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Say I really liked sausage, one day decided to learn how it was made, and came out disgusted though not morally opposed.

Later, someone is telling me they really like sausage. They are happy liking it and I like them being happy.

I could:

  1. white lie - agree and tell them sausage is great
  2. dodge - avoid or change the subject
  3. insinuate and try to move on - express that I'm once had the same opinion, but certain things changed my mind. Tell them they're probably better off not looking into it.
  4. bubble burst - tell them how the sausage is made

I see issues with all of these:

White lies: dishonest

Dodge: heavy subjects can't be cast away so easily. also dishonest

Insinuate and move on: condescending. also, doesn't give good reasons for disagreeing. comes off as dishonest.

Bubble burst: hurts the person. or seems dumb if not convincing.


I'm wondering if there are any stoic quotes or suggestions that might help with this type of scenario? More or less, what does one do when someone else believes in a "magic" that has some inexorable dark truth to it.

To give a more concrete example: Evolution is something many people find beautiful because of the results, but the actual process is pretty brutal. I would call it a process of culling through death and deselection, a lot of which causes tremendous suffering. But I also don't think other people need to see evolution this way; if they see beauty that's wonderful.

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  • Superb description, relatable, ouch, and there's Mr. Ananda. May 25, 2023 at 2:19

4 Answers 4

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This is not only about belief and ethics. It is also about personal relationships. And not only between you and the person who is happy to use sausages without knowing how they work, but of a variety of people around the both of you.

It is not reasonable to expect to remake society, particularly not in any short time. Even if your ideas of how it might be remade would be better for everybody, which is a tough question. So, charging out to inform people of the facts is not likely to be an optimal strategy. It will simply alienate large numbers of people. Telling "the whole truth" at meal time is a poor strategy.

I grew up on a farm. I can be happy eating a sausage while actually watching them being made. And very few non-farm people appreciate my anecdote about the time the cat brought a live rabbit onto the veranda, while farmers will laugh quite loudly. On the other hand, I cannot watch a session of US Congress without the veins on my forehead standing out like a relief map. And 15 minutes driving in traffic causes my blood pressure to reach pressure vessel failure limits.

People have very different experiences. They have very different attitudes and degree of comfort with those experiences. That is to say, they have very different context.

So, if your goal is to have people increase their, for lack of a better word, wisdom, you are going to need to tread very lightly. Don't rag on people about eating meat. If somebody asks you about it, then offer to explain later after the dishes are washed.

By the way, evolution is not about the weak vs the strong. It's about the better adapted to a niche. After all, a rabbit has very little in the way of teeth or claws in comparison to a big cat. (Yes, I know rabbits compete quite aggressively for mates.) We are not likely to run out of rabbits. Evolution is about how well an organism fits a niche. Rabbits are resource based herbivores. So, for them, being weak but agile and fast breeding is an evolutionarily successful strategy.

Also, evolution does not always favor the strong. For example, if a male chimp happens to be the strongest in the troupe, he cannot dominate just on that. If he tries it, then three or four of the not-quite-as-strong but more cooperative males will grab him and that will be that. He's out. (Or possibly he's sausages.) The niche for a male chimp is very complicated due to the social interactions in the troupe.

Just as it is for humans. So, trying to dominate the conversation is not likely to succeed in convincing a lot of people of what you want them to know.

And that is possibly a significant factor in why humans evolved big brains. We had to keep track of all the interpersonal relationships to know who was sensitive to what, who could be convinced by what, who could get us to go along with their ideas. That is to say, a dramatically important part of the human environment is other humans. Which is where this story started.

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"Anyone who loves the law or sausages should never watch either being made" -proverb, often referred to by the idiom 'how the sausage gets made'

Stoicism does not advise us to look away from unpleasant truths. In Aurelius' Meditations he argues for deeply recognising the reality and certainty of our death, and to spend a little time every day contemplating it. He says there:

“Meditate upon what you ought to be in body and soul when death overtakes you; meditate on the brevity of life, and the measureless gulf of eternity behind it and before, and upon the frailty of everything material.”

While Stoic thought does not urge us to goad or provoke others with what we think we know either, but I think you are misunderstanding Stoicism, if you think it advocates protecting others from the hard truths of the world. On the contrary, you would need a very clear and strong specific motivation from knowing you would cause lasting harm, to hide truths.

And consider, a child might be horrified to realise the cute animal from their story books was being murdered for a specific treat, and you choosing to hide or obscure that may have allowed them to accrue years more guilt and deaths, a net negative to your supposed good deeds.

I'd say the key thing is motivation. Do you serve their short-term comfort only; or their deeper self (and yours) and it's pursuit of wisdom? Wisdom must always aim to see the world as clearly as possible (I argue it is the faculty of good decision making, cultivated by the practice of finding the integrated centre of our concerns, eg now vs later, self vs other, impulsive vs rational self, etc, our settled, whole, or deeper self, that our dilemmas myst be solved on behalf of). There is wisdom, in knowing how the sausage gets made; whether or not you then wish to eat it, it's constituents remain the same.

I think a Stoic would draw a different lesson from sausage making. Maybe:

"Everything has an end; a sausage has two." -German proverb

Evolution is both endless excrutiating struggle and inevitable death, and also wonder. It is both. Wisdom is to see both, not to tip the scales either way, but observe that there are swings around a balance between them, and if it tips either way likely it will swing back.

If someone is stuck on wonder, then sure maybe they should learn about parasitic wasps, which helped confirm Darwin in his atheism, and they will find out if the knowledge takes the shine off or deepens their wonder, as it did for David Attenborough who passionately defends conserving them. But someone obsessed with the gloomy realities of 'Nature, red in tooth and claw' (from a Tennyson poem about finding deeper truths than that), should perhaps watch an octopus dreaming, which is not only beautiful but indicates something profound in this convergent behaviour of a mollusc, so far seperated from us in our family tree, and the dream we seem to share with them of being anything at all.

Einstein cautioned against losing the cultivation of our sense of wonder:

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed." -in his marvellous essay The World As I See It

Yes we should correct for the human tendency to choose comforting lies. Be we mustn't shun wonder in order to obsess over hard truths either.

Big queue for comforting lies, no queue for hard truths

"What is the hard truth?" "We are all rascals." "What is the comforting lie?" "That we wish we weren't." -possibly a Zen saying, though I can't locate a source

The Stoic way is to find comfort in the bigger picture, that our tribulations are only a moment of light in the darkness, and in that understanding appreciate it exactly for it's ephemerality, temporality, and vast unlikeliness.

This quote is from the Christian tradition, though surely from the part influenced by Boethius and his On The Consolations of Philosophy, which framed Stoic thought to answer Christian questions, written in his cell awaiting execution (certainly there are echoes of Ecclesiastes, also).

"Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter's day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing." -St Paulinus of York

Go deeper in your equanimity, and niether close the door to it to others, nor force them through it. Only check, you are where you wish to be, because that is the measure of it.

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Re. unneeded hard truths and _ unknowing minds

Tao Teh King Ch.36, 3.

Fishes should not be taken from the deep; instruments for the profit of a state should not be shown to the people.

(Not technically Stoicism, but similar.)

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I too will reach to the Far East.

I read in writings about Daoism a motto: "Harmony, not conformity". There's a real difference between lying and maintaining privacy for the sake of comity. It's very black and white thinking to believe either you must agree or disagree, when it's very much possible to suspend judgement. This in fact has its roots in the West in the notion of epoché according to many Ancient Greeks including the Stoics:

In Stoicism, the concept is used to describe the withholding of assent to Phantasia (impressions). For example, Epictetus uses the term in this manner: "If what philosophers say is true, that in all men action starts from one source, feeling, as in assent it is the feeling that a thing is so, and in denial the feeling that it is not so, yes, by Zeus, and in epoché, the feeling that it is uncertain: so also impulse towards a thing is originated by the feeling that it is fitting, and will to get a thing by the feeling that it is expedient for one, and it is impossible to judge."

Thus, when someone tries to bring you into the conversation and ellicit your opinion, you neither dodge nor white lie, but acknowledge the reality they live in.

Person A: Bacon is evil. It's murder!
Person B: Bacon is goodness. Yum!
You: There are differences of opinion to account for.
Persons A and B: Well, whose side are you on?
You: I'm on no side at all. I respect you each have strong feelings.
Persons A and B: Well you have to be involved in our conflict!
You: I'd rather not, but I do enjoy having conversations with the both of you otherwise.

What's the end result? Ataraxia. A very Stoic pursuit:

In Stoicism, unlike Pyrrhonism or Epicureanism, ataraxia, or tranquillity of the mind, is not the ultimate goal of life. Instead, the goal is a life of virtue according to nature, which is intended to bring about apatheia, the absence of unhealthy passions. However, since the Stoic in a state of apatheia does not care about matters outside of themselves and is not susceptible to emotion, they would be unable to be disturbed by anything at all, meaning that they were also in a stage of mental tranquility and thus in a state of ataraxia.

Thus, any attempt in conversation to get you to discard your equanimity is not a dodge, nor is it grounds for you to misrepresent yourself. You are simply, as we all are, entitled not to share your thoughts, and to avoid the strong feelings and conflicts others are wrapped up in.

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