On Ascetic Training


Jean-Léon_Gérôme_-_Diogenes_-_Walters_37131The classical Stoics lay out several clear statements and arguments regarding ascetic training in the practice of philosophy.  Now, the word “ascetic” often has broad and specific connotations, not all of which are appropriate for our concerns here, and some actually at counter position to our purposes.

So let me begin, the type of ascetic regimen that is practiced (for instance) in some parts of India by “matted hair” type ascetics is not what we are discussing.  You can find photos of men covered in mud, sitting with one arm raised until it withers, staring at the sun until blind, or wearing an iron collar for decades.

It is not my place to say these folks are wrong, but this is not something condoned by Stoicism.  These acts are simply not our practice.  Epictetus states so, clearly, in Discourses III.12:

“We ought not to train ourselves in unnatural or extraordinary actions, for in that case we who claim to be philosophers shall be no better than mountebanks. For it is difficult to walk on a tight-rope, and not only difficult but dangerous as well…”

The operative words here are “unnatural or extraordinary”  practice; I offer that suggestions like the above fall under this category.  However, the current society (and in the eyes of the classics, theirs as well) is so indulged that true moderation appears to be tortuous.  But that is a wrong understanding.  Moderation is not a torture or mortification of the flesh.  Indeed, that practice’s motivation is not even remotely close to ours.  ἄσκησις (áskēsis) means training or exercise, and that is our purpose:  not torture.

So what kind of training is appropriate for the philosopher?  Musonius gives us his answer in Lecture VI, On Training:

“Since it so happens that the human being is not soul alone, nor body alone, but a kind of synthesis of the two, the person in training must take care of both, the better part, the soul, more zealously; as is fitting, but also of the other, if he shall not be found lacking in any part that constitutes man.”

We have two categories of training then, those which affect the ‘soul-and-body-together’ and those which affect the ‘soul-alone.’

  • Soul and Body:
    • Designed to instill discipline to both by exposure to:
      • cold and heat
      • thirst and hunger
      • meager rations
      • hard beds
      • avoidance of pleasure
      • patience under suffering (note: not causing suffering)
  • Soul Alone:
    • Designed to build the habit of handling impressions appropriately
      • to have ready to mind the proofs regarding apparent and real goods and evils
      • distinguish between apparent and real goods and evils
      • practice in not avoiding apparent evils
      • practice in not pursuing apparent goods
      • practice in avoiding real evils
      • practice in pursuing real goods.

There is nothing extraordinary here, nothing which should damage the body irreparably.  It is simple moderation.  Musonius suggests the simplest clothes (the philosopher’s cloak), a lacto-vegetarian diet, and control of our sexual faculties.

Epictetus explains the purpose of such practices, like the above guidelines which Musonius laid out:

“I am inclined to pleasure: in order to train myself I will incline beyond measure in the opposite direction. I am disposed to avoid trouble: I will harden and train my impressions to this end, that my will to avoid may hold aloof from everything of this kind.”

— Discourse III.12

Yet, we’re given fair warning as well, Epictetus and Musonius both state such practical training is required for progress.  Epictetus gives us a measure, however, for when our zealousness* for progress has become something else:

“But if their object is display, they are the marks of one who has swerved from the right line, whose aims are alien, one who is looking for spectators to say, ‘What a great man!’ This is why Apollonius was right in saying, ‘If you wish to train for your soul’s sake, when you are thirsty in hot weather take a mouthful of cold water and spit it out and tell no one!'”

Epictetus warns us at the beginning of III.12 and at the end for this concern, and it should not be taken lightly.  It would be a special kind of shameful for training conducive to virtue to itself become a vice.

Musonius goes on in Lectures 12, 18 (A and B), 19, 20, and 21 to lay down explicit prescriptions for the training of philosophers, as I briefly mentioned above.  I have extracted and condensed my understanding of that regimen as The Rule of Musonius.

He is less specific on the trainings for soul alone.   From the notes taken by his student, it seems that it was assumed they would be well known.  Unfortunately, we seem to lack that instruction from him.  We do have Epictetus’ exposition on the Disciplines of Assent, Desire, and Action and the concept of προσοχή (prosochē, attention).  So while it’s not as clearly spelled out, we have the tools to recreate both types of training.

“He was always earnestly urging those who were associated with him to make practical application of his teachings, using some such arguments as the following. Virtue, he said, is not simply theoretical knowledge, but it is practical application as well, just like the arts of medicine and music.  Therefore, as the physician and the musician not only must master the theoretical side of their respective arts but must also train themselves to act according to their principles, so a man who wishes to become good not only must be thoroughly familiar with the precepts which are conducive to virtue but must also be earnest and zealous in applying these principles.”

— Musonius, Lecture VI

I would be interested in your own distillations of a Stoic ascetic regimen, so feel free to comment, or comment a link.


* “zealous” in Greek is φιλοπόνως (filo-ponos), ‘lover of labor/hardship.’


SLRP: XV. On Brawn And Brains



Today’s letter broached several topics:  exercise, study, food, worry over the future, and more besides.  I’ve been thinking about the first four specifically the past few days.

Your suggestions for healthy and philosophically motivated exercise are timely, and I’ll be thinking about them much today.  I’m thinking they will mesh well with my recreation of, as Marcus calls it, ‘The Grecian Regimen” from the suggestions of Musonius.

Thanks for the tidbit!


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

Impressions and the OODA Loop


If you hang around .mil, LEO, or civilian self-defense circles you’ll eventually hear reference to the OODA Loop.  OODA Loops are not the most recent in a line of tactic-cool cereal for the cool guys.  The OODA Loop is a mental model for human decision making, especially in crisis.  Now, professionals in psychology and decision making make take issue, but as a pedagogical tool and mental model for the non-specialist, it’s the standard of training.

A quick and dirty primer on the OODA Loop:
The OODA Loop is a decision making loop that one must go through to come to action in times of crisis.  It is broken down into four parts which give it the acronym.



Image Credit: ArtOfManliness.com

  • Observe
  • Orient
  • Decide
  • Act

First, you must make an observation.  This is a witnessing of some fact about reality.  It might be “A man is approaching me,” or “An object rests on the sidewalk,” or “I’ve fallen to the ground.”  The observation is neutral.  It simply is.

Next, is the orienting phase.  You must put the observation into the proper context.  You must come to know ‘what the observation means.’

  • “A man is approaching me.”
    • Observation:  A man is walking in a baggy jacket, hands in his pockets, shoulders rolled forward.  He is on a vector to cross paths with me.  We make eye contact, and he speeds up.
      • Orientation 1:  I’ve just exited a store, his jacket is light, appears to be unlined.  It’s winter, and the wind and snow are driving.  This man is cold, and is going inside.
      • Orientation 2:  I’m lost on a city street at night.  The street is practically empty, and I’ve seen this man before two blocks back.  He might be threat.

Next comes the deciding phase.  Once you have oriented to the situation, and you understand the context in which the observation occurs, you must decide on the proper course of action.

  • “A man is approaching me.”
    • Decide:
      • O1:  Step aside and hold the door as courtesy.
      • O2:  Options…
        • A:  Cross the street.
        • B:  Speak to the man, “Hey buddy, nice night, eh?”
        • C:  Speak to the man, “Watch out for that bus!”
        • D:  Prepare to fight

Now, the action.  You do the thing.

The thing about the OODA Loop is that we engage in this hundreds of times per day, and if for some reason the loop gets interrupted, it must start over.  So, if we can ‘get inside’ the OODA Loop of someone else, we’ll catch them off-guard.  Most folks take between 0.25 and 1.5 seconds to go through one OODA Loop.  Speaking to a would-be attacker my kick his or her OODA Loop back to the start, giving you more time to act.

So, what does this have to do with Stoicism and with φαντασία in particular?  I think the Cycle of Assent matches up fairly well:

  1.  The ἡγεμονικόν (hêgemonikon) is presented with an impression. (Observe)
  2.  An almost-instantaneous value judgment is attached, and a proposition is made. (Orient)
  3. The proposition is weighed, you either assent, deny, or suspend judgment. (Decide)
  4. You either experience a passion, form an intention, desire or aversion, etc.  (Act)

This is a modification of Sellars’ distillation of the four stages of Assent:

1. The soul receives an impression via the sense organs or the mind/memory;
2. An “almost” involuntary and unconscious value judgment is attached;
3.  The ruling faculty is presented with a proposition composed of the perceptual data and the unconscious value judgment from #2;
4. One either assents or denies the impression/proposition.

As practicing Stoics practicing the Discipline of Assent, if one is already familiar with the OODA Loop (or finds it a useful mnemonic device), this similarity in models may be helpful.


SLRP: XIV. Reasons For Withdrawing (Part 2: 9 – 18)


“Sometimes a vessel perishes in harbour; but what do you think happens on the open sea? And how much more beset with danger that man would be, who even in his leisure is not secure, if he were busily working at many things!”

Ah, dear Seneca, a ship may be safer in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.

I do have to say, I quite like the phrase “thinking-shop” I may have to make use of that, if you’ll permit the borrowing.

“One must therefore take refuge in philosophy; this pursuit, not only in the eyes of good men, but also in the eyes of those who are even moderately bad, is a sort of protecting emblem.”

For much of the West today, this has changed, I’m sorry to report.  Philosophers are seen as academics indulging in intellectual masturbation at best, or at worst is a waste of time.  It’s quite sad.

Possibly, this is due to the fact that there are very few people “doing” philosophy.  “Philosophy as a way of life” is enjoying a very mild upswing, nominally, at least.

I do heartily agree that the desires of the mob are something we should be wary of.  I’m not sure it’s within our power to not excite the greed or hostility in others, but it is fair to say we should live modestly.  Yet, we should most definetly avoid the toxins of hate, greed, and scorn.

My interest in the ascetic regimen of Musonius is kicking back up, so we’ll see how that goes over the next few weeks and months.  I’ll report back, if you’re interested.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

On ἀρετή and troubling translations


The most common English translation for the Koine word ἀρετή that you’re likely to come across is ‘virtue.’  This translation presents a couple of problems, which I’ll address.

Firstly, the word virtue in English has lots of baggage from its use in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Secondly, on top of that, there are certain conotations which make the word less than dynamic.  Generally, when we hear virtue, even in a philosophical context, the conotation relegates the topic to moral and social applications.  While it’s true that there is a moral and social component, it is not the entire story.

The next most common translation is ‘excellence,’ and this one does quite a bit better.  In Diogenes Laertius 7.90, he says “Excellence (ἀρετή) is in a general sense the perfection of each thing.”

For humans, as rational critters, that means the perfection of our rational faculties.

In, The Stoic Sage by Brouwer (which I’m reading currently), the ‘dispositional definition’ of ἀρετή is discussed.  The dispositional definition has to do with character, and for this case, the measure is consistency.

It’s a pretty well-known standard that excellence is a kind of knowledge (Gr:  ἐπιστήμη).  In the case of moral virtue, that can be cloudy.  What does it mean to know a virtue?  However, when viewed through the dispositional lens of ‘consistent character’ and ‘excellence’ the knowledge and praxis components of ἀρετή are more clear.

SLRP: XIV. Reasons For Withdrawing (Part 1: 1 – 8)



I think I’ve said before in our letters that for the past year, thereabouts, I’ve been mostly a student of Musonius Rufus with some Epictetus tossed in for good measure.  Coming from that perspective, I must disagree with your statement of the previous letter which strikes me as decidedly Epicurean in nature.

“Let us, however, in so far as we can, avoid discomforts as well as dangers, and withdraw to safe ground, by thinking continually how we may repel all objects of fear.”

I would counter it with this Fragment of Musonius, in which he uses the metric of the Epicurean to show the position is untenable in regards to pleasure being a good, and avoidance of pain an evil:

“If one were to measure what is agreeable by the standard of pleasure, nothing would be pleasanter than self-control; and if one were to measure what is to be avoided by pain, nothing would be more painful than lack of self-control.”

— Musonius, Fragment XXIV

Musonius’ example, even by the Epicurean criteria, proves the Stoic doctrine.  How can it be then, dear Seneca, that you would hail back to the Epicurean valuation?  In the same piece, you note that an abundance of worry over the body results in a lesser valuation of virtue, yet you say one should bend to that same pressure and withdraw from worldly suffering.

Did not Socrates and Cato, and yes even your own self, choose death over the will of the tyrant?  How can it be then, that the Sage would avoid the civil authorities?  Your own integrity demanded death over acquiescence,and a truly noble one it was, Sir.

No, the Sage would do what is fitting:  which might mean exile, challenging the civil authorities in the face of injustice, or even death.

Come back to the porch, Seneca, we miss you!  (;


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

Chris Fisher: The Piety of Epictetus


Chris has been working on a series of very well written, and heavily researched articles on Stoic Piety for the past few weeks.  His most recent iteration, is on Epictetus.  

The religious character of The Discourses is apparent to anyone who has read them, and despite the modern trend of wanting to discount any form of non-atheism in Stoicism the case for the religious nature of the school is well founded.

Head on over, give his article a read.  It’s worth the time.

SLRP: XIII. On Groundless Fears (Part 2: 10 – 17)



“And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things.”

It seems you’ve been hanging out in the Garden a bit much, of late.  This looking forward to better things might be a reasonable pedagogical step for the new student.  It’s probably better for the average person’s mental equilibrium.  But for we philosophers of the Stoic school, ἀταραξία (ataraxia) should not be a goal.  It might be a pleasant ancillary benefit, but our focus should be elswhere.

While the ἰδιῶται (idiotai) or ‘uninstructed persons’ might simply be seeking relief from mental anguish (understandable), others of us earnestly desire progress of a different sort.

My worry, is that since your early letters assume someone new to our School, that many readers will take these precepts as indicative of the School, and not the mere pedagogical technique of appealing to an eclectic brand of help which I suspect it to be.

It is with that caveat, I bid you farewell.

Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

SLRP: XIII. On Groundless Fears (Part 1: 1 – 9)



If I may quote from today’s letter:

“We do not put to the test those things which cause our fear; we do not examine into them; we blench and retreat just like soldiers who are forced to abandon their camp because of a dust-cloud raised by stampeding cattle, or are thrown into a panic by the spreading of some unauthenticated rumour.”

It seems to be very hard to actually be in the present.  Will you take for granted that our ruling faculty is presented with impressions from the mind as well as from the sense organs?  That memory, and thought are given up to us, similarly to the sights and sounds of the world?  The mind seems to constantly scan forward and back in time.  Forward, looking for problems, and backward looking for past solutions.

From an evolutionary standpoint, that makes a tremendous amount of sense.  Yet, we find ourselves then pinned down by it, constantly planning and plotting for the future, and meditating and masticating the joys and pains of the past.  We chew them so much, they’ve taken on a bitter taste, it seems.

We lament, for actions taken poorly, and for opportunities missed.  For the hurts we thoughtlessly, and sometimes intentionally, have given to others.  For the hurts and scars we ourselves bear.

But other than in memory, or the sting of it, these things do not exist.  We cannot catch them in our teeth.  We can recall them, but then the judgment is ours once again.

Just another impression.

So, we then must ask, how do we weigh it?  Do we assent to the hurt, or the joy?  Are we made better, more virtuous by it?  Or is it merely another rumor from the street?

Whispers of a forgotten pain.  Hints of previous pleasures.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.