Do People Commit Evil Out of Ignorance? by Massimo Pigliucci

This post is the transcript of Professor Pigliucci’s’ presentation at the STOICON 2017 conference.  A videorecording of the talk will be available in the coming weeks.  The slides can be downloaded here.

Epictetus wrote:

For if one shows this, a man will retire from his error of himself; but as long as you do not succeed in showing this, you need not wonder if he persists in his error, for he acts because he has an impression that he is right. (Discourses, II.26)

It is a striking reminder of just how forgiving and non judgmental Stoic philosophy is. When people do something wrong we ought to try to correct, not judge them, because they act under the mistaken belief that they are actually doing the right thing.

The notion is Socratic in nature, and it is found, for instance, in this famous phrase, which Diogenes Laertius attributes to the most famous Athenian philosopher: “There is only one good, knowledge, and only one evil, ignorance.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, II.31) But surely this can’t be right. Socrates, and Epictetus, cannot possibly mean that knowledge is the only good, and especially that ignorance is the only evil.

If one looks carefully, though, the two words translated respectively as “knowledge” and “ignorance” are episteme and amathia. Episteme means more than just knowledge, especially factual knowledge. It means understanding. And amathia is not really ignorance, it is closer to un-wisdom, the opposite of sophia (as in philosophia, love of wisdom). So what Socrates and Epictetus maintain here is that the best someone can do is to achieve understanding of how things work (and therefore of how to act in life), while the worst is being unwise, and therefore engage in actions that one mistakenly, as it turns out, thinks are right.

In the Platonic dialogue entitled Alcibiades Major, we get an even better idea of what Socrates means, within the specific context of politics. He is chatting with the future Athenian general Alcibiades, who is his friend, student, and former lover. Alcibiades is a fascinating figure (one of these days I’m going to write a book about him), who was instrumental in Athens’ fatal decision to attack Syracuse during  the Peloponnesian war (though, in fairness, he was relieved of command by his fickle fellow citizens before the expedition got started). Alcibiades then defected first to the Spartans and later to the Persians, before returning once again to Athens. He was killed in Phrygia by Spartan assassins: when he saw himself surrounded by enemies he rushed at them with a dagger in his hand, and fell struck by a shower of arrows.

Anyway, here is a bit of the rather frank dialogue between Socrates and his famous pupil:

SOCRATES: But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before that you are not only ignorant of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?

ALCIBIADES: I am afraid so.

SOCRATES: Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity, my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs, except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.

Socrates is telling his friend that he is unwise, not ignorant. Alcibiades was a highly intelligent and educated man, and yet his lack of wisdom turned out to be disastrous for him personally and for Athens more generally. Countless politicians since, up to and including current occupants of the highest political offices in the Unites States, European countries, and elsewhere are suffering from the same malady as Alcibiades, and a proper response on our part should probably also begin with “Alack!”

Back to the Stoics. Epictetus uses an interesting example to get his point across his students, that of Medea, the mythological tragic figure at the center of a famous play by Euripides (and a later one by none other than Seneca). As is well known, Medea helped Jason steal the fabled Golden Fleece from her native land, in the process betraying her father and killing her brother. She did it for love and also to escape her “barbarian” country and come to civilized Greece (remember, the play was written by a Greek). One of the intriguing characteristics of the piece is that it can be (and has been) read either as a tale of misogyny and xenophobia (Medea is a woman and a barbarian) or as a proto-feminist story of a woman’s struggle in a patriarchal society.

Medea is eventually abandoned by Jason, and she kills her own (and Jason’s) children in desperation, for spite and revenge. Euripides has Medea say: “I know full well what ills I mean to do, But passion overpowers what counsel bids me.” Again, this is not ignorance in the usual sense, it is amathia. She knows that what she is about to do is horrible, but in her current state of mind she can’t think of a better way to make the unbearable pain of her existence go away. (Incidentally, Seneca’s version of the tragedy is significantly more sympathetic to Medea than Euripides’.)

Here is how Epictetus comments on Medea:

Here the very gratification of passion and the vengeance she takes on her husband she believes to be more to her profit than saving her children. … Why then are you indignant with her, because, unhappy woman, she is deluded on the greatest matters and is transformed from a human being into a serpent? Why do you not rather pity her  — if so it may be? As we pity the blind and the lame, so should we pity those who are blinded and lamed in their most sovereign faculties. (Discourses, I.28)

This, of course, is the crux of the discipline of assent:

What is the reason that we assent to a thing? Because it seems to us that it is so. It is impossible that we shall assent to that which seems not to be. Why? Because this is the nature of the mind — to agree to what is true, and disagree with what is false, and withhold judgment on what is doubtful. … Feel now, if you can, that it is night. It is impossible. Put away the feeling that it is day. It is impossible. … When a man assents, then, to what is false, know that he had no wish to assent to the false: ‘for no soul is robbed of the truth with its own consent,’ as Plato says, but the false seemed to him true.” (Discourses, I.28)

Contemporary philosopher Hannah Arendt hit on something similar when she described the horrors of Nazi Germany, after covering the famous Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker. My friend Amy Valladares translated for me from the German parts of the last interview Arendt gave, where she elaborated on the concept in terms that are reminiscent of both Socrates and Epictetus:

There’s something really outrageous [empörend = shocking, revolting] about this stupidity. … Eichmann was perfectly intelligent, but in this respect he had this sort of stupidity [dummheit = irrationality, senselessness]. It was this stupidity that was so outrageous. And that was what I actually meant by banality.

Another contemporary philosopher, Glenn Hughes, uses a similar concept, again in the context of Nazi Germany, talking about “intelligent stupidity” (not an oxymoron!):

Intelligent stupidity is no mental illness, yet it is most lethal; a dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself. [The danger lies] not in an inability to understand but in a refusal to understand, [and] any healing or reversal of it will not occur through rational argumentation, through a greater accumulation of data and knowledge, or through experiencing new and different feelings.

Instead, intelligent stupidity is a “spiritual sickness,” and in need of a spiritual cure. (From “Ignorance vs. Stupidity”; the essay begins with the bit of Socratic dialogue transcribed above.)

Amathia, is the root of “intelligent stupidity,” or “ignorance” in the Socratic sense, the opposite of sophia, i.e., wisdom. The “cure,” then, is philosophy. But not the academic sort that a number of clever people engage in today, more as a kind of intellectual game than anything else. I’m talking about real, practical philosophy.

As a faculty member in a philosophy department, I’m often asked by students and parents: why study philosophy? Epictetus had the answer, and it is connected to the need to avoid amathia, to cure ourselves from our spiritual sickness:

This is the defense that we must plead with parents who are angered at their children studying philosophy: ‘Suppose I am in error, my father, and ignorant of what is fitting and proper for me. If, then, this cannot be taught or learnt, why do you reproach me? If it can be taught, teach me, and, if you cannot, let me learn from those who say that they know. For what think you? That I fall into evil and fail to do well because I wish to?’ (Discourses I.28)

What do we gain by curing ourselves of amathia, and moreover by recognizing that people who do bad things are not “evil,” but rather sick? A lot, as it turns out. We get what Epictetus promises his students that they will achieve by practicing and internalizing the precepts of Stoic philosophy, and particularly the dichotomy of control:

Now the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. … But if you take for your own only that which is your own and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you; you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm. (Enchiridion I.3)

That is why Stoic philosophy is both other- and self-forgiving. The Stoic understands that everyone who is not a Sage (and that’s pretty much everyone) suffers from different degrees of amathia. We are all partially blind and lame. By all means, let us restrain the Medeas of the world from killing innocent children, and more importantly the many Alcibiadeses, who have the power to affect the lives of millions, from doing too much damage. But let us also remind ourselves that these are spiritually sick people. They need help, and deserve our pity.

Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Connecticut and one in philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He teaches philosophy at the City College of New York, and his latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. He blogs at How To Be A Stoic.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

4 thoughts on “Do People Commit Evil Out of Ignorance? by Massimo Pigliucci”

  1. Very good article, but also opens up the most difficult of topics that of the extent of our free-will/freedom of choice, and what is a totally sane person anyway?

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