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.’


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