Deceived into Learning the Truth

In the Discourses, Epictetus says:

If one has to be deceived into learning that external things that lie outside the sphere of choice are nothing to us, I for my part would willingly undergo such deception…

Discourses I.4.27

Now knowing that the external things that lie outside the sphere of choice are nothing to us is considered true in Stoic philosophy.  Thus, we can shorten Epictetus’s statement as saying that if one has to be deceived into learning the truth, then he would willingly be deceived.  This brings up the question: if you were deceived into learning the truth, would you do it?  Is it worth it?

On the one hand, even though you’ve gained the truth through a lie, in the end you still have the truth.  Let’s say that this truth, as analogous to Stoic philosophy, actually makes your life better, that it helps you live a life of well-being.  Perhaps, then, it is worth it.  Call this the consequentialist view of learning about the truth.  This seems to be Epictetus’s position.

On the other hand, the struggle of discovering the truth on your own seems to be character-building as well.  We consider people with good character as finding and discovering things on their own.  Call this the virtuous view of learning the truth.  I’m sure there’s something here that relates to virtue epistemology in that learning about the truth in a certain way matters.

Maybe there’s a deontological view, but I think it would be moot since deontological ethics supposes that it’s wrong to deceive someone in the first place. Thus, they may consider Epictetus’s statement as unethical or epistemically faulty in the first place.

When I was reading this, I asked myself whether being deceived into learning the truth matters. Suppose you have something that you consider true. But suppose you were deceived into learning it? Does it matter? After all, you have the truth, but would you feel upset that you were deceived? Or would you be happy because you have the truth? Personally, I would feel more upset about the deception. I think it’s because being tricked stands out more than simply having the truth.Perhaps in this sense, I fall into the virtuous view.

I guess it also depends on what the truth would be. Perhaps if it was high stakes, I may be happier that I have the truth, but overall, I think I would be more upset because of the deception. But if the truth was very compelling where it would be a huge deal in my life, perhaps I would be happier overall.

Based on just my own thought process, it seems that being deceived is wrong, but up to a point. Consequences can’t be damned no matter what. At some point, you reach a limit where the consequences matter. Now, I don’t have a full-fledged theory as to when they do, or at what limit the virtuous view starts to loose hold and now we’ve got to handle the consequences. I’m sure it’s different for each person, but this brings up two thoughts.

One, does the threshold for each person matter? Since my starting point may be in the virtuous camp, and I seem to remain there up to a certain threshold. I reach a limit, and then the consequences matter become the driving force.  But from this perspective, I seem to suggest that the default position is the virtuous position, and when it comes to some sensitive spot, I now pay attention to the consequences in a profound way. This suggests, perhaps, that having a higher threshold is more virtuous. But does it? Epictetus doesn’t think so. This leads me to my second thought.

Two, does the sensitivity for each person matter? Perhaps my threshold is high, but maybe Epictetus would say that I’m not sensitive to understanding the ramifications of realizing the truth. “Look,” he’d say, “you have the truth and that is profoundly better than having false beliefs. Does it matter how you got there? Sure you were deceived into the truth, but imagine if you weren’t. You’d be worse off because you’d still continue believing in something that is false. Surely having the truth, even deceptively, is much better. Take the truth. You may experience the little pain from the deception, but you should be happier because you have the truth. If you’re still upset from the deception, then doesn’t this just tell us that you’re too sensitive?” I’m not so sure. No one likes being deceived. “Sure,” Epictetus would say, “but you’re being deceived toward something better: the truth. If someone was deceiving you for the sake of deceiving you, then it would be unethical. But the deception isn’t using you as a means; the deception is to make you better off.”

Am I being too insensitive here? Or is Epictetus missing a limiting threshold? Conversely, Epictetus could be too sensitive, or I have too high of a threshold. The way to determine that is see where the mean lies, but that is a difficult task, especially depending on which tradition your virtue theory relies on. Overall, perhaps it makes sense that Epictetus’s point that being deceived is not harmful because for the ancient Stoics, nothing can harm you but your own opinions and thoughts. And if being deceived worries you, then that’s your problem. Maybe, in the end, he has a high threshold, not in the epistemic sense, but in the social-relations sense. Or perhaps he’s too insensitive to our social-relations.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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5 Responses to Deceived into Learning the Truth

  1. Greg Sadler says:

    I suspect that after a while the “deception” is no longer an issue.

    Once you have been brought to the truth, and realize that you were brought to it via deception – although you indeed were deceived back then, you’re not now (otherwise, you’d not realize that you’d been deceived, right?).

    So the deception remains an issue for how you got there, if that’s what you want to focus upon, but not for your current condition. . .

    • shaunmiller says:

      Interesting. Yes, I suppose the timeline would make a difference too. If I believe that something was true, but the deception happened many decades ago, I probably would not be bothered too much by it. However, if it was fairly recent, then I would be close to being upset.

  2. aaaatos says:

    I also wondered about this statement when I read the Discourses. To me it seems to convey a certain doubt on E.’s part about his ability to actually prove that external things do not matter. As if he wants to tell the reader: just in case you’re not convinced that external things do not matter, it’s equally fine if you just take this on trust and continue with this assumption in mind.

    On the other hand, maybe I am being too negative about this. Maybe he is telling us that we don’t actually have to go to the trouble of proving all these truths, and we can already benefit a lot if we just accept the conclusions.

    In either case, I am reminded of Plato’s Meno, where (if my recollection is correct) one of the conclusions is that knowledge is not merely true opinion, but should be somehow ‘tethered’ by means of our faculty of reason. To me this means, if you’re a philosopher, or aspire to be one, you can’t satisfy yourself with knowing what is true, unless you have ‘tethered’ the truth in question by means of your own faculty reason. I guess one way of putting it is to say you have ‘internalized’ the truth, or ‘made it your own’, or ‘recollected it’.

  3. I will admit — for some reason, the last time I went through this chapter of the Discourses, I must have glossed over, missed, or since-then-forgotten this confusing passage. But now that you point it out to me, I do find it a bit confusing.

    What is so confusing about it? I’m trying to wrap my little head around how “deceived into learning the truth” can avoid being an oxymoron.

    Any explanation to help me see through this apparent oxymoron would be much appreciated.


    • aaaatos says:

      It surely isn’t an oxymoron. Suppose I told you that the earth was round, and furthermore suppose I told you the reason for this is that the round shape is the one that is most pleasing to the gods. Now if you believe me, I have taught you a truth (the roundness of the earth), but since my argument was fallacious, I actually deceived you to accomplish this.

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