The Work of the Mind

2018 was the year of the Stoic Journal. I benefited greatly from the bite-sized but profound selections from Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus and from the daily prompts to write something of my own reflections on them. Not coincidentally, I think 2018 was also the year that taught me how much I need more discipline in the management of my emotions. Sometimes you only learn that the hard way.

This year I’m going a bit deeper by reading the companion volume, The Daily Stoic, as well as supplementing with additional readings from Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Today’s passage prompted a few thoughts on the sequence of the seven exercises that Epictetus posits as the “proper work of the mind:” choice, refusal, repulsion, preparation, purpose, and assent.

I think that the order of these exercises is important. Making choices is the first thing we have to do. Choice and refusal are two sides of the same mental action, and (at least in the English translation) they both seem to be cognitive functions.

Yearning and repulsion are a pair as well, but these fall more into the realm of the moral “tastes” as described in Jonathan Haidt’s indispensible The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Disgust is one of the six pre-rational moral dimensions, and its opposite would be attraction.

Preparation and purpose seem again to fall into the realm of cognitive functions. We normally think of purpose as necessarily preceding preparation (at least that’s what most self-help gurus teach). But what if it’s not? More on that below.

Assent – how exactly is this different than choice? Faithful readers will not be shocked that I suggest we turn to the original language for some insights.

The verb translated above as “to choose” is ὁρμᾶν. Its meaning is closer to stir up, set in motion, or simply, start. The word choice in English implies a weighing of options, pro and con. But that’s not what the Greek suggests.

Which gets us to how this might be different than “assent.” The verb in Greek is συνκατατίθημι, to set down together or at the same time with. It’s used to describe voting the same way as someone else or entirely agreeing with someone else. Assent is an extended meaning, and in the passage there is no suggestion of someone else with whom we may agree.

We assume that the order of our actions looks like this: deliberate choice of purpose, careful planning of tactics, execution of tactics, success.

I think Epictetus is suggesting something very different. We have a pre-rational impulse, whether for or against a particular object (ὁρμᾶν / ἀφορμᾶν), which then sets into motion a feeling of either disgust or yearning, which in turn leads to us preparing for our end, which is only really clear to us after we’ve made the preparations, and then finally, we actively vote for this purpose (which was already set in motion by our pre-rational consciousness) with our rational faculty.

What is far more important than thinking we can plan our lives or even our short/medium/long term goals is training that part of ourselves that is really in charge — the source of our impulses and yearnings.

Epictetus says that only corrupt κρίματα (“decisions”) can pollute the mind. κρίμα is explicitly a word used of weighing and judging in Greek. The seven works of the mind add up to κρίματα.

Corrupt κρίματα happen when somewhere in that chain of impulses and mental activity there is a flaw. If our first impulse is bad that can lead us to assent to a wrong action. If we are not repulsed by a bad idea, that can also lead to a bad outcome. In other words, all along the way, we have to be aware that our judgement is subject to corruption.

In the new year I want to work on finding ways to become more conscious of each of these steps in the process of forming judgements. This includes becoming more aware of the moral dimensions that motivate me, as well as more empathetic to those those that motivate others.

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