Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker's weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and how you can use its waters to reflect on and improve your life.
This week's selection comes from Epictetus. In his Discourses, he cautions those who seek to change the minds of people deeply set in their ways and beliefs:
If a man objects to truths that are all too evident, it is no easy task finding arguments that will change his mind. This is proof neither of his own strength nor of his teacher's weakness. When someone caught in an argument hardens to stone, there is just no more reasoning with them. Discourses I, 5.1
What It Means
Once you show somebody hard facts in support of your argument, and they still deny it, there's no point continuing the debate. It isn't because they possess great mental resistance and thus cannot be easily swayed, and it isn't because their teachers failed to teach them the very same facts once upon a time. It's because they cling to their beliefs and refuse to be wrong, no matter how absurd their stance may be — even in their own mind. Reason cannot pierce the armour of a stubborn ignoramus.
What to Take From It
Debate is good, especially when you can practise it with other open minds who value reason. But the practise is wasted on arrogant blowhards who are more concerned with saving face, or perpetuating schemes that only benefit themselves. Handing them facts and telling them they're wrong only alerts them to raise their defences and back away into their holes where they are king, where they are always right. Even if you "win" the argument with a barrage of evidence, you do nothing to change their mind. So what's the point?
What you can do, however, is redefine what it means to win an argument. If it's a heated topic where tempers are high, winning might simply mean resolving the conflict peacefully. Sometimes that's the most important win of all. Or perhaps you can convince them to concede just one point — a point you care about — and leave them to reflect on it. In that way you plant a seed that may spread the roots of positive change over time. As philosopher Daniel H. Cohen says, stop looking at arguments as war. Nobody wins in war, especially when the other side has stopped listening.
Are we, the human species, unreasonable? Do rational arguments have any power to sway us, or is it all intuition, hidden motivation and various other forms of prejudice? The answer isn't simple, but we may not be irrational creatures after all.