The three topoi and the three disciplines

Zeno & Epictetus
Zeno & Epictetus

Two of the first things anyone interested in Stoicism learns are the distinctions among the three topoi (i.e., logic, physics, and ethics) and the three disciplines (i.e., desire, action, and assent). One may even learn that the two sets were not, so far as we know, explicitly connected in ancient times, but that Pierre Hadot has made an excellent case for a specific pattern of relationship between them (and the four virtues), in his excellent Philosophy as a Way of Life.

In this post I’d like to revisit the issue and clarify why Zeno, who originated the tri-partition among the topoi, taught them in a specific sequence, as well as way Epictetus, who is thought to have explicitly introduced the three disciplines (though they were arguably implied in earlier Stoicism) thought that one of them had clear precedence over the others.

Let’s start with the topoi, or areas of inquiry underlying the entire Stoic system of philosophy. They are the “physics” (i.e., modern natural science, metaphysics and theology), the “logic” (i.e., modern logic proper, rhetoric, epistemology and cognitive science), and the “ethics” (i.e., the study of how to best live one’s life). As Diogenes Laertius puts it in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers:

“Philosophic doctrine, say the Stoics, falls into three parts: one physical, another ethical, and the third logical. Zeno of Citium was the first to make this division in his Exposition of Doctrine.” (DL, VII.39)

“No single part, some Stoics declare, is independent of any other part, but all blend together. Nor was it usual to teach them separately. Others, however, start their course with Logic, go on to Physics, and finish with Ethics; and among those who so do are Zeno in his treatise On Exposition, Chrysippus, Archedemus and Eudromus.” (DL, VII.40)

So Zeno and Chrysippus, the two chief influences on early Stoicism, used the following sequence in their version of the Stoic curriculum:

Logic > Physics > Ethics

This makes sense when one considers one of the most common Stoic metaphors meant to explain the relationship among the topoi, that of the fenced garden. Again, Diogenes Laertius:

“Or, again, they liken Philosophy to a fertile field: Logic being the encircling fence, Ethics the crop, Physics the soil or the trees.” (DL, VII.40)

Logic is the fence, and the first topos to be studied, because it provides us with the tools to carry out sound reasoning, which are necessary for an understanding of the other two pillars. Physics is next because an understanding of how the world works, including a comprehension of human nature, is necessary — according to the Stoics — to figure out how to best live our lives, which is the goal, and hence the fruit of the garden, in turn made possible by fertile soil, i.e., a proper understanding of physics.

Next we move to Epictetus’ three disciplines, which are meant to be practiced by the Stoic student. He famously describes them in this fashion:

“There are three things in which a man ought to exercise himself who would be wise and good. The first concerns the desires and the aversions, that a man may not fail to get what he desires, and that he may not fall into that which he does not desire. The second concerns the movements (toward) and the movements from an object, and generally in doing what a man ought to do, that he may act according to order, to reason, and not carelessly. The third thing concerns freedom from deception and rashness in judgement, and generally it concerns the assents.” (Discourses, III.2)

This requires some unpacking. The discipline of desire basically tells us what is proper or not to aim for (i.e., to desire), and according to the Stoics this is reflected in the famous dichotomy of control: it is proper to desire things that are in our control (because we can be certain of obtaining them), but not things that are not under our (complete) control (because therein lies uncertainty of outcome, and therefore disappointment and suffering).

Things that are under our control are our judgments and our actions; things not under our control include pretty much everything else, and most especially health, wealth and fame.

The second discipline, of action, regards how we should behave toward others. Here it is important to remember that the Stoics were cosmopolitan (see Hierocles’ circle), and that they adopted a strongly pro-social attitude, while not neglecting the needs of the individual.

The last discipline, of assent, concerns our ability to sanction, or not, our “impressions,” i.e., the raw materials that the world presents to us before our judgment has had time to intervene. For instance, if I hear a sudden noise I may jump in autonomic reaction reflecting sudden fear. But further examination by my “ruling faculty” (as Marcus would say) discovers that it was simply the wind moving some brushes, and that therefore my initial impression (there is something out there, I need to be afraid!) was unjustified and I need to withdraw assent from it.

Epictetus then continues:

“Of these topics the chief and the most urgent is that which relates to the affects; for an affect is produced in no other way than by a failing to obtain that which a man desires or a falling into that which a man would wish to avoid. This is that which brings in perturbations, disorders, bad fortune, misfortunes, sorrows, lamentations and envy; that which makes men envious and jealous; and by these causes we are unable even to listen to the precepts of reason. The second topic concerns the duties of a man; for I ought not to be free from affects like a statue, but I ought to maintain the relations natural and acquired, as a pious man, as a son, as a father, as a citizen. The third topic is that which immediately concerns those who are making proficiency, that which concerns the security of the other two, so that not even in sleep any appearance unexamined may surprise us, nor in intoxication, nor in melancholy.” (Discourses, III.2)

So Epictetus makes explicit that the discipline of desire — and its associated dichotomy of control — is the most important one of the three, which is why Arrian (Epictetus’ student, who compiled his lecture notes into the Discourses and Manual) famously begins the Enchiridion with:

“Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power,” followed by a list of things that belong to each category: “in our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.” (Enchiridion, 1)

Regarding the discipline of action, it is noteworthy that Epictetus explicitly says that Stoics “ought not to be free from affects like a statue, but ought to maintain the relations natural and acquired, as a pious man, as a son, as a father, as a citizen.” So much for the stereotype of emotionless Stoics.

And of the discipline of assent Epictetus tells his students that it is crucial if they want to make progress, thus “securing” the other two. The prokopton should not be surprised by unexamined impressions, ideally, not even in his sleep.

The relative ranking of the three discipline, thus, looks like this:

Desire > Action > Assent

Finally, what of the relationship between the topoi and the disciplines? Here, as I mentioned above, the original articulation is due to Pierre Hadot, and it also comes through nicely in Don Robertson’s book, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness.

The idea is summarized by the following diagram:

Topoi virtues & disciplines

The discipline of desire derives from our understanding of how the world works, hence from physics, and it is mediated by the virtues of courage (to accept the way things are) and temperance (in order to live well, without desiring what we cannot have).

The discipline of action comes from the topos of ethics because it concerns how we should behave with others, and it is therefore mediated by the virtue of justice.

Lastly, the discipline of assent is connected to logic because we need to use reason in order to grant or deny assent to impression. The exercise of which is the virtue of (practical) wisdom, or phronesis.

(Here is a side note of interest regarding phronesis: because of its practical character, when it is not simply translated by words meaning wisdom or intelligence, it is often translated as “practical wisdom,” and sometimes (more traditionally) as “prudence,” from the Latin prudentia. Thomas McEvilley, in his The Shape of Ancient Thought,  has proposed that the best translation is “mindfulness” — and this is in fact how Robertson refers to it in his book.)

I don’t know about you, but the more I contemplate the above system the more in awe I am of the ancient Stoics, and the more I become convinced that this is an eminently practical philosophy for modern times.

11 thoughts on “The three topoi and the three disciplines

  1. I’m not sure about using mindfulness for phronesis. Mindfulness usually means a vigilant attention to thoughts, impressions and emotions. Phronesis means using reason to judge the impressions right or wrong which is practical reason.


  2. Jb,

    Right, that was my first reaction too, but your own description of the two clearly points to why some scholars would want to traduce phronesis as mindfulness. And as I write in the OP, Robertson does call the discipline of assent “Stoic mindfulness.”


  3. I don’t quite understand the relationship between Physics and Desire. The other 2 relationships (ethics/action and logic/assent) seem clear to me but not this one. Can someone clarify this for me ?


  4. Christof,

    So, physics tells us how the world works, to the best of human knowledge. The discipline of desire has to do with what is and is not under our control, and to the first group belong things that we should desire, to the second group things that we should not desire. So physics tells you what is or is not proper to desire. I hope this helps!


  5. I find this difficult.You yourself have said that stoicism should not inhibit political activity. But political outcomes are not completely within my control, implying that I should not allow them to become objects of desire.How then do I remain motivated for political action?


  6. Paul,

    Stoics remain politically motivated because of th discipline of action, and the connected virtue of justice. But any given political outcome is classed as a “preferred indifferent,” precisely because it is not under our (complete) control. It is, to use Cicero’s memorable phrase, to be chosen, but not to be desired.

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  7. It’s often anyone’s guess as to how the ancients meant the words they did, and often, scholars can only infer their connotation through context. So the word φρόνησις literally means “thoughtfulness” in the sense of applying thought and judgement to something. It’s not the same word as “wisdom” which is σοφία. But words often blur, so that σώφρων, which literally means “wisely thoughtful” is often translated as “prudent,” combining both roots. I think the intention on rational attention is clear enough and doesn’t require nitpicking. If you want to really go crazy, you can note that φρόνησις comes from the word φρήν, which means “midriff.” The diaphragm was originally considered the seat of judgement, not the brain, such that many words derived from a sense of thought emerged from this root, even long after the notion became obsolete.

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  8. Are you sure Robertson refers to phronesis as mindfulness? Looking at p.28, in the “Key Idea” box on practical wisdom and virtue, he doesn’t. And in several places in the book, including the index, he refers to prosoche, not phronesis, as mindfulness.

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  9. Nano,

    Thanks for the commentary, very helpful!


    You are correct, but I said that Don calls the discipline of assent Stoic mindfulness, not phronesis itself, so he sees a connection there. But, again, refer to what nano wrote.


  10. I think you can play with idea of mindfulness in the following way:

    phronesis = long term mindfulness in choosing the wisest course of action, street smarts, calculating many factors that make it into a solid decision

    prosoche = situational mindfulness, being fully aware of the sensor input, hic et nunc, providing the full spectrum of data streams needed for solid decision making

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