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The Art of Living

The Discipline of Action

Massimo Pigliucci tells us how to practice forebearance.

Epictetus of Hierapolis (50-135 CE) began life as a slave and ended it as the most renowned teacher of philosophy in the Roman world. Talk about going from rags to riches! Yet the little we know of his lifestyle indicates that despite his fame, Epictetus lived a simple life until the end. When he was old he adopted a friend’s child who would have otherwise likely died; and his main concern was not to make money but to teach young Roman aristocrats how to become better human beings and future leaders. One of the reasons we still study Epictetus two millennia later is because of his threefold curriculum in practical Stoic philosophy, the so-called disciplines of Desire, Action, and Assent. Last time we looked at the theory and practice of Desire. Let’s now turn to Action.

‘Action’ here specifically means behavior toward our fellow human beings – arguably the major concern for social creatures like us. With very few exceptions, we simply must interact with other people, be they our partner, children, friends, colleagues, or strangers. Such interactions are crucial for our own wellbeing, as plenty of scientific research shows. It follows that to learn to behave appropriately with others will be a major cause of our own happiness as well as of society’s thriving. But what does it mean to behave ‘appropriately’? In Greek the word is kathēkon, which means both duty and rational action, or in other words, the kind of thing that one reasonably ought to do. We are, therefore, not talking etiquette but ethics. And that’s the sort of thing Epictetus meant to teach his students by way of his Discipline of Action.

His starting point, as a Stoic, is that we ought to live in accordance, or in harmony, with nature. To Stoics, this means to live prosocially and reasonably, since sociality and reason are the two defining characteristics of Homo sapiens. Of course, there are many ways to act reasonably and prosocially, but there are also many ways to fail at one or both. Hence the necessity of reflecting ahead of time on how to behave in a kathēkon fashion, and of practicing such behavior on a regular basis.

Speaking of practice, consider the following excerpt from Epictetus’s Manual, Section 4:

“When you are about to take something in hand, remind yourself what manner of thing it is. If you are going to bathe, put before your mind what happens in the bath – water pouring over some, others being jostled, some reviling, others stealing; and you will set to work more securely if you say to yourself at once: ‘I want to bathe, and I want to keep my will in harmony with nature’, and so in each thing you do. For in this way, if anything turns up to hinder you in your bathing, you will be ready to say: ‘I did not want only to bathe, but to keep my will in harmony with nature, and I shall not so keep it, if I lose my temper at what happens.’”

Here’s how I practice the situation described, and hence the Discipline of Action: I go to the movies. You see, I’m one of those people who really, really gets annoyed when someone disrupts the moviegoing experience. After all, I paid good money to sit quietly in the dark for a couple of hours and enjoy the latest flick. But as I’m sure you’ve noticed, these days there is almost always someone who has not read the memo, let alone read Epictetus. You can bet that in the middle of the movie, that person – usually located in one of the seats in front of you – will feel the urge to turn on his phone; and will, in fact, act on such urge. He absolutely has to text someone, or post something, or whatever else people do with their phones during a movie in a cinema.

I used to get seriously irritated at this behavior. On a few occasions I have even shouted at the perpetrator – to no effect, of course. In other words, as Epictetus put it, I’ve ‘lost my temper at what happens’. The result, predictably, has been not only that I ended up not enjoying the movie, but that I put myself in a condition of disharmony with (my human) nature. I behaved both unreasonably and antisocially.

So these days, before I go to a movie theater I re-read the above passage by Epictetus. I prepare my mind by telling myself that I have two objectives: one, to enjoy the movie; two, to keep in harmony with (my) nature. The first objective is not up to me, as it depends on what other people will or will not do. But the second objective is entirely up to me. And damn it, I’m determined to achieve at least one of those objectives! In practice this means that if someone does disrupt my movie experience by way of a mobile phone, I am ready with a series of possible courses of action. I can decide to:

(i) Politely approach the person and ask him to turn off the phone;

(ii) Look for the manager and ask him to deal with the situation;

(iii) Do my best to ignore the distraction;

(iv) Walk out and watch the movie at home on my large screen television.

Which option I choose depends on my mood and on what I think may work. But the one option that is not on the menu is getting angry and acting like a jerk. That would be unreasonable and antisocial.

Your turn: Which situations do you encounter in your life that could benefit from Epictetus’s Discipline of Action?

© Prof. Massimo Pigliucci 2023

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the 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 newstoicism.org.

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