Bibliotherapy

Pierre Hadot & Marcus Aurelius-The Three Rules Of Life Or Disciplines According To Epictetus

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Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Pierre Hadot’s impressive ‘The Inner Citadel-An introduction to the ‘Meditations’ of Marcus Aurelius.’ Translated by Michael Chase. HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England,1998. From page 69 to 70.

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We have already seen the important role played in the Meditations by what I have called the triple rule of life, which proposes a discipline of representations or judgments, of desire, and of action. This very tripartition of the acts and functions of the soul, and the entire distinction between judgment, desire, and impulse, is a doctrine which is peculiar to Epictetus, and which is not found in Stoicism prior to him. Its presence in Marcus Aurelius is, nevertheless, unmistakable. In VIII, 7, for example, Marcus clearly draws an opposition between representations (phantasiai), desires (orexeis), and impulses toward action (hormai), and he does so again in VII I , 2 8 :

Every judgment, every impulse to action, and every desire or aversion are within the soul, and nothing else can enter therein.

We have already encountered a brief maxim which also makes use of the
same schema:


Erase your representation (phantasia), check your impulse to action
(horme), extinguish your desire (orexis) . Keep your directing principle
(hegemonikon) within your power (IX, 7) .

The three rules of life propose an askesis, or discipline, for these three acts of the soul. In the context of the cento of passages from Epictetus (XI , 3 3 -3 9) which we have already seen, Marcus himself cites an Epictetan passage which we know only through his intermediary (XI , 3 7) :

We must discover the rule to be applied in the case of the assent [to
be given to representations and judgments] ,
-while in the matter of exercises relating to impulses to action,
we must never relax our attention, in order that these impulses to
action may be accompanied by a reserve clause, that their goal be to
serve the community, and that they be proportionate to value,
-and, finally, we must abstain completely from desire, and pay
no attention to things that do not depend on us.

Discipline of representations and judgment, discipline of impulsive action, discipline of desire : Epictetus formulates these three rules of life not only in this text, but in several chapters of his Discourses. Moreover, they correspond precisely to the three rules of life formulated by Marcus, which are in a sense the key to his Meditations.

Epictetus, stained glass at The John Rylands Library, Manchester, UK.

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