There are different ways to understand and practice Stoic philosophy, and this is true not just for the differences between ancient and modern Stoicism, but even within ancient Stoicism itself. After all, the philosophy evolved over a course of more than five centuries from Zeno of Citium to Marcus Aurelius, and it is still evolving today, after an hiatus of 18 centuries.
One of the classic ways to approach Stoicism is through Epictetus’ famous three disciplines: desire/aversion, action, and assent. I have discovered that I’m partial to this way of thinking, since I structured my first book on Stoicism according to the Epictetean disciplines, and I’m currently finishing a new book on Stoic spiritual exercises with my friend Greg Lopez, also, as it happens, organized using the same framework.
The basic outline of the three disciplines is found in Discourses III.2, a section entitled “What a person must train himself in if he is to make progress, and that we neglect what is most important.” Here is how Epictetus puts it (from the excellent Oxford Classics translation by Robin Hard):
“There are three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained: that which relates to desires and aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires, nor fall into what he wants to avoid; that which relates to our motives to act or not to act, and, in general, appropriate behaviour, so that he may act in an orderly manner and with good reason, rather than carelessly; and thirdly, that which relates to the avoidance of error and hasty judgement, and, in general, whatever relates to assent.” (III.2.1-2)
Epictetus goes on to actually tells us which discipline is most important:
“Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions, for these arise in no other way than through our being frustrated in our desires and falling into what we want to avoid. This is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason.” (III.2.3)
Once we have reasonably mustered the discipline of desire/aversion, we can move on to the discipline of action, which is concerned with putting into practice what we have learned so far:
“The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships, as one who honours the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen.” (III.2.4)
Finally, the advanced student can move to the third and last discipline:
“The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard.” (III.2.5)
Epictetus even goes on to complain that some misguided colleagues put too much emphasis on logic chopping, considering the discipline of assent as the primary one:
“But philosophers nowadays neglect the first and second areas of study to concentrate on the third, dealing with equivocal arguments, and those that are developed through questioning, and those that are fallacious, like ‘the Liar.’” (III.2.6)
He chides his students, warning them not to fall into this trap, out of too much self-assurance:
“Is it in this regard that you fall short, then? Have you achieved perfection in the other areas of study? When a bit of money is involved, are you secure against deception? If you see a pretty girl, can you resist the impression? If your neighbour receives an inheritance, don’t you feel a bite of envy? And are you lacking in nothing else at present than unshakeable judgement?” (III.2.8)
One way to make sense of what Epictetus is saying here is that our progress in Stoicism should follow something like this sequence:
theoretical understanding of the basics > practical implementation > refinement and automation
The discipline of desire/aversion tells us very clearly what we should properly desire (good judgments) and be averse to (bad judgements), together with whatever is neutral or “indifferent” (everything else). What is this knowledge good for? So that we can act properly toward other people, which is the essence of the discipline of action. After all, “ethics” and “morality” respectively come from Greek and Latin words referring to our character and our social customs. The very point of ethics is to learn how to live pro-socially. Once we are more comfortable with the first two disciplines, then, we can move to refine our understanding of “impressions,” interrogating them whenever they arise, in a way made memorable by another Epictetean quote:
“Practise, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression, ‘You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ Then examine it and test it by these rules that you possess, and first and foremost by this one, whether the impression relates to those things that are within our power, or those that aren’t within our power; and if it relates to anything that isn’t within our power, be ready to reply, ‘That’s nothing to me.’” (Enchiridion I.5)
It strikes me that this sequence is pretty much the way we learn lots of things that have theoretical and practical components. For instance, driving a car. Typically, you begin with a bit of theory, during which an instructor, or a book, tells you the things that it is proper to “desire” (e.g., putting blinkers on when turning, respecting speed limits, etc.) and those to be “averse” to (e.g., crossing a red light, not respecting pedestrian precedence). You then begin to put these precepts into practice, because after all you are going to driving school not just for the sake of learning the theory, but because you want to drive a real car, on actual streets. (This step is where a lot of philosophy gets lost: many of my colleagues, and consequently their students, stop at the theory, as if it had intrinsic value without the practice.) Finally, once you are confident about the basics of how theory and action go together, you can get more nuanced and begin to automate your behaviors, so that you don’t have to stop and consciously take care of every detail while you are driving. Internalizing the theory makes the practice smooth, and you graduate from beginner to experienced driver. Or student of Stoicism!
The analogy between finding your path to virtue and learning to drive a car can be pushed even a bit further, I think, though one ought to be wary of not stretching analogies to the breaking point, after which they become useless or downright misleading.
Once we learn how to drive, we usually don’t forget it. The acquired skills stay with us. Analogously, several (though not all) ancient Stoics thought that once acquired, virtue cannot be lost. And yet, we can make sense of those cases in which we do lose it: if we suffer an injury that impairs parts of our body or brain that are necessary to drive, we won’t be able to do it any longer. Similarly, there may be situations in life (e.g., a degenerative brain disease) that will actually make us regress in terms of virtue. Moreover, unless we are Formula 1 drivers (and not even then, really!) we are not perfect, and we can incur into accidents. But the right attitude in those cases is to learn from our mistakes, overcome our fear of getting into a car again, and resume driving. Similarly, we can slip back in our virtuous practice, but that’s no reason to give it up. We pick ourselves up, reflect on where we went wrong, and resume our quest for becoming better human beings.
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