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.

Camp Seneca: Day 2- On Intoxicants


“[D]runkenness is nothing but a condition of insanity purposely assumed.

— Seneca, Moral Letters, LXXXIII. On drunkenness


One of the things that mark this period of training which is not covered by the Rule of Musonius, is the abstaining from intoxicants.  For me, this means alcohol and caffeine.  It’s a fortuitous twist of fate that I stopped taking caffeine about three weeks ago, so I’ll simply be maintaining that.

Musonius doesn’t cover the consumption of alcohol or other intoxicants, for that we look to Seneca.  In the above cited Letter, he makes reference to a syllogism (like many of the early Stoic ones, poorly formed) in which Zeno proclaims the good man will not be a drunkard (note:  this is an interpretation, he states the good man will not get drunk, but I find Seneca’s argument compelling here).  But, also, we have this:

When he was asked why he, though so austere, relaxed at a drinking-party, he said, “Lupins too are bitter, but when they are soaked become sweet.” Hecato too in the second book of his Anecdotes says that he indulged freely at such gatherings. And he would say, “Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue.”

— Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 7.1. Zeno

So we have a bit of confusion on this issue.

Epictetus mentions drunkness on several occasions, mostly in relation to getting in debates with the drunk, or teaching the drunk.  We also have this:

“That a man is a drunkard who takes more than three glasses; and though he be not drunk, he hath exceeded moderation.”

— Epictetus, Fragments No.3 (Carter’s transl.)

So it’s fair to say that we don’t have an total prohibition on the consumption of wine/alcohol.  However, for this period of training, we’ll be abstaining entirely as a practice.  A Stoic need not be a teetotaler, but clearly moderation is key.  Three glasses of wine might be a pretty lenient view of moderation, come to think of it.  Maybe their glasses were smaller than ours?  It seems fair also to say that while a Stoic might consume alcohol, she won’t become habitually drunk.  I think this reasonably extends to other substances which may have varying degrees of legality in different jurisdictions.

So, questions of law and other things aside, for the purpose of this training, we will be abstaining entirely from intoxicants (whatever that may mean for you).  For me, that’s alcohol and caffeine.  If we find this to be difficult for ourselves, that should prompt an internal discussion about moderation, self-control, and unhealthy behaviors.

Looking forward to hearing back from you all on how the training is going.

This is part of the 2016 iteration of Camp Seneca.

Camp Seneca: Day 1- On Food


Obligatory Disclaimer:  This is not medical, nutritional, or dietary advice.  Seek professional opinions for these things.  

Don’t get hurt, that would make both us sad, Stoic or not.

So, at first one might ask why someone would undertake such a project, the Stoics weren’t ascetics, right?  I think I’ve rehashed that question often enough (Link 1, Link 2, Link 3, Link 4), but it’s still commonly heard, esp. on the internet.

“Therefore upon the learning of the lessons appropriate to each and every excellence, practical training must follow invariably, if indeed from the lessons we have learned we hope to derive any benefit.”

— Musonius Rufus, Lecture VI: ON TRAINING.


That seems pretty straightforward to me, and coupled with:

“And since habit has established a strong predominance, because we have acquired the habit of turning our will to get and our will to avoid only to what lies outside our control, we must set a contrary habit to counteract the former, and where impressions are most likely to go wrong there employ training as an antidote.”

— Epictetus, Discourses III.12:  ON TRAINING


And lest we forget our training period’s namesake:

“When shall you put it all into practice? For it is not sufficient merely to commit these things to memory, like other matters; they must be practically tested. He is not happy who only knows them, but he who does them.”

— Seneca, Moral Letters LXXV. ON THE DISEASES OF THE SOUL.

So, that issue (I hope) being resolved, let’s look at the most startling of the Camp Seneca practices for this period.  Restricting food to one meal a day.  Why might we do that, and more importantly, why is this a Stoic practice at all?  For this, we’re going to turn to Musonius.

“First of all,
      (1) the man who eats more than he ought does wrong, and
      (2) the man who eats in undue haste no less, and also
      (3) the man who wallows in the pickles and sauces, and
      (4) the man who prefers the sweeter foods to the more healthful ones, and
      (5) the man who does not serve food of the same kind or amount to his guests as to himself.
 There is still another wrong in connection with eating,
      (6) when we indulge in it at an unseasonable time, and although there is something else we ought to do, we put it aside in order to eat.”

— Musonius Rufus, Lecture Lecture XVIIIB ON FOOD


As Musonius (via his student Lucius) notes that unlike some rarer circumstance, we are faced with eating daily, and sometimes twice a day.  Maybe Musonius is a bit more optimistic about whence we’re starting, because now most westerners eat three meals daily, and there is often snacking between.  Some health folks suggest six smaller meals throughout the day (although this is challenged in some health/fitness quarters).  Regardless of where we fall in the “three to six range,” it is fair to say this is a challenge we are faced with often.

In the second portion of the lecture on food, Musonius notes a variety of places one can go wrong during a meal.  I’ve broken them down and numbered them for ease.  He notes six opportunities for failure in self-control.  It is my experience that number (5) is practically a non-issue, the politeness culture and sense of hospitality that is common in American and European communities(I’m sure others as well, but this is the extent of my experience) renders it moot.  Guests are usually given the best of what’s available, and seconds or even thirds are often foisted on them with or without consent.  God help the person who doesn’t want food while visiting a grandma, even is she’s not your grandma!

But, the others are ripe for our inspection.

Restricting ourselves (for a time) to one meal a day will cause a shift of attention.  Many meals are taken thoughtlessly.  The working lunch, the sandwich in the car on the way to an event, “what are we doing for dinner tonight, honey?”  When we pare down the opportunities, we will necessarily be a bit more mindful in our choices with what remains.  Additionally, this should help solve (1) and (6).

However, my suspicion is that items (2), (3), and (4) may actually become a greater issue on which we have to focus.  This is not problematic, though.  Now, you’ll notice, we’ve cut down our problem areas in regards to food by half.  We only have three things to which we must really pay attention.

As a youngster, I spent some time in the summer with a religious community,  a Benedictine monastery in the Illinois Valley.  Meal time is very regulated (unsurprisingly).  Meals are taken in silence, and there are several readings which are read aloud.  If you look at other traditions across the globe, mealtime is given an equally weighty treatment.  An effect of this sort of formalism is a necessary slowing down of the drives and desires in regards to food.  In a quiet, meditative environment we are able to focus more on what we’re doing.

This takes care of items (2) and (3).

Of course, in an intentional community, with community meal preparation, (4) is often taken care of by someone else.  We do not have this luxury, however.  We are required to exercise an extra portion of σωφροσύνη.  In item (4) we may be especially challenged.  There are a couple  of modes from which we can choose.

Any choice we make here should be in consult with medical personnel, and be tailored to our health needs.  Individual responsibility is required.

The first, being that in having a fairly severe caloric deficit, we might choose foods which are calorically denser.  This is an added difficulty, for one of the Musonian precepts is to avoid animal-flesh as food.  This is common to see in Buddhists monks (most of whom outside of China, Japan, and Korea) are not vegetarian; and I’m told they can put away a goodly amount of food in their one meal.

The second option, if health allows for it, is to simply go without.  What we are doing is a form of intermittent fasting, and there a wide variety of programs.  Some who will fast for 16 hours, and feed for 8.  Or 20 and 4, or what have you.  Restricting ourselves to one meal is on the end of the IF spectrum, where effectively we’ll be fasting for 22 or 23 hours a day, and adding the fact that some will be abstaining from meat, it’s not going to be an easy thing.  To date, I think the longest I’ve intentionally gone without food (while not sick) is something like 36 hours.  I do expect this to be a challenge for me, as I have a lot of work to do on the ‘moderation with food’ issue, as my belt size will attest.

It is my hope that this exercise is a good context for which to have a greater experiential understanding of self-control.  It may also contain opportunities for courage and fortitude.  It is of the utmost importance that we remember all of our training must be motivated towards virtue:  or simply put, we’re in the wrong.

So, if you’re adopting my program for Camp Seneca, let me know in the comments.  If you using some other regimen let me know also in the comments.

This is part of the 2016 iteration of Camp Seneca.