The Path of the Prokopton – The Discipline of Assent
It escapes most people, that the study of arguments which have equivocal or hypothetical premises, and those which are developed by questioning, and, in a word, all such arguments, has a connection with how we should behave in our lives. For what we seek in every matter is how the virtuous man may find the path he should follow and the way he should behave with regard to it. (Discourses 1.7.1)
This is the second of several posts that will cover the path of the prokopton (one making progress) by focusing on the three Stoic disciplines. This post will cover The Discipline of Assent, which corresponds to the topic of logic in Stoicism because it involves the acquisition and integration of knowledge (epistemology). The Stoics are considered empiricists since they assert we derive knowledge from experience. However, the Stoics also assert that humans are born with preconceptions that incline us to moral behavior. This post will not provide a detailed analysis of Stoic epistemology; however, some basics need to be covered before we can deal with the discipline of assent. I use Pierre Hadot’s term guiding principle to designate the concept of Self—that which we refer to as “I” when we consider who is perceiving, analyzing, and deciding. Other equally useful terms include ruling center, commanding faculty, and rational faculty. All refer to the same thing. The Greek word is hēgemonikon, and it is comprised of three parts: the faculties of impression, impulse and assent. Assent means agreement. When we assent to an impression, we agree with it. John Sellars breaks the process of assent into four stages:
- We perceive an external thing or event.
- We form an “almost involuntary and seemingly unconscious value judgement” (in some instances) about that thing or event.
- An impression is a proposition, formed from a perception and the value judgement, that is presented to our guiding principle (hegemonikon).
- We either assent to (agree with) the proposition or we reject it. We may also withhold judgement.
Therefore, the discipline of assent involves making correct judgements about the nature of the external world and events that occur in it. Correct judgements about our human nature and the nature of reality promote excellence in our thoughts and actions and allow us to travel the path of the prokopton and experience good flow in our lives. Alternatively, incorrect judgements produce bad emotions (pathe). It is important to keep in mind that Stoicism is holistic in nature; therefore, the topics of study—logic, physics, and ethics—are interdependent, and so are the corresponding disciplines. Thus, the discipline of assent is related to the other disciplines, which I will cover in future posts. The goal of the Stoic disciplines is to bring our guiding principle—that fragment of the logos that resides in us—into coherence with universal Reason (logos). This state of coherence defines the essence of the Stoic maxim to live according to Nature.
When we consider the four-step process of assent outlined above, it is obvious that we often fail to recognize the value judgements that accompany impressions. Nevertheless, it is our assent to those value judgements that creates the emotions which impede our happiness—good flow in life. Here is a real-world scenario most people can relate to that will help illustrate this process:
Imagine you are driving to work one morning when another driver cuts you off in rush-hour traffic. The impression of immediate danger—a possible collision—is registered by your guiding principle. You assent to the danger and respond appropriately by applying the brakes to avoid hitting the other car. However, what you may not be conscious of is the “almost involuntary and seemingly unconscious value judgement” that accompanied that impression. That value judgement may be something like “inconsiderate a-hole” or “jerk.” The emotion arising from the value judgement may inspire you to communicate your annoyance by honking your horn or displaying the universal, single-fingered sign of displeasure. Your assent to that value judgement is now causing you psychological angst. Your sympathetic nervous system, which was rightfully engaged in dealing with the immediate physical danger, now kicks into overdrive. Your heart rate continues to increase, your blood pressure rises, your vision narrows and focuses on the source of the perceived danger, and blood flow is redirected from your brain to your limbs in a fight-flight-response. The Stoics call this pathos—a negative emotion. The Stoics teach us this bad emotion (pathos), and the corresponding physiological response did not result from the driver cutting you off, but from your thoughts about that event. If you had stopped with assent to the impression of immediate danger and braked accordingly, the negative emotion would not have been created. Your parasympathetic nervous system would have countered your fight-or-flight response, and you would have returned to your former state almost immediately. Instead, your assent to the judgement that the driver harmed you created a negative emotional response and you are now disturbed.
Even in this routine example we see the importance of disciplining our assent. However, as the stakes get higher, this discipline becomes more difficult. It is one thing to withhold assent from the idea that the driver who cut us off in traffic did us any harm. However, withholding assent from value judgements about a termination letter, the discovery that our partner has been unfaithful, bad news from our doctor, or the death of a loved one seem to be another thing entirely. These events appear to belong in a different category. The Stoics disagree. Properly understood, none of these events harm our soul; they are morally indifferent to the Stoic. Some mistakenly interpret this aspect of Stoicism and consider it repugnant or even pathological to view the loss of a loved one, as an example, as an “indifferent.” In fairness, apart from the holistic system of Stoic philosophy, such criticism is understandable. The idea that “everything else besides fully rational and virtuous action” has no value is counterintuitive apart from the Stoic relationship between human nature and cosmic nature. This highlights the interdependent nature of all three fields of study in Stoicism and demonstrates how abandoning the Stoic worldview can cause the system to lose its coherence and become impracticable.
Properly understood, the “indifference” of the Stoic to all externals is simply the withholding of assent to value judgements about things that are not up to us. Using the dichotomy of control described in Enchiridion 1, both the driver who cut us off and the death of a loved one belong in the same category—things not up to us. That certainly does not mean we will not have appropriately different emotional responses to them. After all, Stoics are not emotionless. That is a topic for another time. The important point here is this: when we understand the limits of our human nature and accept our place in Nature, we will assent correctly and respond appropriately to events. By doing so, we avoid the bad emotions (pathe). This is one aspect of the path of the prokopton that allows us to experience good flow (eudaimonia) in life.
Therefore, as we will see, our guiding principle serves as our guide along the path of the prokopton. It is that rational part of our human nature, given to us by Nature, that allows us to navigate the world as humans. We share the faculties of impression and impulse with animals. However, the faculty of assent is uniquely human and makes us morally responsible for our assents to impressions and the impulses which lead to actions. The impression→impulse model of behavior in animals becomes impression→assent→impulse in humans. Nevertheless, we humans often behave as animals precisely because we fail to align that portion of the logos within us with the logos in Nature. We fail to live as excellent humans, according to Nature. As Epictetus taught:
[S]ince these two elements have been mixed together in us from our conception, the body, which we have in common with the animals, and reason and intelligence, which we share with the gods, some of us incline towards the kinship that is wretched and mortal, and only a few of us towards that which is divine and blessed. (Discourses 1.3.3)
Therefore, the discipline of assent involves more than vigilant attention and deliberate analysis of all impressions; it requires recognition of our kinship with the divine. Here we see why prosochē—the attitude and practice of attention—is the fundamental spiritual attitude necessary to practice Stoicism as a way of life. The discipline of assent allows us to rise above the behavior of animals and live as virtuous (excellent) human beings.
Additionally, the discipline of assent allows us to circumscribe our Self in an “inner citadel,” where our guiding principle is protected from the psychological tumult of life’s vicissitudes. The inner discourse that enables this process relies on the Stoic practice of assent to adequate impressions. The topic of adequate impressions (phantasia kateleptike) can become quite technical, and this is not the place for that discussion. For our purposes, it is only necessary to understand that the Stoics were realists; they held that humans are capable of grasping external reality as it is; we are not limited to mediational representations about reality. An adequate impression is that criteria of knowledge that is met when an external object impresses itself on our guiding principle in such a way that it is clear, vivid, distinct, and accurately represents external reality. Adequate impressions allow us to “grasp” external reality accurately. A frequently used example of an adequate impression is that of daytime. If one is outside on a sunny afternoon, with the warmth of the sun’s rays felt on their skin, this impression is adequate to assent to the fact that it is daytime. On the other hand, if one hears a crash in an adjacent room in the middle of the night, it is possible there is an intruder in their house; however, the noise alone is not adequate to make that judgement. More information is needed to determine the cause of the noise. Is it an intruder or did gravity overcome the strength of the nail holding the picture on the wall? Our grasp of reality from adequate impressions relies on the Stoic conception of logos that permeates all of Nature, including us. Human nature is not separate and distinct from Nature; we are part of the continuum of Nature. Therefore, we are capable of grasping Nature because the same physical laws that establish order in the cosmos, order our guiding principle when we live according to Nature. Thus, the Stoic resonates with Nature.
The importance of assent to adequate impressions within Stoicism cannot be overstated. Tad Brennan suggests assent is “the linchpin of the Stoic system” and writes,
[E]very difference that there can be between one person’s psychology and another person’s psychology can be accounted for entirely in terms of the patterns of assents that they each make.
Therefore, we truly are the aggregate of our assents. We are what we think. This implies the agent we refer to as ‘I’ when we refer to our Self is comprised of a pattern of assents or judgments about everything from our like or dislike of specific foods to our desire for certain pleasures and aversion to pain, our political ideas, ethical mores, etc. This pattern of assents forms an internal force that influences our thoughts and creates the impulses that drive us toward action and ultimately forms our character. Therefore, it is critically important to limit our assents to correct impressions. Incorrect assents based on false impressions and hasty judgments based upon insufficient evidence lead to psychological agitation that will disturb our serenity. Here lies the power of Stoicism: our power to assent or withhold assent is within our control—it is up to us. Nothing outside of our Self—external to our psyche—including health, wealth, fame, power, pleasure and pain can control our power of assent. There is a vast divide between our soul and every ‘thing’ external to it. Thus, nothing external to our soul can harm it. Only our thoughts about those externals can harm us.
We do not control the impressions presented to our guiding principle; however, we do control what we assent to—what we agree to believe—the judgments we make. For example, we may be presented with impressions such as an overdraft notice from the bank; a phone call from our child’s teacher regarding misbehavior in class; a call from our doctor informing us the tests for cancer came back positive. Each of these impressions is accurate as far as they have been described so far. The psychological problem arises when we add unnecessary, and invalid, value judgments to those impressions. Such, as, “Oh my God, I overdrew my checking account; that’s horrible; they’re going to charge me bank fees that I can’t afford to pay. My whole budget is screwed up now; I’m such a financial failure.” Or, “I wonder what Johnny did this time; he can be such a little brat. Where did he learn to act like that? His teacher must think I’m a complete failure as a parent.” Or finally, “I’m going to die. That’s just not fair. I’m too young to die. How could God let this happen to me?”
In each case above, it is not the incident itself which caused psychological angst, it is one’s assent to value judgments about the incident that destroys our peace of mind. That is how the discipline of assent can change our lives. In each of the above examples, the incident has already occurred, and nothing can change the fact that our bank account is currently overdrawn, our child misbehaved, or cancer has developed in our body. Once events occur, the hands of time cannot be rewound to make them disappear. Heaping unnecessary judgments on after the fact only serves to disturb our peace of mind. The second we add those unnecessary judgments we step outside our inner citadel where tranquility and peace of mind exist; we step into the world of externals, which are not up to us, where psychological angst reigns. The walls of your inner citadel are impenetrable, and our soul is serene when our guiding principle limits our concern to those things that are up to us. Unfortunately, all too often, our guiding principle is distracted by the appeal of externals such as wealth, health, power, fame, pleasure, etc. Once we begin the pursuit of externals as a means to happiness, our soul becomes vulnerable. We can quickly become overwhelmed by the psychological angst created by incorrect judgments and wrong desires. As Epictetus taught,
Whenever externals are more important to you than your own integrity, then be prepared to serve them the remainder of your life. (Discourses 2.2.12).
This is the state of most of humanity so eloquently described by Thoreau in Walden:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.
Most of humanity remains in this sad state of anxiety, seeking happiness in externals. Only a few will choose to follow the Stoic path of the prokopton and seek the serenity of their inner citadel while they simultaneously live and act in the tumultuous worlds of externals. Marcus Aurelius, an exemplar of a person who maintained his serenity while engaged in a tumultuous world, offers advice for retreat into one’s inner citadel:
People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside, by the seashore, in the hills; and you too have made it your habit to long for that above all else. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself whenever you please; for nowhere can one retreat into greater peace or freedom from care than within one’s own soul… So constantly grant yourself this retreat and so renew yourself; but keep within you concise and basic precepts that will be enough, at first encounter, to cleanse you from all distress and to send you back without discontent to the life to which you will return… things of themselves have no hold on the mind, but stand motionless outside it, all disturbances arise solely from the opinions within us… (Meditations 4.3)
He further asserts that we have the power to stop the turmoil caused by judgments at any moment:
If you suffer distress because of some external cause, it is not the thing itself that troubles you but your judgement about it, and it is within your power to cancel that judgement at any moment. (Meditations 8.47)
Lived Logic – Practicing the Discipline of Assent
The discipline of assent entails accepting that things outside our soul cannot affect our Self—our guiding principle—the agent we refer to as ‘I’ during a conversation with others and self-reflection. It is only our thoughts that have the power to affect our serenity, and they are completely within our control. Moreover, our guiding principle is the only thing with the power to alter (heal) itself:
Things as such have not the slightest hold on our soul, nor do they have access to the soul, nor can they alter it or move it; but the soul alone alters and moves itself, and ensures that whatever is submitted to it conforms to the judgements of which it considers itself worthy. (Meditations 5.19)
Once we understand that we control our assents, we are ready to begin practicing the discipline of assent in our daily life. Practicing the discipline of assent is both reactive and proactive. The reactive discipline involves protecting our inner citadel from incorrect and hasty judgments of impressions as they occur in daily life. This means withholding judgment when the facts are incomplete or unclear, or when judgement is simply not necessary. Then, when we do assent to an impression and an associated value judgement, we must not infer more meaning than is necessary to that impression. The proactive discipline of assent invokes the Delphic command to “Know Thyself.” As adults, we are the pattern of assents that comprise our psychology—our character. Therefore, we must actively excavate and test our past assents to value judgements. We will likely find that much of our present emotional turmoil is the result of assents to impressions from our past.
Protect your Self from incorrect judgments
Our first and ever-present responsibility is to judge accurately the impressions forced upon us in daily life. The vast majority of these impressions result from events outside of our control. Thus, we must use our guiding principle to judge the veracity and meaning of impressions by reducing them to their essential propositions. As Pierre Hadot wrote:
In the last analysis, then, the discipline of assent appears as a constant effort to eliminate all the value-judgments which we bring to bear upon those things which do not depend upon us, and which therefore have no moral value. The phenomena of nature and the events of the world, once they are stripped of all the adjectives—”terrifying,” “frightening,” “dangerous,” “hideous,” “repulsive”—which humankind, in its blind anthropomorphism applies to them, appear in their nudity and all their savage beauty.
We must limit every assent to the objective meaning of the impression. To do so, we must strip events of all anthropocentric value judgements by taking a cosmic viewpoint.
But it happens that these concepts of rational and irrational, as well as good and bad, and advantageous and disadvantageous, mean different things to different people. This is the principal reason why we need an education, to teach us to apply our preconceptions of rational and irrational to particular cases in accordance with nature. (Discourses 2.5-7)
Assent to false impressions can cause damage to our serenity and result in vicious behavior in the external world. Epictetus used the famous story of Medea, who killed her own children to avenge the perceived betrayal by her husband, as an example of the harm that can come from assenting to a wrong impression. Medea’s jealous rage resulted from her assent to the impression that her happiness was dependent on Jason’s loyalty, which was beyond her control. Her assent to a desire beyond her control created a tragedy.
Perform some inner citadel housecleaning
Everyone but the sage will discover their guiding principle holds irrational thoughts—assents to wrong impressions. We sense something is wrong when we ask self-reflecting questions like: “Why did I say that?” “Why did that make me so angry?” “What is it about him that irritates me so much?” Those questions are important for inner citadel housecleaning. To nurture the habit of housecleaning, pay attention (prosoche) to your emotional reactions to people, things, and events. Then you can attempt to ascertain the wrong assents that lie beneath the emotional reactions.
Circumscribe your Self 
In Meditations 12.3, Marcus Aurelius details the process of circumscribing the Self. He begins by delineating our true nature into three elements: body, breath, and mind. He asserts the body and breath are under your care, yet outside of your control. Only the mind is within your control. The process of circumscribing the Self involves realizing the things outside your control, such as others, the past and future, involuntary emotions, and destiny are incapable of touching your Self. That realization creates an impenetrable “inner citadel” within which your Self can find serenity. Your Self, once protected from the vicissitudes of life outside your control, is capable of “doing what is just,” “desiring what comes to pass,” and “saying what is true.”
The concept of a circumscribed Self, unaffected by anything outside one’s Self, can easily feed a common misunderstanding about Stoicism. Stoics have often been wrongfully maligned by critics as emotionless creatures without concern for anyone or anything external to themselves. As Lawrence Becker wrote:
The image of the austere, dispassionate, detached, tranquil, and virtually affectless sage – an image destined to be self-refuting – has become a staple of anti-Stoic philosophy, literature, and popular culture.
It’s easy to understand how a cursory reading and superficial understanding of Stoic theory can lead to such misunderstanding. However, it is far from the truth. In fact, unlike their Epicurean counterparts in Hellenistic Greece and Rome, the Stoics thought it was one’s duty to live within and be a productive member of society rather than retreat from it. The Stoic doctrine of oikeiôsis, properly understood, effectively dismantles this caricature of Stoicism. The doctrine of oikeiôsis will be covered in more depth in the forthcoming post on the discipline of action.
Where to begin – build the necessary foundation
Following the path of the prokopton requires some understanding of Stoic theory. Here is where the practice of Stoicism parts company with quick-fix, instant gratification, self-help theories. The path of the prokopton is a philosophical way of life and requires real effort. The first step is understanding some basic Stoic theory along with the tools necessary to logically analyze the impressions we face. After pointing out that his student is likely to become confused during his lectures if he does not have a grounding in logic, Epictetus states,
That is why, I suppose, the philosophers put logic first, just as, when it comes to measuring grain, we begin by examining the measure. For, unless we first determine what a bushel and what a balance is, how shall we be able to measure or weigh anything? (Discourses 1.17.6-7)
A basic understanding of informal logic is necessary to follow the path of the prokopton and practice the discipline of assent. One can learn a little Stoic theory haphazardly, by reading blogs, listening to podcasts, etc. However, the systematic nature of Stoicism requires some diligent study before we can adequately understand how to put theory into practice. My experience as a mentor to students at The College of Stoic Philosophers supports the fact that a grounding in all three areas of study—logic, physics, and ethics—is essential to start one on the path of the prokopton. Half-hearted and haphazard attempts often lead to confusion and frustration. Therefore, the prokopton needs to begin with a systematic training program like the School of Essential Studies: Theory and Practice Course, or apply themselves diligently to a book, like John Sellars’ Stoicism, or Keith Seddon’s Stoic Serenity which covers Stoic theory as a holistic, interconnected, system of theory and practice. You will also find a supportive community of traditional Stoics on Facebook.
Once you have a basic understanding of the essential doctrines, circumscribing your Self, and thereby protecting your guiding principle within your inner citadel requires the practice of all three disciplines: the discipline of assent, the discipline of desire, and the discipline of action. I will address the other two disciplines in future posts. For now, it’s important to understand that the discipline of assent involves taking control of your assents and judgements about external events. Pay attention to your assents (prosoche). Practice being a dispassionate observer of the events around you (cosmic viewpoint). Slowly, you will begin to realize the Stoic truth that it is not events that cause you mental anguish, but our thoughts about those events. Your thoughts are the only thing within your control, and they are completely within your control. Your thoughts create our present character and thereby affect your future. Your task is to take control of that power to affect change in your Self and thereby affect the world around you.
Venerate your faculty of judgement. For it depends entirely on this that there should never arise in your ruling centre any judgement that fails to accord with nature or with the constitution of a rational being; and it is this that guarantees freedom from hasty judgement, and fellowship with humankind, and obedience to the gods. (Meditations 3.9)
 Sellars, J. (2006). Stoicism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, pp. 64-79
 For recent research that supports this theory, see: Bloom, P. (2013). Just Babies: the origins of good and evil. New York: Crown Publishers
 Sellars, p. 105
 Sellars, p. 67
 Cooper, J. (1996) ‘Eudaimonism, the Appeal to Nature, and “Moral Duty” in Stoicism.’ In Aristotle, Kant, and the Stoics. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 271
 Hadot, P. (1995). Philosophy as a Way of Life. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, p. 84
 Brennan, T. (2005). The Stoic Life. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 52
 Hadot, P. (1998) The Inner Citadel. New York: Harvard University Press, pp. 111-112
 Hadot, P. (1998). pp. 112-118
 Becker, L. (2004) Stoic Emotion, in Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 250-1