The Path of the Prokopton – The Discipline of Desire
[T]rue education consists precisely in this, in learning to wish that everything should come about just as it does. And how do things come about? As the one who ordains them has ordained… It is with this order of things in mind that we should approach our education, and not so as to change the existing order of things (for that has not been permitted to us, nor would it be better that it should be), but rather, things around us being as they are and as their nature dictates, so that we for our part may keep our will in harmony with whatever comes to pass. (Discourses 1.12.15-17)
Once we have an adequate understanding of The Discipline of Assent we are ready to take on the discipline of desire, which corresponds to the study and practice of Stoic physics. The discipline of desire is a powerful tool that can transform our life into one in accordance with Nature. Additionally, as Epictetus points out in Discourses 3.2.3, the discipline of desire is the most urgent of the three disciplines. However, to make use of this tool we must first grasp the Stoic concepts of human nature and cosmic Nature, and then understand the relationship between these two natures. Ultimately, the discipline of desire involves bringing our will into congruity with Nature. In this state of congruity with Nature, we will live every present moment desiring what happens rather than what we may want to happen. As we will see there is a subtle, yet immensely important, distinction between resigning ourselves to fate and learning to love our fate through the discipline of desire. This discipline will enable us to move beyond the caricature of the stoic who grins and bears the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to the excellence of spirit articulated by Marcus Aurelius when he wrote,
Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe. Nothing is too early or too late for me that is in your own good time. All is fruit for me that your seasons bring, O nature. All proceeds from you, all subsists in you, and to you all things return. (Meditations 4.23)
In that one brief passage, Marcus succinctly articulates the discipline of desire. All Stoics are wise to keep this passage close at hand. This exploration of the discipline of desire will attempt to tease the full meaning from that passage and apply it to our lives. First, we must take a look at human nature and cosmic nature in Stoicism.
Some desires (appetites and instinctive responses) represent evolutionary adaptations handed down to us from a long lineage of ancestors who survived to pass their genes on to us. Some of these are easily observable in a newborn’s innate desire for food and aversion to discomfort. An infant does not acquire a desire for food or learn an aversion to discomfort; he feels the pangs of hunger and senses discomfort. Then, he cries out to have his innate desires met by others since he is incapable of meeting them himself. We share many basic instincts with animals, and those instincts served humans well in the past. Unfortunately, natural desires, when coupled with human creativity and imagination, often seek fulfillment in ways that are detrimental to our physical and psychological well-being—they become uncontrollable passions, obsessions, or compulsions. Our natural desires for calorie-dense foods, sexual intercourse, and social hierarchy are likely an inheritance from our primate ancestors. They enhanced our survival as a species. However, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how each of these natural impulses, pursued in excess, can and have become dysfunctional in ways that threaten our individual well-being and even our survival as a species.
Modern advertising specialists manipulate our innate human desires when they bombard us with images and value judgments (impressions) designed to arouse our natural impulses to levels far in excess of what is necessary for well-being. These advertisements often redefine human prosperity solely in terms of material acquisition, sex appeal, social status and power. The Stoics sought to understand human nature and constrain human desires within reasonable boundaries, so they do not become self-destructive. This resulted in the Stoic motto, “live according to Nature.” The Stoics were not ascetics; they were not suggesting we wear animal skins, live in caves, and return to our hunter-gatherer heritage. Humans, they suggest, should desire what is natural for humankind—that which Nature designed us to desire. However, pursuit of your desires, beyond what is natural for you as a human being, can lead to physical and psychological pain, and human conflict. Even a cursory review of human history reveals that most interpersonal conflict and war are often the result of desires for things (wealth, fame, honor, power) which are not necessary for our happiness. A great deal of human despair and tragedy is created when we allow the innate impulses of our human nature to run amok—unconstrained by any rational system of values which promotes universal well-being and justice. As Epictetus poignantly asks,
For what else is tragedy than the portrayal in tragic verse of the sufferings of men who have attached high value to external things? (Discourses 1.4.26)
Our will is the mechanism by which we can control our desires, and the discipline of desire provides the tools to conform our human will to cosmic Nature.
The Human Will
As Pierre Hadot points out, the early Stoics delineated two functions within our guiding principle—assent and active impulse. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius broke the active impulse (human will) down further into two distinct functions and thus created a third function of the guiding principle—desire. This extended the sequence covered in the discipline of assent to impression→assent→desire→impulse. Hadot suggests the three Stoic disciplines correspond to these three functions of the will—assent, desire, and impulse. Obviously, impressions are not subject to any discipline because we cannot control what impressions are presented to us. We become responsible for our response to impressions after they are presented to us. We can now begin to see the interrelated nature of assent, desire, and the impulse to act. I will address the impulse to act in the next post; however, it is important now to recognize why our good intentions often fall short of their aim. We usually attempt to intervene in the impression→assent→desire→impulse process at last stage—the impulse to act. The impression of a beautiful woman, handsome man, a bacon double cheeseburger, a piece of chocolate cake, the prestige of the corner office, a shiny sports car, etc., is presented to our guiding principle along with the value judgment, “That is good.” We assent to the impression and trigger a desire for that sexy person, food, job, car, etc. We may even begin to fantasize about the object of our desire by imagining the caress of that person, the taste of that food, the respect and power associated with that job, and the pride of driving that car. Soon, “That is good” becomes, “I want that.” The desire then invokes our will to act (impulse). This process creates an emotional desire (pathos) for an indifferent that is beyond our control. The attraction of desires and their power to overcome our will is poignantly expressed by Heraclitus,
It is hard to fight against passion; for whatever it wants it buys at the expense of soul. (Fragment, 85)
The discipline of desire helps us stop the train of passion before it leaves the station and builds a full head of steam. That is why Epictetus taught that controlling our passions, through the discipline of desire, is the “most urgent” of the three disciplines.
[Desire] is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason. (Discourses 3.2.3)
Unlike Platonists, the Stoics do not divide the psyche of humans into a rational part and an irrational part locked in a perpetual battle for control. Platonists envision a battle between a wild beast (the passions) and the rational trainer (reason) who attempts to control the beast from the outside. Stoics, on the other hand, do not fancy a beast at all. They see a rational creature out of touch with its true nature—a human acting like an animal. Stoics believe the solution is to bring our guiding principle into congruence with Nature so we can perceive the truth, know who we truly are, and live as excellent humans in accordance with cosmic nature. The first step is understanding and accepting what is ‘up to us’ as human beings.
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Enchirdion 1.1)
The dichotomy of control offered by Epictetus is a powerful and simple paradigm that can change the life of a practicing Stoic. The dichotomy of control divides all things and events into two categories: those which are ‘up to us’ (in our power) and those which are ‘not up to us’ (not in our power). Epictetus promises if we follow the path of the first we will experience true freedom and peace of mind. He warns if we succumb to the path of the second we will be hindered, disturbed, we will lament, and we will blame gods and human beings.
As we will see, the fact that externals are indifferents does not imply that Stoics do not pursue them. We pursue some of them appropriately, with due caution and moderation. We do so while heeding Epictetus’ warning,
“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).
Stoics are not Indifferent to Indifferents
Tremendous confusion haunts the concept of Stoic indifferents. Passages like the following can be misinterpreted to conclude Stoics are indifferent to other people and world events,
They brought these various doctrines together in the image of the ideal Stoic sage who would be perfectly rational, emotionless, indifferent to his or her circumstances and, infamously, happy even when being tortured on the rack.
John Sellars’ description of the Stoic sage above is accurate; however, its precise meaning is often misunderstood. Stoicism does not teach or condone a state of psychological indifference to the external world. Such a state is not only contrary to human nature it also conflicts with the famous Stoic doctrine of oikeiosis, which declares it is our duty to expand our innate impulse toward self-preservation to include all humans and the cosmos as a whole. The Stoics apply the term apathy to both the wise person and the bad person for different reasons. They apply it to the wise because their virtue does not allow them to fall victim to desires, and to the bad because they are hard-hearted and relentless. Thus, we see the same affect (a state of apathy) inspired by virtue and vice respectively. So, what constitutes the difference? Read the above passage by Sellars’ again and pay special attention to the phrase “indifferent to his or her circumstances.” A Stoic is not indifferent to people or events in the external world; a Stoic understands the external world is an indifferent (neither good nor bad) to his moral virtue and happiness. This distinction is subtle yet critically important. In fact, the Stoic cannot be indifferent to indifferents because they are the stuff and events we must consistently evaluate and choose via the practice of the three disciplines. Thus, indifferents are the grist for the Stoic virtue mill.
Likewise, a Stoic is not emotionless; he is simply not ruled by emotion. As Margaret Graver notes,
The founders of the Stoic school did not set out to suppress or deny our natural feelings; rather, it was their endeavor, in psychology as in ethics, to determine what the natural feelings of humans really are… their aim, however, was not to eliminate feelings as such from human life, but to understand what sorts of affective responses a person would have who was free of false belief.
Lawrence Becker argues this distorted picture of the Stoic sage as emotionless is the result “incautious use of the ancient texts” and an “unwholesome fascination with a picture of the Stoic sage drawn for extreme circumstances.” This distorted picture often overlooks the Stoic in normal familial and societal roles. Epictetus, who is often considered one of the most emotionally austere Stoics acknowledged the appropriateness of emotions:
I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships, as one who honours the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen. (Discourses 3.2.4)
Here is the crux of the confusion. How can a Stoic preserve the “natural and acquired relationships” Epictetus speaks of while simultaneously considering them indifferents? For Stoics, there are three categories that must remain separate in our minds; these are good, bad, and indifferent. The first category includes the morally good (virtue), the second category include the morally bad (vice), and the last category includes common goods (indifferents) such as health, wealth, fame, reputation, power, etc., which are neither good nor bad per se because they can be used for either end. Many indifferents are commonly considered good because they promote physical survival and comfort. The opposite of each is commonly considered bad. The Stoics make the point that none of these common goods (externals) are ultimately in our control; therefore, they cannot be true goods. Certainly, we can seek them and we may be capable of obtaining them. However, none of them are entirely up to us; they are all co-fated. They rely on external persons and events. Aristotle thought a minimal amount of these common goods were necessary for eudaimonia (a good flow in life). The Stoics disagreed and famously argued it is possible to experience eudaimonia even while being tortured on the rack. To make this argument, they denied that any of these common goods are morally good.. The Stoics argued that only moral goods are good in and of themselves. Furthermore, the Stoics posited a single good and that is virtue.
The Greek word for virtue is arête, and it is better translated as excellence. They argued that a virtuous person = an excellent person = a person who experiences good flow in life. This brings us right back to Epictetus dichotomy of control. Those things outside our control cannot be good in themselves because they are not up to us. Nevertheless, the Stoic maxim virtue is the only good does not infer money, food, health, reputation, etc., are without any value; it simply means they are without moral value. While food, prosperity, good health, friends, loved ones are considered indifferents to the Stoic, they are preferred over their alternatives. Thus, they are called preferred indifferents. This concept confuses many people because, once again, it can appear counterintuitive apart from the whole of the Stoic philosophical system. Let me offer some specific examples in the hope it will shed some light on this often confusing distinction.
- As a husband, I love my wife. Even though she represents a moral indifferent to me, I do not treat her with indifference. If I did, she would rightfully leave me. I delight in her presence without being irrationally elated. I feel affection for her without being overcome with irrational appetency. I cautiously protect her from harm without being fearful of evil that could come to her.
- As a father, I nurture and educate my children and experience joy while watching them grow. I do not treat them with indifference; yet, they are moral indifferents to me. I wish my children well and act benevolently toward them, without being overcome with irrational appetency about the outcome of my childrearing. I cautiously protect them from harm without being fearful of evil that could come to them.
- As a law enforcement detective, I work hard at my job. The citizens I swore to serve and protect would not be happy if I performed my job with an attitude of indifference. Nevertheless, my job is a moral indifferent to me. I delight in my agency’s ability to provide justice to victims of crime, without feeling irrational elation. I employ appropriate caution while working around those who might wish to do me harm, without succumbing to fear.
- As a Stoic, I do not treat my house, car, clothes, books, etc. with indifference; yet, all of them are moral indifferents to me. I delight in those possessions without irrational elation; I cautiously care for them without fearing their loss or destruction.
As Stoics, we can rationally treat each of the preferred indifferents above as Nature deems appropriate for our physical survival and well-being without falling into the pathos often associated with them. They are indifferents; however, as a Stoic, it is not appropriate for us to treat them with indifference. Each is subject to return to Nature at any moment and we are wise to view such returns as if from above. When we view events from the cosmic viewpoint and apply the dichotomy of control and the discipline of assent we take control of our emotional responses. We prevent the “first movement” of normal human emotions and the “second movement” of an appropriate and rational response, from getting carried away and becoming the “third movement” of an irrational pathos. Thus, we disrupt the train of thought that leads to the disturbance of our soul (pathos). The topic of emotions is far too large to cover in detail here. The important thing for us to understand is that Stoicism does not advocate the absence of emotions or affect. Emotions are a necessary part of human survival and social impulse. Instead, the Stoics offer us a view of human and cosmic nature, and philosophical practice which can prevent our appropriate human emotions from getting carried away and becoming pathological.
By understanding that externals are morally indifferent and cannot affect her soul or good flow in life, the Stoic can stand in the midst of human tragedy and act virtuously. The Stoic does not face the death of a loved one with indifference; she simply understands that natural events are indifferent to her moral virtue and psychological well-being. At first glance, such a claim can appear incongruous with any sense of compassion or love for fellow humans. However, it only appears that way when viewed from outside the Stoic conception of Nature. When viewed from the perspective of cosmic nature and within the context of the holistic philosophical system of the Stoics, this rational response makes sense. Here we see that cosmic nature plays an important role in Stoic theory and practice. Moreover, we can start to understand why A.A. Long argues, it is a “serious mistake” to “tone down the cosmic dimension” of Stoicism.
Stoic theory holds that the cosmos is rational and divine. Unfortunately, the Stoic conception of cosmic nature presents a real stumbling block for many in our secular age. The Stoics built their ethical system and prescriptions for achieving excellence and a good flow in life around a providential cosmos. I was an atheist when I began studying Stoicism, so I appreciate the intellectual problem the Stoic worldview presents to anyone holding to that metaphysical assumption. Nevertheless, I strongly encourage everyone to consider the Stoic conception of a providential cosmos with an open mind. It is not what most people imagine. Moreover, while there is no promise of eternal salvation in Stoicism, the stakes for life here and now are quite high. The Stoics created a philosophical system to help us handle the vicissitudes of life with equanimity. That is a big promise to fulfill, and it requires the application of the entire Stoic system. Stoic ethical theory and practice were not conceived to stand on their own. Even Julia Annas, who is not an advocate for the cosmic dimension of Stoicism, acknowledges,
Becoming a good Stoic requires more, however, than mastering the ethical part. Stoic philosophy consists of all three parts strongly unified into a whole (a point indicated in two of our major sources for the ethical part of Stoicism).
One simply cannot read the writings of Seneca, the Discourses of Epictetus, and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius without being confronted by the centrality of cosmic Nature in Stoicism. The only way to avoid it is to consciously ignore it. Even the modern popularizers who attempt to deny its importance to Stoicism are compelled to recognize its existence in order to deny it is essential to Stoicism. As John Cooper suggests, the relationship between human nature and cosmic nature in Stoicism is essential to understand their counterintuitive position that “everything else besides fully rational and virtuous action” has no value. He argues,
…one cannot even begin to understand the reasons for this unless one takes into account, in conceiving the nature we are to live in agreement with, what Chrysippus says about the relation that holds between our natures as human beings and the single nature of the whole world.
Nature impresses herself upon the soul of the Stoic with every sunrise and sunset, with every clear mountain stream and panoramic landscape, through the birth of a child, the synchronous flight of flocks of birds, the perpetual regeneration of biological life, the trembling of an earthquake beneath his feet. Seneca points out the religious awe many people have while in the majestic presence of Nature,
If you happen to be in a wood dense with ancient trees of unusual height, where interlocking branches exclude the light of day, the loftiness and seclusion of that forest spot, the wonder of finding above ground such a deep, unbroken shade, will convince you that divinity is there. If you behold some deeply eroded cavern, some vast chamber not made with hands but hollowed out by natural causes at the very roots of the mountain, it will impress upon your mind an intimation of religious awe. (Letters 41.3)
These impressions of Nature led the Stoics to assume the existence of a creative force within the cosmos beyond the reach of human senses. However, beyond does not imply transcendence. The creative force of the Stoics does not act upon Nature; it acts from within Nature. They called this force the active principle, pneuma, logos, Nature, and God interchangeably. It is the rational, life inspiring force that lies within all matter; it is Nature. The Stoics argued against the serendipitous, chance universe of the Epicureans and for a rational and providentially ordered cosmos because they understood that worldviews make a difference in our psychology and behavior.
Providence or atoms? That is the question Marcus Aurelius asked himself repeatedly in his Meditations. Is our universe ordered by rational providence or the randomness and chance of mere matter? When it comes to the nature of our cosmos, most Western philosophers fall into one of two camps: theism or reductionist materialism. They argue the universe is either the creation of an omnipotent God or the result of materialism devoid of teleology. The Stoic theory of the cosmos does not fit neatly into either camp. As a result, throughout history, Stoicism has been attacked from both sides. Some fundamentalist theists will consider the Stoics atheists while some who ascribe to scientism will assert that Stoic providence is outdated nonsense. The middle position of the ancient Stoics—which rests between theism and scientism—opens them to attacks from both extremes. They believed in God—a philosophical God—who is immanent rather than transcendent, and discovered via reason rather than revealed through revelation. They relied on their rational faculty to accurately discern truth from observations about human nature and Nature and then concluded there must be a rational guiding force in the cosmos. The Stoics were deeply religious in a personal rather than public sense. They saw rationality and order within the cosmos and revered it as sacred.
As a result, the Stoics viewed Nature as benevolent—conducive to human life. Death, disease, and natural disasters are not punishments from an angry God; they are simply the natural unfolding of events within a web of causes, often outside of our control. Stoics accept that the cosmos is as it should be and they face challenging events as opportunities for growth rather than considering them harmful. Is this neither resignation nor retreat from the realities of human existence. Stoics strive to do all we can to save lives, cure disease, and understand and mitigate natural and man-made disasters. Then, when death, disease, and disaster come—as they naturally and inevitably will—we accept them not as evil adversaries to our plans and desires, but as natural events outside our control. We wish for good health, loving relationships, meaningful work, etc., without irrationally desiring them. The Stoic learns to love what happens in their life because doing so allows them to grow and prosper in virtue. As Seneca wrote, those who are good,
[M]ust not flinch at hardships and difficulties, and must not level complaints against fate; but whatever happens, they must find the good in it— should turn it to good. It is not what you face that counts, but how you face it. (On Providence, 2.4)
Stoics seek to understand Nature and to live in congruence with her laws, rather than seeking to escape her domain physically, psychologically, or spiritually. Living according to nature is the principle theme of Stoicism, and it can only be accomplished when our nature, as a human, is in congruence with Nature—when our will is one with the will of cosmic nature.
When a Stoic accepts the divine will of Nature (providence) and disciplines himself to be in coherence with it, he is not surrendering to a will greater than his to avoid eternal damnation. He is simply assenting to the unfolding of events outside of his control, as guided by a providential cosmos. The Stoic learns to love the unfolding events of Nature because he realizes he is a part of it—he is one with it. Marcus Aurelius describes congruence with Nature as the goal of philosophy:
Philosophy wishes nothing other than what your nature wishes, whereas you were wishing for something else which is not in accordance with nature. Now what could be more delightful than to follow nature? And is it not on account of such delight that vulgar pleasures seduce us? Well, see whether elevation of mind, freedom, simplicity, goodness of heart, and piety afford you greater delight. For what is more delightful than wisdom itself… (Meditations 5.9)
The discipline of desire enables us to avoid the pathos of irrational longing for pleasure and irrational aversion to perceived evils. This discipline simply does not make sense apart from the Stoic worldview. Assent to a benevolent, divine and providential cosmos is essential to evoke the confidence and psychological consolation the Stoics relied on for a good flow in life. That Stoic worldview inspired Marcus to write,
Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe. (Meditations 4.23)
With the Stoic’s theoretical conception of human nature and cosmic nature in mind, let us proceed to the application.
Lived Physics – Practicing the Discipline of Desire
The discipline of desire requires two elements: an understanding of human nature and assent to cosmic nature. First, from our Stoic conception of human nature, we learn to:
- seek joy (rational elation) rather than pleasure (irrational elation)
- be cautious (rational avoidance) rather than fearful (irrational avoidance)
- wish for things and events we think best (rational appetency) rather than desire them (irrational appetency)
- avoid grief (irrational contractions of the mind) which results in pity, envy, jealousy, rivalry, depression, worry, distress, anguish, bewilderment.
Second, when we assent to cosmic nature and trust that the cosmos is rational and providential, we learn to wish for and love what occurs as the best possible outcome. This trust in providence allows us to look for the good in each event that occurs, no matter how tragic it initially appears. Only with that attitude can we face, accept, and use as opportunities for growth in virtue, anything that occurs.
In Epictetus’ Discourse, On Providence, we find a powerful prescription for psychological resilience.
From everything that happens in the universe it is easy to praise providence, if one has within him two things: the faculty of taking a comprehensive view of the things that happen to each person and a sense of gratitude. (Discourses 1.6.1)
When faced with what other would consider tragic circumstances, the Stoic does not simply “grin and bear it” as the common caricature suggests. As Epictetus noted in the passage above, the difference between tolerating and loving what happens relies on a cosmic view of event and gratitude. In the passages below, we see the appropriate Stoic attitude toward trying circumstances expressed by Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius:
What is most important? Being able to endure adversity with a glad mind, to experience whatever happens as though you wanted it to happen to you. For you ought to have wanted it to, if you had known that everything happens according to god’s decree. (Natural Questions, Preface to Book 3)
But if I in fact knew that illness had been decreed for me at this moment by destiny, I would welcome even that; for the foot, too, if it had understanding, would be eager to get spattered with mud.’ (Discourses 2.6.10)
But perhaps you are discontented with what is allotted to you from the whole? Then call to mind the alternative, ‘either providence or atoms’ and all the proofs that the universe should be regarded as a kind of constitutional state. (Meditations 4.3.5)
Stoicism does not teach one to “suck it up” and bear the adverse circumstances which are an inevitable part of life. Instead, through a proper understanding and acceptance of providence, the Stoic learns to love what happens. Why? Because whatever happens is for the best of the whole. Again, I recognize the barrier to Stoicism providence creates for some. However, the Stoics did not provide a solution for those who, like the Epicureans, denied the providential nature of the cosmos. They argued vociferously against the Epicureans and for the providential nature of the cosmos. A providential cosmos is a “cornerstone of Stoic philosophy” that provides “a crucial link between Stoic cosmo-theology and Stoic ethics.” Unfortunately, there is no simple way to avoid it in Stoicism. As A.A. Long argues, any attempt to remove providence from Stoicism leaves the system “broken-backed.”
The practice of Stoicism requires assent to providence because the providential cosmos requires our willing participation so we can become what Nature intends. As Epictetus points out in Discourses 1.6, Hercules was molded by his challenges. Without the lion, hydra, boar, and the unjust and brutal men, Hercules’ true nature would never have been known; those trials revealed his greatness. Likewise, our trials will mold us and reveal our excellence of character. That is if we focus on what is ‘up to us’ and trust the rest to a providential cosmos.
Come now, haven’t you been endowed with faculties that enable you to bear whatever may come about? Haven’t you been endowed with greatness of soul? And with courage? And with endurance? If only I have greatness of soul, what reason is left for me to be worried about anything that may come to pass? What can disconcert or trouble me, or seem in any way distressing? Shall I fail to apply my capacities to the end for which I have received them, but instead groan and lament about things that come about? (Discourses 1.6.28-29)
In another passage, Epictetus likens providence to a trainer who prepares us for life’s hardship.
It is difficulties that reveal what men amount to; and so, whenever you’re struck by a difficulty, remember that God, like a trainer in the gymnasium, has matched you against a tough young opponent.
‘For what purpose?’ someone asks.
So that you may become an Olympic victor; and that is something that can’t be achieved without sweat. It seems to me that no one has had a difficulty that gives a better opportunity than the one you now have, if only you’re willing to tackle it as an athlete tackles his young adversary. (Discourses 1.24.1-2)
The early Stoics offered the analogy of a dog tied to a cart to explain our relationship to fate. We tend to focus on the dog being compelled or dragged, rather than on the freedom the dog has to follow willingly. Stoicism teaches us we can choose to follow the cart of fate willingly, with gratitude for events as they occur. We can take control of our thoughts and impulse—what is ‘up to us’—and leave the rest to providence. Or, we can get dragged through life yelping all the way. The choice is ours, and the choice is critically important to our psychological well-being. Either providence or atoms.
Where to begin
Begin with this present moment. Stoics believe that time does not exist, and each present moment only ‘belongs.’ They view time as a continually moving frame of reference which can never be pinpointed because as soon as you try, that moment becomes the past. Thus, the past and the future do not exist; yet, we often attempt to live our mental lives there. We sacrifice the present—the only place where we can live our lives—by entertaining the distractions of past regrets and future fears. A necessary part of living in accordance with Nature is learning to live in the present because the present moment is all we have. The present moment alone belongs, and it belongs to us. Practice the spiritual attitude of prosoche. Pay attention to every impression in the present moment. Remember impression→assent→desire→impulse. Follow Epictetus advice and say to the impression,
Wait a while for me, my impression, let me see what you are, and what you’re an impression of; let me test you out. (Discourses 2.20.24)
Ask your guiding principle, what is the value judgment connected to this impression? Does that value judgment lead to virtuous action? Is this a preferred indifferent I can pursue with due caution? Is this an impression that will lead to a desire for a dispreferred indifferent or a vice? Say to the impression, “Wait right there for a moment; allow me to measure you against my true human nature and cosmic nature.” Time is your ally. The impression may pass without harm, or you may find it incompatible with you path as a Stoic prokopton and withhold your assent.
Additionally, included in the generic concept of human nature are the various manifestations of individual humans. While we are each endowed with the nature of a human being that separates us from the animals, we are also unique as individuals. Each of us has a unique combination of skills and talents, and we face unique life circumstances. Epictetus addresses this uniqueness and how it prepares us for our role in life.
If you take on a role that is beyond your power, you’ll not only disgrace yourself in that role, but you’ll also neglect to take on that which you might have been capable of filling. (Enchiridion 37)
Beyond the roles of rational, virtuous human; family member; citizen of a polis; and citizen of the the cosmos that are prescribed by the Stoic doctrine oikeiosis, it is incumbent upon each of us to find our unique role. Step back from the events of your life and look at the whole in context. What has providence created in you? We each have a unique role to play. What is yours? As Whitman’s words remind us,
[T]he powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
What is your verse? The discipline of assent applied via the dichotomy of control allows you to discern what is up to you and what is not. An understanding of our human nature and cosmic nature provides you with guidance about what is natural to you. Finally, the discipline of desire can then free you from the desires and aversions that are unnatural to you and cause pathos. Slowly, you can learn to trust the providential cosmos and wish for and love what actually happens in each present moment. Then, like Marcus Aurelius, you can experience the psychological consolation which inspired him to write:
I presently have what universal nature wills that I should have, and I am doing what my own nature wills that I should do. (Meditations 5.25)
 This assertion is based on neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory and insights offered by evolutionary psychology. Joseph LeDoux defines some survival instincts as “defensive survival circuits” and distinguishes them from emotions. This is consistent with the Stoic conception of “first movements.” LeDoux, J. (2015) Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety. New York: Viking
 Hadot, P. (1998) The Inner Citadel. New York: Harvard University Press. p. 128. I highly recommend this book to all people interested in Stoicism as a way of life. Hadot brings life to theory.
 Sellars, J. (2006) Stoicism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 3
 Laertius, D. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 7.117
 Graver, M. (2007) Stoicism and Emotion. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 2
 Becker, L. (2004) Stoic Emotion, in Stoicism: Traditions and Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 250-1
 See Seneca On Anger 2.4-5 for a description of the three movements as they apply specifically to anger. For an excellent exposition on the Stoic emotions see Graver, M. (2007) Stoicism and Emotion. The topic of emotions is complex and there is little consensus among experts. Consciousness was ignored by psychology for the greater part of the twentieth century because behaviorism dominated the field. Cognitive theory disrupted the hegemony of behaviorist theory; however, the topic of consciousness remained largely ignored until recently. Today, cognitive theorists are beginning to deal with the topic of consciousness; however, most cognitive scientists still assume a materialist, reductionist worldview. This relegates consciousness to either an illusion or an epiphenomenon of brain activity. A few brave thinkers are now challenging this view of reality. Some are suggesting that consciousness must be a fundamental aspect of reality rather than a product of matter. Thus, some modern scientific and philosophical thinkers are putting forth ideas which are consistent with the Stoic conception of a conscious cosmos. I will deal with this topic in future posts and provide some references for people interested in exploring these developments.
 Long, A. (2002). Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic guide to life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 23
 Annas, J. (2007). ‘Ethics in Stoic Philosophy’, Phronesis 52: 58-87, pp. 60-1
 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
 Laertius, D. 7.111
 Algra, K. (2014) ‘Plutarch and the Stoic theory of providence’ in Hoine, P. D., Riel, G. V., & Steel, C. G. Fate, providence and moral responsibility in ancient, medieval and early modern thought. Belgium: Leuven University Press, p. 120
 Long, A. (1996). Stoic Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 201
 Whitman, W. (1993) OH ME! OH LIFE!, Leaves of Grass, New York: Random House, p. 221