he jokes, he’ll make sure public records list that person as his greatest benefactor.

The Stoic school of philosophers, which was greatly influenced by Socrates, taught essentially the same thing. This article will focus on what one Stoic in particular, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, said about the benefits of being proven wrong. (For a more in-depth discussion of Marcus’ life and philosophy, see my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.)

The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius looked up to one man above all others: his adoptive father, the preceding emperor, Antoninus Pius. In his private notes, which we call The Meditations, Marcus carefully lists the qualities he most admires in Antoninus, despite the fact that by this time he had been dead for over a decade. Marcus does this more than once, in fact, and with such care, that I think it has all the hallmarks of an exercise that he’s engaged in repeatedly over the years.

If someone showed him he was wrong, rather than being offended, he was pleased.

We can think of this as Marcus’ attempt to study and emulate what today we would call the Emperor Antoninus’ leadership qualities. He tells himself to be, in every aspect of life, a student of Antoninus (Meditations, 6.30). It’s a fascinating analysis of the man’s character. However, for our purposes, I just want to draw attention to one of the things that Marcus says:

[Remember] how he would tolerate frank opposition to his views and was pleased if somebody could point to a better course of action. — Meditations, 6.30

Earlier in the book we find something related:

And most admirable too was his readiness to give way without jealousy to those who possessed some special ability, such as eloquence or a knowledge of law and custom and the like, and how he did his best to ensure that each of them gained the recognition that he deserved because of his eminence in his particular field. — Meditations, 1.16

In other words, although he was a hard-working and intelligent ruler, the Emperor Antoninus also had the wisdom to know when to listen to experts. Marcus admired this as an example of the man’s strength of character, self-awareness, and humility. If someone showed him he was wrong, rather than being offended, he was pleased. It didn’t hurt his pride or damage his ego, as we say today. Antoninus was a big enough man, and emotionally mature enough, not only to deal with criticism but to actively seek it out and welcome it as an opportunity for personal growth. That was one of the qualities which made him such an exceptional leader.

Stoic Therapy

Marcus says that it was his Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus, who first persuaded him that his own character required correction and even therapy. (Literally, he uses the Greek word therapeia.) He also tells us that he often became irritated or angry with Rusticus and was thankful that he never lost his temper with him over the years. Elsewhere, Marcus tells us that showing a man his moral faults is like telling him he has bad breath or body odour (Meditations, 5.28). People often don’t like hearing it and so there’s an art to communicating criticism effectively. It requires a delicate combination of honesty and tact. Rusticus was adept at this. Nevertheless, Marcus found that it required lifelong training to genuinely welcome plain speaking and criticism from others.

Showing a man his moral faults is like telling him he has bad breath or body odour.

Marcus was probably about fifteen years old when he first met the philosopher Rusticus — there’s a hint that he may have a been a friend of his mother’s. Over three decades later, on the northern frontier, in the middle of the First Marcomannic War, Marcus was writing his famous Meditations. He’s still working on himself. He tells himself to always be ready to apply the following rule to any situation:

Be prepared to change your mind if someone is at hand to put you right and guide you away from some ill-grounded opinion. — Meditations, 4.12

Someone like Rusticus, although he’s now dead. Marcus adds, though, that this change of opinion should always be motivated by the belief that it is not only true but also serves justice and the common welfare. We should not, in other words, be swayed by others, such as the silver-tongued Sophists, merely because it feels easier to adopt a more popular opinion. As a leader, in particular, Marcus believes he should change his course of action when he’s persuaded that another way would actually be better for everyone.

We have a curious piece of evidence that Marcus meant this quite sincerely and had adopted this attitude from his youth. In a private letter to his rhetoric tutor, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, written when Marcus was aged about eighteen, he says:

I have received two letters from you at once. In one of these you scolded me and pointed out that I had written a sentence carelessly; in the other, however, you strove to encourage my efforts with praise. Yet I protest to you by my health, by my mother’s and yours, that it was the former letter which gave me the greater pleasure, and that, as I read it, I cried out again and again “O happy that I am!”

As we’ve seen, the Greek philosophers love paradoxes. Marcus knows that the majority of people think it’s a sign of weakness and subordination to acknowledge that someone else is right and you’re wrong. The Romans would have been tempted to say it’s slavish and, in their sexist way, they actually called Marcus an “old woman”. The powerful are always right, these men would say.

Marcus was the most powerful man in the known world, though, and he saw through this lie. He remembered that Antoninus, the greatest man he knew, welcomed criticism and was the first to change his mind when someone showed him he was wrong.

Remember that to change your mind and follow somebody who puts you on the right course is none the less a free action; for it is your own action, carried out in accordance with your own impulse and judgement, and, indeed, your own reason. — Meditations, 8.16

We enslave ourselves to external things and other people whenever we betray reason. True, absolute freedom would consist in doing what we know is right, regardless of the cost. Sometimes it takes courage to admit you’re wrong, and in that moment you’ve broken free. If you change your mind to please other people, sure enough, that’s a form of slavery. However, if it’s because you genuinely recognize that you were in error then the opposite is true — you’ve liberated yourself by admitting your mistake.

The Plague

Marcus lived during a terrible pandemic, known as the Antonine Plague, which historians believe may have killed up to five million Romans. It was certainly far more severe than the current novel coronavirus pandemic. He wrote The Meditations in the midst of the death and decay that the plague brought to the army camps and major cities of the empire. Yet he only mentions it once. And what he says might shock some people. He says that terrible though the Antonine Plague is, there’s an even more severe plague corrupting the souls of men.

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, reputedly said that nature gave us two ears and one mouth so that we might listen twice as much as we speak.

Viruses, by themselves, do not cause pandemics. Without transmission, most viruses eventually disappear. Transmission is caused, though, by our behaviour. The novel coronavirus is spread mainly by humans in close proximity to one another breathing in contaminated droplets of saliva suspended in the air. That’s caused mainly by travel and too much physical proximity. We’ve known this since the start of the pandemic.

However, if everyone had listened to and followed the public health guidance issued by the world’s leading scientific experts on epidemiology, the virus would have spread much more slowly. The more slowly the virus spreads, the lower the overall mortality rate, because treatment procedures improve, medical resources improve, and eventually vaccines will, most likely, become available.

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, reputedly said that nature gave us two ears and one mouth so that we might listen twice as much as we speak. Knowing when it’s sensible to be quiet and listen to the experts requires humility. As a young man, Marcus Aurelius watched his adoptive father, the emperor of Rome, happily deferring to the wisdom of experts whenever it was appropriate to do so. He was intelligent enough to realize when they knew more than he did. However, modern politicians often still view admitting their own limitations or acknowledging their mistakes as a sign of weakness. Saving face is more important to them than saving lives.

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