Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 6, The discipline of assent

One might be forgiven for beginning to suspect that The Inner Citadel, Pierre Hadot’s classic study of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, is in fact a study of the philosophy of Epictetus. We have seen that chapter 5, for instance, is devoted to “the beautifully coherent Stoicism of Epictetus.” And we are now beginning to look at three chapters devoted respectively to Epictetus’ disciplines of assent (this post), desire (next post), and action (two posts down the road). Then again, other authors, for instance William Stephens, in his enlightening Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed, have remarked how Marcus’ philosophy is heavily influenced by the sage from Hierapolis. No matter, a better understanding of the three disciplines will do all of us some good, so let us proceed!

The discipline of assent trains us to make better judgments about things. Hadot defines it concisely in the following manner:

The discipline of assent consists essentially in refusing to accept within oneself all representations which are other than objective or adequate. (p. 101)

What are these “representations,” referred to in Greek as phantasia (which, interestingly, is the root of the English word phantasm, i.e., ghost)? Even though I have covered Stoic psychology 101 on this site, let us follow Hadot’s version of the theory. To begin with, we have sensation (Gr. aisthesis), a physiological process we share with other animals, and which generates images (phantasia) in the soul (i.e., in our minds). More specifically, the phantasia are produced in the ruling faculty of our mind, the hegemonikon.

The important bit here is that these images in our mind are accompanied by an inner discourse, or a pre-judgment. Like: chocolate cake (from sensation) + “chocolate cake is good!” (inner discourse) = pre-reflective desire for chocolate cake (representation). The notion, then, is that we can give or withhold assent to these representations, essentially by confirming or challenging the pre-reflective inner discourse. Like this: “no, chocolate cake is not good, because I’m diabetic.”

That’s why Marcus often reminds himself of the difference between the row image (which is emotionally neutral) and the judgment (which is not):

Don’t tell yourself anything more than what your primary representations tell you. If you’ve been told, ‘so-and-so has been talking behind your back,’ then this is what you’ve been told. You have not, however, been told that ‘somebody has done a wrong to you.’ (Meditations VIII.9)

Our pre-reflective judgments originate from our prejudices, or from social pressure, and it is not, therefore, wise to assent to them. It is in this sense that the hegemonikon, the ruling faculty, is the “inner citadel” of the title of Hadot’s book. As he puts it:

[The hegemonikon] 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.’ (p. 107)

Before you go heavily metaphysical on me and start objecting that there is no such thing as free will, slow down. This isn’t about that. The Stoics did have a theory of what we today (inaccurately) call free will, and by the lights of that theory they were what modern philosophers call compatibilists. But what we are talking about here is the commonsensical notion that, ultimately, my decisions are, in fact mine. They may be influenced by externals, such as other people’s opinions, but they are mine to the extent to which I reflected on them and confirmed to myself that that is what I want to assent to. Another way to say this is that for the Stoics our freedom is circumscribed to our freedom of thought. And nothing else, because everything else does not depend entirely on us. Accordingly, Epictetus famously says:

What troubles people is not things, but their judgments about things. (Enchiridion 5)

Even modern critics of Stoicism often make the mistake to think that the Stoics artificially separated emotions and reason. Nope, that was Plato’s mistake, as Hadot makes very clear:

[For the Stoics] there is no opposition, as the Platonists had held, between one part of the soul which is rational and good in and of itself, and another part which is irrational and bad. Rather, it is reason -- and the ego itself -- which becomes either good or bad, as a function of the judgments which it forms about things. (p. 109)

Another warning not to go metaphysical here: “ego” doesn’t have to acquire the philosophically “thick” meaning of some kind of permanent essence. And we don’t need to consider the (questionable, in my mind) Buddhist notion that the ego (self) is an illusion. All we are saying here is that there is a dynamic set of mental executive processes that make decisions for the organism. The existence of such set is a scientific fact, not a metaphysically dubious construct.

What is the point of practicing the discipline of assent? Hadot explains:

Thanks to the discipline of assent, the transformation of our consciousness of the world brings about a transformation of our consciousness of ourselves. (p. 112)

Hadot spends quite some time examining a rather lengthy passage of the Meditations (XII.3) where Marcus identifies a number of “circles” surrounding the ego, and from which he is training himself to be separate, in order to more efficiently practice the discipline of assent. These circles are:

I. The others. We don’t want to waste our time, Marcus says, in representations concerning other people, unless such representations are somehow helpful to the common good. In other words, what other people do or think or say is their business, unless they are involved in committing an injustice.

II. Past and future. They are both outside of our control, so we should not be concerned with them (except in learning from our past mistakes). Focus your energy on the here and now (which is the best way to deal with the future anyway).

III. Involuntary emotions. Things like our automatic reactions to sudden noises, or blushing, or the pain we feel in response to an injury, among many others. They are not under our control, therefore they are nothing to us (meaning nothing we should concern ourselves with, since there is nothing we can do about them).

IV. The course of events. The universe, for the Stoics (and for modern science), unfolds by way of a complex web of cause and effect, of which we are a part, but a tiny and rather uninfluential part. It then makes sense to focus on those parts we can actually influence and let the rest be. Again, we don’t really have a choice, so what’s the point of complaining about it?

The last bit is where a famous passage from Epictetus, which has inspired the title of this site, comes into play:

Remember that what you love is mortal, and that nothing of what you love belongs to you in the proper sense of the term. It has been given to you for the time being, not forever or in such a way that it cannot be taken away from you, but, like a fig or a bunch of grapes, at a particular season of the year. If you get a craving for them during the winter, then you’re a fool. (Discourses III.24.84)

The discipline of assent, remarks Hadot, in an important sense represents logic (one of the three classical fields of study of the Stoic curriculum) as it is lived and put into practice. The discipline amounts to a sustained criticism of our own value judgments, something that, frankly, we could all use more of, especially in this era of “fake news.”

As Hadot correctly points out, when Marcus says that everything is a matter of value judgment (Meditations IV.3) he is not endorsing epistemic relativism, subjectivism, or skepticism. What he is saying is that how we act in the world depends on our own judgment, a version of the famous Socratic notion that virtue is a kind of knowledge, and that people commit evil only out of a mistaken understanding (judgment) of what is virtuous. Or as Epictetus puts it:

All errors imply a contradiction, for since he who errs does not wish to err, but to succeed, it is obvious that he is not doing what he wishes. (Discourses II.26)

You can see, then, why developing a good faculty of judgment -- which is the goal of the discipline of assent -- is crucial to a life well lived.

(next: the discipline of desire)

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