Camp Seneca: Day 4 – The Second Precept


“Where then is progress? If any of you, withdrawing himself from externals, turns to his own will to exercise it and to improve it by labour, so as to make it conformable to nature, elevated, free, unrestrained, unimpeded, faithful, modest; and if he has learned that he who desires or avoids the things which are not in his power can neither be  faithful nor free, but of necessity he must change with them and be tossed about with them as in a tempest, and of necessity must subject himself to others who have the power to procure or prevent what he desires or would avoid; finally, when he rises in the morning, if he observes and keeps these rules, bathes as a man of fidelity, eats as a modest man; in like manner, if in every matter that occurs he works out his chief principles as the runner does with reference to running, and the trainer of the voice with reference to the voice- this is the man who truly makes progress, and this is the man who has not traveled in vain.”

— Epictetus, Discourses I.4

The second of the precepts in the Rule of Musonius is:

2. To prefer practice to theory alone.

We take it upon ourselves to practice what we learn, for it is the stronger of the two. We take it upon ourselves to follow the prescriptions laid out in Musonius’ Lectures V andLecture VI in regards to practice.

If you’ve read more than three posts on this blog, surely you’ve heard me harp on practice at least once. It’s a perrenial topic at mountainstoic. There’s a reason for that. Practice is the hallmark of the philosopher who is “doing” philosophy as a way of life.

Earlier today, I came across a description of ‘philosophy as a way of life’ on the main Wikipedia article for Stoicism, and it had a small parenthetical: (lex divina). Divine law.

This reminded of the quote that we looked at the other day, on our own Rule of Life.

“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.

This speaks to the weight the ancient Stoics put into practice.  We have from Musonius two Lectures which are fouced generally about training (and many ‘on’ training).  Mainly, we’re looking at Lecture V and Lecture VI.  It’s easy to get bogged down in the intellectual side of Stoicism.  The learning curve is steep, it’s jargony, the level of nuance and detail is high.  I’m learning another language as part of that intellectual exercise of our school.

But getting locked into that solely intellectual mode is not good for those of us seeking to “do” philosophy, and not merely to study it.  It’s needed, but we must remind ourselves (or at least I must remind myself) that we need to prefer practice to theory alone.

In addition to Musonius’ two Lectures, we also have Epictetus.  These three, taken together, provide the broad strokes for what Stoic training/practice should look like.  Musonius lays out that we’re training the body and soul, Epictetus gives us the cautious restriction that we must not do extraordinary things.  The kinds of simple moderations we’re looking at may seem extreme, but they are generally very mild, conformable to nature, and not liable to irreparably injure us.  No beds of nails or withered arms here.  Sleeping on pallet or the floor, dressing miminally and modestly, eating a vegetarian diet and moderately are quite good places to start.

That covers the first part, the training of body and soul together, and for the soul alone, we turn to Epictetus’ Three Τόποι.

Together, these things for the groundwork of a foundational Stoic practice, based in the texts, and easily adaptable for the 21st century.

This is part of the 2016 iteration of Camp Seneca.

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