An Undiscovered Stoic Faculty: Gnomē in Epictetus’s Thought – by Phillip Pinell


The most compelling feature of the Stoics is their insight about the power of human psychology. The chief source of our misery comes not from circumstances, but from our judgments (dogmata) about our circumstances. Most of our problems, save the question about what lies in our control, are self-created. No one presents this idea more clearly than Epictetus, the most famous popularizer of Stoic ideas in ancient and modern times. Our psychological faculties thus present us with the potential both for our success and our demise. Yet some have greater importance in our decisions than others. This essay asks: which is the most important of the psychological faculties within Epictetus’ thought?

Scholars tend to emphasize the centrality of prohairesis —translated in variations such as “choice” (Nicholas P. White), volition (A.A. Long) the will, (Michael Frede), and still other ways— in Epictetus’ thought. Others point to the “ruling faculty” (to hēgemonikon) or the “rational faculty” (hē dunamis logikē). However, there is a lesser known faculty in Epictetus’ philosophy that can bear fruit for this discussion: the “faculty of judgment” (gnomē).

The term gnomē (the anglicized form of the Greek γνώμη)  has an essential role within Epictetus psychology. Epictetus identifies gnomē as the faculty of the soul that pertains to judgment. This faculty exists alongside reason (logos) as the factors that distinguish human beings from brute animals and make us like gods (Discourses 1). As a faculty of the soul, gnomē refers to the capacity of the mind to judge. Scholars translate gnomē differently across translations, or even in different sections of the same translation. Gnomē is translated to such varieties as“faculty of judgment,” “intelligence,” “intellect,” “wisdom,” “mind,” and somewhat misleadingly, “will.” In general, I follow Nicholas P. White’s translation of “faculty of judgment” because it emphasizes gnomē as a cognitive faculty that judges the truth or falsity of things to be chosen by the will. Gnomē, then, is the faculty that works alongside the will to guide it to understand what lies in accordance with Nature, as dictated by God who dwells within us. In so doing, it becomes the faculty that both creates and aligns our opinions (dogmata) in accordance with Nature before we assent to them. As Epictetus writes,[1]

Now, where there’s ignorance, there’s a lack of learning and lack of education in matters of fundamental importance… Well, if you appreciate this, in the future there is only one thing you’ll take seriously and to which you’ll apply your intelligence (τὴν γνώμην), and that’s getting to know the criterion by which to judge whether or not things are in accord with nature, and putting this knowledge to use to decide about particular cases (Discourses 1.11.15).

The uniqueness of gnomē among other cognitive faculties in the ancient tradition lies in its capacity to discern whether the content of our judgments corresponds with the Stoic conception of Nature. To accomplish this, gnomē searches for a criteria for action that is based on Nature. As is well-known among scholars of the Stoics, Nature is rational, but it is distinct from reason (logos). Logos is the ordering principle of the divine mind and something that humans, not animals, share with the divine mind. To live according to nature is to live according to rational principle, but also to live according to the nature that is peculiarly human, which is rational, as the end of humans is to live rationally, and hence virtuously. Hence why there are two uses of the term ‘Nature’ (phusis) in Epictetus’s writings: the nature of each creature and the Nature of reality. Each creature has its own nature. The nature of animals, for instance, is to be governed by their impressions; human beings, in contrast, have a rational nature that allows them to discern between impressions.

As an example of gnomē’s discernment, Epictetus advises that we not focus too much on the needs of the body in ways that usurp the activities of the mind. As Epictetus writes,

It is a sign of coarseness to spend a lot of time on bodily functions such as exercising, eating, drinking, defecating, and copulating. These are things to be done incidentally; all your attention should be on your intellect[2] (τὴν γνώμην) (Enchiridion 41).

It may seem extreme that attending to corporeal matters is considered coarse. But this is the Stoics’ point. Like with Plato, Epictetus says that the capacity for judgment is unique to human beings and, alongside reason (logos), is proof of God (Zeus) dwelling within us. The mind is unique to us and allows us to live a truly good life, one where we participate in the eternal and shun the ephemeral. Hence, the one who chooses to concentrate one’s attention on the body misjudges appearances and incorrectly thinks that bodily goods outweigh goods of the mind. From his incorrect judgment, he oppresses himself by clinging to a false belief and valuing what will inevitably beget his despair.

Now, why concentrate on gnomē rather than another Stoic faculty like prohairesis? After all, most scholars of the Stoics consider prohairesis to be the central faculty within Epictetus’ thought. The answer is complicated. It is my contention that by focusing on gnomē, one necessarily also focuses on prohairesis. Gregory Sadler has made the controversial case that prohairesis is not so different from the  to hēgemonikon and hē dunamis logikē; rather, he argues that the latter two are merely different sides of prohairesis.[3] This makes good sense, as all three faculties grasp at choices with some sort of reason underlying it. Even our decisions to follow our passions by going out for a night of drinking instead of staying late at work has a logic behind it (Epictetus might just say that such a person doesn’t understand the true reason).[4] There is ample support for this in the Discourses. Epictetus often calls the will the most essential faculty, and even the very thing that makes us human—“for you are not flesh or hair, but you are will (prohairesis)” (Discourses 4.5; see also 3.1.40). The will is the faculty whose central component is to choose for us (prohairesis literally can be seen as a “grabbing”). Yet he also identifies to hēgemonikon as the faculty pertaining to our decisions (see, for example, Discourses 1.20). Still elsewhere he identifies hē dunamis logikē as the most important faculty of human beings and the one that distinguishes us from brutes (Discourses 3.1.25; see also 1.3) Epictetus is comfortable with conflating these concepts because they are expressions of the same inward activity. The choices of the will always have some reason behind them, even when our choices turn out to be unreasonable.

Following Sadler’s proposition about the multifaceted character of prohairesis, I would like to suggest that gnomē adds a fourth side of prohairesis: the faculty that judges what prohairesis chooses. This may be objected to on the grounds that prohairesis is a self-acting faculty that acts upon itself through the creation of habits.[5] However, there are at least three reasons to suppose that gnomē is another face of prohairesis. First, in the Enchiridion, gnomē and prohairesis are the only two faculties that Epictetus advises students to turn their attention towards in future moments of temptation towards animal-like abandonment impressions. The second reason is that gnomē is conceptually close to prohairesis in its capacity to discern what is natural and not natural. Prohairesis is noteworthy as the faculty that pertains to choosing things in accordance with Nature. Due to their mutual embrace of nature, it seems that gnomē judges whether an act or belief is in accordance with Nature before prohairesis chooses it. The third reason to think that gnomē is another face of prohairesis is the connection between gnomē and logos. As mentioned prior, in Book I of the Discourses, Epictetus identifies gnomē alongside logos as one of the two features that distinguish humans from animals and, indeed, that humans share with gods. As reason, for the Stoics, is evidence of the divine dwelling within the human being, there is thus a connection between our capacity for judgment and our capacity for reason. Such a conclusion is intuitive, again, in so far as all judgments, even poor judgments, are made with some sort of underlying reason. But only the best judgments—the sort of judgments of truth that the gods themselves would make—are made with gnomē acting in tandem with logos, one side of prohairesis. For Epictetus, then, gnomē is the element of choice that either makes or breaks a decision. When at its strongest, it can orient us towards what is reasonable, true, and in harmony with Nature; or, when executed poorly, it can lead us toward ignorance of basic reality, self-deceit, unhappiness, a flurry of social vices, yet the belief and self-justification that our misjudgments are justified.

It is a mystery why have scholars overlooked this faculty, especially given its significance for thinkers like Aristotle, Thucydides, and Aquinas. The little attention gnomē has been given in Epictetus’ thought does not remove its significance for readers henceforward. For the Stoic, it is one’s judgment that allows one to concentrate solely on what lies in one’s control. As the faculty of judgment, then, gnomē is the precondition for practicing the Stoic life.


Phillip Pinell is a Ph.D. student in political theory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research explores the role of memory and identity in ancient and continental political thought. This piece is a brief synopsis of a larger research project to demonstrate how Epictetus’ faculty of gnomē is the most essential social virtue to preserve a declining philosophy of liberalism.

[1] Unless otherwise specified, I refer to Robin Waterfield’s (2022) splendid new translation of Epictetus’ Complete Works for English translations of the Greek.

[2] Nicholas P. White translates τὴν γνώμην here as “faculty of judgment.”

[3] Gregory B. Sadler. “Epictetus on Keeping Prohairesis in Accordance with Nature.”

[4]Gregory B. Sadler, “Prohairesis in Epictetus’ Stoic Moral Theory” (Midwest Seminar in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, Milwaukee, WI, October 2016),

[5] Epictetus also notes that, like prohairesis, logos has the ability to examine itself. See Discourses 1.20.

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