Camp Seneca: Day 3- On the Precepts


“Whatever principles you put before you, hold fast to them as laws which it will be impious to transgress.  But pay no heed to what any one says of you, for this is something beyond your own control.”

— Epictetus, Enchiridion 50.


Epictetus uses the word ‘precept’ a handful of times.  Six, in fact, in Long’s translation.  In the text, several different words are used in the instance in which Long places the word ‘precept.’  Sometime it’s only hinted at, or filled in like in this example.  Here, he says “[to Zeno is given] the office of teaching precepts.” Higginson uses “[the office] of dogmatical instruction.” What we’re looking at from Arrian is «ὡς Ζήνωνι τὴν διδακαλικὴν καὶ δογματικήν.»  In other instances, other words are used, and the common rendering is ‘precept.’  For this reason, I’ve chosen to use that word in the Rule of Musonius’s Seven Precepts.

So why do we need precepts?  Are we pretending we’re some sort of trappings of other religions?  Are we trying to fluff ourselves up, looking for a tradition which we lack?  All of these criticism might be leveled at the practicing προκόπτων. They should be answered, if possible, and if not set aside.  Look to Epictetus Enchiridion 50, above, and there is the justification for the Stoic, however.

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things.”

— Epictetus, Enchiridion 13

If you want to improve… in the native Koine, that is εἰ προκόψαι θέλεις.
προκόψαι is the same root whence comes προκόπτων: προκόπτω. Greek often has interesting etymologies, προκόπτω breaks down to something like “to cut away in front” so: “to forward, to work, to make progress.” It can also be rendered as ‘to improve,’  ‘to profit,’ or ‘to advance.’

But, we can also look at it metaphorically, and see the ‘cutting away’ as progress.  Epictetus’ motto is ‘endure and renounce,’ and what is renouncing but a ‘cutting away’ of that which is not needed?  Via negativa, seeks to use the removal of what is not good or what is harmful, to leave what is good and helpful.  Often, you see this in Christian theological circles as a way to understand God by noting what God is not, but you can also find this idea in minimalist and simple living groups.  The second sort is more appropriate for our concerns, since the Stoic conception of divinity doesn’t really allow for “what isn’t god” beyond the vice of rational creatures.

The idea of progress as ‘cutting away’ is an interesting one for the nascent προκόπτων.  It give us a place to start.  The Sage would likely be able to experience all kinds of sense-impressions, thoughts, experiences, etc. without damaging her state of εὐδαιμονία, but we are not yet Sages.  The use of precepts to focus and regiment our training is good one, so long as the focus is on inculcating virtue and progress, and not the actions, inactions, and restrictions themselves.  That’s a narrow edge to walk.

Then, what we’re seeing here, if we want to do the actions of a προκόπτων, we must be prepared for these things. So let the criticisms come. If they’re valid (we may be wrong, we lack Stoic Sages to learn from directly), then accept the criticism and change. In this case, what matters the criticism if it helps us? If they’re not valid, then what does it matter?

We’re advised to formulate philosophical rules for ourselves and adhere to them firmly. As if they were divine laws. Keeping in mind, one of the heaviest charges which could be laid at the time was impiety: the charge which lead to Socrates’ death. And it’s this very charge we’re advised to use as a mental model for our own practice.

That’s not a small thing.

So it’s with this in mind that I’ve used Musonius as a basis for extracting practical precepts. We have in Epictetus the The Three Disciplines, and these are an excellent foundation for Stoic practice. But it’s not the beginning and end. Indeed, we’re advised to train the soul (which The Three Disciplines do well) and also the body and soul together, which the Rule of Musonius does.

Together, these ten points provide an excellent framework for building a modern Stoic practice. And it is with these that I’m training during the 28 day period of Camp Seneca.

I hope that clarifies and grounds the practice of having precepts, and maybe encourages you to build your own system, or to adopt this one.

See you tomorrow.


This is part of the 2016 iteration of Camp Seneca.

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