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The Art of Living

The Three Disciplines of Epictetus

Massimo Pigliucci looks at the core principles for a Stoic life.

Practical philosophy is a combination of theory and practice. Practice without theory is blind, but theory without practice is sterile. Stoicism offers one of the best examples of integrating the two aspects. But like other philosophies (such as Buddhism) Stoicism comes in different flavors. As a particularly well understood and useful example, let’s examine the version of Stoicism that comes to us from the late first century teacher Epictetus of Hierapolis (which is modern day Pamukkale in Turkey).

Epictetus was not his real name, which is unknown. The word means ‘acquired’, since he was a slave. He was bought by Epaphroditus, Nero’s personal secretary, and brought to Rome, where he lived at the same time as another major Stoic, Seneca the Younger, who was, however, several years Epictetus’s senior. Epictetus learned philosophy and was eventually given his freedom. He then began teaching Stoicism in Rome, but was ultimately expelled, together with many other philosophers, by the Emperor Domitian, because he was speaking truth to power, and power, often, doesn’t like to be spoken truth to.

The joke, however, was on the Emperor. Epictetus moved to Nicopolis, in northwestern Greece, where he established what became the most sought-after school of the time. A later Emperor, Hadrian, apparently became a frequent visitor, and Epictetus’s friend. And the famous Stoic emperor-philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, was highly influenced by Epictetus.

In the tradition of Socrates, Epictetus did not write anything down. We owe ‘his’ Discourses and Manual to his student, Arrian of Nicomedia, who went on to become governor of Cappadocia and the author of a biography of Alexander the Great. Personally, I would be somewhat nervous if I knew that all that was going to survive of my teachings were the notes taken by one of my students; but Arrian was brilliant, and that’s all we have anyway.

We are told in the Discourses that there are three areas of practical philosophy in which we ought to train ourselves: “The first concerns the desires and the aversions, that we may not fail to get what we desire, and that we may not fall into that which we do not desire. The second concerns the movements (towards an object) and the movements from an object, and generally in doing what we ought to do, that we may act according to order, to reason, and not carelessly. The third thing concerns freedom from deception and rashness in judgment, and generally it concerns the assents” (III.2). The French scholar Pierre Hadot refers to these respectively as the Discipline of Desire (and Aversion), the Discipline of Action, and the Discipline of Assent. The original Greek terms, however, are more clear in their meaning, so let’s unpack this carefully.

The word translated here as ‘desire’ (and its contrary, ‘aversion’) really means what we ought to pursue, that is, our goals, values, and priorities (and, vice versa, what we ought to avoid). Epictetus makes it very easy for us: since according to him the only things that are really ‘up to us’ are our judgments and decisions to act or not to act (Manual, 1), therefore we should desire to develop good judgment and be averse to bad judgment. This makes eminent sense: everything we do (or do not do) voluntarily is the result of our judgments, and we’re in charge of them. The buck, so to speak, stops with us. By contrast, the outcomes of our decisions and actions are influenced by what we do, but also depend on external factors, such as other people’s judgments and actions. So Epictetus is telling us to train ourselves to do best the only thing for which we are ultimately entirely responsible.

‘Movement’ toward and from objects really relates to our intentions to act; hence Hadot’s name for the second discipline. Epictetus’s idea is for us to try to act in the world, and particularly toward other people, in the best way possible – which for a Stoic means in a cosmopolitan fashion. Cosmopolitanism – literally ‘behaving like a citizen of the world’ – implies that we should treat all others as if they were our brothers and sisters (or whatever other gender designation may apply). The discipline of action, then, is concerned with behaving as if we were members of a worldwide family where everyone benefits from everyone else’s cooperation.

Finally we come to the Discipline of Assent. To give assent means to agree to something. Specifically, in this context, it means to agree to only our most considered judgments on how to act. This means that the third discipline is a refinement of the first two, because Assent concerns itself with getting Desire/Aversion and Action right under whatever circumstances we may be called to make decisions.

We can think of the whole process as analogous to learning how to drive a car. First, we need to pay attention to what should and should not be our goals: for example, to drive safely without causing accidents or otherwise hurting others. Second, we practice the actual driving in a mindful fashion, explicitly paying attention to details such as the brakes, the shifting gears, the road, the traffic lights, the pedestrians, the other cars, and so forth. Finally, when we have practiced long enough, the whole thing becomes automatic. We don’t even have to consciously think of where to direct our hands and feet because our mind is now on autopilot, so to speak, and does the right thing spontaneously, as a result of training. All we have to do is to assent to the right decisions and driving in the circumstances.

That’s the theory. In the next three columns, so that we can continue our journey toward becoming better human beings under Epictetus’s tutelage, we will take a close look at a practical exercise from each of the three disciplines.

© Prof. Massimo Pigliucci 2023

Massimo Pigliucci is K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders (Basic Books). More by him at massimopigliucci.org.

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