Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 8, The discipline of action, in the service of humanity

After a fairly long hiatus, welcome back to our book club! My apologies, but Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel is rather slow going. Long chapters, not exactly accessible prose. But well worth the effort, which is why I keep continuing this series, of which we are probably going to have one or two more entries before all is said and done. This time, let’s take a look at one of the longest and most complex chapters, n. 8, on the discipline of action.

This is the last of the three disciplines around which Epictetus organized his approach to Stoicism, the other two being the discipline of assent (concerned with learning to question our judgments and connected to the study of Stoic logic), and the discipline of desire and aversion (concerned with learning to re-prioritize our desires and connected to the study of Stoic physics). The discipline of action deals with how to interact with other people, and it is therefore connected with the study of Stoic ethics.

Hadot presents us with the bottom line right at the beginning of the chapter, where he says that the discipline of action provides us with a series of obligations, and particularly: (i) we have to act in the service of the whole human race; (ii) in performing our actions, we need to keep in mind that some have more import of, and therefore precedence over, others; and (iii) we should love all human beings, because we are members of the same cosmopolis, sharing in the Logos. As Marcus puts it:

“Let your impulse to act and your action have as their goal the service of the human community, because that, for you, is in conformity with your nature.” (Meditations, IX.31)

In other words, it is our ability to reason that allows us to realize that to live “according to nature,” as the Stoics say, means to use reason itself in order to be helpful to society at large. Because we are eminently social creatures capable of rationality.

Interestingly, Hadot suggests that the vice that is antithetical to the discipline of action is frivolity, i.e., acting for no good reason, pursuing no positive aim. Again Marcus:

“Stop spinning around like a top; instead, on the occasion of every impulse to act, accomplish what is just, and whether an impression presents itself, confine yourself to what corresponds exactly to reality.” (IV.22)

Or:

“Carry out each action of your life as if it were the last, and keep yourself far from all frivolity.” (II.5.2)

This leads naturally to a discussion of what the Stoics call “kathēkonta,” or “appropriate” actions, also sometimes translated as “duties.” Animals (and human children) instinctively know what actions are appropriate for them: those that protect and preserve themselves. We would say, those favored by natural selection in order to further survival and reproduction. But with the onset of reason, adult human beings can go beyond their own preservation and realize that their fellow human beings are just like them, and that they themselves will do well in a thriving social whole. That’s why — for social beings capable of reason — kathēkonta include actions aimed at improving general welfare. Moreover, these intentions to act are, of course, under our control, and are therefore either good or bad, not “indifferent,” like wealth, or health, or education.

Following a pretty tight line of reasoning, discussion of the fact that intentions to act are under our control leads Hadot to focus on the complementary fact that the outcomes of such actions, by contrast, are not under our (complete) control. Which is why Stoics are supposed to begin anything they do with a “reserve clause.” As Seneca says:

“I want to do thus and so, as long as nothing happens which may present an obstacle to my action. … I will sail across the ocean, if nothing prevents me.” (On Peace of Mind, XIII.2-3)

The use of a reserve clause is often misinterpreted by critics of Stoicism to imply a weak intention in the first place. But Hadot writes that Stoic intentions are not just “good intentions,” but rather ”intentions that are good,” and they are to be pursued with vigor and firmness. The reserve clause isn’t there to provide us with an excuse for inaction (or weak action), but rather as an acknowledgment that the universe may have other plans, and that there is only so much we can do in our little corner of the cosmic web of cause-effect. But — crucially — if the intention truly is good, paradoxically, the sage succeeds even if he fails. This whole approach to ethics could not possibly be further from the most common one employed by people today, consequentialism. Marcus articulates the concept in an interesting way:

“Thanks to action ‘with a reserve clause,’ … there can be no obstacle to my intention, nor to my disposition. For my thought can ‘turn upside down’ everything that presents an obstacle, and transform the obstacle into an object toward which my impulse to act ought to tend. That which impeded action thus becomes profitable to action, and that which blocked the road allows me to advance along the road.” (V.20.2)

One of the fundamental attitudes that is “appropriate” to a human being, and therefore falls into our duties, is benevolence. Seneca wrote a whole book entitled On Benefits, where he says that the benefactor should not consider the person that he is helping as somehow in debt to him. Marcus agrees:

“I did something in the service of the human community; therefore, I have been beneficial to myself.” (VII.73-74)

As Hadot points out, this Stoic principle that virtue is its own reward will be taken up many centuries later by Spinoza in his Ethics. To wish to be compensated for having done something good is, to use Marcus’ analogy, like an eye seeking compensation for the fact that he sees things (IX.42.12).

The Stoics insisted that we can affect the web of cause-effect only locally, here and now. Which is why there is no sense in regretting the past or worrying about the future, both of which are not under our control. Hadot here discusses what may appear to be a contradiction, though. Marcus continuously exhorts himself to focus on the present, but he also directs his thoughts to the future, trying to imagine (and preempt) forthcoming difficulties. The apparent contradiction dissipates when one understands that Marcus reminds himself not to dwell emotionally on the future, i.e., not to worry about things that are still to come. That doesn’t mean that he should not contemplate the future rationally. Indeed, that’s the only way to properly prepare for it! The same, incidentally, can be said about the past: a Stoic does not want to engage with it at the emotional level (regret), but does want to reflect on what has happened (in order to learn).

Hadot makes a strong case that the discipline of action implies an altruistic bent for the Stoic practitioner. As he puts it, “logikon” (i.e., rational) and “koinonikon” (caring about the common welfare) are inseparable in the Stoic system. (Interestingly, the Greek koinonikon is the same word used by early Christians to refer to the chanting during the sacrament of communion.)

“For rational animals, action in conformity with nature is at the same time in conformity with reason.” (VII.11)

And:

“My City and my Fatherland, insofar as I am an Antonine, is Rome. My City and my Fatherland, insofar as I am a man, is the world. Everything that is useful to the two Cities is, for me, the only good.” (VI.44.6)

Stoicism, then, turns out to be both a philosophy of self-love (the natural tendency of human beings, just like that of other animals, is for self-preservation) and of other-love (insofar as reason allows us to grasp that we are member of a larger cosmopolis). Indeed, the sharp modern opposition between selfishness and altruism simply does not exist for the Stoics, because what is good for the cosmopolis is good for me, and vice versa.

“Universal nature has made rational beings for the sake of one another.” (IX.1)

Hadot says that Epictetus (from whom Marcus got his inspiration, as we know) describes three characteristics of proper actions: (i) they have to be accompanied by a reserve clause; (ii) they have to be in the service of the common welfare; and (iii) they must be in accordance with a scale of value (axia). We have already discussed the first two points, but what things have value, according to the Stoics?

Broadly speaking, there are three categories of things that have the sort of value that makes a given action “appropriate” (or, to put it otherwise, a duty): 

(a) Things that are an integral part of living according to nature, and are therefore inherently virtuous. These include exercises of self-examination, and any practice that directly help us to live a moral life. The value of these things is absolute, they are at the very top of the list.

(b) Things that in themselves are morally neutral, neither good nor bad, but that — if possessed — allow us to better practice virtue. They include health and wealth, both of which facilitate our goal of helping other human beings. These things do not have an absolute value, as their value is ranked according to how much they facilitate moral living.

(c) Things that have no value in themselves, but can be exchanged for some good, and are therefore indirectly useful to virtue. Unfortunately, Hadot does not provide any example within this last category. Any suggestion from my readers?

The point is that it requires good judgment to sort these various levels of value, which means that the disciplines of action and assent are tightly connected (just like the discipline of desire and aversion is, in turn, tightly connected to that of assent — good reasoning underlies everything).

Of course, the above means that Stoics have a different system of values from most people, and yet we are supposed to help others, which may involve also helping them secure some of the preferred indifferents that are so important to them. We can do so without contradiction, so long as we keep in mind that the only thing that truly has value is virtue itself. As Hadot puts it: “This is the problem that Marcus faced as Emperor: he had to seek the happiness of his subjects in the domain of indifferent things, which had no value in his eyes” (p. 217).

We do have historical testimony that Marcus acted in accordance to his principles. The historian Cassius Dio reports that the emperor praised people who excelled at a given task, and made a point to employ them for that task, saying that it is not possible to create men the way we would like them to be, so it is appropriate to employ men at what they are good. Another historian, Herodian, tells us that Marcus married his daughters not to men who were rich or in positions of political advantage, but according to the apparent virtue of the perspective husbands.

Hadot next explains that the Stoic take, derived from Socrates, that nobody does evil on purpose (but always out of bad judgment) naturally leads toward an attitude of tolerance, whereby those who err are to be pitied, not hated. As Epictetus puts it:

“Shouldn’t you rather have pity for those who are blind and mutilated with regard to what is most important, as we have pity for the blind and the lame?” (Discourses, I.28.9)

Interestingly, Hadot points out that “pity” here is not to be understood as a distressing emotion, which would be contrary to Stoic philosophy, but rather as lack of anger or hatred toward those who make mistakes. Hence Marcus:

“If he is wrong, instruct him to that effect with benevolence, and show him what he has overlooked. If you do not succeed, then be mad at yourself; or rather not even at yourself.” (Meditations, X.4)

And in a prescient dig at today’s “broics” Marcus argues that goodness is not a weakness, but the ultimate “manly” virtue (nowadays, of course, we would simply say human virtue):

“It is not anger that is manly, but gentleness and delicacy. It is because they are more human that they are more manly; they possess more strength, more nerve, and more virility, and this is precisely what is lacking in the person who gets angry and loses his temper.” (XI.18.21)

In an interesting twist near the end of this long but fascinating chapter Hadot makes the argument that the Stoics arrived at the concept of “love thy neighbor,” just like the Christians did, though from a different perspective. Marcus pretty much says it explicitly:

“A proprium of humankind is to love even those who make mistakes. This will happen if you realize that they are akin to you and that they sin out of ignorance and against their will.” (VII.22.1-2)

Hadot goes so far as to say that the discipline of action “attains its culminating point in the love of one’s neighbor” (p. 229). The common root of the notion to love one’s neighbor is the recognition, both in Stoicism and in Christianity, that we share the Logos with all human beings. Stoics even love their enemy, just like the Christians do:

“When he is beaten, the Cynic [i.e., the heroic Stoic] must love those who beat him.” (Epictetus, Discourses, III.22.54)

The difference is that for Christians the Logos is incarnate in Jesus, and so it is, in a sense, personalized (albeit in the person of a divine being). But Stoicism turns out to be no less a doctrine of love:

“No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each one in particular.” (Seneca, On Clemency, III.3)
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