The Path of the Prokopton – The Discipline of Action
Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. They are subject to all these defects because they have no knowledge of good and bad. But I, who have observed the nature of the good, and seen that it is the right; and of the bad, and seen that it is the wrong; and of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that his nature is akin to my own—not because he is of the same blood and seed, but because he shares as I do in mind and thus in a portion of the divine—I, then, can neither be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together, like feet, hands, eyelids, or the two rows of teeth in our upper and lower jaws. To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature; and to be angry with another person and turn away from him is surely to work against him. (Meditations 2.1)
No other passage speaks louder to me on the topic of Stoic ethics—the discipline of action—than the one above by Marcus Aurelius. This passage capsulizes the Stoic discipline of action and differentiates Stoicism from ancient Epicureanism and Cynicism. The inner citadel (The Discipline of Assent), combined with an understanding our human nature and acceptance of our place in cosmic nature (The Discipline of Desire), prepares the Stoic for action in a tumultuous world filled with humans who are often irrational, selfish, and cantankerous. Stoics do not retreat from society to achieve equanimity; the practice of the three disciplines allows them to become excellent human beings and achieve a good flow in life within the tumult of society.
When I first read the passage by Marcus above I thought, oh my, he just described the people I work with—meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable. My self-righteousness was quickly deflated as I continued to consider the passage. Marcus was not criticizing those he described; his words were aimed directly at himself, and me. Marcus was suggesting we should act virtuously and justly toward others even when they are “meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable.” Here, we begin to put the equanimity we gained through the disciplines of assent and desire to the test in the world of humanity. As Pierre Hadot notes,
This fine serenity risks being disturbed by the discipline of active impulse and action, since in this case it is a matter of acting, not accepting. We now must engage our responsibility, not just consent; and we must enter into relations with beings—our fellow creatures—who provoke our passions precisely because they are our fellow creatures: beings whom we must love, although they are often hateful.
Even if you missed the jab by Marcus in the opening quote, there is no way to avoid that punch to the solar plexus by Hadot. Personally, I felt both blows; I must admit that I often fall short of loving some people I consider hateful. Nevertheless, as Marcus and Hadot point out, learning to love our fellow human beings, even when they are hateful, is part of the Stoic path. That certainly defies the all too common caricature of the Stoic as indifferent to the people around him. But how? Marcus provides an answer in the passage above. While those “meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable” others may not be our family members, fellow citizens, or countrymen, we are still connected to them as members of the whole. We share a portion of the same divine mind. We are all connected to the same logos (universal Reason) because our individual rational faculty (hegemonikon) is a fragment of that logos. It is that sense that makes us all members of the same family. But, how does the Stoic come to love those humans that act in the most unlovable ways? Here the Stoic path takes a noticeable uphill turn and traverses some potentially difficult terrain. Living an excellent life and loving our fellow humans in the midst of the turmoil they frequently create depends on the discipline of action. This discipline corresponds to the topic of physics (including theology) within the Stoic philosophical system.
If you read my prior posts on the path of the prokopton (here, here, and here), it should be apparent by now how difficult it is to discuss the application of any of the three topics of Stoic philosophy—logic, physics, ethics—in isolation from the others. Stoic philosophy is a holistic system and can only be fully understood and practiced as a whole. We can disassemble the system into parts for teaching purposes; however when it comes to living Stoic philosophy we find the topics are necessarily interdependent. In the next two sections, I will cover two Stoic concepts that are necessary to understand and apply the Stoic conception of excellence (virtue) in one’s life. I touched on the first while covering the discipline of desire in a previous post. The first concept is the connection between human and cosmic nature. The second, the doctrine of oikeiôsis, relies on an understanding of the first.
Human Nature and Cosmic Nature
Stoic ethics is interdependent with a specific understanding of human nature and cosmic nature. As we will see, Stoicism does not indulge in emotionally uplifting lessons about loving your neighbor as yourself. Instead, it points out that your neighbor is a portion of the same divine mind as you; thus, loving your neighbor is loving yourself. The Stoic does not condemn mankind as evil; he understands the ‘wrongdoer’ is lost in his own ignorance and is not living in accordance with his human nature or cosmic nature.
The idea that happiness or good flow in life (eudaimonia) results from the character (virtue or excellence) of the individual is not unique to Stoicism. The Epicureans, Sceptics, and Cynics all agreed that eudaimonia is the summum bonum of life. Additionally, while they disagreed on how to achieve good flow, they all agreed it requires virtue. Even the dogma that virtue is the only good is not unique to Stoicism; the Cynics also held that virtue alone was necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia. So, what is it that distinguishes Stoic ethics? The uniqueness of Stoic ethics springs from its conception of human nature as a fragment of divine nature. According to the Stoics, our reasoning faculty (guiding principle) is a fragment of the logos (universal Reason) in the cosmos. Therefore, when we live according to Nature, we are living as fragments of the whole and will experience good flow as a result. A.A. Long argues the ‘theocratic postulate’ that incorporates an immanent and pantheistic theology into Stoic ethical theory is something “largely new and alien” within the Greek tradition. The following outline, based on his thought, summarizes the Stoic philosophical system and highlights the connection between human nature, cosmic nature, and ethics in Stoicism:
- The Stoics believe the universe is “amenable to rational explanation” because it is “rationally organized.”
- Mankind derives their rationality (human nature) from the same logos embodied in the universe (cosmic nature).
- Cosmic and human events are consequences of the same logos (cosmic rationality).
- Mankind is related to cosmic nature through the rationality of the logos.
- Full recognition of the implications of our relationship to cosmic nature will inspire us to live up to the excellence of our human nature by living in agreement with cosmic nature.
A.A. Long also argues,
To live virtuously and to be happy as a Stoic, you need an understanding of nature which presupposes the truths of Stoic theology and physics. It should now be clear what I mean by the Stoics’ theocratic postulate. Happiness – describable both as living in accordance with virtue and as living in agreement with nature – consists in obedience to something called Zeus, or divine and universal law. Happiness is a virtuous person’s ‘good flow of life’, and a good flow of life requires harmonizing one’s own rational nature with ‘the will of the administrator of the whole’ – i.e. living as god universal causal principle prescribes to those who share his rational nature.
I covered cosmic nature in my posts on The Discipline of Desire and The Connection between Physics and Ethics. For now, it is adequate to understand that the Stoics thought it was possible to live according to Nature because our human rationality is a fragment of the rationality permeating cosmic nature (the cosmos). As a result, our guiding principle is able to comprehend Nature. In a sense, we are on the same wavelength. This connection with universal Reason (logos) also connects us to other humans because, as Marcus asserts, we share in the same divine mind.
The Discipline of Assent allows us to build an inner citadel where our Self—that which we call ‘I’ when we refer to ourselves—cannot be harmed by externals. The Discipline of Desire then teaches us to love what happens regardless of our wishes and intentions. Next, by applying the doctrine of oikeiôsis we will grow beyond our self-interest and learn to love and act virtuously toward all humankind.
Oikeiôsis—expanding your circle of affinity
Stoics do not retreat from society to find peace of mind; they stand in the midst of the chaos and work toward the common goals of human flourishing and justice. Why? Because that is what virtue—human excellence—demands. Humans are social creatures; we are not intended to live in isolation. In fact, none of the virtues—wisdom, courage, justice, temperance—make much sense outside of social contexts.
The doctrine of oikeiôsis, which is fundamental to Stoic ethical theory, is derived from their physics. Scholars offer several translations for the Greek word oikeiôsis; I prefer affinity. It describes the process by which our natural self-interest for survival expands to include the interests of others as we grow to become rational adults. The Stoics observed that all humans have a natural affinity for themselves. A child’s natural affinity will cause them to cry when hungry or uncomfortable without regard for others. This natural affinity makes children well-disposed for self-preservation. Crying children get the attention of those who care for them. However, as the child matures, he must become well-disposed to survive in relationships, which include members of his family, society, nation, and ultimately the entire cosmos.
At first glance, the Stoic process of oikeiôsis appears to contradict the practice of circumscribing the Self and considering all externals to be ‘indifferents’. On the contrary, the process of oikeiôsis relies upon the psychological strength and tranquility derived from the circumscribed Self to act virtuously toward others while maintaining a tranquil state of mind. It is only from a place of inner strength and tranquility that we can serve humankind. Neurotic souls, tossed about by the chaos of external events, cannot serve others effectively.
Virtue is the only Good
Once again, I will suggest the English word ‘excellence’ serves as a better translation than ‘virtue’ for the Greek word arête. Thus, the Stoic dogma “virtue is the only good” can be rephrased as “an excellent character, achieved through rationality, is the only moral good.” So, what is an excellent character? The four cardinal virtues (excellent characteristics) are:
- Practical wisdom – what one ought to do and ought not to do.
- Temperance – things to be chosen and things to be avoided.
- Justice – the distribution of what is due to each person.
- Courage – what is terrible and not terrible.
From those brief definitions we can ask ourselves direct questions as we engage with the external world and those “meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people” we frequently encounter.
- Is this something I should do, or something I should not do?
- Is this a preferred indifferent I should choose, or a dispreferred indifferent I should avoid?
- What is this person’s due in this particular situation? Are they deserving of a sincere compliment or a reprimand; a reward or punishment?
- Are these circumstances really terrible? Can they harm my moral Self or just my physical body?
The possible iterations of the questions above are endless, and the discipline of action involves asking them of ourselves constantly. The practice of attention (prosoche) will keep us alert to those moments when we should ask ourselves those questions. The practice of the three Stoic disciplines will help you answer them.
According to Diogenes Laertius, appropriate actions are those which nature selects for us (7.108). As John Sellars points out, “the most fundamental action appropriate for all animals and human beings” is self-preservation. While this may be conceived as “natural egoism,” it is not selfish egoism. When we act in accordance with nature, we are acting rationally.
For a rational creature, to act according to nature and to act according to reason is one and the same. (Meditations 7.11)
Because our nature as a human is instinctively social, the doctrine of oikeiôsis necessarily involves the expansion of our circle of affinity to include others, even the “meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable” (Meditations 2.1). Nature designed humans as social animals with innate moral instincts that allow us to live in groups. To act otherwise—to live like an animal—is against human nature and irrational. We intuitively understand these basic moral precepts and expect others to live by them. We express this understanding when we respond to the barbaric acts of others with the simple yet poignant judgment, “Animals!”
Stoic ethics begins with an understanding of natural impulses—animal instincts. Then, “with the appearance of reason in human beings, natural instinct becomes reflective choice.” This process was covered in the discipline of desire. Thus, what is an appropriate action for animals is subject to reflective consideration and choice for rational humans. To that end, Pierre Hadot offers a useful test to determine the appropriateness of an action. First, the action must be within the realm of those things that are up to us as humans. Those things include our thoughts, desires, and active impulses (our will). Second, appropriate action must conform to the law of Reason. Our rational and social nature requires us to act in a manner which preserves the existence of the human community.
Imperturbability in the face of what comes to pass from a source outside yourself, and justice in actions that proceed from a cause within yourself; that is to say, impulses and actions which find their end in the very exercise of social duty because, for you, that is in accordance with nature. (Meditations 9.31)
As Epictetus points out, the rational faculty obligates humans to act rationally rather than as animals,
But God has brought the human race into the world to be a spectator of himself and of his works, and not merely to observe them, but also to interpret them. It is thus shameful for a human being to begin and end where the irrational animals do. Rather, he should start off where they do and end where nature ended with regard to ourselves. Now it ended with contemplation, and understanding, and a way of life that is in harmony with nature. (Discourses 1.6.19-21)
Unfortunately, many people never discipline their desires. As a consequence, they are driven by impulses and end up acting like animals.
[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)
Impulse Toward Justice
Regardless of political ideology or party affiliation, one truth is apparent at the dawn of the twenty-first century—technology has connected humans across the globe in a way that is creating a global community and a new consciousness. We are rapidly becoming a global village. The political concept of cosmopolitanism—being a citizen of the cosmos—may have preceded Stoicism; nevertheless, it is “perhaps most clearly expressed in the surviving works of the late Stoics.” Here is an expression of cosmopolitanism from the writing of Seneca:
Let’s embrace the idea that there are two commonwealths. The one is vast and truly common to all, and includes the gods as well as mankind; within it, we look neither to this mere corner nor to that, but we measure the boundaries of our state by the sun’s course. The other is the one in which we are enrolled by the circumstances of our birth— I mean Athens or Carthage or any other city that belongs not to the whole of mankind but to a particular population. Certain people give devoted service to both commonwealths, the greater and the lesser, at the same time; some serve only the lesser, some only the greater. (On Leisure 4.1).
Seneca was not naïve, and he was no Pollyanna. As a Roman Senator and tutor to the young Nero, he was familiar with the rough and tumble world of politics. Thus, we see in the above passage a pragmatic view of cosmopolitanism, where “Certain people give devoted service to both” the nation they are “enrolled by the circumstances of our birth” and the ideal community created by the Stoic doctrine of oikeiôsis—a polity of the cosmos.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we face pressures from economic globalization, competition for limited resources, potentially catastrophic environmental impact, and a push toward international law and a new world order. It seems the Stoic doctrine of oikeiôsis could be quite useful at times like these.
For in every area of study, we’re seeking to learn how a good and virtuous person may discover the path that he should follow in life and the way in which he should conduct himself. (Discourses 1.7.2)
Stoicism is a philosophy of action—a lived philosophy. It requires constant attention and practice of the three disciplines to remain on the path of the prokopton. By now, you likely realize the three disciplines are interdependent; none can be practiced effectively in isolation. The discipline of assent and the discipline of desire are necessary to create an excellent character—one capable of acting virtuously. The discipline of action puts that excellent character into service for humanity. This is not a call for self-sacrificing altruism; it is a call to live as an excellent human being in accordance with Nature. There is not sacrifice in that life; there is only good flow.
The practice of Stoicism, through the Stoic disciplines, empowers the prokopton to remain tranquil and act in an excellent manner in the midst of tumultuous external circumstances. The inner citadel of Stoicism is not a retreat, nor is it a defensive position. The inner citadel provides a base of operation for the Stoic to engage in the world as a true cosmopolitan by drawing all of humanity, and the cosmos itself, into their circle of affinity. I will close with a passage from Seneca,
Philosophy is not tricks before an audience, nor is it a thing set up for display. It consists not in words but in actions. One does not take it up just to have an amusing pastime, a remedy for boredom. It molds and shapes the mind, gives order to life and discipline to action, shows what to do and what not to do. It sits at the helm and steers a course for us who are tossed in waves of uncertainty. Without it, there is no life that is not full of care and anxiety. For countless things happen every hour that need the advice philosophy alone can give. (Letters 16.3)
 Hadot, P. (1998) The Inner Citadel. New York: Harvard University Press, p. 183
 Long, A. (1996). Stoic Studies. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 186
 Long, A. (1974). Hellenistic philosophy; Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 108
 Long, A. (1996), pp. 188-9
 Seneca’s Epistle 121 (On Instinct in Animals); and Diogenes Laertius 7.85
 Sellars, J. (2006) Stoicism, Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 120
 Hadot, p. 189
 Sellars, p. 129