Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 7, The discipline of desire, or amor fati
Before we get into the thick of the seventh chapter of Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel(last entry here), a masterpiece of analysis of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the philosophy of Epictetus, and Stoicism more generally, let me apologize for how slowly the book club has been proceeding of late. It is taking me a long time to finish this book because it is not exactly easy going — which is why I flatter myself that I am providing a public service with these extended chapter-by-chapter summaries.
So let’s get back to it! And specifically to Hadot’s treatment, in the central part of the book, of Epictetus’ famous three disciplines: assent (i.e., how to critically examine our own judgments), which we treated last time; desire (i.e., what is proper for us to desire or stay away from), which we will discuss in the current post; and action (i.e., how to behave with others), which will be the topic of the next entry in this series.
Right at the beginning of the chapter Hadot provides a good summary of what the discipline of desire is all about: what we feel vs what we should feel, which will struck non-Stoics as bizarre. What do you mean what I should feel?? If by “feeling” we mean what the Stoics called proto-emotions, i.e., automatic, instinctive reactions to events, then they are what they are, and they are not going to change. But the focus here is on the “passions,” in Stoic lingo, i.e., on the fully formed emotions, which have a cognitive component, as confirmed by modern psychological research. And if they have a cognitive component, then we can change them by altering that component. It is the same principle as cognitive behavioral therapy: change the way you think and that will change (over time, with repetition and effort) the way you feel.
Hadot rightly points out that the practice of all three disciplines, included that of desire, is focused on the present, as for the Stoic both the past and the future are outside of our sphere of action. We can only act in the here and now, so that’s where we should concentrate our efforts. As Marcus puts it:
“Don’t try to go over in your mind all the painful hardships, in all their varying intensity and number, which might…