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The Art of Living

The Discipline of Assent

Massimo Pigliucci tells us to stop impulsively judging.

Philosophy can be conceived as an inquiry into the nature of the world (metaphysics), the nature of knowledge (epistemology), and the nature of a number of other things (aesthetic experience, ethics, mind, science, and so forth). Alternatively, we can see philosophy as a way of life. This is the approach I adopt in this column.

One powerful example of philosophy as a way of life is presented in the so-called three disciplines of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus of Hierapolis (50-135 CE), which we’ve briefly examined in the past three columns. We studied the discipline of desire and aversion, which teaches us to rethink our values and our disgusts; we then moved on to the discipline of action, which is concerned with identifying the most appropriate way to act toward other people. We’ll conclude here with the discipline of assent.

What, exactly, is ‘assent’? In Stoic psychology, we are bombarded by ‘impressions’ (which are sense data), to which we automatically, unreflectively, attach a judgment. For instance, I see an orange Lamborghini cruising the road in front of me and I discover myself imagining the pleasure of driving such a car.

But according to the Stoics, we should never assent, that is agree with our reflex judgement of any impression, until we have had a chance to slow down and examine it more carefully. On reflection, would it really be good for me to own a Lamborghini? To begin with, it’s a lot of money (which I don’t have) just to acquire it. It would also cost a significant amount in sheer maintenance. More importantly, it’s an extremely environmentally unfriendly way to drive around. Indeed, I shouldn’t be driving at all, since I live in New York City, where I can simply hop on the subway. So upon reflection, I decide to deny assent to the impression and go for a walk instead.

What I just described isn’t too remote from the findings of modern psychological research; particularly what Daniel Kahneman has described in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) as our two modes of thinking. System I is fast but inaccurate, and System II is slow, and more precise. System I is essentially subconscious and automatic – the sort of mental processing that allows you to make a split-second decision about whether to hit the brakes or steer sharply toward the right if a cat suddenly crosses in front of your car. System II is conscious and deliberate, and it comes into play when you are considering something, say, whether to change career, or to get married, or to buy a new Lamborghini.

One psychological problem identified by the Stoics (using different terminology), is that too often we delegate type II decisions to type I thinking – reacting when we should be considering – thereby getting into trouble and regret. One might surmise that the issue is easily solved: contra the famous commercial, we should not “just do it,” but rather stop, reflect on it, and then decide whether doing it is really such a good idea. As Kahneman pointed out, though, not only it is difficult to train ourselves to slow down, often we just can’t afford to do so, because we need to make a decision right here, right now. However, Epictetus, with no knowledge of modern cognitive science, anticipated both the problem and the solution.

The first two disciplines we considered, of desire/aversion, and of action, are practiced exclusively by way of System II thinking. The goal is to take our time to reflect on things to make considerate decisions. But the goal of the discipline of assent is to internalize the first two disciplines so well that they become second nature and can be deputized to System I. As Epictetus puts it, the idea is that we should get to the point of automatically doing the right thing even when we’re tired, sick, or drunk.

How do we practice the discipline of assent, then? In the same way in which we learn to drive a car. Initially, we have to pay explicit attention to a number of details, such as the position of the brake and accelerator pedals, shifting gears, road signs, and so forth. We have to do this because we are not good drivers yet: we need to get used to driving. Once we do so with time and repetition, we discover to our delight that our feet, hands, and eyes are going to the right places at the right moments without us having to consciously think about putting them there. So it is with the discipline of assent. Conscientiously practice it until you do it naturally.

Here’s one way to practice becoming better and faster at disciplining assent. In Stoic ethics it is bad for our character for us to constantly criticize or demean others – something we unfortunately tend to do all the time, on and off social media. So for a whole week, try to replace any value-laden language you may be tempted to use with more neutral descriptions. Do this as often as you can, both when speaking to others and to yourself. The goal is to report just the facts, to train yourself to think about things the way a camera would see them. Say, for instance, that someone cuts you off on the road and your instinct is to yell “Jerk!” A camera would not see a jerk, right? It would simply see a person cutting in front of you.

Initially the exercise will feel awkward and difficult, and you’ll slip up repeatedly. But the more you do it, the more natural abstention from judgmentalism will become for you. And the world will correspondingly be a better place for it.

© Prof. Massimo Pigliucci 2024

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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