The Path of the Prokopton
Who is making progress, then? The person who has read many treatises by Chrysippus? Why, does virtue consist in this, in having gained a thorough knowledge of Chrysippus? For if that is the case, we must agree progress is nothing other than knowing many works of Chrysippus. ~ Epictetus
“What now?” That was the question I asked myself after I completed my first course of study in Stoicism. Like most people who turn to Stoicism for answers, I was seeking happiness (eudaimonia). The Stoic Essential Studies course from The College of Stoic Philosophers provided me with a fundamental grasp of Stoic logic, physics, and ethics; however, I was left with the question, “Where do I go from here?” I was still just learning to apply Stoic philosophy at work, at home, and in the community. At the time, I didn’t fully understand that practicing Stoicism as a way of life is an iterative process that involves repeated cycles of philosophical discourse and philosophical practice.
And so the philosophers must train us first in theory, which is the easier task, and then lead us on to more difficult matters; for in theory, there is nothing to restrain us from drawing the consequences of what we have been taught, whereas in life there are many things that pull us off course. (Discourses 1.26.3)
Philosophical discourse—the study of logic, physics, and ethics—provides the necessary foundation for philosophical practice. My “What now?” was the beginning of the second stage of my Stoic training—the transition from philosophical discourse to philosophical practice. I suspect there are others like me, who after acquiring a foundation in Stoic discourse are left wondering “What now?
This post is the first of a series where I will cover the three Stoic disciplines prescribed by Epictetus and echoed by Marcus Aurelius. I rely heavily on the works of Pierre Hadot to cover this ground. I was introduced to Hadot’s writing during my year of study with The Marcus Aurelius School. Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life and The Inner Citadel helped me tremendously as I transitioned from theory to application on my Stoic path. I recommend them to all who are interested in Stoicism. During my final term of the Marcus Aurelius School, I wrote a paper titled Prosoche: Illuminating the Path of the Prokopton. The last portion of that paper outlines the path of the Stoic prokopton. The title prokopton refers to one who is making progress along the Stoic path. It does not represent a stage of learning or practice, and it is not a title bestowed or granted by any authority. It simply refers to someone who is learning and progressing, however imperfectly, along the Stoic path. The three disciplines allow the prokopton to make progress along that path.
The Three Stoic Disciplines
Progress on the Stoic path is achieved through the consistent practice of the three Stoic disciplines, or three studies (topoi), referred to frequently in the Discourses of Epictetus and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. These three disciplines include the discipline of assent, the discipline of desire, and the discipline of action. The disciplines correlate with the study of logic, physics, and ethics respectively. Epictetus declares that training in these disciplines is essential for anyone who intends to be good and noble (Discourses 3.2.1-2). These disciplines are designed to transform the foolish, lost wanderer into a prokoptôn who is capable of following the Stoic path. They are essential to a life of excellence (arete) and happiness (eudaimonia).
The three disciplines are interrelated and inseparable. None can be practiced entirely isolated from the others. While one can focus on a single discipline at any given moment, the others are necessarily involved. Again, the practice of these disciplines is an iterative process whereby philosophical understanding and practical application work together synergistically to promote virtue in the practitioner.
All three disciplines are essential; however, Epictetus asserts that controlling our passions, through the discipline of desire, is the “most urgent” of the disciplines for two reasons. First, those desires and aversions that are incongruous with Nature are the sources of crippling psychological disturbances. Secondly, until our most ardent desires and aversions are under control, we are “incapable of listening to reason” (Discourses 3.2.3). Universal Reason (logos) cannot reach the mind of a complete fool, driven by passions, who remains caught in a whirlwind of desires. The fool must step outside the tumult of life’s passions before he can take the first step on the path toward human flourishing (happiness). This requires the Stoic disciplines.
Here we encounter the first instance of synergy between the disciplines. Attempting to quell the passions using the discipline of desire alone is akin to attacking a raging forest fire with a bucket brigade. The flames of the passions, fueled by the wrong desires, burn hot. They cannot be quelled without the discipline of assent. Thus, like modern firefighters who cut a firebreak around a blaze to deny it more fuel, we must circumscribe the Self through the discipline of assent and thereby begin starving the flames of our passions, which are fueled by false judgments.
Below are passages from Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius which directly relate to the three disciplines. The blue text in brackets relate the passages to each of the Stoic disciplines.
The three disciplines in Epictetus’ Discourses 3.2:
1. There are three areas of study or exercise, in which a person who is going to be good must be trained. That concerning desires and the aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires nor fall into what he would avoid [discipline of desire]. 2. That concerning impulse to act and no to act, and, in general, appropriate behavior; so that he may act in an orderly manner and after due consideration, and not carelessly [discipline of action]. The third is concerned with freedom from deception and hasty judgment, and, in general whatever is connected with assent [discipline of assent]. 3.Of these, the most urgent, is that which has to do with the passions [discipline of desire]; for these are produced in no other way than by the disappointment of our desires, and the incurring of our aversions. It is this that introduces disturbances, tumults, misfortunes, and calamities; and causes sorrow, lamentation and envy; and renders us envious and jealous, and thus incapable of listening to reason. 4. The next has to do with appropriate action [discipline of action]. For I should not be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relations as a man who honours the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen. 5. The third falls to those who are already making progress and is concerned with the achievement of certainty in the matters already covered, so that even in dreams, or drunkenness or melancholy no untested impression may catch us off guard [discipline of assent].
The three disciplines in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:
7.54 Everywhere and all the time it lies within your power to be reverently contented with your present lot [discipline of desire], to behave justly to such people as are presently at hand [discipline of action], and to deal skilfully with your present impressions so that nothing may steal into your mind which you have not adequately grasped [discipline of assent].
8.7 Every nature is contented when things go well for it; and things go well for a rational nature when it never gives its assent to a false or doubtful impression [discipline of assent], and directs its impulses only to actions that further the common good [discipline of action], and limits its desires and aversions only to things that are within its power [discipline of desire], and welcomes all that is assigned to it by universal nature.
9.6 It is sufficient that your present judgement should grasp its object [discipline of assent], that your present action should be directed to the common good [discipline of action], that your present disposition should be well satisfied with all that happens to it from a cause outside itself [discipline of desire].
9.7 Blot out imagination [discipline of assent]; put a curb on impulse [discipline of action]; quench desire [discipline of desire]; ensure that your ruling centre remains under its own control.
4.33 What, then, is worthy of our striving? This alone, a mind governed by justice, deeds directed to the common good [discipline of action], words that never lie [discipline of assent], and a disposition that welcomes all that happens, as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same kind of origin and spring [discipline of desire].
The Path of the Prokopton Series
For those interested in The Path of the Prokopton, the following series of posts will provide an introduction:
- Prosoche: Illuminating the Path of the Prokopton
- The Path of the Prokopton – The Discipline of Assent
- The Path of the Prokopton – The Discipline of Desire
- The Path of the Prokopton – The Discipline of Action
prokoptôn (προκόπτων) [pro-KOP-tone] – Making progress. Even though one has not obtained the wisdom of a sage when appropriate actions are increasingly chosen fewer and fewer mistakes will be made and one will be prokoptôn, making progress. Greg Wasson, College of Stoic Philosophers: Stoic Glossary & Pronunciation Guide, (2012), p. 6