Stoic spiritual exercises: I, from the Enchiridion

Action Philosophers-impressions
from Action Philosophers, at

Stoicism is a practical philosophy of life, and while I enjoy writing about its history and theory, it is the practice that has so far had a significant impact in my life. I assume it is the same for most of my readers too. (Indeed, it’s more than just an assumption: consistently, the posts that get the highest number of hits here are those that have to do with practical aspects of Stoicism.)

That’s why in this and the next post I want to go back to some of my notes from the Stoic Camp I co-organized with my friend Greg Lopez and re-examine our proposed list of Stoic exercises. The first list (this post) is distilled from Epictetus’ Enchiridion (the aptly titled “Manual”), while the second list (next post) is derived from Marcus’ Meditations (again aptly, a diary that the emperor wrote for his own personal use).

The idea here is to step back for a moment from decidedly more modern “Stoic” exercises, which are actually derived from recent developments in psychology, such as Victor Frankl’s logo-therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy (see, for instance, Don Robertson’s book).

There is, of course, nothing wrong with attempting to update both Stoic theory (as I’ve began doing here and here) and practice. But it is also, I think, good to keep in mind what the ancients actually said and not mix it so thoroughly with modern perspectives that the two become indistinguishable.

Specifically, as we shall see in these two essays, ancient Stoic techniques were decidedly leaning on the cognitive/verbal side of things, not so much on the visualization approach promoted by modern CBT. This isn’t intrinsically bad or good. It just is, and some people will likely respond better to cognitive approaches (myself included), while others will do well with visualization exercises. Nothing crucial hinges on this, except, again, the need to have present in one’s mind what counts as an ancient Stoic vs a modern Stoic exercise, for the sake of historical clarity, if nothing else.

The way I decided to organize the entries below (and those from Marcus, next time) is simply in order of appearance in the Enchiridion (though the same “exercise” may be referred to more than once, which I will point out when appropriate). For each entry I will give a brief description or comment, followed by the full quote from the original.

Examine your impressions. Here Epictetus exhorts us to practice what is arguably the most fundamental of his doctrines: constantly examine our “impressions,” that is our initial reactions to events, people, and what we are being told, step back to make room for rational deliberation, avoid rash emotional reactions, and ask whether whatever is being thrown at us is under our control (in which case we should act on it), or it isn’t (in which case we should regard it as not of our concern).

So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ (Enchiridion I.5)

Remind yourself of the impermanence of things. Yes, yes, this is one of the (superficially) harshest passages in Epictetus. Not the part about the china, but the one about the wife or child. But I think Anthony Long (among others) is right about how this (in)famous quote ought to be interpreted. First off, remind yourself of the historical context: Epictetus was writing at a time when even emperors (like Marcus himself) lost most of their children and other loved ones at what we would consider a tender or premature age, to disease, or war. While most of us in the West are currently lucky in that respect, the point remains: life is ephemeral, and people we deeply care abut may be snatched from us suddenly and without warning. Moreover, what Epictetus is counseling here is not an inhuman indifference toward our beloved ones, but quite the opposite: to constantly remind ourselves of just how precious they are precisely because they may soon be gone. Anyone who has lost a person close to them ought to know exactly what this means. We should go through life just like the Roman generals went through their official celebratory triumphs in the eternal city: with somebody (in their case, a slave) who constantly whispers in our ears “memento homo” (remember, you are (only) a man).

In the case of particular things that delight you, or benefit you, or to which you have grown attached, remind yourself of what they are. Start with things of little value. If it is china you like, for instance, say, ‘I am fond of a piece of china.’ When it breaks, then you won’t be as disconcerted. When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, ‘I am kissing a mortal.’ Then you won’t be so distraught if they are taken from you. (Enchiridion III)

Reserve clause. Since the only thing truly under our control are our intentions and behaviors, the outcome of anything we try to do depends at the least in part on external circumstances. Which means we should approach doing anything with the Stoic reserve clause, fate permitting.

Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to bathe, picture to yourself the typical scene at the bathhouse – people splashing, pushing, yelling and pinching your clothes. You will complete the act with more composure if you say at the outset, ‘I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature.’ Do it with every act. That way if something occurs to spoil your bath, you will have ready the thought, ‘Well, this was not my only intention, I also meant to keep my will in line with nature – which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.’ (Enchiridion IV)

How can I use virtue here and now? The passage below is one of the most empowering of Stoic writings. Epictetus, the former slave, lame because of a once broken leg, tells us to use every occasion, every challenge, as a way to exercise our virtue, to become a better human being by constant practice.

For every challenge, remember the resources you have within you to cope with it. Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover within you the contrary power of self-restraint. Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate. (Enchiridion X)

Pause and take a deep breadth. Here is the crucial step that allows us to more rationally examine our impressions: we need to resist the impulse to react immediately, instinctively, to situations. Instead, pause, take a deep breadth, and then consider the issue as dispassionately (in the sense of equanimity, not lack of care) as possible.

Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it is easier to maintain control. (Enchiridion XX)

Other-ize. This is a fascinating one, as we are reminded of just how differently we regard the same event if it concerns us or other people. Naturally, it is far easier to maintain equanimity (which, again, is not to be confused with emotional impassivity!) when little inconveniences, or even disasters, happen to others than to ourselves. But why, really?

We can familiarize ourselves with the will of nature by calling to mind our common experiences. When a friend breaks a glass, we are quick to say, ‘Oh, bad luck.’ It’s only reasonable, then, that when a glass of your own breaks, you accept it in the same patient spirit. Moving on to graver things: when somebody’s wife or child dies, to a man we all routinely say, ‘Well, that’s part of life.’ But if one of our own family is involved, then right away it’s ‘Poor, poor me!’ We would do better to remember how we react when a similar loss afflicts others. (Enchiridion XXVI)

Speak little and well. I must admit that this is a hard one for me to practice, probably due to my ego and the professional habits of a teacher who is far too often in professorial mode. Still, I’ve tried to remember this counsel and take it to heart, and it is serving me increasingly well.

Let silence be your goal for the most part; say only what is necessary, and be brief about it. On the rare occasions when you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink – common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them. (Enchiridion XXXIII.2)

Chose your company well. I laugh every time I read this. To modern ears it sounds insufferably elitist, but it really isn’t (remember, it comes from an ex-slave who was making a living teaching in the open air). Also, keep in mind that “philosophers” here doesn’t mean professionals, but rather people who are interested in following virtue. More generally, this is simply the sound advice that our life is short, and temptation and waste are always lurking, so we need to pay attention to whom we spend our time with and doing what.

Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out. (Enchiridion XXXIII.6)

Respond to insults with humor. This is a lovely example of profound wisdom accompanied by Epictetus’ distinctive brand of humor: instead of getting offended by someone’s insults (remember, they are not “up to you”) respond with self deprecation. You will feel better, and your vilifier will be embarrassed.

If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumours; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.’ (Enchiridion XXXIII.9)

Don’t speak too much about yourself. I must admit to failing at this often enough (see “ego” and “professorial mode” above), but I’m trying. And boy, does that make for a much better social experience!

In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them. (Enchiridion XXXIII.14)

Speak without judging. Still working on this one too, but, again, this is so true, and so typically Stoic. The idea is to distinguish between matters of fact — to which we can assent, if we find them justified by observation — and judgments — from which we generally speaking ought to abstain, since we usually don’t have sufficient information. Just imagine how much better the world would be if we all refrained from hasty judgments and looked at human affairs more matter of factly.

Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious? This will save you from perceiving one thing clearly, but then assenting to something different. (Enchiridion XLV)

14 thoughts on “Stoic spiritual exercises: I, from the Enchiridion

  1. Lucy,

    glad to hear it! However, if you wait a few days, I will put out a booklet with all the entries from this post plus the ones from Marcus which I hope to publish on Thursday. Stay tuned.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is a wonderful list and I’m definitely looking forward to the next one. I always enjoy your explanations of the practical use of stoicism (Or any form of philosophy for that matter) and especially your works in attempting to modernize it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Stoic Me Up

    If one wants to climb a wall, it’s not enough to know where to put the foot. One has to do it just so, pushing into the rock to hold it there, but not so much that it does not provide support against gravity. How does one do this proficiently? Through practice. Plenty of practice. Practice is not just something which happens according to happenstance. One cannot wait for happenstance “stoically”. It’s something one looks for.

    One may view the Will to Stoicism a Will to the Mastery of Moods, to optimize… To optimize what? Avoiding to be distraught? Avoiding others to be distraught? Or is it to optimize personal, or general happiness according to some measure? Which measure? And what if one is driven by various shades of sadomasochism?

    Don’t laugh about sadomasochism: it’s found in any serious effort the capability for which has been honed by evolution, such as the hunt, or Sisyphus-like activities. A bit of masochism helps for the more dubious pleasure of the chase, or any serious struggle. Thus giving and receiving pain, breathing pain in and out, is ubiquitous in the depths of human ethology. This makes “goodness as minimizing evil” a rather complex, even baffling proposition, as it implies handling psychological, even physiological metastructures.

    For example, Rome would have been better served, if Marcus Aurelius had treated his biological son, Commodus, with enough severity.

    So there will be various notions of stoicism, according to what it is one tries to minimize, or maximize. (Or both: in advanced mathematical calculus, there is a method known as mini-max.)

    In any case, the question remains: how does one train one’s moods actively (instead of waiting passively for the world to happen)? First of has to ponder: how do moods originate? They do not originate from the digital logic alone (the type of logic found in books on logic, the type one can put in a discourse).

    There is another logic, as Blaise Pascal pointed out: “The heart has his reasons that reason does not have”. Well, so does the amygdala. The brain is full of sub-organs generating their own moods. Pascal did not know about the role the amygdala in fear (hence being distraught, among other things). And so it is all around the brain: diverse subsystems in the brain have their own reasons. And then, overall, fifty neurohormonal systems or so, can tweak parts of the brain, or the entire mind, this way, or that (pointing then in more than 50 dimensions, among other possibilities).

    From this incredibly complex machinery, moods originate. Think of the solo climber, 10,000 feet above a glacier, standing on a square centimeter planted in brittle ice. Pure mastery of moods and logic, otherwise the climber’s life is over after 15 seconds of ultimate pain and terror.

    Such a mastery is the fruit of years of training in logic and moods.

    How does one acquire such mastery? Through passion. Training driven by passion, again and again and again. Training for solo climbing in the Himalayas, the Italian climber Reinhold Messner would run uphill for hours in heavy mountain boots. He concluded that training the mind was not enough, but he had to train his liver and kidneys (a conclusion Nietzsche would have agreed with, as he pointed out the importance of the gut, in his own solo climbs in Upper Engadin, nearby; yes, I climbed the same mountain).

    Thus training for stoicism in full will imply the gymnastic of passion. It’s not enough not to get angry. One has to find oneself in situation where one should get angry, and then optimize, just as the climber’s mind learns by the practice of climbing.

    “Discovering” in oneself self-restraint, self-control, and endurance is not enough. One has to train. Train under conditions one has chosen deliberately to learn to become much tougher. Staying calm under ultimate pressure is ultimate stoicism, and it is the attraction of extreme sports. Extreme sports are rendered possible, and acquire meaning, as research in ultimate stoicism (Messner drew a similar conclusion about his own life: it was a research in what a human could do).

    And if you want to think properly, think in full. If someone thinks in haste, don’t say they think badly, but in haste, and that thinking in haste is often bad.

    And if you want to think properly, address in full why is it that you feel the way you do. Don’t just keep the feeling incheck, analyze it. Ideas are great, but they live in the universe of moods. Passions educate the latter, and those in turn come from engaging the universe in full. Stoicism has to be understood dynamically, and a passionate engagement with the world.


  4. Marvellous, but I must confess that as I read the list I examined myself with some embarrassment.

    The idea here is to step back for a moment from decidedly more modern “Stoic” exercises

    I think, good to keep in mind what the ancients actually said and not mix it so thoroughly with modern perspectives…

    My first impression on reading through that list was how thoroughly modern it sounded and wholly applicable in our milieu.

    Some more impressions(in violation of ‘speak little and well‘):

    You noted that life was shorter and more unpredictable in those times. True and the Roman honor/contest culture accentuated that. And yet that advice rings so true today given the accelerating tempo of change. Impermanence is now a feature of modern life.

    Speak little and well
    The corporate meeting room is today’s gladiatorial arena and is just as deadly. A powerful tactic was to listen, absorb, understand and analyze as the other contestants bludgeoned each other. And then, near the end, a pithy summation was enough to win the contest against combatants confused and wearied by the struggle.

    With bosom friends one may speak freely, with family one speaks in measured tones, with acquaintances one speaks with care and with strangers one says little.

    Examine your impressions
    Pause and take a deep breath
    I think these two things are very similar. ‘Examine your impressions’ would seem to me to be the core piece of advice from which everything else derives.

    How can I use virtue here and now?
    Having examined one’s impressions this seems to be the next most important piece of advice.

    I like this post so much I have shared it with family and friends.


  5. Much appreciated labnut. As I noted, tomorrow part II will come out, then on Friday I will make available a handy pdf that contains both essays, edited for standalone sharing and usage.


  6. Hmm, I think there is room here for a simple Stoic. And so I searched on Google Play for Stoic apps only to find many people have done it before me. Perhaps I can improve on them.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a great initiative. That app looks very promising. I look forward to trying it out when the Android version is released.

    Is this an open-source or closed-source project?


  8. An idea for PocketStoic.

    A day can be seen as a series of challenges, of varying intensity. Our responses to these challenges are a measure of our resilience. So I suggest adding a structured version of the daily journal which we might call the Challenge-Response Journal.

    Each entry would have three parts.
    1. Challenge.
    A description of a single challenge that was encountered in the day.

    2. Response.
    A description of the response to the challenge and the Stoic tool used in that response.

    3. Improvement.
    A note of how we desire to improve our response and which Stoic tool we should concentrate on.

    If one endured many challenges in that day there will be a corresponding number of entries for that day.

    Each morning the Improvement Notes should be presented for meditation until we are confident we have mastered our deficiency and can scratch it off our Improvement Notes.

    In its simplest form it would just be a text record that encouraged daily self examination to gauge our success in responding to daily challenges, using Stooic tools.

    More precision could be added by adding ratings of the severity of the challenge on a one to five scale and the success of the response on a similar one to five scale which would give a resilience score. For labnuts and measurement nuts who enjoy pseudo-precision🙂


  9. labnut,

    thanks for the suggestions! I don’t think the project is meant to be open source, but the developers are looking for both suggestions and collaborators, over at the project’s web site.

    Liked by 1 person

Please Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s