In this post I will explore the importance of spiritual exercises in Stoicism, what the French philosopher Pierre Hadot meant by “active” spiritual exercises, and the origin of these active exercises: Stoicism’s “three disciplines,” which Epictetus laid out in his Enchiridion and Discourses. I will ultimately suggest specific Enchiridion passages that the modern practitioner of Stoicism might incorporate into daily, “active” exercises in order to progress in these three disciplines.
Supplementing Stoic Precepts with Concrete Practices
Ancient philosophies such as Stoicism stressed autarkeia – independence and inner freedom, or as Pierre Hadot writes, “that state in which the ego depends only upon itself.” He goes on to say that
we find in all philosophical schools the same awareness of the power of the human self to free itself from everything which is alien to it.
Implicit in this wording is the acknowledgment that humans are typically enslaved by things that are by nature alien to us. To return to themselves, the Stoics put their philosophy into practice by means of daily exercises. According to Hadot,
all spiritual exercises are, fundamentally, a return to the self, in which the self is liberated from the state of alienation into which it has been plunged by worries, passions, and desires.
The ancient Stoics believed that philosophy is not merely to be learned, but lived. As Hadot writes in What is Ancient Philosophy?
According to the Stoic Epictetus, [some people] talk about the art of living like human beings, instead of living like human beings themselves . . . as Seneca put it, they turn true love of wisdom (philosophia) into love of words (philologia).
Likewise, Musonius Rufus cautioned against “sophists” who “inflate themselves [with] a multitude of theories” and of so-called philosophers who are “decadent and soft.” He said young people no longer need to absorb all of these “theories that truly are enough to consume a man’s life.” Epictetus also complained about those of us who
never carr[y] out our reading or our writing in such a way that, when it comes to action, we could use the representations we receive in a way consonant with nature; instead, we are content . . . when we can analyze syllogisms and examine hypothetical arguments.
In contrast, philosophy was meant to be more than just a set of theories, but rather “a method for training people to live and to look at the world in a new way.”
The Stoics prescribed the use of “exercises” to strengthen and internalize our intellectual understanding of Stoic precepts, so that we are prepared to meet a range of misfortunes, whether minor irritations or serious adversities, with equanimity. It is not mere selfishness that makes us want to glide through life unperturbed. Consider how difficult it is to help someone–whether by physically lending a hand, volunteering your time, or listening to someone vent when they are suffering–when you yourself are weighed down with troubles. Stoicism provides a foundation for an ever-shifting terrain, thus enabling us to meet life’s inevitable setbacks more effectively. In turn, we can use this strength and stability to be more present in the world and to be better prepared to support those we love.
Hadot’s “Active” Stoic Exercises: Self-mastery, Accomplishment of Duties, and Indifference to Indifferent Things
Hadot describes several types of “spiritual exercises,” including the more well-known morning and evening meditations–in which you look ahead at the day to come, or reflect on the day that has passed, and consider how you either will, or did, follow Stoic teachings and pursue a sage-like path. He also discusses premeditatio malorum, in which you imagine misfortunes that could befall you and think about how you will meet them with strength and grace, as they are “indifferent,” are not up to us, and are therefore not evils.
Hadot goes on to mention, briefly, “active” Stoic exercises, including “self-mastery, accomplishment of duties, and indifference to indifferent things.”And, while Hadot does not elaborate in this essay on the background or origin of those exercises, he does describe them as “practical exercises, intended to create habits.” As it turns out, Hadot’s three types of active exercises correspond perfectly to Epictetus’ three areas of Stoic practice, known in Stoic commentary as the “three disciplines.”
In an essay on Marcus Aurelius, Hadot writes that Epictetus -“in Marcus Aurelius’ day, the greatest authority in questions of Stoicism”-noted three areas in which things “depend on us,” borrowing language from the famous dichotomy in Book One of the Enchiridion, stating that some things depend on us, and other things do not. According to Epictetus, “What depends on us are value-judgments, inclinations to act, desires, aversions, and, in a word, everything that is our doing.”
As Hadot writes
What depends upon us is the acts of our own soul, because we are able freely to choose them. . . . Among the acts of the soul which do depend on us, some correspond to the area of judgment and assent, others to the area of desire, and, finally, still others correspond to the area of inclinations to action.
Of Hadot’s active exercises, then, self-mastery refers to desire, accomplishment of duties corresponds to action, and indifference to indifferent things refers to the proper use of judgment and assent.
Hadot stresses that to achieve self-mastery, one has to pare down one’s desires and aspirations drastically and limit them solely to moral virtue, which is the only thing that is “up to us.” Likewise, our aversions should be pared down to moral evil. Anything beyond these two spheres is not up to us, and to worry about it is therefore a waste of our time.
From ancient sources we see additional nuances of self-mastery. Diogenes Laertius describes the Stoic Zeno as a paragon of self-mastery and of the autarkeia or self-sufficiency described above. Zeno was known for his “frugality, contentment with poverty [and] detachment in social behavior.” An epigram by Zenodotus described Zeno as an inventor of self-sufficiency (autarkeia) who gave up wealth and founded a school that would be the “mother of fearless liberty.”
A. A. Long notes that Zeno lived in the public eye, but
in a manner which displays his indifference to the conventional marks of success and his profound satisfaction with what others would call asceticism.
Long writes that enkrateia is not exactly the same thing as ataraxia (an untroubled state of mind), but nevertheless “all three Hellenistic movements posit an ideal of tranquility, for the attainment of which the essential condition is rational control of one’s desires.”
Although the emphasis for Zeno appeared to have been on renouncing material goods, there are a plethora of things in life that we could wish for that money cannot buy. Hadot describes “such desiderata as wealth and health” as not depending on us, and thus things that can make people unnecessarily unhappy when they are not present in life. It is true that health may depend on economic status, but even people with the most expensive health insurance get sick, and sometimes with little recourse.
Sometimes I find myself wanting peace and quiet so that I can read a book. This costs nothing, but it is still a desire to which I am at times overly attached. Another personal example is that I would like my child to act a certain way, e.g., respectfully and deferentially to dear old mom. Again, this is not a material good, but it is a desire, and it puts me at the mercy of a five-year-old who, while charming in many ways, does not always – or in fact ever – put my desires first.
Instead of working backward and subtracting things from a typical, non-Stoic way of viewing what is “necessary” or simply desirable in life -money, health, status, a romantic relationship, a quiet room, an abnormally sweet child – we need to brush it all aside and start with the bare minimum, and add to that. Moral virtue is all we should desire if we wish to achieve self-mastery. On the other side of the coin, moral evil is all we should seek to avoid. Difficult? Yes. Requiring superhuman abilities? Probably.
Indeed, Long observed that just as modern anthropology views people’s interests and needs as “largely social constructs,” the Hellenistic philosophies’ emphasis on austerity and self-renunciation amounted to “an invitation to enter an alternative world and acquire a new self.” He therefore describes Stoicism and other sects as “paradoxical,” but in the original etymological meaning of the word, namely, that they are “incongruous with commonplace beliefs [doxa].”
“Acquiring a new self” is certainly not something people, then or now, routinely do or even consider doing. It is a paradox in the sense that it is a teaching that it is completely out of step with common beliefs. People are entwined with their desires and identify with them strongly, hence their grave disappointment when things do not turn out as they wish. To acquire a new self would necessitate leaving the old one behind, abandoning the hopes, dreams and desires accumulated over many years.
Similarly, Hadot describes Stoicism and the other Hellenistic schools as requiring “a kind of self-duplication in which the ‘I’ refuses to be conflated with its desires and appetites, takes up a distance from the objects of its desires, and becomes aware of its power to become detached from them. It thus rises from a partial and particular vision to a universal perspective, be it that of Nature or that of the Spirit.” Instead of a completely new self, this seems more akin to a radically pared-down self, divorced from its desires and wedded instead to a cosmic viewpoint.
Hadot’s notion of a self “conflated” with its desires pinpoints the problem for us moderns. We have grown to believe that our desires are a part of us, an extension of our identity. (Witness the proliferation of “bucket list” broadcasts on social media.) Ridding ourselves of them feels like a loss of identity. And yet, it is only by accepting that we can stand alone, self-sufficient, wanting nothing but to be good people, that we free ourselves of dependence on things outside of us, whether money, social status, health, people who do what we want them to do, or whatever we else we have let ourselves believe we “need” to be happy.
The Enchiridion provides useful guidance on self-mastery, accomplishment of duties, and indifference to indifferent things. The self-mastery passages below can aid in fostering autarkeia. Per the first passage, if the company you are in does not affect your behavior, it means you are growing in self-sufficiency, and what the ancient Stoics described as a “steadfast disposition.” The remaining three remind us that the mind should be our primary concern. Desire for delicious food, luxurious accommodations, or fine clothing is seldom satisfied, but rather seems to grow the more we have those things. Keeping pleasure in perspective is crucial. Pleasure does not further your progress toward goodness, and is too often dependent upon outside stimuli. Pleasure can leave as quickly as it came, and one ought not attach oneself to such ephemera.
Self-Mastery Exercise Passages
“Lay down from this moment a certain character and pattern of behavior for yourself, which you are to preserve both when you’re alone and when you’re with others.” (Enchiridion, 33.1)
“In things relating to the body, take only as much as your bare need requires . . . exclude everything that is for show or luxury.” (33.7)
“It is a sign of a lack of natural aptitude to spend much time on things relating to the body . . . . No, these things should be done in passing, and you should devote undivided attention to your mind.” (41)
“When you receive an impression of some pleasure, take care not to get carried away by it, as with impressions in general; but rather, make it wait for you, and allow yourself some slight delay.” (34)
Accomplishment of duties (kathekonta)
Accomplishment of duties differs from the other two active exercises in that it ultimately depends on other people. It is key to recall the distinction between what depends on us and what does not, and to recognize that as we carry out our duties to others, what is up to us is our moral intention as we do it. The result of our efforts – how they are received, whether our relationship with the other person improves, whether their expectations are even higher in the future – this is not up to us.
Newcomers to Stoicism are sometimes surprised by the social element of the philosophy, having thought instead that it was about repressing the emotions and withdrawing from the world to minimize suffering. Such an approach, however, would not enable us to live in accordance with our nature, which is that of a rational human being who has obligations depending on the part we play: citizen, friend, parent, spouse. As Marcus Aurelius wrote:
For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.
Seneca similarly tells us:
No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for mankind or is more devoted 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 person in particular.
To find a basis for this theory of ‘duties,’ the Stoics return to their fundamental intuition: that of the living being’s instinctive, original accord with itself, which expresses the deepest will of nature. Living beings have an innate tendency to preserve themselves and to repel that which threatens their integrity. When human reason appears, natural instinct becomes reflective, reasoned choice: something is chosen because it responds to the natural tendencies, such as the love of life and of children, or love for one’s fellow citizens, which is based on the instinct of sociability.
The three disciplines–desire, action, and assent–overlap, as I will discuss further in the next section. To abnegate or rise above one’s own desires can be helpful as one embarks on carrying out duties to others. If we are too self-absorbed and focused on getting what we want, it impedes ethical growth. If we are spending all of our time in the office in hopes of getting a lucrative promotion, it is not likely we will be able to help a friend. If we are traveling the world checking items off of our bucket list, we may miss a phone call from an ailing parent.
The following passages from Enchiridion together form an overview of various facets of the Stoic obligation to be dutiful servants of others. One facet is that our role is not chosen, but assigned. This may strike us as constrictive, but it is simply reality. Naturally, we did not choose to be the child of our parents; that role was assigned. Our roles as citizens are also – usually – determined at birth. If we are parents, that general role is sometimes chosen, sometimes not; at any rate, if we decide to bear offspring, we do not know who that child will be. Our role as parent of this particular child is assigned. Since that is the case, it is fruitless to equivocate on our responsibilities in these roles: As the second passage notes, the social relationship is the measure of appropriate actions. We want to be the best child, citizen, parent we can be–even when it is difficult. The last passage reminds us that the ultimate outcome is beyond our control.
Accomplishment of Duties Passages
“Remember that you’re an actor in a play, which will be as the author chooses, short if he wants it to be short, and long if he wants it to be long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, act even that part with all your skill; and likewise if you’re playing a cripple, an official, or a private citizen. For that is your business, to act the role that is assigned to you as well as you can; but it is another’s part to select that role.” (Enchiridion, 17)
“Appropriate actions are measured on the whole by our social relationships. . . . ‘My brother is wronging me.’ Very well, maintain the relation that you have towards him; don’t look to what he is doing, but to what you must do if you are to keep your choice in harmony with nature.” (30)
“If anyone wants to be free, then, let him neither want anything nor seek to avoid anything that is under the control of others; or else he is bound to be a slave.” (14)
Indifference to Indifferent Things
This exercise is the one that relies most on our capacity for rationality, and which is most aligned with the Stoic topos of logic. Hadot describes logic as “the mastery of inner discourse.” By keeping a close watch on that inner discourse, we can see whether our logic is erroneous and thus conducive to emotional disturbances. The crux of this exercise is exactly as Marcus Aurelius described it in 11.16 of the Meditations:
One soul finds within itself the power to live a perfectly happy life, if we can remain indifferent towards indifferent things.
Hadot describes this as an “interior” exercise, as opposed to self-mastery and accomplishment of duties, which are more focused on the world outside of our minds.
It is useful, since we are discussing logic and, by extension, wisdom, to look at that virtually unattainable yet nonetheless instructive ideal: the Stoic sage. Hadot quotes French philosopher Bernard Groethuysen, who emphasizes the sage’s relation to the cosmos:
The consciousness he has of the world is something particular to the sage. Only the sage never ceases to have the whole constantly present to his mind, never forgets the world, thinks and acts in relation to the cosmos. . . . The sage is part of the world; he is cosmic. He does not let himself be distracted from the world, or detached from the cosmic whole. . . . The figure of the sage and the representation of the world form, as it were, an indissoluble unity.
Once you re-orient yourself, you realize the universe is vast, is not a one-man show, and contains an infinite number of moving parts among which we should “make no difference” – Hadot’s clarification of the concept of “indifferents” in Stoicism. Indifference to indifferents does not mean closing yourself off emotionally from anything that might cause pain, and in the process leading a small, isolated life. On the contrary, by examining our inner discourse logically, in the context of this vast backdrop, we grow nearer to our ideal, the sage whose life is marked by ataraxia and autarkeia.
Along with an expanded view of the environment in which one lives, indifference to indifferent things encourages a refined focus on the one thing that is not indifferent: our moral intention. Hadot stresses that this “engages human beings to modify themselves and their attitude with regard to the world.” There is some overlap between this exercise and self-mastery because we focus only on the things that we can control and are important, so that we can achieve greater self-sufficiency. Indifference to indifferent things also meshes with accomplishment of duties; as we focus on the things we can accomplish in this life, we may turn our gaze to others and see opportunities to exercise our virtue there–and practicing indifference to indifferent things means we are not discouraged by the outcome of our attempts to help others.
The following passages should help us to clarify our thinking when logic eludes us and negative emotions take over.
Indifference to Indifferent Things Passages
Remove your aversion, then, from everything that is not within our power, and transfer it to what is contrary to nature among those things that are within our power. (Enchiridion, 2.2)
Don’t seek that all that comes about should come about as you wish, but wish that everything that comes about should come about just as it does, and then you’ll have a calm and happy life. (8)
Practice, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression, ‘You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ (1.5)
With regard to everything that happens to you, remember to look inside yourself and see what capacity you have to enable you to deal with it. . . . And if you get into the habit of following this course, you won’t get swept away by your impressions. (10)
It is a pitfall of Stoicism that in attempting to understand the elaborate taxonomy of topoi, disciplines, cardinal virtues, and so on, we might forget to put philosophy into practice. I myself have found that getting lost in an abstract world of concepts that originated thousands of years ago can be an attractive antidote when one has overdosed on social media and “fake news.” It is by putting Stoicism into practice via philosophical exercises, however, that we resist the temptation to become sophists ourselves, who have lost sight of the transformative, ethical purpose of Stoicism: to lead virtuous lives and live up to our potential as rational humans and citizens of the world. Pierre Hadot and other modern commentators are invaluable in that they have read between the lines of the ancients’ teachings to distill plausible exercises that we can use today. By reflecting every day on the themes animating these teachings, we inch toward wisdom and tranquility.
Anitra Russell studied classical languages and literature in high school and at university and has recently renewed her studies. She blogs about Stoicism at astoicremedy.com.