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Pierre Hadot & Marcus Aurelius-The Three Virtues And The Three Disciplines

Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue at the Capitoline Museum, Rome, Italy. Picture by Mary Harrsch.


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 232 to 238.


The ‘Meditations’ as a whole are thus organized in accordance with a threefold structure-one could even call it a system-which was devel­oped, and perhaps invented, by Epictetus. This threefold structure or system has an internal necessity, in the sense that there can be neither more nor fewer than three exercise-themes for the philosopher, because there can be neither more nor fewer than three acts of the soul. The exercise-themes which correspond to them are related to three forms of reality: Destiny, the community of rational beings, and the individual’s faculties of judgment and assent. These forms, too, cannot be either more or fewer in number, and they are respectively the subjects of the three parts of the system formed by philosophy: physics, ethics, and logic.

What is quite remarkable is that in Marcus Aurelius, we can see another structure, which had been traditional since at least the time of Plato, that of the four virtues-prudence, justice, strength, and temper­ance-take on, under the influence of this systematic structure, a three­fold structure as well, insofar as Marcus makes the virtues correspond to each of the disciplines I have mentioned.

The scheme of the four virtues was very ancient. We should recall that the Greek word arete, which we translate as “virtue,” originally had a quite different meaning from our word “virtue.” The term went back to the aristocratic ethic of archaic Greece, and consequently did not at all signify a good habit or a principle which leads us to behave well. Rather, it meant nobility itself, excellence, value, and distinction. We may sup­pose that this ideal of excellence and value always remained present in the mind of the philosophers. For the Stoics, arete is absolute value, based no longer on warrior nobility, but on the nobility of soul represented by the purity of our intentions.

Since very early times, it seems that there existed a model or a canon of the four fundamental virtues. In the fifth century B.c., Aeschylus, in his tragedy ‘The Seven Against Thebes’ (verse 6rn), enumerates four basic values when discussing Amphiaraos: he is wise (sophron), just (dikaios), brave (agathos), and pious (eusebes). Wisdom consists in knowing, with reserve (aidos), one’s place in society and in the world-in other words, in having a sense of mankind’s limits. Justice consists in behaving well in social life. Bravery, of course, is courage in the face of difficulties, and especially in combat. Piety, in the case of Amphiaraos, who is a seer, corresponds to the knowledge of things divine and also human.

In the fourth book of Plato’s ‘Republic’ (427e ff.), there appears a systematization and justification of this enumeration of the four virtues. Plato distin­guishes three parts of the soul: “reason, ” “anger” (to thumoeides), which means that part which urges people on to fight, and “desire” (epithumia). Three virtues correspond to these three parts of the soul: prudence or wisdom to reason, courage to anger, and temperance to desire. It is up to justice to ensure that each part of the soul carries out its function: that reason is prudent, anger courageous, and desire temperate. The three parts of the soul, moreover, correspond to the three social classes of the ‘Republic’: reason is the distinctive feature of the philosophers, anger of the guardians, and desire of the workers. In the State as in the individual, then, justice will be realized if each class and each part of the soul fulfills its function perfectly. This systematization, which is linked to a specific political model, and which makes justice the virtue which contains the three others, is not to be found in the rest of Plato’s dialogues, where the four virtues are enumerated in various contexts, and without any par­ticular theorization.

In their description of moral life, the Stoics also allude to the four virtues. Here, however, they are not subordinate to one another, but are all on the same level. They mutually imply one another, as do the parts of philosophy. It is enough to practice one in order to practice them all. Nevertheless, it is difficult to find in our surviving summaries of Stoic doctrine the real reason why it is necessary that there be only four fundamental virtues. The definitions of the various virtues are rather divergent, but we may note the following: prudence is the science of what ought and ought not to be done; courage is the science of what ought and ought not to be tolerated; temperance is the science of what ought and ought not to be chosen; and justice is the science of what ought and ought not to be distributed. Unlike Plato, the Stoics do not appear to link the four virtues to the parts of the soul.

From this perspective, it is of great interest to observe the transforma­tions which the system of three disciplines caused the classification of virtues in Marcus’ Meditations to undergo. Let us begin by noting that the philosopher-emperor often summarizes the three disciplines-of assent, of desire, and of action-by making the names of virtues correspond to them. Thus the discipline of assent takes on the name of the virtue of “truth“; the discipline of desire acquires the name of the virtue of “tem­perance”; and the discipline of action, that of the virtue of “justice”. In itself, the substitution of the notion of “truth” for that of “prudence” should not surprise us, for Plato had already once (‘Republic’, 487a5) given the four virtues the names of “truth“, “justice“, “courage“, and “temper­ance“.

The substitution of “truth” for “prudence” can, however, be perfectly well justified from the perspective of Marcus Aurelius. This is shown by the following lengthy passage (IX, r ) , which must be cited for two reasons: first, we can see in it the establishment of an exact correspon­dence between the discipline of action and justice, the discipline of assent and truth, and the discipline of desire and temperance. Second, it offers an admirable summary of the three exercise-themes.

Justice and the discipline of action

He who commits an injustice commits an impiety. For since universal Nature has constituted rational animals for the sake of each other, so that they might help each other in accordance with their respective merit and never harm each other, he who transgresses the will of Nature most obviously commits an impiety against the most vener­able of gods.

Truth and the discipline of assent

He who lies, moreover, also commits an impiety toward the same Goddess. For Universal Nature is the nature of beings; now beings have a relationship of affinity with true attributes [that is, with what can be truly said of them] . Moreover, this Goddess is also named truth, and she is the first cause of all that is true. Therefore, he who willingly lies commits an impiety, in so far as he commits an injus­tice by deceiving. And he who lies involuntarily also commits an impiety, insofar as he is in disaccord with universal Nature, and he disturbs order insofar as he is in a state of incompatibility with the Nature of the world. For that person is in a state of incompatibility who, of his own free will, tends toward that which is contrary to the truth. He has received from Nature dispositions to know the truth, but since he has neglected them, he is now no longer capable of distinguishing the true from the false.

Temperance and the discipline of desire

Finally, the person who pursues pleasures as goods and who flees pains as evils also commits an impiety. For such a person must necessarily often reproach universal Nature, for Nature attributes a particular lot to the bad and to the good, contrary to their merit; for the bad often live in pleasures and possess that by which they may procure them, while good people encounter only pain and that which is its cause. What is more, he who fears pain will one day come to fear one of the things which must happen in the world, and this is already impious. Nor will he who pursues pleasures be able to keep away from injustice; and this is clearly impious. Concerning things with regard to which universal Nature is equally disposed (for she would not produce both, if she were not disposed toward them in an equal way) : with regard to these things, those who wish to follow Nature, and be in perfect community of sentiments with her, must also be in a disposition of ” equality. ” Therefore, as far as pain and pleasure are concerned, death and life, glory and obscurity, which universal Nature treats in an “equal” manner, he who does not behave in an “equal” manner obviously commits an impiety.

Here it is easy to recognize the three disciplines: that of action, which ordains that people should help one another; that of assent, which con­sists in distinguishing the true from the false; and that of desire, which consists in accepting the lot which universal Nature has reserved for us. To these three disciplines correspond three virtues. In the discipline of action, we must respect the value hierarchy of people and of things, and thus act in accordance with justice.

According to the discipline of assent, our discourse must be true, and the virtue particular to this discipline is truth. He who knowingly lies commits a twofold sin: in the area of assent, since his discourse is not true, and in the area of action, since he is committing an injustice with regard to other people. As for the person who lies involuntarily-in other words, who deceives himself-it is be­cause he has not succeeded in criticizing his judgments and in becoming the master of his assent that he is no longer capable of distinguishing the true from the false. Finally, in the discipline of desire, we must desire only that which universal Nature wants, and we must not desire pleasures or flee sufferings. This discipline is characterized by temperance.

Here, then, Nature appears to us in three aspects. She is the principle of attraction which urges human beings to help one another and to practice justice, and is therefore the basis of justice. She is also the basis of truth; that is to say, the principle which founds the order of discourse, and the necessary relationship which must exist between beings and the true attributes which are said about them. To speak falsely, whether voluntar­ily or involuntarily, is therefore to be in disaccord with the order of the world. Finally, universal Nature, since she is indifferent to indifferent things, is the basis of temperance, in other words of that virtue which, instead of desiring pleasure, wants to consent to the will of universal Nature.

Marcus here portrays universal Nature as the most ancient and august of goddesses, in such a way that any lapse with regard to the virtues justice, truth, and temperance-of which this goddess is the model and the principle, is an impiety. The Stoics traditionally identified God, Na­ture, Truth, Destiny, and Zeus. In Marcus’ time, there were hymns which presented Nature as the most ancient of goddesses. For example, an Orphic hymn invokes her in the following terms:

Goddess, mother of all things, celestial mother, very ancient (pres­beira) mother.

A hymn by Mesomedes, one of Hadrian’s freedmen, which also dates from the second century A.D., begins:

Principle and origin of all, very ancient Mother of the world, Night, Light, and Silence.

In our long passage from Marcus, we can note a certain tendency to privilege the importance of justice as compared to the other virtues. Impiety toward Nature consists in injustice, not only if one refuses to practice justice toward other human beings, but also if one lies to them, and even if, involuntarily, cannot distinguish the true from the false. For then one destroys the order of Nature, and introduces a discordant note into universal harmony. Likewise, if we accuse Nature of injustice in her distribution of lots among good and evil people, then we ourselves are committing an injustice. We find a similar idea expressed in XI, IO, 4:

Justice cannot be preserved if we attribute importance to unimportant things, or if we are easily deceived; if we give our assent too rapidly, or if we change our mind too often.

To give importance to unimportant things is not to practice the disci­pline of desire, and hence to sin against temperance; whereas to be easily deceived, or to be too rapid or changeable in our judgments, means not to practice the discipline of assent, and hence to sin against truth.

Truth, justice, and temperance can thus designate the three disciplines, as in XII, 15:

Whereas the flame of a lamp shines until it goes out, and does not lose its luster, will the truth, justice, and temperance which are within you be extinguished before their time?

Elsewhere (XII, 3, 3), the soul’s guiding principle, when it frees itself of everything foreign to it, does what is just, wills the events which happen, and tells the truth. Nothing, says Marcus (VIII, 32, 2) , can prevent us from acting in accordance with justice, temperance, and prudence.

Sometimes, as in this last example and the following one, we find some variations in the names of the virtues; yet the tripartite scheme is retained (III, 9, 2) :

Absence of hurry in judgment, a feeling of kinship toward other human beings, and obedient consent to the gods.

Alongside this triad of virtues, we sometimes find the traditional quaternium, adapted and brought into line with the tripartite structure (III, 6, l) :

If you find something in human life better than justice, truth, temperance, and bravery …

In fact, the continuation of this passage reduces these four virtues to the disciplines of desire and of action (III, 6, r ) , when it becomes appar­ent that they consist in thought which is content with itself (in those things in which it is possible to act in accordance with right reason) , and which is con­tent with Destiny (in those things which are allotted to us, independently of our will)

The virtues are linked to the functions of the soul: truth and the intellectual virtues are linked to reason; justice to active impulses; and temperance to desire. Where, then, can we find a place for courage? It seems to be shared between temperance, qua strength in adversity and suffering, and justice, qua active force.

We find no trace of this theory of the virtues in the ‘Discourses’ of Epictetus, as reported by Arrian. This does not prove, however, that it did not exist. As I have said, it was impossible for Arrian to have trans­mitted all of the teachings of Epictetus; moreover, the discourses which he did note down do not correspond to a systematic exposition of the whole of philosophy.

Be that as it may, a first sketch of this doctrine may be glimpsed well before Epictetus. In Cicero’s treatise ‘On Duties’, which in its first book reproduces the teachings of Panaetius, the ancient virtue of prudence becomes “the knowledge of truth“; justice is based on the social links between human beings; strength becomes greatness of soul, linked to scorn for the things which do not depend on us; and temperance submits our desires to reason. In a way, then, Panaetian strength and temperance correspond to the discipline of desire in Marcus Aurelius. In the last analysis such comparisons are rather tenuous, but they do allow us to glimpse an evolution of the Stoic doctrine of the virtues, which culmi­nates in the synthesis attested in Marcus.


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Pierre Hadot & Marcus Aurelius-The Three Virtues And The Three Disciplines

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