Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 6, The discipline of assent
One might be forgiven for beginning to suspect that The Inner Citadel, Pierre Hadot’s classic study of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, is in fact a study of the philosophy of Epictetus. We have seen that chapter 5, for instance, is devoted to “the beautifully coherent Stoicism of Epictetus.” And we are now beginning to look at three chapters devoted respectively to Epictetus’ disciplines of assent (this post), desire (next post), and action (two posts down the road). Then again, other authors, for instance William Stephens, in his enlightening Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed, have remarked how Marcus’ philosophy is heavily influenced by the sage from Hierapolis. No matter, a better understanding of the three disciplines will do all of us some good, so let us proceed!
The discipline of assent trains us to make better judgments about things. Hadot defines it concisely in the following manner:
The discipline of assent consists essentially in refusing to accept within oneself all representations which are other than objective or adequate. (p. 101)
What are these “representations,” referred to in Greek as phantasia (which, interestingly, is the root of the English word phantasm, i.e., ghost)? Even though I have covered Stoic psychology 101 on this site, let us follow Hadot’s version of the theory. To begin with, we have sensation (Gr. aisthesis), a physiological process we share with other animals, and which generates images (phantasia) in the soul (i.e., in our minds). More specifically, the phantasia are produced in the ruling faculty of our mind, the hegemonikon.
The important bit here is that these images in our mind are accompanied by an inner discourse, or a pre-judgment. Like: chocolate cake (from sensation) + “chocolate cake is good!” (inner discourse) = pre-reflective desire for chocolate cake (representation). The notion, then, is that we can give or withhold assent to these representations, essentially by confirming or challenging the pre-reflective inner discourse. Like this: “no, chocolate cake is not good, because I’m diabetic.”
That’s why Marcus often reminds himself of the difference between the row image (which is emotionally neutral) and the judgment (which is not):