Book Club: The Art of Living 2

The concept of spiritual philosophical exercises

Figs in Winter
Oct 3, 2019 · 6 min read
Ignatius of Loyola, who knew something about spiritual exercises

Let’s continue our reading of John Sellars’ : The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy. we began with chapter 4 (I’m skipping around a bit), dedicated to the debate between Stoics and Skeptics on the nature of knowledge, and we learned that, in the end, the two schools converged toward similar practical positions: the Skeptics had to agree that even if human knowledge is impossible, some opinions are more likely to be correct than others, which makes action possible and not random. On their part, the Stoics had to agree that even if human knowledge is possible, it is a rare feat, reserved for the sage. The rest of us are left pretty much in the same predicament that the Skeptics attribute to all humankind.

Here I want to explore the fifth chapter in the book, which focuses on the concept of philosophical exercises, and which is therefore eminently practical in nature. As usual, it all goes back to Socrates. As John says right at the beginning of the chapter, we find Socrates, in the Gorgias, arguing that mastering principles is necessary but not sufficient, one also needs some kind of practical training. In other words, philosophy conceived as the art of living involves both theory and practice, and it is the latter that turns those who make progress into sages. At least once in a long while, since sages are exceedingly rare.

Of course, Epictetus says as much in the Discourses:

The philosophers first exercise us in theory, where there is less difficulty, and then after that lead us to the more difficult matters; for in theory there is nothing which holds us back from following what we are taught, but in the affairs of life there are many things which draw us away. — I.26.3

Sellars correctly points out that Epictetus is definitely not implying that theory is secondary. On the contrary, it is the guide to practice, and one simply couldn’t practice without having first a minimum theoretical background. This connection between theory and practice was explained by Socrates by way of the oft-recurring analogy with going to the gym: you need to know how to use the various machines, weights, etc. (theory), but you also have to do it regularly and for long periods of time (practice), or you won’t see the results (muscle tone and aerobic capacity in the case of the gym, moral character in the case of philosophy).

The attribute of “spiritual” attached to philosophical exercises comes from modern French scholar Pierre Hadot, whose book, The Inner Citadel, I have . Hadot, in turn, gets it from the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola. Here is Loyola’s definition:

The term ‘spiritual exercises’ denotes every way of examining one’s conscience, of meditating, contemplating, praying vocally and mentally, and other spiritual activities, as will be said later. For just as strolling, walking, and running are exercises for the body, so ‘spiritual exercises’ is the name given to every way of preparing and disposing one’s soul to rid herself of all disordered attachments, so that once rid of them one might seek and find the divine will in regard to the disposition of one’s life for the good of the soul. — Exercitia Spiritualia, Annotationes 1

Compare this with what Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, says:

Training which is peculiar to the soul consists first of all in seeing that the proofs pertaining to apparent goods as not being real goods are always ready at hand and likewise those pertaining to apparent evils as not being real evils, and in learning to recognize the things which are truly good and in becoming accustomed to distinguish them from what are not truly good. In the next place it consists of practice in not avoiding any of the things which only seem evil, and in not pursuing any of the things which only seem good; in shunning by every means those which are truly evil and in pursuing by every means those which are truly good. — Fragment 6

Musonius is deploying a concept very much along the lines of Loyola, though he is being more specific as to what, exactly, the spiritual exercises in question — according to Stoic doctrine — consist of (you may notice that he is phrasing something very much analogous to Epictetus’ ).

In order to avoid an easy misunderstanding, let me stress that John himself immediately makes clear that “spiritual,” in this context, does not imply any particular conception about the soul. Certainly Loyola did hold the Christian view in this matter, and Musonius of course held to the notion of the soul that derives from Stoic pantheism. But we moderns can simply speak of mental exercises without loss of meaning.

How do we engage in spiritual (or mental) philosophical exercises? Galen, Marcus Aurelius’ personal physician, explains:

All we must do is keep the doctrine regarding insatiability and self-sufficiency constantly at hand, and commit ourselves to the daily exercise of the particular actions which follow from these doctrines. — Aff. Sign. 9

This, turns out, translates into two themes emerging from the ancient literature on spiritual exercises: habituation and digestion.

Let’s start by considering habituation. As Sellars notes, for Musonius Rufus spiritual exercises consist in becoming used to distinguish between real and apparent goods. Epictetus explains:

At everything that happens to you remember to turn to yourself and find what capacity you have to deal with it. If you see a beautiful boy or girl, you will find self-control as the capacity to deal with it; if hard labour is imposed on you, you will find endurance; if abuse, you will find patience. And when you make a habit of this, the impressions will not carry you away. — Enchiridion 10

Marcus Aurelius, in turn influenced by Epictetus, returns often to the theme of habituation:

As are your repeated imaginations so will your mind be, for the soul is dyed by its imaginations. Dye it, then, in a succession of imaginations like these. — Meditations V.16

Habituation gradually alters one’s character, and allows us to translate theory into practice.

What about “digestion”? Epictetus uses the term explicitly, warning his students that unless they have properly digested Stoic doctrines they won’t be able to practice them, they will simply “vomit” them to others (Discourses III.21.1–4). All talk and no action, so to speak.

Seneca too uses the metaphor of digestion in one of his letters to Lucilius:

Be careful lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers and digest their works … for food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten, and nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine. … Each day … after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day. — II.2–4

Sellars ends the chapter outlining an interesting distinction, to which he will return later in the book:

Two distinct literary forms of exercise may be noted. The first type, exemplified by the Handbook of Epictetus, is primarily an instructional text directed towards training the student of philosophy who has already completed his preliminary education in philosophical theory. The second, exemplified by the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, is a text produced by a student where the very act of writing itself can be seen to constitute the exercise. — p. 126

So, if you wish to practice Stoicism, the two obvious starting points will be Epictetus’ Manual and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. At the cost of sounding immodest, if you want a detailed modern version of a Stoic practical curriculum, consult , which I co-wrote with Greg Lopez, and which contains a whopping 52 exercises, arranged according to Epictetus’ famous three discipline of desire, action, and assent.

(Next: The hidden structure of the Enchiridion.)

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Figs in Winter

Written by

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Figs in Winter

Written by

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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