The Stoics’ 7 Functions of the Clear Mind
The best reason to practice personal hygiene is that a clean body leads to a pure soul.
It’s not the explanation my dentist gave me the other day, but regardless, at nearly 30 years old, she finally got me to floss. “Your gums are at risk,” she said. I have flossed every day since. One, because I’d like to keep my teeth until I die, and two, if I don’t have a clean mouth, how can I expect good things to come out when I open it?
Neither the importance of dental care nor its effect on our mental state is new to us, yet more than half of Americans are short at least one tooth, and more than 10% have lost all of them. That’s 40 million Americans without teeth.
In one of his many post-lecture discussions transcribed in Discourses, Stoic philosopher Epictetus talked about “washing your teeth” — in 108 AD. He also used cleanliness of the body as an analogy for — and precursor to — purity of the soul.
Hygiene of the Body Brings Clarity of the Mind
In Book IV, chapter 11, of the Elizabeth Carter translation from 1758, Epictetus says we’re surprised to see animals cleaning themselves, claiming they “act human.” Then again, we blame their dirtiness on being animals not people. This is flawed logic. By the same token, we might say personal hygiene is appropriate behavior, but if a person stinks, that’s not their fault.
It is your right to stink, of course, but it is also our right to avoid you if you do. If you’ve ever sat next to a smelly person in the library, you’ll know it’s not a pleasant experience. It can directly affect your ability to focus.
While we naturally tend to avoid dirty people, we engage with contaminated minds every single day. These too we have a right to escape from, Epictetus claims. Do not let people with polluted minds muddy yours.
This is neither a derision of mental illness nor public health problems. The kind of cleanliness Epictetus talks about is the one we control. You can’t blame a depressed person for not making sense, and you can’t blame a homeless person for their lack of access to clean water.
If you have good health and warm water, however, proper hygiene and dress are a must, both mentally and physically. You should do it not to impress but “insofar as to not give offense.” From the 1877 translation by George Long:
“If nature had entrusted to you a horse, would you have overlooked and neglected him? And now think that you have been entrusted with your own body as with a horse; wash it, wipe it, take care that no man turns away from it, that no one gets out of the way for it.”
This is what it means to practice good hygiene of the body, and while not enough, it will inevitably support the development of a clear mind.
The 7 Functions of a Pure Mind
The requirements of a clean body are fairly obvious, but what does it mean to have “purity of the soul?” According to Epictetus, the soul must be able to “conduct its operations,” which, as per Stephen Hanselman’s translation in Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic, consist of the following seven tasks:
“The proper work of the mind is the exercise of choice, refusal, yearning, repulsion, preparation, purpose, and assent. What then can pollute and clog the mind’s proper functioning? Nothing but its own corrupt decisions.”
A clear mind rests on good judgment. “The impurity of the soul consists in wicked principles, and its purification in the forming of right principles,” Carter translated in 1758. What she meant is that as long as we exercise reason and common sense, we will perform admirably in these seven, most human of tasks. Our perception will be built on solid principles, and, therefore, so will our actions, attitudes, and decisions.
How can we do this for each of the mind’s seven functions? Here are some ideas.
The first thing good choices require is an awareness of your ability to choose. You do know you can choose, don’t you? Always.
There’s a famous exchange between Harvey Specter and Mike Ross in Suits. Mike went behind Harvey’s back, and his excuse is that “he had no choice.” “What are your choices when someone puts a gun to your head?” Harvey asks him. “What are you talking about? You do what they say, or they shoot you,” Mike responds. “Wrong. You take the gun, or you pull out a bigger one. Or, you call their bluff. Or, you do any one of a 146 other things.” The lesson Harvey is teaching Mike here is that there’s always a choice, even when it looks like there isn’t.
The second aspect to making good decisions is thinking about your options (or creating more of them) and then weighing them against one another. Don’t turn your first impulse into the final verdict. Double-check your gut, and look at all or at least many courses of action. This way, when you do settle on one, you’ll know you have tried your best to choose well — and there’s nothing more you can ask of yourself.
Many of your best decisions will be decisions to not do anything at all. “No” is an option too, often a good, but always a powerful one. What must we refuse? Temptations. Shortcuts. Distractions. This applies to people and events as much as it applies to ideas and material items. A pure mind concerns itself only with what matters, and we usually know what those things are — we just need to summon the guts to act on it.
If temptation is to be avoided, what good is your desire? Plenty, if you shape and direct it towards benevolent ends, according to Epictetus. He considered desire to be one of three key areas for any philosopher to train themselves in.
Desire is not something you have, it is something you can control. You can learn to lust less for people, food, and money. You can practice wanting to be better, to focus on what has meaning, and to be of benefit to society.
Don’t just tolerate whatever desires bubble up from your subconscious — shape them into goals you’ll be proud to accomplish.
In the movie Knives Out, the female protagonist literally throws up every time she lies. What a useful reflex if you value integrity!
Imagine you could be disgusted not just at your lies but those of others. What if you could feel repelled by bad decisions or literally sniff out people who are a bad influence on you? Aversion is the yin to desire’s yang, and it too is something you can cultivate.
Reject negativity. Don’t trust too lightly. Form your own assessments of what’s true. Become so good at determining if something stinks that you develop an almost visceral reaction to its figurative smell — and then use your nose to navigate around the bad and into the good.
There are two outcomes you should always prepare for: What you want to happen, and what could happen, regardless of your desire for it.
The first comes to us naturally, as we spend most our days dreaming about and thus arranging for what we hope will come true. We understand at least somewhat that opportunity is, as Thomas Edison said, “dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
The second, however, is something we commonly neglect and often pay for with regret and frustration. As Edison’s ancestor Benjamin Franklin remarked: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Don’t think only about what could go right, think about what could go wrong. Imagine likely and unlikely disruptions, and consider what you might learn from them if they transpire.
All journeys include adversity. Prepare to walk on both sides of the path, not just one. It will make the difference between limiting your suffering to reality and adding to it in your imagination.
Purpose is a fuzzy word, but in his Meditations, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius shared a beautiful definition:
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
At the base level, our purpose as humans is to simply exist. Wake up. Breathe. Open your eyes. This is what it means to be human, and, for starters, it is enough. Only once we appreciate this baseline can we engage in more complex, social definitions of purpose.
From there, we can choose a set of values, like hope, love, compassion, and humility. We can go on a mission whose goal will be of benefit to society. We can even create a personal code, our own set of rules and guiding principles.
Developing our unique purpose takes time, but our shared one is always available. Every morning, remember: If you go to work as a human being, your soul will have done its service today.
Assent is a form of approval given after careful consideration, even if it is done reluctantly. You needn’t love everything that happens (although there is a Stoic concept for that too), but once you’ve chosen, you must accept it.
Acceptance brings the clear mind full circle. It is about asking, “What do I control here?” You try to distinguish impact from fate, and when you think there are no decisions left to be made for now, you readily sit and wait.
All You Need to Know
A good shave won’t make you smarter, but it helps to feel clean while staring at your computer. Unfortunately, personal hygiene has its limits in promoting mental clarity, the tenets of which can feel ironically obscure.
According to the Stoics, a pure mind performs seven functions: Choice, refusal, desire, aversion, preparation, purpose, and acceptance. If we use reason and logic as we tackle these tasks, we’ll see the world clearly, and from that, pure emotions, decisions, and actions will follow.
At one point, Epictetus explains why he’d rather have a well-groomed man ask him about philosophy than a disheveled one: “For there appears in him some idea of beauty and desire of decency; and where he imagines it to be, there he applies his endeavors.” To such a man, Epictetus could simply point out that while his exterior is commendable, true purity springs from within.
“But if he should come to me bemired, dirty, with whiskers down to his knees, what can I say to him? By what similitude allure him? For what hath he studied which hath any resemblance to beauty, that I may transfer his attention, and say that beauty is not there, but here? Would you have me tell him that beauty doth not consist in filth, but in reason? For hath he any desire of beauty? Hath he any appearance of it? Go, and argue with a hog not to roll in the mire.”
Your journey to clear thinking might start with a single flossed tooth, and you may not understand why it matters when you do it. Eventually, however, your physical and mental hygiene will add up, and you’ll begin to see.
As a final quote from Epictetus, consider that “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” It is equally impossible, however, for him to learn something to which he has no propensity at all.
Don’t roll with pigs in the mud. Clean your body; purify your soul. Oh, and remember to floss. Otherwise, your gums might be at risk.