Imagine having a conversation like this:
Me: So how do you live the good life?
Aristotle: Well you live a life of virtue.
Me: Great! How do you do that?
Aristotle: Well, you have to practice the virtues, such as courage, temperance, justice, honesty, and others.
Me: Okay…but still, how do you practice the virtues? Take me, for example. I’m really shy and I don’t have a lot of courage speaking to a large crowd. How do I practice the virtue of courage?
Aristotle: You just go for it! To become courageous, you have to start doing courageous things. Sure, it’s going to be hard at first, but eventually, over time, you’ll become courageous because you’ve obtained the virtue through practice and discipline.
Me: But this just seems to go back a step. I understand that to start practicing might be tough. So how does one start practicing virtuous things so that I may become virtuous?
Aristotle: I don’t know what to tell you kid. You just have to go for it! How did you start riding a bike? You just did it, didn’t you? Of course it was hard at first, but you got better at it. How did you start to get better at the violin? You just picked it up and started playing, right?
Me: Sure, but those are skills that I eventually learned to do over time. When we’re talking about virtues of character, this seems more psychological and my psychology is already at the disposition to be afraid to speak in front of large crowds. It’s like I need to work on myself so that I can start working on the virtues.
Aristotle: Ah, but to work on the virtues is to work on your self. They are the same project.
Me: I can see that after a while, but something has to start the process, doesn’t it? I mean, how do you start practicing the virtues? It’s the self, right? So how does one have the self so that one can start practicing the virtues?
Aristotle: Look kid. I think I’m just repeating myself. You just have to do it and you eventually get the virtues, which will also transform the self.
This discussion may be oversimplifying Aristotle. Nevertheless, whenever I learned about Aristotle’s ethics, I felt something was missing, like there was a gap in how to start becoming ethical. Other theories had a way to answer this. The utilitarians will say that we naturally avoid pain and pursue pleasure, so just revolve your ethics around that. The deontologists will say that since reason dictates what the ethical thing to do is, reason will motivate you to do the right thing. With virtue ethics, it’s different because their ethics is all about forming your character. But what makes you want to form a character? A previous character? Another rational part of you that moves you toward that character? A meta-character? These questions kept popping up when I was learning about Aristotle, and I really didn’t appreciate virtue ethics until sometime after I received my Masters degree.
What I think makes Stoicism powerful is how they view áskēsis, which can mean training, practices, disciplines, or techniques of the self. Aristotle had the same notion by forming habits to become a better person. However, for Aristotle, it seemed that áskēsis was causing the transformation: we shape and train the lower, irrational part of the soul, which includes the emotions. The Stoics, however, considered the soul more complex in that the irrational and the rational part of the soul are not independent of each other. Training and habituation, therefore, involve the entire disposition, not just training the lower part. Thus, one must also be trained in reasoning correctly as well. Thus, áskēsis constituted the transformation and not causing it. I consider this a more accurate picture of training and shaping oneself.
The key question is this: how does one shape oneself? How can one start the training? In this post, I will examine specific trainings that the Stoics recommended (mainly from Epictetus) and see how that advice could be used in our modern times.
The first task is to get rid of our presumptions. After all, it is impossible to learn if we already think we know what we are talking about. The ideas that we have must apply to particular cases. We usually try to fit our impressions into our prejudices and beliefs, and any impression that does not fit with our ideas we tend to discount (or say it was an aberration). So to have the right idea, we must have the corresponding impression. Otherwise, we will fall into mistakes. We do this through a technique taken from phenomenology, called the epoche. We can “bracket” our impressions and simply perceive what is, and not judge what is.
Next, we must mentally prepare ourselves to obtain the training. Reframe ourselves so that we can mentally prepare ourselves for any rigorous discipline. Think of the process similar to an athletic competition, or a recital. The difference, however, is that this training of the self is ongoing competition, or a never-ending recital. There is never a point where you stop being a self. The practices and the rehearsals will forever be ongoing where there will be no ultimate recital. Indeed, they will be blended where you cannot make a distinction between the two. But just like any rehearsal or practice, you will make mistakes. And since there really is no distinction between practicing and “the real thing,” you will often make mistakes in life. So mentally take stock of your situation and be mentally prepared if something worse could happen. If it does, then at least you had mentally noted to be ready for that. You’ll be mentally on guard.
What does it mean to go through training? In any sort of activity that requires training ,we practice and discipline ourselves so that we can do the activity well. Doing the activity well means that we are doing the activity in the right way. Therefore, we practice and discipline ourselves so that we can do the activity in the right way. Training intends to develop certain dispositions and habits and we do that by accomplishing the tasks and practices that correspond to the activity.
You want to learn how to play the violin well? Practice. Practice until the musical piece is played smoothly and your fingers and bowing are lined up how it’s supposed to be in the musical piece. You want to perfect a martial art move? Practice. Practice until the move is done gracefully so that you gain the muscle memory and it comes to you automatically. You want to get better at your woodworking? Practice. Practice until you can see the pieces come together in your mind and through work, you can build your pieces that resemble professional woodworks.
If you don’t want to do something, then don’t do it, and generate another habit instead. We are therapists to ourselves, to cure and to take care of ourselves. The person you have to convince isn’t people around you, it’s you. Worry about whether you are have become better from yourself. You do this by teaching yourself and learning from yourself. In a way, you are the teacher and the pupil.
But sometimes we don’t want to train. Practicing sometimes isn’t fun because it can be tedious, or it’s because it’s not the “real” thing. How do you get over the hump of not wanting to practice? What is the motivation to do the training? That is a topic that raises a psychological question I don’t have enough knowledge to adequately answer. But I can offer some methods that can get us on the path of not only what sort of training one can do, but ways to motivate ourselves to undergo training.
One thing we should note about the training is that we cannot do it theoretically. We cannot get better at our craft, our athletic abilities, or our talents if they remain idle. Even thinking about what to do is not enough. Imagine if your children said that they did practice the piano. You said you didn’t hear anything. Their response was that they actually played the piece in the minds. They could see the fingers on the keys and they could hear the notes in the mind as their idea of their fingers played the ideas of the keys. So, according to your children, they actually did practice, but just mentally. Now as sophisticated as your children would be if they had this answer, we would obviously say that thinking about it mentally isn’t sufficient. Sure, the mental ability is the starting point, but the training itself requires experience. Thus, a true practice means that the children actually need to be in front of the piano and play the piece and not just mentally envision it.
Now the same is said for training the self. How do we get better at being a better self? It can’t be just theoretical. We can’t think ourselves of being better. We have to go out in the world and experience ourselves amidst the world in order to improve ourselves. Epictetus says that philosophers shouldn’t just be contented to learn, but to practice and train oneself (Discourses, 2.9.13).
So what are the steps that one must do? Epictetus mentions three areas of study of training that we need if we are to progress. These are in Discourses 3.2. We will go over them, and see how they can either be updated or supplemented for our modern times. Briefly, it’s to train our desires and aversions, next we take our training into further application by noticing our roles and actions. Then, we solidify our training.
1. Training the Desires, or Recognize what Needs to Change
First we need to train and master our desires and passions. Anyone who desires anything strongly insists upon having it and can’t stand the idea of missing out on it. The same is true with aversion. Through training, however, we will desire what we need, and avoid what we don’t need. You reorient yourself towards virtue.
One way to start is to investigate and study what it is we’re desiring. Determine whether the desire is a good desire to have. Does the thing you desire really help your overall well-being? The realization may require effort such as ethical, logical, or metaphysical considerations. Instead of trying change the world to fulfill what you avoid, perhaps a better way is to learn to have aversions toward your own bad irrational behavior. Identifying your flaws is the first step to overcoming them. You will be a better human being by doing so instead of holding onto unchallenged desires and aversions.
The realization may make sense mentally , but old habits die hard. You’d still have to get rid of the old habit and replace it with a new one. One way to do that is to have various maxims with you when a desire happens upon you. I should clarify that notions of morality are not restrictions of dos and don’ts, but a way of becoming a better human being. It’s not wrong to have desires; rather, what’s wrong is the bad orientation of the desires.
I think a good demonstration of this is Bruce Lee. Lee would have affirmations on him in order to train himself to be a better person. Again, being “better” didn’t mean simply ethically better, but to be a well-polished, “upgraded” version of himself. Here is Lee’s maxim/affirmation on willpower:
Recognizing that the power of will is the supreme court over all other departments of my mind, I will exercise it daily when I need the urge to act for any purpose, and I will form habits designed to bring the power of my will into action at least once daily.
This affirmation not only dictates what Lee should do regarding his willpower, but he even puts in a prescription of doing the activity at least once daily. Other affirmations dealt with the emotions, reason, and conscience. Thus, we must train ourselves not to have any automatic tendencies toward our inclinations. But that requires us to investigate your intentions to determine whether they are virtuous or not. This isn’t to say that if you miss out on the training you’re doing something immoral, but you’ll be more enriched and a fuller human being, much like learning how to read and write makes you a fuller human being, or getting engaged in athleticism makes you a fuller human being. Yes, if you miss out on athletics or reading or writing, you’re not doing something immoral, but you’ll be stunted as a human being.
For example, I have a friend who would passively participate in catcalling. He wouldn’t actively initiate it, and if others around him were doing it, he would passively participate in the activity as well. Over time, he learned that catcalling was not a good activity because most women do not like receiving it, and it further reinforces men to be creepy. My friend had this realization, but he’s now in his 40s and his catcalling habits were well ingrained in him. Simply knowing the truth that catcalling is unethical isn’t enough; he needed something with him, something concrete that he had to remind himself in to get rid of that habit of catcalling. What he did was he had a saying every time he saw an attractive woman.
His maxim was: “just because she’s acknowledging/smiling/talking to you, it does not mean she’s flirting with/into you.” He has memorized this and admittedly, he struggled at first, but he persevered. Eventually, he held to this maxim and the old habit is withering away. Stick with those maxims so that they become a new way to reframe how you see the world, other people, and yourself. Notice that with this framework, we could judge my friend via traditional morality (he was wrong to catcall, and it was good of him to change that), but we could also recognize that he’s a better human being by not catcalling.
Another way to train your desires is through writing. Writing about your own ideas and thoughts can help you reveal to yourself what ideas you hold and what you believe. More than that, it helps you reflect on your day to see if you followed through with your training. Some athletes have athletic journals to see their training in action: what did they do that day? Did they improve? What could they do better? Musicians have to make annotations in their musical pieces to remind them what they need to do specifically in the musical piece: pick up the bow, slow down on this measure, move the hands to a different position instead of the default position. The same could be said with training the self. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were meant for edification of this sort. Seneca also offered advice on what to go over at the end of the day:
- What ailment have I cured today?
- What failing have I resisted?
- Where have I failed?
- What duties did I forget to do?
- Where can I show improvement?
- Find fault with what was badly done and rejoice with what was good.
You could just think out these thoughts, but Seneca insists on writing them down. Why? Writing has structure, it is more permanent, and it clarifies thoughts. Just think about how to answer these questions can be fleeting.
We often think about answering questions in our minds and even though we can answer them, even profoundly, we often forget what we’ve said when asked again. Writing them down makes a profound influence on the self: writing isn’t just a record, but a way to meditate on what you recorded. Writing down our thoughts and implementing them as personal maxims establishes a pattern of thinking about good and bad, or about things of value in general. Digest the ideas; don’t just take the principles raw. Digesting them produces some change in your ruling center in the same way that athletes show a resulting change in their body as a result of their exercises and diet. Writing is a way to fortify yourself which will also transform the self. By writing down or memorizing certain maxims, formulas, aphorisms that you have within you, you will live out that aspect of yourself in a new way. Now these sayings can’t just be inspirational; they have to move you where the quote literally changes how you interact with the object you desire. The maxim doesn’t necessarily need to be original; the quote can be something that you admire and transforms you to a new way of living. In a way, you take on these maxims in the same way you incorporate an argument that has persuaded you.
2. Training our Actions and Roles, Or Acting Out What Needs to Change
Second, once we have trained and exercised our desires and impressions, it should give us a sense of what to do and what role to play. One way to train our actions is to guide our motivations towards appropriate actions. It isn’t enough to read self-help books; you have to put that into action. Don’t just read commentaries by philosophers; follow the actions. However, we shouldn’t make a show about it. Otherwise, you’ve just declared the ideology or philosophy in name only. As an example, I have a friend who never really expresses her deepest philosophical positions, but she is the prime example of loving action. If you asked her why she does it, she will explain that compassion, care, and love are her motivating forces. And she displays these forces by acting it out and others around her can see that.
One way to get rid of a habit is to force yourself in the opposite direction so that you will eventually gain the opposite habit. For example, if you’re inclined toward pleasure, throw yourself in the opposite direction for the sake of training. If you’re inclined to be lazy, throw yourself into your work. As mentioned before, what can throw you off are the impressions. Training ourselves is a counteracting force so that the impressions don’t convince us otherwise. Thus, we are not just training our habits, but we are also training our impressions. Train yourself not only to retrack your desires, but also to exercise your aversions as well. For example, if you are irritable, train yourself to put up with insults and not get upset about it. Epictetus says that someone who insults you is your partner by training you in patience, temper, and being gentle (3.20.9).
Or learn to accept rejection. As an example, Jason Comely originally started a concept of rejection therapy. Basically, there are a deck of cards and on each card is a task you must do. Each task is risky and the situation makes it easy for you to be rejected. Some examples include asking a stranger for some gum, asking your bank if they can void some fees, asking if the retail you purchase can be discounted, or asking for a sip of someone’s drink. There is one rule to this according to Comely: you must be rejected by a stranger at least once a day. Why is this helpful? After all, no one likes feeling rejected. However, being rejected is inevitable in life. If something is inevitable, it makes sense to not only be aware of it, but to realize that it will happen to your life. Instead of doing what you can to avoid it, you may as well get used to it. Now so far so good, but the training aspect is for you to do the exercises and tasks in a more challenging way so that when you face “the real thing,” you are already on guard. Athletes perform drills so that they can perform well in the actual event. The Stoics are calling upon us to perform drills of the self so that when faced with the real situation, we are already prepared. Purposely getting rejected is the drill; getting rejected when you least expect it is the real situation.
One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve gone through training is that it makes me more aware of my surroundings and my lifestyle, so that I do not just take things for granted. As an example, I decided to give up something for Lent this year. Now I’m not Catholic, I’m not even religious, but I decided to exercise áskēsis and put my words into action. I decided to give up refined sugar. Honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and stevia were still on the table. Why sugar? For one thing, I have a major sweet tooth. It isn’t a flaw that I consider, but I notice that after I eat a meal, I have a huge craving to eat something sugary. At one point, I finished dinner and was trying to find something sugary to eat but there wasn’t anything in my house (I probably ate it all!). I got irritable but soon afterword, I made some tea that had some sweet elements which calmed me down. But being irritable bothered me when I reflected on it. I was relying on sweet things just to function. I decided to see if I could get rid of this habit.
Now when people give up something for Lent, I assume it’s similar to how most Americans view diets: undergo the diet until you’ve reached your desired goal, and then you can go back to your original lifestyle once the goal is obtained. As any person who goes through this diet knows, you will soon gain weight again. Instead, the purpose of a good diet is to change your overall lifestyle which includes the environment and habits. I inspected all the foods I ate and bought new foods inspecting the ingredients carefully. Wow, I was surprised by how much sugar was in food items that I didn’t realize.
I had to buy specialty bread without sugar (the best I could find was that it used honey). I had to buy new jam, I couldn’t order a pastry with my coffee at a coffee shop, and I had to buy ingredients to make my sugar-free desserts instead of simply buying desserts. (By the way, sugar-free banana bread is excellent. Sugar-free seven-layer bars is complicated and time consuming, but still good.) These exercises, I hope, will be ingrained in me so that once Lent is over, I don’t go back to my sugar-eating ways, but I incorporate my awareness, my new habits, and new environment to hopefully change my appetite—or at least get a better handle of my sugar-craving appetite. In other words, I want to form a new character not so invested into sugar.
Giving up sugar may be a small thing, but I would like to work on other things about myself that I consider a better, “upgraded” version of myself. For example, I usually get lonely at night. I don’t know why, but I’d like to work against that, which seems harder to train than simply giving up sugar. I also tend to get shy and would also like to work on that. The last two characteristics about myself seem harder to combat, but I have to admit, my shyness has gotten better over time by forcing myself to teach and going out in new environments. The lonely characteristic is something that has developed lately and I’m still figuring out new tools, trainings, and practices to overcome that. The first step is recognition, but recognition isn’t all. You have to do something with go beyond recognition and put yourself into action, which is the hard part.
3. Training our Ability to Stay Constant, Or Solidifying Our New Habits
Step one was the motivation: moving ourselves to become better. Step two was action: putting those motivations into a behavior until it becomes habit. The last step is to make sure that we stay constant with our training and perfect our training so that we don’t waver. This way, we won’t be caught off guard, so that even in stressful times, we can stick to our principles instead of being tempted back to our old habits. After all, we can have the recognition and the actions to be on track, but they can easily be overturned by our volition.
Epictetus notices when people recommend doing something, what they are advising is to change your behavior. But they stop short. Being a better person is not simply changing your behavior. When we think about ethics, we often think that involves changing our behaviors, but this is only changing and focusing on what we do, and not the internal psychology. In other words, previous ethics is mainly focused on behavior modification: to become more ethical, just change our behavior. Kantian ethics may say it’s to change our motivations, but even then, we ought to will the universal maxim. It doesn’t mean that we want to do it. There is nothing wrong with changing our behaviors, but if that is the only focus, there could be reluctance from people who don’t want to be ethical, let alone do the training. After all, we may behave in one way, but psychologically prefer another. Simply behaving because it’s ethically required of us is only mimicking the training, not actually undergoing the training itself. Undergoing áskēsis helps one internalize the behavior into a principled motivation.
This is why Epictetus states in the Discourses (4.6.11-16) that when we listen to someone we agree with, our behavior doesn’t automatically change. Why? It’s because we’ve only agreed with them. We haven’t done anything to put this agreement into action. Now we need to work so that our assent corresponds to what we actually do. We can agree to something even if we don’t do the actions that correspond to the agreement. However, we must move toward one side or the other, otherwise we become hypocrites. Reason didn’t fail. Our old habits are still in place. But since the idea is new and fresh, it is simply a new fact that we’ve agreed with, but it remains in our mind without it becoming incorporated into our character. Put these ideas into use so that they are not simply ideas, nor even just actions, but something solid so that it goes beyond your behavior; it now becomes you. The newly formed self is made through ingrained practices until it becomes habituated.
One way to develop consistency is through what the Stoics called Premeditatio malorum: an exercise consisting to vividly see something bad happening to you so that you can be mentally prepared when the bad thing actually does happen. Jason Comely used the rejection game to mentally prepare himself of being rejected. Bruce Lee anticipated being emotionally unstable in stressful environments. We could do the same. I often tell my students that road rage doesn’t make sense because the car was going to cut you off anyways. You can’t control that, you can’t control what the other person is going to do, so why be mad about it? It’s like getting mad at a certain individual being next to you in an elevator. You can’t control that, so why be bothered by that? These exercises must be practical toward your progress. Your progress and your work must coincide.
Another method of consistency is to target weak spots in your training. Is there a part in the musical piece that’s giving you trouble? Practice those bars over and over again. Perhaps you have to do painfully slowly. Is there a part during your dance routine where the form is sloppy? Practice that move slowly and after each micromovement, notice where your feet and hands are. Do that move multiple times so that the form is better. Eventually, it’ll become smoother and then the form glides better. Do you notice any pain when you’re doing any activity, whether the pain is physical or mental? Investigate. Maybe you’re standing and sitting incorrectly. Or maybe you’re doing that certain athletic move incorrectly which is why you’re in that painful state. Or maybe you feel emotionally bad about the activity, or even the feelings you have. We can investigate the certain techniques and moves to do the movement correctly; likewise, we can investigate to internally feel good about what we’re doing by undergoing some targeted emotional analysis.
These exercises are meant to be practices and training to bring about an inner transformation. They are ways to help be ready-at-hand (procheirous). By going through the exercises and discipline, we can live a good life. I think a good way to tie up training and practices of the self is to connect with self-constitution. People act and live in accordance with habits (“fake it till you make it), but we also act and live based on habits that are our own by endorsing these habits. It is, what philosopher Christine Korsgaard calls, self-constitution. We see what habits we need, undergo training to obtain those habits, and forge ourselves to make those habits us.
What makes an action mine, in the special way that an action is mine, rather than something that just happens in me? That it issues from my constitution, rather than from some force at work within me; that it is expressive of a law I give to myself, rather than a law imposed upon me from without.
As an example, someone who may be on a diet will go through various means to achieve the desired result: managing calorie intake, exercising more, etc. As soon as the result is achieved, people will stop dieting and go back to their pre-diet lifestyle. As many people can testify, their old habits take over and the results they wanted are lost. However, there are people who go through changes in their diets, but as soon as they achieve their desired results, they stick to their diet in order to maintain those desired results. Eventually, these new behaviors have become habituated and ingrained in their character to the point where people may not consider these new behaviors as external to themselves, but now as part of their character. They have taken on a new lifestyle to the point where they may not even consider what they are doing as “dieting” but rather simply a new way of living and being healthy.
This dieting example as similar to Korsgaard’s self-constitution in that the former dieter was dieting in accordance with dieting principles, and the latter dieter was dieting by endorsing dieting principles. The training is not just to get out of a certain situation to avoid these vicious thoughts or habits. Rather, it is to shape and form our character and not just avoid actions. We have to stay on track and not falter, otherwise habits become weakened and then destroyed. What gets us on track is áskēsis. Thus, we must keep up the exercises so that we stay on track. One does not become an athlete by doing the exercises once; one does not become a musician by practicing once. Likewise, we do not become better by doing better things once. We “upgrade” ourselves by constantly striving so that the upgrade becomes the normal fashion of living our lives. Once we have that, then we “upgrade” again. While the traditional Stoics said that the aim is eudaimonia, I think a better way to think of this is to continually upgrade and constantly be on the go to create better versions of ourselves. We see if these habits are really us, or if we are simply living in accordance with those habits, meaning that those habits aren’t us yet, but we still do the actions in the hopes that those actions become habits. Once those habits take hold of our character, then the training (at least for moment) is complete and has influenced us.
 More accurately, she considers self-constitution as being morally autonomous in the Kantian sense. However, I consider this very similar to training and disciplining the self.
 Korsgaard, 160.
Shawn Miller is a Ph. D. student at Marquette University. Currently, he is working on his dissertation which discusses the moral assumptions of sex education in the United States. He hopes to incorporate áskēsis into sex education to help students become sexual subjects, meaning to be more aware of the roles and scripts in our culture, rather than simply following them. Besides Stoicism and sexuality, Shaun also enjoys athletics, being around good company, and cooking. You can read more of his ideas at his blog.