Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 5, The beautifully coherent Stoicism of Epictetus

(Philippeion at Olympia, foto by the Author)

The Inner Citadel, Pierre Hadot’s classic that helped putting Stoicism back on the map of practiced philosophies, is an in-depth commentary on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. But we have seen last time that this in turn cannot be done without taking in due consideration the enormous influence Epictetus had on the emperor-philosopher. The fifth chapter of the book is, accordingly, devoted to an overview of Epictetus’ philosophy, which is followed by three more chapters each dedicated to one of the three Epictetean disciplines: desire & aversion, action, and assent. Let’s take a look at the overview first.

Hadot begins without mincing words:

Ancient philosophy had nothing in common with our contemporary philosophers, who imagine that philosophy consists, for each philosopher, in inventing a ‘new discourse’ or new language, all the more original the more it is incomprehensible and artificial. (p. 73)

Although he has a point, this isn’t quite fair. Yes, modern academic philosophy has gotten carried away doing precisely what Hadot is charging it with, and moreover has pointedly ignored any practical application of philosophy for real people in real life. But most of the Pre-Socratics also invented new discourses and new language, and they too were fairly incomprehensible…

A very important point made by Hadot, however, is that Stoicism was born out of the confluence of three preceding traditions: the Socratic one, as far as ethics is concerned; the Heraclitean one, regarding metaphysics; and the Megarean one (named after Euclides of Megara, a student of Socrates) in terms of logical discourse. (It’s interesting to know that Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, studied with the Megarean philosophers Stilpo and Diodorus Cronus.) These traditions got merged and adapted to yield the three areas of study of the standard Stoic curriculum.

As is well known, the Logos is a crucial concept in Stoic philosophy, and Hadot does a good job at interpreting it in three distinct, yet related, ways: the logos of the Socratic approach, which uses reason to arrive at ethical truths; the logos of Heraclitus, in the sense of the rational principle by which the cosmos is organized; and the logos of the Megarians, i.e., the notion that we can arrive at an understanding of reality of the cosmos by way of reason.

It is in this sense of confluence of the three logos that we want to understand the famous Stoic notion that we need to live “according to nature”: when we apply reason to understand the world and how to live in it we are resonating with the cosmic principle, we are in harmony, so to speak, with it.

Hadot suggests, not at all unreasonably, that Stoic practice needs to be a seamless mix of “physics” (i.e., metaphysics and natural science), “logic” (broadly construed) and “ethics” (how to live one’s life). At the same time, however, when these disciplines need to be taught to students it must be done in some kind of order, and the ancient Stoics themselves famously disagreed on whether to put, say, logic or physics first. If one follows the famous metaphor of the garden, where the fence is the logic, the fertile soil the physics, and the fruits of the trees the ethics, then the pedagogical sequence is: logic > physics > ethics. This happens to be my preferred structure for the Stoic curriculum as well. To put it as Hadot does, however:

Logic, physics, and ethics are distinguishable when we talk about philosophy, but not when we live it. (p. 82)

All of this is a preliminary to Epictetus, who was in some sense an innovator in Stoic philosophy (e.g., his conception of role ethics), and yet in other respects was closer than any other late Stoic to the original Stoa of Zeno and especially Chrysippus. For instance, Epictetus’ famous insistence on what we today call the dichotomy of control, harks back to the initial Stoic distinction between things that we can control and things that we cannot control. Epictetus uses the classic Stoic words to enumerate the things that are under our control: value judgments (hypolepseis), impulses toward action (horme), and desire (orexis). (See here for a brief introduction to Stoic psychology.)

It is this insistence by Epictetus on improving our faculty of judgment (prohairesis) that leads Marcus to emphasize the role of our “ruling faculty,” the hegemonikon, the one exercising judgment. (See here for more on the relationship between the two.) Hadot comments:

It is quite remarkable that Epictetus is representing the moral life as a dialectical exercise, in which we engage in a dialogue with events, as they ask us questions. [quoting Epictetus:] ‘His ship sank.’ ‘What happened?’ ‘His ship sank.’ ‘He was sent to prison.’ But if you add the proposition ‘a terrible thing happened to him,’ then that is coming from you. (p. 85)

At this point Hadot introduces the classical distinction among the three topoi that Epictetus uses as foundational for his philosophy: desire and aversion, action, and assent. The first one has to do with developing the right desires (and aversions), that is with training ourselves to desire things under our control (good judgments), not those we cannot control (externals). Action deals with how to behave with other people, keeping in mind of course that decisions to act in one way or another are up to us, but the outcomes of those decisions aren’t (they depend in part on externals). Assent is about arriving at increasingly correct analyses of our impressions, for instance realizing that the impression that to sleep with an attractive stranger is a good thing is, in fact, incorrect, if we are already married or in a committed relationship.

Hadot also makes an interesting point which at the same time clears up a possible source of confusion: Epictetus uses the word topoi (singular topos) to refer to the three disciplines. That’s the same word that early Stoics used when talking about the three fields of study of logic, physics, and ethics. From there it’s but a small step to directly connect the fields of studies and the disciplines, in this way, which has become standard in modern Stoicism after Hadot:

Physics <> Desire / Aversion

Ethics <> Action

Logic <> Assent

The idea is that an understanding of how the world works (physics) informs us about what is proper for us to desire (things under our control) or not (things not under our control). Ethics, quite properly, tells us how to act in the world, particularly when it comes to our interactions with others. And logic is what we use whenever we inquire into impressions and decide to assent to them (or not).

Hadot then deploys the same approach we have seen above when talking about the fact that lived philosophy needs to be based on a fluid mix of the three fields of study, while talked philosophy (i.e., when we teach it) requires a specific curricular sequence. The same thing, he maintains, is true for the three disciplines. While Epictetus is explicit that desire / aversion comes first, action next, and, especially, assent last, Hadot thinks this is true in the context of teaching. But in terms of living our lives, we again need a dynamic presence of all three. This point is controversial among modern Stoics -- particularly because Epictetus is so clear about assent coming last. But in reading Hadot, I’m inclined to agree with him: teaching philosophy is one thing, living it is another. While it is true that deploying logic to secure our assent only to propositions that are good for us to assent to is the most difficult and advanced task for the student of Stoicism, it’s not like we can live our lives for years before starting to use reason to assess impressions. Imperfectly, but we need to do it from the get go.

The conclusion of all this is that Stoic philosophy, and particularly Epictetus’ version, forms a beautifully coherent system. It all hangs together: physics, ethics, logic, desire / aversion, action, and assent. Stoic metaphysics and Stoic psychology. All in the pursuit of a eudaimonic life, a life worth living:

The doctrine of the three exercises-themes, disciplines, or rules of life thus contains within itself the whole essence of Stoicism, recapitulated in a grandiose way. (p. 100)

(next: The discipline of assent)

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