An Introduction to Stoic Practice:
The Three Disciplines of Stoicism
[Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013. All rights reserved. Based on material from the forthcoming book Teach yourself Stoicism (Hodder, 2013). See also A Simplified Approach to Modern Stoicism for a brief introduction to Stoic daily exercises.]
From its origin Stoicism placed considerable emphasis on the division of philosophical discourse into three topics called “Ethics”, “Physics” and “Logic”. Philosophy itself was unified but theoretical discussions could be broadly distinguished in this way and the Stoics were particularly known for their threefold curriculum. Epictetus is the only Stoic teacher whose work survives in significant amounts, we have four volumes of his Discourses, recorded from his public lectures by his student Arrian, although another four volumes have apparently been lost. We also have a condensed version of his teachings compiled in the famous Stoic “Handbook” or Enchiridion. Although Epictetus lived about four centuries after Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, and by his time the formal institution of the Stoic school had apparently ceased to exist, he appears to have been particularly faithful to the early teachings of the school’s main founders: Zeno and Chrysippus.
However, Epictetus also describes a threefold division between aspects of lived philosophical practice, which scholars can find no trace of in previous Stoic literature. (Hence, another famous Roman Stoic, Seneca, won’t come into this discussion because he basically lived before Epictetus and never mentioned these three disciplines.)
- “The Discipline of Desire”, which has to do with acceptance of our fate
- “The Discipline of Action”, which has to do with philanthropy or love of mankind
- “The Discipline of Assent”, which has to do with mindfulness of our judgements
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic best-known to modern readers, was taught by philosophers who possibly studied with Epictetus, although he never met him himself. One of Marcus’ teachers gave him a copy of notes from Epictetus’ lectures, almost certainly the Discourses recorded by Arrian. Indeed, Marcus refers to the teachings of Epictetus repeatedly throughout The Meditations and it’s clear that he’s primarily influenced by this particular form of Stoicism. He also makes extensive use of the Three Disciplines described in the Discourses, which provide one of the main “keys” to interpreting his own writings.
So how are we to interpret these Stoic practical disciplines? The French scholar Pierre Hadot wrote a very thorough analysis of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations called The Inner Citadel (1998), in which he explores the Three Disciplines in detail, employing them as a framework for his exposition. If we follow Hadot’s interpretation, it actually provides a fairly clear and simple model for understanding the teachings of Stoicism. The way of Stoic philosophy was traditionally described as “living according to nature” or “living harmoniously” and Hadot suggests that all three disciplines are intended to help us live in harmony in different regards, and that they combine together to provide the secret to a serene and harmonious way of life, practical philosophy as the art of living wisely.
1. The Discipline of Desire (Stoic Acceptance)
According to Hadot, the discipline of “desire” (orexis) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “physics”, which includes the Stoic study of natural philosophy, cosmology, and theology. The discipline of desire, according to this view, is the virtue of living in harmony with the Nature of the universe as a whole, or in the language of Stoic theology, with Zeus or God. This entails having a “philosophical attitude” toward a life and acceptance of our Fate as necessary and inevitable. It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly entailing the cardinal virtues associated with self-control over the irrational passions, which are “courage”, or endurance in the face of fear and suffering, and “self-discipline” (temperance), or the ability to renounce desire and abstain from false or unhealthy pleasures. (Hence, Epictetus’ famous slogan: “endure and renounce”.) Hadot calls the goal of this discipline “amor fati” or the loving acceptance of one’s fate. This discipline is summed up in one of the most striking passages from the Enchiridion: “Seek not for events to happen as you wish but wish events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly and serenely.” But Stoics are not “doormats”. The Stoic hero Cato of Utica famously marched the shattered remnants of the Republican army through the deserts of Africa to make a desperate last stand against the tyrant Julius Caesar, who sought to overthrow the Republic and declare himself dictator of Rome. Although he lost the civil war, he became a Roman legend and the Stoics dubbed him “the invincible Cato” because his will was completely unconquered – he tore his own guts out with his bare hands rather than submit to Caesar and be exploited by the dictator for his propaganda. Centuries later, the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, despite a devastating plague and countless misfortunes beyond his control, led his weakened army repeatedly into battle to defend Rome against invading barbarian hordes. He prevailed despite the many obstacles to victory. If he’d failed, Rome would have been destroyed. As we’ll see, the discipline of action explains this strange paradox: how can the Stoics combine acceptance with such famous endurance and courageous action in the name of justice? I’ve described this discipline simply as “Stoic Acceptance”, meaning amor fati.
2. The Discipline of Action (Stoic Philanthropy)
According to Hadot, the discipline of “action” (hormê, which really means the inception or initial “impulse” to action) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “ethics”. Stoic “ethics” which includes the definition of what is good, bad, and indifferent. It also deals with the goal of life as “happiness” or fulfilment (eudaimonia). It includes the definition of the cardinal Stoic virtues (wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline). According to the central doctrine of Stoicism, virtue is the only true good and sufficient by itself for the good life and fulfilment (eudaimonia). Likewise, Stoic ethics covers the vices, opposing virtue, and the irrational and unhealthy “passions”, classified as: fear, craving, emotional pain, and false or unhealthy pleasures. The discipline of action, according to Hadot’s view, is the essentially virtue of living in harmony with the community of all mankind, which means benevolently wishing all of mankind to flourish and achieve “happiness” (eudaimonia) the goal of life. However, as other people’s wellbeing is outside of our direct control, we must always wish them well in accord with the Stoic “reserve clause” (hupexairesis), which basically means adding the caveat: “Fate permitting” or “God willing.” (This is one way in which the philosophical attitude toward life reconciles vigorous action with emotional acceptance.) In other words, Stoics do their best to act with virtue while accepting the outcome of their actions in a somewhat detached manner, whether success or failure. Moreover, Stoics must act according to their rational appraisal of which external outcomes are naturally to be preferred. Hence, Marcus Aurelius appears to refer to three clauses that Stoics should be continually mindful to attach to all of their actions:
- That they are undertaken “with a reserve clause” (hupexairesis)
- That they are “for the common welfare” of mankind (koinônikai)
- That they “accord with value” (kat’ axian)
It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly associated with the cardinal virtue of “justice”, which the Stoics defined as including both fairness to others and benevolence. Hadot calls this discipline “action in the service of mankind”, because it involves extending the same natural affection or care that we are born feeling for our own body and physical wellbeing to include the physical and mental wellbeing of all mankind, through a process known as “appropriation” (oikeiosis) or widening the circle of our natural “self-love” to include all mankind. I’ve described this as “Stoic Philanthropy”, or love of mankind, a term they employed themselves.
3. The Discipline of Assent (Stoic Mindfulness)
According to Hadot, the discipline of “assent” (sunkatathesis) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “logic”. Stoic “logic” actually includes elements of what we would now call “psychology” or “epistemology”. The discipline of assent, according to this view, is the virtue of living in harmony with our own essential nature as rational beings, which means living in accord with reason and truthfulness in both our thoughts and speech. It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly associated with the cardinal Stoic virtue of “wisdom” or truthfulness. Hadot calls the goal of this discipline the “inner citadel” because it involves continual awareness of the true self, the faculty of the mind responsible for judgement and action, where our freedom and virtue reside, the chief good in life. According to Hadot’s analysis, although the Stoics refer to “judgement” in general (hypolêpsis), they’re primarily interested in monitoring and evaluating their own implicit value-judgements. These form the basis of our actions, desires, and emotions, especially the irrational passions and vices which the Stoics sought to overcome. By continually monitoring their judgements, Stoics are to notice the early-warning signs of upsetting or unhealthy impressions and take a step back from them, withholding their “assent” or agreement, rather than being “carried away” into irrational and unhealthy passions and the vices. The Stoics call this prosochê or “attention” to the ruling faculty of the mind, to our judgements and actions. I’ve described this as “Stoic Mindfulness”, a term that can be taken to translate prosochê.
The Goal of Life (Follow Nature)
As you can probably see, these three disciplines overlap considerably and are intertwined, just like the three traditional topics of Stoic philosophy, which Hadot claims they’re based upon: Logic, Ethics, and Physics. However, in unison, they allow the Stoic to work toward a harmonious and consistent way of life, in accord with nature. By this, the Stoics meant a life in the service of the natural goal of human nature, the attainment of fulfilment “eudaimonia”, the good life, achieved by perfecting moral reasoning and excelling in terms of the cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline.
A Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism
(This is a draft version so we’ll try to incorporate your comments and suggestions. See my forthcoming book Teach yourself Stoicism, or my previous books on Stoic philosophy and CBT, The Philosophy of CBT and Build your Resilience, for more information. You can also follow @Stoicweek on Twitter or check out our new Facebook discussion group for Stoicism.)
This article is designed to provide a very concise introduction to Stoicism as a way of life, through a simplified set of Stoic psychological practices. The first few passages of Epictetus’ Handbook (Enchiridion) actually provide an account of some fundamental practices that can form the basis of a simplified approach to Stoicism and this account is closely based on those. We’d recommend you treat it as an introduction to the wider Stoic literature. However, starting with a set of basic practices can help people studying Stoic philosophy to get to grips with things before proceeding to assimilate some of the more diverse or complex aspects found in the ancient texts. Both Seneca and Epictetus refer to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, which happens to provide a good framework for developing a daily routine, bookended by morning and evening contemplative practices.
Zeno of Citium, who founded Stoicism in 301 BC, expressed his doctrines in notoriously terse arguments and concise maxims. However, Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school, wrote over 700 books fleshing these ideas out and adding complex arguments to support them. Let’s focus here on the concise version but bearing in mind there’s a more complex philosophy lurking in the background. For example, Epictetus, the only Stoic teacher whose works survive in any significant quantity, described the central precept of Stoicism to his students as follows:
And to become educated [in Stoic philosophy] means just this, to learn what things are our own, and what are not. (Discourses, 4.5.7)
The practical consequence of this distinction is essentially quite simple:
What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens. (Discourses, 1.1.17)
The routine below is designed to provide an introduction to Stoic practice for the 21st Century, which can lead naturally into a wider appreciation of Stoic philosophy as a way of life. The instructions are designed to be as straightforward and concise as possible, while still remaining reasonably faithful to classical Stoicism. The most popular book for people to read who are new to Stoicism is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, so we recommend that you also consider reading a modern translation of that text during the first few weeks of your Stoic practice.
The Basic Philosophical Regime
Stage 1: Morning Preparation
Plan your day ahead with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind. Decide what goals you want to achieve in advance and make a decision to try to achieve them but with the caveat: “Fate permitting.” In other words, aim for success and pursue it wholeheartedly while also being prepared to accept setbacks or failure with equanimity, insofar as they lie outside of your direct control. Try to choose your goals wisely, picking things that are rational and healthy for you to pursue. Your primary goal throughout these three stages should be to protect and improve your fundamental wellbeing, particularly in terms of your character and ability to think clearly about your life. You’re going to try to do this by cultivating greater self-awareness and practical wisdom, which requires setting goals for yourself that are healthy, while pursuing them in a sort of “detached” way, without being particularly attached to the outcome.
Stage 2: Stoic Mindfulness (Prosochê) Throughout the Day
Throughout the day, continually pay attention to the way you make value-judgements and respond to your thoughts. Be mindful, in particular of the way you respond to strong emotions or desires. When you experience a distressing or problematic thought, pause, and tell yourself: “This is just a thought and not at all the thing it claims to represent.” Remind yourself that it is not things that upset you but your judgements about things. Where appropriate, rather than being carried away by your initial impressions, try to postpone responding to them for at least an hour, waiting until your feelings have settled down and you are able to view things more calmly and objectively before deciding what action to take.
Once you have achieved greater self-awareness of your stream of consciousness and the ability to take a step back from your thoughts in this way, begin to also apply a simple standard of evaluation to your thoughts and impressions as follows. Having paused to view your thoughts from a distance, ask yourself whether they are about things that are directly under your control or things that are not. This has been called the general precept or strategy of ancient Stoic practice. If you notice that your feelings are about something that’s outside of your direct control then respond by trying to accept the fact that it’s out of your hands, saying to yourself: “This is nothing to me.” Focus your attention instead on doing what is within your sphere of control with wisdom and to the best of your ability, regardless of the actual outcome. In other words, remind yourself to apply the reserve clause described above to each situation. Look for ways to remind yourself of this. For example, the Serenity Prayer is a well-known version of this idea, which you might want to memorise or write down somewhere and contemplate each day.
Give me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The Courage to change the things I can,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.
You may find that knowing you are going to review these events and evaluate them in more detail before you sleep (see below) actually helps you to become more mindful of how you respond to your thoughts and feelings throughout the day.
Stage 3: Night-time Review
Review your whole day, three times, if possible, before going to sleep. Focus on the key events and the order in which they happened, e.g., the order in which you undertook different tasks or interacted with different people during the day.
- What did you do that was good for your fundamental wellbeing? (What went well?)
- What did you do that harmed your fundamental wellbeing? (What went badly?)
- What opportunities did you miss to do something good for your fundamental wellbeing? (What was omitted?)
Counsel yourself as if you were advising a close friend or loved one. What can you learn from the day and, where appropriate, how can you do better in the future? Praise yourself for what went well and allow yourself to reflect on it with satisfaction. You may also find it helps to give yourself a simple subjective rating (from 0-10) to measure how consistently you followed the instructions here or how good you were at pursuing rational and healthy goals while remaining detached from things outside of your direct control. However, also try to be concise in your evaluation of things and to arrive at conclusions without ruminating over things for too long.
If you’re interested, you can complete The Stoic Attitudes Scale and rate how strong your belief is in different aspects of Stoic theory.
Appendix: Some Additional Stoic Practices
There’s a lot more to Stoicism, in terms of both the theory and practice. You might want to begin with a simple approach but you should probably broaden your perspective eventually to include the other parts of Stoicism. Reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and other books can provide you with a better idea of the theoretical breadth of Stoic philosophy. Here are three examples of other Stoic practices, followed by a link to a longer and more detailed article on this site…
- Contemplation of the Sage: Imagine the ideal Sage or exemplary historical figures (Socrates, Diogenes, Cato) and ask yourself: “What would he do?”, or imagine being observed by them and how they would comment on your actions.
- Contemplating the Whole Cosmos: Imagine the whole universe as if it were one thing and yourself as part of the whole, or the View from Above: Picture events unfolding below as if observed from Mount Olympus or a high watchtower.
- Premeditation of Adversity: Mentally rehearse potential losses or misfortunes and view them as “indifferent” (decatastrophising), also view them as natural and inevitable to remove any sense of shock or surprise.
Follow this link for a much more detailed account of Stoic practices with a wider range of techniques…
Animal Metaphors in Stoicism
Part 1: The Bull and the Lion
Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2012. All rights reserved.
Although this notion is seldom discussed in detail, readers of Stoic literature may notice frequent references to animals, often being employed as metaphors for different character types. For example, in A Man in Full (1998), the novel by Tom Wolfe, two of the leading characters become enthusiastic followers of Epictetus’ form of Stoicism. They are particularly inspired by his references to the image of a strong bull who naturally steps forward to protect the weaker members of the herd from attack by a lion. Indeed, one of the chapters entitled “The Bull and the Lion”, contains the following exchange:
“That’s fine,” said Charlie, “but how do you know what your character is? Let’s say there’s a crisis you’ve got to deal with. How do you know what you’re really made of?”
“Epictetus talks about that,” said Conrad, “He says, how does a bull, when a lion’s coming after him, and he has to protect the whole herd – how does he know what powers he’s got? He knows because it has taken him a long time to become powerful. Like the bull, a man doesn’t become heroic all of a sudden, either. Epictetus says, ‘He must train through the winter and make ready.'”
In part 2 of this article, I describe how the Stoics made a division between rational animals (humans and gods) and non-rational animals, further subdivided into wild animals, like wolves and lions, and domestic animals, like cattle and sheep.
Even among non-rational animals, though, some excel in terms of their nature and this is something Epictetus frequently refers to, particularly using the metaphor of the strong bull who protects the rest of the herd. Seneca briefly alludes to this in the play Phaedra, when he writes: “Goaded on by love, the bold bull undertakes battle for the whole herd.”
The Stoics worshipped Zeus and refer to him frequently throughout their writings. Epictetus does not explicitly state that the image of the bull is linked to Zeus and so we cannot assume he has that in mind. However, it’s likely that most of his students would have easily connected the two ideas as Zeus was often symbolised as a white bull, as in the image shown here in which Zeus is carrying Europa. Although cattle in general are sometimes looked down upon in Epictetus’ Discourses, the bull is several times praised as a metaphor for an exceptional or good man, i.e., the ideal Stoic Sage:
It was asked, How shall each of us perceive what belongs to his character? Whence, replied Epictetus, does a bull, when the lion approaches, alone recognize his own qualifications, and expose himself alone for the whole herd? It is evident that with the qualifications occurs, at the same time, the consciousness of being imbued with them. And in the same manner, whoever of us hath such qualifications will not be ignorant of them. But neither is a bull nor a gallant-spirited man formed all at once. We are to exercise, and qualify ourselves, and not to run rashly upon what doth not concern us. (Discourses, 1)
Here one ought nobly to say, “I am he who ought to take care of mankind.” For it is not every little paltry heifer that dares resist the lion; but if the bull should come up, and resist him, would you say to him, “Who are you? What business is it of yours?” In every species, man, there is some one quality which by nature excels, – in oxen, in dogs, in bees, in horses. Do not say to whatever excels, “Who are you?” If you do, it will, somehow or other, find a voice to tell you, “I am like the purple thread in a garment. Do not expect me to be like the rest; nor find fault with my nature, which has distinguished me from others.” (Discourses, 3)
You are a calf; when the lion appears, act accordingly, or you will suffer for it. You are a bull; come and fight; for that is incumbent on you and becomes you, and you can do it. (Discourses, 3)
The bull is clearly equated with the “good man” below, a synonym for the Sage, and the metaphor of a hunting dog is employed in a similar manner:
For who that is charged with such principles, but must perceive, too, his own powers, and strive to put them in practice. Not even a bull is ignorant of his own powers, when any wild beast approaches the herd, nor waits he for any one to encourage him; nor does a dog when he spies any game. And if I have the powers of a good man, shall I wait for you to qualify me for my own proper actions? (Discourses, 4)
In another passage he employs a similar metaphor, equating the role of the bull with that of the queen bee:
But what have you to do with the concerns of others? For what are you? Are you the bull in the herd, or the queen of the bees? Show me such ensigns of empire as she has from nature. But if you are a drone, and arrogate to yourself the kingdom of the bees, do you not think that your fellow-citizens will drive you out, just as the bees do the drones? (Discourses, 3)
Marcus Aurelius, who had almost certainly read the Discourses, perhaps even the two books lost today, mentions a similar metaphor, which he extends to the ram who guards the flock of sheep:
If any have offended against thee, consider first: What is my relation to men, and that we are made for one another; and in another respect, I was made to be set over them, as a ram over the flock or a bull over the herd. (Meditations)
Curiously, Seneca also says something quite similar, perhaps shedding some light on the original meaning of the metaphor in Stoicism:
But the earliest mortals and those of their descendants who pursued nature without being spoiled shared the same guide and law, being entrusted to the decisions of a superiors, since it is natural for inferior things to give way to more powerful ones. Take herds of dumb animals: either the biggest or the strongest creatures have command. It is not the bull inferior to his breeding but the one who surpasses the other males in size and muscle who goes before the herds; it is the tallest elephant who leads the troupe; among men, “the best” replaces “the biggest”. So the ruler used to be chosen for his intellect, and the greatest happiness among nations was enjoyed by those among whom only the superior man could be more powerful. A man can safely enjoy as much power as he wishes if he believes he only has power to act as he should. (Seneca, Letters, 90)
The presence of a similar metaphor in Seneca suggests that he and Epictetus, and perhaps Marcus, are alluding to a common Stoic source from an earlier period.
However, intriguingly, there is some evidence that Zeno employed the metaphor of a herd of cattle to describe the ideal Stoic community in The Republic, which was quite possibly the founding text of Stoicism. For example, according to Plutarch:
It is true indeed that the so much admired Republic of Zeno, first author of the Stoic sect, aims singly at this, that neither in cities nor in towns we should live under laws distinct one from another, but that we should look upon all people in general to be our fellow-countryfolk and citizens, observing one manner of living and one kind of order, like a flock [or herd of cattle] feeding together with equal right in one common pasture. This Zeno wrote, fancying to himself, as in a dream, a certain scheme of civil order, and the image of a philosophical commonwealth. (Plutarch, On the Fortune of Alexander, 329A-C)
This suggests that Zeno may have introduced the metaphor of the ideal Stoic Republic as consisting of a herd of cattle led by a bull. Indeed, the early Stoic school itself was a small community perhaps intended to be modelled on this ideal to some extent, so Zeno himself, or the subsequent scholarchs of the school, may have been seen as analogous to the bull in this imagery.
Teach Yourself Stoicism
Love & Friendship in Stoicism
New book, due out next year from Hodder… Sneak preview of the contents of the chapter on love and friendship in Stoicism…
In this chapter you will learn:
- That, far from being completely unemotional, Stoicism can be viewed as a philosophy that emphasises the concept of love or “natural affection”.
- That the Stoics were apparently one of the first major Western philosophical schools to encourage women to become philosophers as well as men and that they taught both men and women how to maintain a philosophical attitude toward their family and children.
- That they encourage us to develop our own natural instinct for self-preservation into a more profound love of flourishing, in terms of our essential nature as rational animals, “love of wisdom” being the original meaning of the word “philosophy”.
- That they also encourage us to expand our natural affection for ourselves into a kind of family affection and affinity or kinship with all mankind, aspiring to be true “philanthropists”, or lovers of mankind.
- That Stoicism involves learning to love Nature as a whole – or God, if you’re religiously inclined – by serenely accepting events outside our control as causally determined by Nature, or fated by the Will of God.
- That the Stoics taught one can only truly love others, rather than being irrationally and unnaturally attached to them, by accepting the fact that everyone and everything we love is inevitably transient and subject to changes beyond our control.
- That, according to this view, to love others is more valuable than to be loved ourselves; and to show friendship is better than to receive it, because the strength and wisdom that resides in our own character is more intrinsically important than how other people happen to treat us.
The Stoic loves other people in a very free, giving way. His love is not at all conditional upon its being reciprocated by the person loved. The Stoic does not compromise his own moral integrity or mental serenity in his love for others, nor is his love impaired by his knowledge of the mortality of his loved ones. Rather, the Stoic’s love and natural affection are tempered by reason. His love and affection serve only to enrich his humanity, never to subject him to psychic torment. (Stephens, 1996)
How, then, shall I become loving and affectionate? – As a man who is noble and fortunate; for it is against all reason to be abject, or broken in spirit, or to depend on something other than yourself, or even to blame either God or man. I would have you become affectionate in such a way as to maintain at the same time all these rules [of Stoicism]; if, however, by virtue of this natural affection [philostorgos], whatever it is you call by that name, you are going to be a slave and miserable, it does not profit you to be affectionate. And what keeps you from loving someone as mortal, as one who may leave you? Did not Socrates love his own children? Yes, but as a free man, as one who remembers that it was necessary first to be a friend to [or love] the gods. (Epictetus, Discourses, 3.24)
In what way, therefore, shall I love my children or relations? As strongly and affectionately as is possible for me to love them, but so as that nature may [not] be accused; so as that whatever happens, I may still adhere to nature and accept and embrace whatsoever nature sends. This is the foundation. This is all. Consider this and it will be easy to find the true measure of all affection, and what discipline and rules must be followed to reduce our affection to nature and to affect [i.e., to love] as becomes a rational creature. (Shaftesbury, The Philosophical Regimen)