Before we get into the thick of the seventh chapter of Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel (last entry here), a masterpiece of analysis of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the philosophy of Epictetus, and Stoicism more generally, let me apologize for how slowly the book club has been proceeding of late. It is taking me a long time to finish this book because it is not exactly easy going — which is why I flatter myself that I am providing a public service with these extended chapter-by-chapter summaries.
So let's get back to it! And specifically to Hadot’s treatment, in the central part of the book, of Epictetus’ famous three disciplines: assent (i.e., how to critically examine our own judgments), which we treated last time; desire (i.e., what is proper for us to desire or stay away from), which we will discuss in the current post; and action (i.e., how to behave with others), which will be the topic of the next entry in this series.
Right at the beginning of the chapter Hadot provides a good summary of what the discipline of desire is all about: what we feel vs what we should feel, which will struck non-Stoics as bizarre. What do you mean what I should feel?? If by “feeling” we mean what the Stoics called proto-emotions, i.e., automatic, instinctive reactions to events, then they are what they are, and they are not going to change. But the focus here is on the “passions,” in Stoic lingo, i.e., on the fully formed emotions, which have a cognitive component, as confirmed by modern psychological research. And if they have a cognitive component, then we can change them by altering that component. It is the same principle as cognitive behavioral therapy: change the way you think and that will change (over time, with repetition and effort) the way you feel.
Hadot rightly points out that the practice of all three disciplines, included that of desire, is focused on the present, as for the Stoic both the past and the future are outside of our sphere of action. We can only act in the here and now, so that’s where we should concentrate our efforts. As Marcus puts it:
“Don’t try to go over in your mind all the painful hardships, in all their varying intensity and number, which might possibly happen. Rather, when each of them occurs, ask yourself: ‘What is there about this situation that is unbearable and intolerable?’ … This present will seem smaller to you if you circumscribe it by defining and isolating it, and if you make your reflective faculty ashamed of the fact that it cannot put up with such a small, isolated matter.” (Meditations, VIII.36)
Perceptively, Hadot adds that most people are not truly alive precisely because they live constantly outside of themselves, not in the moment, but rather regretting their past or worrying about their future.
That said, Hadot also reminds us that the Stoics were determinists, so the past, the present, and the future are inextricably interconnected by a web of cause and effect. Chrysippus, the second head of the Stoa, commented that only the present (unlike the past and the future) “belongs” to us, in the specific sense that we are part of the local web of cause-effect, with the import of our own actions not extending back into the past or far into the distant future.
Going to the core of the discipline of desire and aversion, Epictetus explicitly says that the point is to train ourselves to desire what is under our control and good for us (i.e., good judgments) and to become averse to what is under our control and bad for us (i.e., bad judgments). The mistake most of us normally make is to desire or be averse to things we don’t actually control (Yes, a new car! No, a disease!). Marcus puts this squarely in the context of Stoic determinism:
“So something has happened to you? Good! Every event that you encounter has been linked to you by Destiny, and has, since the beginning, been woven together with you from the All.” (Meditations, IV.26)
The “All,” the universal web of cause-effect, has been working since the beginning of the universe. Your choice — such as it is — is not to reject it, but rather to play your role within it. You are, after all, very much part and parcel of that very web. Most importantly, for the Stoic, it all hinges on how you deal with whatever is happening to you, because that’s where you have local access to the web of cause-effect. This is why, Hadot suggests, the discipline of assent is closely linked with the study of Stoic “physics,” i.e., with our understanding of how the world works. If we understand that we live in a deterministic cosmos regulated by universal laws, then we also understand what the proper attitude should be toward events. That’s also why Epictetus says:
“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.” (Enchiridion, 8)
You can see why this sounds very much like Nietzsche’s famous concept of “amor fati,” love your fate. As Hadot correctly points out, for the ancient Stoics this really implied “loving” once destiny, because said destiny was in accordance with the Logos, the universal cosmic Providence. Even though such Providence was nothing like the benevolent Christian variety, the notion still was that the universe does what it does for its own good. And since we are bits and pieces of that universe, in a broad sense it is for our own good as well. Modern Stoics, of course, don’t think that the cosmos is a living organism doing its thing. We accept the scientific worldview and consider the universe to be purposeless and morally neutral. But it is still governed by cause-effect, and it still follows that our only option is to accept the way it works and do our part in the best way we can. “Happiness,” then, becomes the knowledge that we are living a life worth living, because we are acting our part, however local and small, with integrity.
Here is a nice way, building on Hadot, to distinguish the ancient Stoic, Nietzschean, and modern Stoic takes on amor fati: for the ancient Stoics, it was a matter of responding to a rationally ordered universe; for Nietzsche it was a question of responding to an irrational and blindly cruel world; for the modern Stoic it is a reasonable reaction to an amoral universe, neutral toward human concerns.
This discussion is closely related to the famous “gods or atoms” moments that recur in the Meditations, where Marcus — who is definitely on board with Stoic metaphysics (i.e., with the “gods” option) — does nonetheless entertain the possibility that the Epicureans are correct (i.e., the “atoms” alternative), and concludes that ultimately he still has to behave properly (i.e., virtuously) toward other human beings. I have devoted an entire post to this topic before, so I will not go again into details here, except to note Hadot’s own comment:
“Our choice of a model of the universe thus changes nothing with regard to the fundamental Stoic disposition of consent to events, which is nothing other than the discipline of desire.” (p. 149)
But hold on a sec! Don’t we always say that Stoic “physics” informs Stoic ethics? Is Hadot here not contradicting this basic notion? Should we therefore focus on the ethics and forget the other areas of inquiry, or at least physics? Not at all. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Stoic ethics is under-determined by metaphysical positions, meaning that more than one metaphysical account is compatible with it, but not just any. What we still retain in modern Stoicism are the ideas that the universe is made of matter, and that such matter interacts by cause-effect in a way specified by the laws of physics. In this respect, Stoic metaphysics is not distinguishable from Epicurean metaphysics, as much as the two are otherwise distinct.
An interesting aspect of Hadot’s discussion of the discipline of desire is his tackling of the question of whether Marcus was a bit of a pessimist, perhaps even a misanthrope. This (superficial, as it turns out) reading of the Meditations is encouraged by passages like this:
“Everything by which people set so much store in life is emptiness, putrefaction, pettiness; little dogs nipping at one another; little children who laugh as they fight, and then suddenly burst into tears.” (V.33.2)
Or this one:
“Imagine them as they are when they are eating, when they are sleeping, when they are making love, or going to the bathroom. Then imagine them when they are putting on airs; when they make those haughty gestures, or when they get angry and upbraid people with such a superior air.” (Meditations, IX.9)
In reality, here and in several other passages, Marcus is simply deploying the standard Stoic technique of adopting a broader, more neutral perspective, forcing himself to redescribe things in a more objective, less emotional way. Why? So that he can better deal with people and events that would otherwise be upsetting precisely because we look at them too closely, or in a manner that is too emotionally involved. Another reason to apply this strategy is explained in clear by Seneca:
“It is no less ridiculous to be shocked by these things than it is to complain because you get splashed in the baths, or shoved around in a public place, or that you get dirty in muddy places. What happens in life is exactly like what happens in the baths, in a crowd or on a muddy road. … Life is not made for delicate souls.” (Letters to Lucilius, 107.2)
None of the above means that we should adopt a quietist attitude and just let life happen to us. It only means that we should strive to tackle life’s problems with reason, rather than being overwhelmed by irrational emotional attachments, and that we should realize that if we decide to walk on mud we are going, inevitably, to get dirty. That said, Marcus finds unexpected beauty in life precisely once he has accepted that the world works in certain ways, and not in the fashion Marcus himself would want:
“When bread is baked, some parts of it develop cracks in their surface. Now, it is precisely these small openings which, although they seem somehow to have escaped the intentions which presided over the making of the brad, somehow please us and stimulate our appetite in a quite particular way.” (Meditations, III.2)
It is the trained mind of the philosopher (here, of course, in the broad sense of somehow who studies and practices philosophy, not in the technical sense of a professional academic philosopher) that can accept without surprise or complaint the mud on the road he travels, and at the same time appreciate the unexpected beauty of baked bread.
And there is another thing Marcus is training himself to do: to look at everything as impermanent, in the Heraclitean tradition that has informed Stoicism since its inception. For instance:
“Acquire a method for contemplating how all things are transformed into each other: concentrate your attention on this ceaselessly and exercise yourself on this point.” (Meditations, X.11)
Why? Because that way we become less resistant to the very notion of change, and we accept change — including the ultimate change, as far as we are concerned, our own death — for what it is: a natural, inevitable process. Another thing we should train ourselves not to have aversion to!
That is also why so many things people so strongly desire are not what they are cracked up to be. For instance fame, especially worth thinking about in our increasingly narcissistic modern society:
“Short is the time which each of us lives; puny the little corner of earth on which we live; how puny, finally, is even the lengthiest posthumous glory. Even this glory, moreover, is transmitted by little men who’ll soon be dead, without even having known themselves, much less him who has long since been dead.” (Meditations, III.10.2)
Yes, I know what you are thinking: isn’t it ironic that Marcus wrote this, given that his personal philosophical diary has survived a whopping 19 centuries and is still admired to this day? If your mind is tempted to go there, though, you may still have too limited a sense of what counts as a long time.
But where does meaning in life come from, then, if not fame, money, and all the other externals that the Stoics famously classed as “preferred indifferents”? From doing the only thing that really ought to matter to human beings, qua rational social animals:
“Your only joy, and your only rest: let it be to pass from one action performed in the service of the community to another action performed for the service of the community.” (Meditations, VI.7)
(Next: The discipline of action, or action in the service of humanity.)