I made an error, and quite an embarrassing one for a philosopher to make. In a recent article covering an interview with Dr Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who is known for his bestselling book 12 Rules for Life, and for holding some controversial opinions, I referenced a Stoic philosopher. Specifically, I referenced the wrong one.
In considering the method and content of Peterson’s self-help book, I was reminded of Epictetus, who famously suggested “first say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do”. This maxim is behind not just Jordan Peterson’s self-help book, but all standard self-help books. It is also foundational to most modern therapeutic methods. When we seek the help of a professional in overcoming a personal issue, namely in finding ourselves unable to do something we would like to do, or need to do, they will assist us in formulating a plan to get past that obstacle.
In a culture that trivialises and disrespects truth, it must be protected and cherished
I feel a fondness for Epictetus, which is precisely why I felt terribly guilty when, in that article on Peterson, I misattributed the famous Stoic's excellent maxim to Marcus Aurelius, a copy of whose Meditations had been sitting on my desk as I wrote up the Peterson interview.
It is a simple enough error, but it plagued me all weekend. Any philosopher would be embarrassed, but I was almost disappointed to find that most people I spoke to about my mistake found it either rather sweet that I would fuss over something they thought so insignificant, or thought it didn’t matter.
In part, I was annoyed with myself because I had missed a mistake which I should not have, and a knowledgeable reader had got in touch to point it out. After I had contacted the correct people to remedy my mistake, I still felt ill at ease. Like a mannerless fool horsing my shoes onto a table just finished by a master carpenter, I had unintentionally disrespected Epictetus’ work. A correction reading “This article was amended on July 21st to attribute a maxim to Epictetus rather than Marcus Aurelius” went under the digital version of the piece, and a small number of people online joked good-humouredly about the obscurity of the error, suggesting it was the sort of mistake very few people would ever even notice. There were some suggestions that it was rather quaint to even think it significant enough to amend.
It was then that the reason for my discomfort declared itself. Apart from the fact that Epictetus deserves, even now, to have the insights he expressed correctly attributed to him and no one else, there was and is a fact of the matter, and I blurred it. Without meaning to, in a climate that heaves and bucks with false information, blurring the nature of reality and our relationships with one another, I made the world infinitesimally and temporarily worse. In a culture that trivialises and disrespects truth, and in an industry which exists only on the presumption that there is a fact of the matter and that we have an obligation to share it, truth must be protected and cherished. Even the smallest truths must be set in their right place in public consciousness. By allowing the small ones to slip out of the net and drift away, we create an environment in which larger truths seem less certain and more difficult to recognise.
All day that Saturday, I would be doing something, like washing the dishes or folding laundry, then suddenly recall my mistake, and grimace. Being a stoic, I’m sure Epictetus likely would have been pretty relaxed about it, but I could not relax. Yes, it was an error, and we all make those. However, there should be discomfort when we put a piece of false information into the world, and efforts should be made to fix it. We do not all have time to research whether every statement we read is true – there is an element of trusting what we read and hear which should carry a greater sense of responsibility now than it ever has. Epictetus (and it was he who said it), was right. We should all say what we would be, and then do what we have to do.