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

A bust of Marcus Aurelius in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (Met) New York City USA.


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 43 to 47. More from this seminal source to come soon.


…/… Practical conduct obeys three rules of life which deter­mine the individual’s
relationship to the necessary course of Nature, to other people, and to his own thought. As
in the case of his exposition of the dogmas, Marcus’ exposition of these rules is highly structured.

The three rules of life or discipline correspond to the three activities of the soul: judgment, desire, and
impulse; and to the three domains of reality: our individual faculty of judgment, universal
, and human nature. This can be seen in the following diagram:

We encounter this ternary model very frequently throughout the Meditations . I shall cite a few important passages:

Always and everywhere, it depends on you

-piously to rejoice in the present conjunction of events ;

-to conduct yourself with justice toward whatever people are present ;
-to apply the rules of discernment to your present representation, so that nothing non objective may infiltrate its way in (VII , 54) .

The following are enough for you:

-your present value-judgment , as long as it is objective ;
-your present action , a s long a s it is accomplished i n the service
of the human community;
-your present inner disposition , as long as it finds its j oy in
every conjunction of events brought about by the external cause

(IX, 6) .

Reasonable nature is indeed following its proper path
-if, with regard to its representations , it gives its assent neither to
what is false, nor to what is obscure;
-if it directs its impulses only toward those actions which serve
the human community;
-if it has desire and aversion only for that which depends on us;
while it joyfully greets all that which is granted to it by universal
(VII I , 7) .


Erase your representation (phantasia) ;
Stop your impulse toward action (horme)
Extinguish your desire (orexis) ;
Have your guiding principle (hegemonikon) within your power

(IX, 7) .

What must you practice? One thing only:

-thought devoted to justice and actions accomplished in the service
of the community ;
-speech which can never deceive ;
-an inner disposition which lovingly greets each conjunction of
events, recognizing it as necessary, familiar, and flowing forth from
so great a principle, and so great a source
(IV, 3 3 , 3 ) .

In addition to these explicit formulations, we find numerous allusions to the three disciplines, in various forms. Thus, Marcus lists as a triad of virtues: ” truth, ” “justice, ” and “ temperance ” (XII , 1 5) ; or “unhurriedness in judgment“, “love of people“, and ” the disposition to place oneself in the cortege of the gods” (III, 9, 2)-which correspond to the three rules of life . It sometimes happens that only two or even only one of the disciplines appears, as for instance in IV, 22:

To accomplish justice on the occasion of each impulse toward action, and, on the occasion of each representation, retain only that part of it which exactly corresponds to reality (here we can recognize the disciplines of action and of judgment) .

In X, I I , 3 :

He is content with two things: to accomplish the present action with justice, and to love the fate which has, here and now, been allotted to him.

And again, in VIII, 2 3 :

Am I accomplishing some action? I accomplish it, relating it to the well-being of mankind. Is something happening to me? I greet it, relating what happens to me to the gods and to the source of all things, whence is formed the framework of events (here we recognize the disciplines of action and of desire) .

Often, only one theme is evoked, as for instance the discipline of desire (VII , 5 7) :

Love only the event which comes upon us, and which is linked to us by Destiny.

or the discipline of judgment (IV, 7) :

Suppress the value-judgment (which you add) , and the ” I ‘ve been hurt ” is also suppressed. Suppress the ” I ‘ve been hurt, ” and the harm is suppressed.

or, finally, the discipline of impulses (XII , 20) :

In the first place: nothing at random, and nothing unrelated to some goal or end. Second, don’t relate your actions to anything except an end or goal which serves the human community.

The Meditations, then, take up the various dogmas one by one, either briefly or in more developed form, and different chapters give longer lists of them than others. Likewise, they tirelessly repeat, either concisely or in more extended form, the formulation of the three rules of life, which can be found gathered together in their entirety in certain chapters . As we shall see, Book III attempts to give a detailed, ideal portrait of the good man, and the three rules of life, which correspond precisely to the good man’s behavior, are set forth in great detail. On the other hand, we can also find the three rules of life-mixed together with other related exhortations-presented in a form so concise that it makes them almost enigmatic :

Erase this representation [discipline of judgment] .
Stop dancing around like a puppet [discipline of action] .
Circumscribe the precise moment of time .
Recognize what is happening to you or to someone else [discipline
of the consent to Destiny] .
Divide the object and analyze it into ” causal ” and ” material. “
Think about your last hour.

As for the wrong committed by so-and-so: leave it right where the fault was committed (VII , 29) .

These three disciplines of life are the true key to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, for the various dogmas I have discussed crystallize around them. The dogmas affirming our freedom of judgment, and the possibility for mankind to criticize and modify his own thought, are linked to the discipline of judgment, while all the theorems on the causality of universal Nature are grouped around that discipline which directs our attitude toward external events. Finally, the discipline of action is fed by all the theoretical propositions concerning the mutual attraction which unites rational beings. In the last analysis, we realize that behind their apparent disorder, we can discern a highly rigorous conceptual system in Marcus’ Meditations.


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

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