The first time I read Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, only a few passages made sense to me. It wasn't until I read Pierre Hadot's The Inner Citadel a couple of times before I connected with and "got" Meditations from start to finish.
Hadot spends quite a few pages setting the scene for his analysis of Meditations. One of his chapters is entirely devoted to Epictetus - a powerhouse among Stoics. We learn some very important and fundamental principals of Stoicism from Epictetus. One of those important principals is the dichotomy of control. In his Encheiridion or "handbook", he starts with:
Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own. So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men. But if you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is, just as it is, not your own, then no one will ever coerce you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, you will not accuse anyone, you will not do a single thing unwillingly, you will have no enemies, and no one will harm you, because you will not be harmed at all.In learning and attempting to practice Stoicism, I've come to learn that there are a lot of things out of my control. And what a refreshing change to see something so clearly defined and apparent as opposed to the guilt and anxiety that was instilled in me while learning Mormon dogma.
Early in my sessions with my therapist, she reminded me of the serenity prayer, which is quite Stoic:
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
When these words finally sunk deep enough into my brain, I realized that much of my anxiety was based on things out of my control. So many voices told me to be worried about dozens of different things and how I was supposed to act and what I was supposed to be worried about in the past or in the future. My brain was like a fruit tree that had over-grown and had been choked by a vicious bramble-week. Epictetus' words (along with all the other Stoics) were like a chain-saw that cut away all the useless and what was left was a well-balanced, trimmed tree, producing good fruit.
This is the first lesson of Stoic happiness: always, in all things, separate things that are in your control from those things that are out of your control. Then focus on the things in your control - this is the start of the path to contentment.
The Inner Citadel, your hegemonikon or Empedocles' Perfect Sphere
If you observe closely, you will have noticed that Epictetus' list of things in our control come from within. Therefore, happiness and contentment, no matter what happens, comes from us!
There is, within each of us, a true self - our true soul if you will - that gets to decide our reality, our opinions and what we ultimately decide to accept or reject. And no matter what any outside force or event occurs, we have the ultimate, final say in how we view those things.
Marcus Aurelius wrote the following in Meditations:
Book 4, 4
"things cannot touch the soul (mind)"
Book 5, 19
"Things cannot touch the soul at all. They have no entry to the soul, and cannot turn or move it. The soul alone turns and moves itself, making all externals presented to it cohere with judgements it thinks worthy of itself."
Book 6, 52
"things of themselves have no inherent power to form our judgments."
Book 9, 15
"Mere things stand isolated outside our doors, with no knowledge or report of themselves. What then reports them? Our directing mind."
To quote Hadot,
When he (Aurelius) speaks about "us" and about the soul, he is thinking of that superior or guiding part of the soul which the Stoics called the hegemonikon. It alone is free, because it alone can give or refuse its assent to that inner discourse which enunciates what the object is which is represented by a given phantasia. This borderline which objects cannot cross, this inviolable stronghold of freedom, is the limit of what I shall refer to as the 'inner citadel.' Things cannot penetrate into this citadel: that is, they cannot produce the discourse which we develop about things, or the interpretation which we give of the world and its events.As Book 9, 15 alludes to, these external things and events are "outside the door" of our inner citadel and we hold the key to that door!
This understanding - this realization - this lesson - is the next key to our Stoic happiness. We must realize there is a hard boundary between events and our opinion. And we get to decide what our opinion and our attitude is. In the vast majority of people's minds, they jump to conclusions and assume too much. They do not exercise much discipline in their value judgments and therefore introduce sadness, anxiety and worry into their own lives. And other people know this! They use it to great effect to induce guilt in others. These are "the games" we humans play. We must realize, however, we don't have to play these games! We can fortify our inner citadel and exercise extreme security measures when it comes to letting in thoughts, assumptions and conclusions into our directing mind.
Marcus makes mention of Empedocles' "perfect round" which through the vortex of external events, and our constant vigil, that boundary remains inviolate. Our discipline in keeping a strong border ensures the integrity and contentment of our inner citadel. In Book 12, 3 Marcus writes,
There are three things in your composition: body, breath, and mind. The first two are yours to the extent that you must take care for them, but only the third is in the full sense your own. So, if you separate from yourself - that is, from your mind - all that others say or do, all that you yourself have said or done, all that troubles you for the future, all that your encasing body and associate breath bring on you without your choice, all that is whirled round in the external vortex encircling us, so that your power of mind, transcending now all contingent ties, can exist on its own, pure and liberated, doing what is just, willing what happens to it, and saying what is true; if, as I say, you separate from this directing mind of yours the baggage of passion, time future and time past, and make yourself like Empedocles' 'perfect round rejoicing in the solitude it enjoys', and seek only to perfect this life you are living in the present, you will be able at least to live out the time remaining before your death calmly, kindly, and at peace with the god inside you.
How do we ensure the integrity of that boundary? How do we prevent thieves and burglars from entering our inner citadel? We learn the Stoic Discipline of Assent.
Discipline of Assent
To get directly to the point, the discipline of assent is the process of strengthening our hegemonikon to assent (agree) with only valid impressions and to disagree or ignore invalid or incorrect impressions.
The world is filled with external events. We are confronted with and bombarded by these events incessantly. These events "propose" an idea or opinion to us and then we have to decide if we agree or not with that proposition.
Examples are best to better explain this concept.
From Marcus Aurelius Book 8, 49:
Do not elaborate to yourself beyond what your initial impressions report. You have been told that so-and-so is maligning you. That is the report: you have not been told that you are harmed. I see that my little boy is ill. That is what I see: I do not see that he is in danger. So always stay like this within your first impressions and do not add conclusions from your own thoughts - and then that is all.From Epictetus Discourses 3.8
Just as we practise answering sophistic questions, so should we train for impressions every day, as they implicitly pose their own questions.This same thought process can and ought to be applied in every day circumstances as well as life-altering events.
‘So-and-so’s son died.’ (‘The question’).
Answer: ‘Since it’s nothing he can control, it isn’t bad.’
‘So and so’s father left his son nothing when he died.’
‘Not something the son can control, so not bad.’
‘Caesar condemned him.’
‘Outside his control – not bad.’
‘He lamented these events.’
‘That is in his control – and bad.’
‘He withstood it like a man.’
‘That is in his control – and good.’
If we make a habit of such analysis, we will make progress, because we will never assent to anything unless it involves a cognitive impression.
‘His son died.’
What happened? His son died.
‘The ship was lost.’
What happened? The ship was lost.
‘He was thrown into jail.’
What happened? He was thrown into jail.
‘He’s in a bad situation’ is a stock comment that everyone adds on their own account.
When a driver cuts you off in traffic, all you can say is that they cut you off. When you add, "what a jerk!" then you have introduced that value judgement. You have allowed the event to enter your inner citadel and disrupt your peace.
When you receive notice that you've been fired from your job, all you can say is that you've been fired from your job. When you add, "this is really bad!" that is you who has added the value judgement. You can still excel at being an excellent human being (arete) by having a positive attitude about being fired and looking for opportunities to make this work to your advantage. But you won't get to this point quickly unless you exercise the disciple of assent.
I love Epictetus' frame of mind when describing the discipline of assent. Your directing mind is like an inner citadel and you employ a guard who has complete control over who can enter your citadel. Epictetus says, "Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, “Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test” (Discourses 2.18). Have you ever heard the phrase, "living rent free in your head"? This is a very similar idea. When someone is living rent-free in your head, you've allowed them to "get to you" to annoy you or disturb you, and you've failed to realize that you can kick them out whenever you want; you can kick the free-loader out! All it takes is mental toughness and discipline and practice at not letting those impressions in to begin with!
Allow me to pause and make a few contrasting points between Stoicism and Mormonism. As I've analysed my mental health between the years 2014 and 2018, I would say that learning and practicing the discipline of assent has been the biggest benefit. Growing up Mormon, I was fed a constant diet of value judgements. I was told, constantly, what it meant to be good or bad. "Choosing the Right" was front and center in Mormon culture. Believing in God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost; believing that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, that the Book of Mormon is an historical and truthful record, that Jesus Christ visited the ancient Americas, that the American aborigine is a descendant of the Lamanites, that the current Mormon prophet is the only authorized "mouthpiece" of God on the earth today ... and that you were "good" if you believed and testified of these things and "bad" if you did not. These beliefs are the beginning qualifications of "good" in Mormonism. If you believe these things, you "choose the right" but if you don't believe these things and verbally say so, then you do not "choose the right."
After these basic, fundamental teachings, you would prove your belief and worthiness by acting on them. You are "good" if you say your prayers morning, afternoon and night. You are "good" if you read the Book of Mormon for 30 minutes every day. You are "good" if you praise and testify of Joseph Smith. You are "good" if you obey all the commandments, and "bad" and "apostatizing" if you break any commandments. Everyone is measured and re-measured against the beliefs and commandments in Mormonism. Good if you believe and live them, bad if you don't.
I never took an opportunity to evaluate those value judgements until 2014. From birth, through childhood, teenage years and through my 20's and 30's, I only ever let the "Mormon" value judgements into my consciousness. In essence, I turned over "guard-duty" to whoever my teacher or leader or prophet was at the time. And in many cases, these peoples' opinions and views were subject to change. Learning and practicing the discipline of assent has allowed me to perform a hard re-set on my value judgements. Mental-health-wise, I've never been healthier. For the first time in my life, I am seeing things as they are.
Discipline of Desire
I am, by no means, a Stoic sage. But I do feel better-armed, knowing about the dichotomy of control and the discipline of assent. Up to about the year 2014, what gave me direction and motivation in life was Mormonism. I was given a long list of things to do, and I set about checking those items off. That worked pretty well for me until it didn't! My Mormon worldview and foundation crumbled and in that void, I needed to ensure I rebuilt on solid rock. But how do I find the right motivation; the driving force to power my desires and action? Enter the Stoic Discipline of Desire.
At this point, I'd like to share a sequence that demonstrates how assent, desire and our will to act are intertwined.
An impression (external event) occurs → we assent (or not) → desire is triggered (or not) → we act (or not) on that desire.
Many times, that process happens instantaneously and before we know it, we are acting on impressions. Almost subconsciously, we agree and desire something, and then immediately act.
People who want to sell you something, will play on your basest fears and desires in order to rob you of time and money. They tell you that material possessions, power, prestige, health, eternal life and salvation are "good" and should be sought. In many cases, you assent to these impressions thinking they will make you content and happy. Stoicism helps you regain control over that process and instructs you on what you should desire (and not).
I really like how Chris Fisher puts it (source):
The discipline of desire helps us stop the train of passion before it leaves the station and builds a full head of steam. That is why Epictetus taught that controlling our passions, through the discipline of desire, is the “most urgent” of the three disciplines.
"[Desire] 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." (Discourses 3.2.3)The Discipline of Desire includes two very important distinctions. Marcus Aurelius often wrote about our own nature and universal nature (see Book 5.25, Book 6.58 and Book 12.32). Personally, I like to think of these as micro-desires and macro-desires. Others have called them common nature and universal Nature or human will and cosmic will. The key idea is that, we have two areas of desire to focus on: our own, and that of Zeus/God/Providence/the Universe.
I've already discussed the dichotomy of control, which is based on the opening chapter of Epictetus' Encheiridion. Chris Fisher organizes this chapter into a table-like format, which makes it very easy to consume
This table succinctly informs us where our micro-desires should be focused. The list of things in our control, and subsequently where we can place our desires, is small. But the outcomes are significant.
The other aspect of the discipline of desire is that of Universal or cosmic nature. Some might call this the will of God or Providence. Much thought and debate has gone into this topic. There seems to be an active debate on-line between the Modern (agnostic/atheistic) Stoics and the Traditionalist (deist) Stoics. The Moderns have seemingly tried to re-invent Stoicism by taking Zeus/God/Providence out of the equation, while the Traditionalists have pointed to the ancient Stoics as well as the academic studies of ancient Stoicism, to state that Stoicism absolutely claims there is a Providence or consciousness in the Universe and it is active.
Furthermore, the discipline of desire asks the Stoic follower to seek, understand, desire and live with the will of the Universe. This is a key difference, in my opinion, in how a person might choose to live a resigned, stoic (lower-case 's') life versus an active, fulfilling Stoic (upper-case 'S') life. Stoics (big-S) will seek to see how everything is useful for the Whole (earth, universe, etc.) - they can remain indifferent to these events, but love them and even want them to happen!
Pierre Hadot describes how a practicing Stoic might view cosmic events:
Everything that happens to the part is useful for the Whole, and everything that is "prescribed" for each part is, almost in the medical sense of the term, "prescribed" (V, 8) for the health of the Whole, and consequently for all the other parts as well.
The discipline of desire therefore consists in replacing each event within the perspective of the Whole, and this is why it corresponds to the physical part of philosophy. To replace each event within the perspective of the Whole means to understand two things simultaneously: that I am encountering it, or that it is present to me, because it was destined for me by the Whole, but also that the Whole is present within it. Since such an event does not depend upon me, in itself it is indifferent, and we might therefore expect the Stoic to greet it with indifference. Indifference, however, does not mean coldness. On the contrary: since such an event is the expression of the love which the Whole has for itself, and since it is useful for and willed by the Whole, we too must want and love it. In this way, my will shall identify itself with the divine Will which has willed this event to happen. To be indifferent to indifferent things-that is, to things which do not depend on me-in fact means to make no difference between them: it means to love them equally, just as Nature or the Whole produces them with equal love. (The Inner Citadel p. 142, emphasis added)Even though it's been pointed out by many people that Friedrich Nietzsche excoriated Stoicism, I still think his "amor fati" quote encapsulates well the idea of loving the will of Providence/Universal Nature:
Some people might assume focusing on micro-desires and macro-desires will bring a person happiness. So far in this essay, I've been using the terms "happiness" and "contentment." I think it is time to clarify this point. The Stoic philosophers used the word eudaimonia to describe the outcome living according to Nature. Some have interpreted the word eudamonia as happiness, but it has a more precise meaning in "human flourishing" or "good flow." Zeno of Citium called it "good flow of life" (source).
Stoicism does not promise elation or joy or eternal bliss or never-ending happiness; which is what many religions seem to offer for a price. Rather, Stoicism seems to say, "here are things in your control and things not in your control. If you focus on things out of your control, you'll find disappointment. If you focus on things in your control, you'll live life with eyes wide open." Stoicism also confronts us with the cosmic view and challenges us to adapt to Universal nature, not with promises, but with rationality.
There is other another aspect, which I have not addressed yet, which is a key ingredient in the pursuit of eudamonia. It is the pursuit of arete or excellence in character by practicing the only moral good: that of virtue (discipline, courage, justice, wisdom). I'll conclude this essay discussing how the Stoics view virtue as the sole good. But before I get to that conclusion, there is one more discipline to discuss - the Discipline of Action.
Discipline of Action
I am not well versed in Epicureanism, but I have heard and read many other aspiring Stoics discuss the differences between Stoicism and Epicureanism. The Epicureans believed pleasure was the sole good and believed the best way to accomplish this was to "to live modestly, to gain knowledge of the workings of the world, and to limit one's desires." (source) One way to achieve this was to disengage with society and seek tranquility in a garden or peaceful place. Indeed this sounds wonderful and peaceful; however Stoicism offers this same peace and tranquility while engaging with society. For the Stoics, virtue is the sole good and the only real way to practice virtue is in society. One cannot practice discipline, courage, wisdom and justice unless there are other human beings around, who would give the aspiring Stoic opportunities to practice said virtues.
Furthermore, Stoics would bring others into their circle of care by wanting others to flourish. The technical Greek term for this is oikeiôsis. It can be roughly translated as "familiarity" or "affinity". Practically speaking, it means each of us as individuals, are naturally programmed to care for ourselves, physically and logically. While we practice to be better at that, we can also extend our circle of affinity to those closest to us, then on to an ever-widening circle, until we have that same affinity to all citizens of the cosmos; we become true cosmopolitans.
With these two principals in minds, (acting with virtue in the context of society and viewing all people as "in our circle of care"), Stoicism gives us the tools to enter the world every day and engage with others and keep our tranquility.
Many people, including myself, love this particular passage from Marcus Aurelius, who must have often given himself this pep-talk in the morning:
Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own - not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.
Corresponding to each Stoic discipline is a virtue.
With the Discipline of Desire, we are provided a structure and philosophy for demonstrating the virtues of courage and self-discipline.
With the Discipline of Assent, we can practice the virtue of wisdom.
And with the Discipline of Action, we have opportunities to demonstrate the virtue of justice.
Armed with the concepts and ideas of the three Stoic disciplines and the Stoic framework, we are ready to wake up each morning and look for opportunities to practice virtue. The study of Stoic philosophy and meditating on these concepts is important. We ought to express gratitude to God for our lot in life and for everything God has provided us. We ought to meditate and reinforce Stoic principles every day in a journal. We ought to study what each of the cardinal virtues mean. But all of that studying and meditating is useless to us and to our fellow brothers and sisters if we fail to exercise virtue in our every-day lives.
A typical day for an aspiring Stoic might have these activities:
- spend a few minutes thinking of something for which they are grateful
- write in a journal, anticipating events that might not go as planned (up to and including death)
- reading a reminder from a Stoic sage or writer, such as Aurelius, Epictetus or Zeno
- go to work, play; live in the world, drive around, interact with people
- look for opportunities to practice the three disciplines
- exercise virtue (demonstrate self-discipline, share wise advice, treat others with kindness and respect)
- at the end of the day, reflect on what went well and what didn't; using the lens and measuring stick of virtue to determine what was good or bad; with kindness, congratulate yourself for things well-done and coach yourself on how you could do better the next day
In talking about Stoicism with various people, inevitably the conversation drifts towards the topic of how similar Stoicism and Buddhism are. What is fascinating to both me and the other people with whom I discuss this, is that two cultures, from different sides of the planet, arrived at very similar conclusions. Both philosophies have also withstood the test of time and have brought millions of people to enlightenment. Anyone would be hard pressed to find adamant detractors of either philosophy.
To me, this means there are timeless and useful principals; they do not change and have proven beneficial and truthful time and time again. They are like solid rock, on which someone can build their mental fortress.
This has been my deepest desire: to place myself on solid rock. To be able to rely on a philosophy that supports me every day of my life today and for the remainder of my days, no matter the circumstance. I suppose this is why one particular passage from Meditations rings so true with me and why I think of it often each day and through every week:
Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.