The Three Disciplines of Stoicism: Life Lessons from a Roman Emperor

The stoics used their understanding of perception, action, and will to create an operating system for life.

The Three Disciplines

A common thread central to the philosophy of the meditations and documented in detail by Pierre Hadot in the Inner Cidital, are the three disciplines of perception, action, and will.

The first discipline is the discipline of perception. “[Perception] requires that we maintain absolute objectivity of thought: that we see things dispassionately for what they are,” writes Gregory Hays in the introduction to his new translation of Meditations.

The second discipline, action, deals with our relationships with others. We need, in the words of Marcus Aurelius, “to live as nature requires.” The simplest way to understand this is to know that we were made for others, not ourselves. Nature is unselfish and we should be too. We should work towards something larger than ourselves, a collective good while treating people justly and fairly.

The third discipline, the discipline of will, encompasses our attitude to things that are not within our control. Acts of nature such as fire, illness, and even death, however unpleasant, can only harm us if we choose to see them that way. The same for the acts of others.

“Objective judgment, now at this very moment. Unselfish action, now at this very moment. Willing acceptance—now at this very moment—of all external events. That’s all you need.”

— Marcus Aurelius

Attitude is Everything

You may think that maintaining a positive attitude regardless of the circumstances is impossible. But it’s not.

In Man’s Search For Meaning, legendary psychiatrist and Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl, writes: “Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Individually the three disciplines contribute to a meaningful life. Yet when combined they “constitute a comprehensive approach to life,” Hays writes.

In Meditations 7.54, Marcus Aurelius lays the principles out for us.

Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility [will]; to treat this person as he should be treated [action]; to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in [perception];

The three disciplines appear throughout Meditations.

Some subtlety (as in Meditations 8.7):

… progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it-the nature in which it participates, as the leaf’s nature does in the trees.

And some more overtly (6.41)

“You take things you don’t control and define them as “good” or “bad.” And so of course when the “bad” things happen, or the “good” ones don’t you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible—or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited “good” and “bad” to our own actions, we’d have no call to challenge God, or to treat other people as enemies.”

The three disciplines are, in a sense, the heart of meditations. You can think of them as an operating system for life. Meditations is a book I wish I had discovered earlier. I anticipate reading and reflecting on it often.