Step onto the Stoic Path: Discipline Your Judgments

The goal of Stoicism is for you to experience Happiness, eudaimonia. To achieve this you need to live with wisdom, courage, justice, and moderation. In Stoic words: you need to live virtuously.

Unless you're a sage, this is easier said than done.

How to live according to the Stoic virtues? How to get to a more balanced state? Through discipline.

Stoicism is a system to provide us with this discipline and live smarter. One of the most important Stoic insights is that our thinking not only influences our actions but that it also defines our emotions. Not being aware of this causes suffering.

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Traditionally, Stoicism has been taught as a philosophical system that has  theoretical and practical components. The theoretical areas of study are logic, physics, and ethics. These are also called the three topoi, or topics.

Studying theory is essential, but the goal is to live according to wisdom. That’s why Stoicism has three disciplines, the practical components. These are:

  • The discipline of judgment
  • The discipline of desire
  • The discipline of action

There has been much debate on what's the right order to teach the Stoic disciplines. What matters is that the three Stoic topics and disciplines are essential and interconnected. In the end, we need them all to live virtuously. 

In my previous article, I talked about paying attention to the present moment. I believe that's what enables us to become aware of what happens outside and inside us, so we can live well.

Once you become aware of what’s happening, how do you handle it? How do you navigate your outer and inner life?

That’s where the discipline of judgment comes in. 

Let's have a look at what it is and how it can help us.

What is logical to think?

What first drew me to Stoicism is that it teaches us how to think. We’re rational animals, so to live close with our nature means we need to develop rationality.

I loved this idea right off the bat. I tend to show my emotions, and this does not always work out for me. So any system that helps me regulate myself is more than welcome.

The Stoic discipline of judgment (or assent) is rooted in the field of Stoic logic. Logic was the first thing Zeno's students were exposed to upon enrolling in his school. Being able to think logically, you can start work on yourself.

Stoic logic is about how to think to find the truth. Truth, in the Stoic sense, is what's real. 

Stoics believe there is an objective, material world outside of our consciousness. Stoics are philosophical realists. As Stoics, we also believe we can understand the world through reasoning. We’re rational beings, so we’re able to develop life skills (virtue) and experience well-being by interacting logically with reality.

I first realized the power of this Stoic idea when I read Marcus Aurelius’ words in Meditations 8.47 (Hays translation)

"External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now. 

If the problem is something in your own character, who’s stopping you from setting your mind straight?”

This hit me like a train. Up until then, I had mindlessly accepted I was a very  emotional person. This caused me to react intensely to situations (which I didn't always like), thinking there was no way around it.

I had unconsciously lived with this thinking pattern underlying my actions:

Outside event > My response to the event

While in reality, it’s:

Outside event > My (unconscious) value judgment of the event > My response to my value judgment

An example of flawed thinking

To understand this model, imagine you’re driving.

Out of nowhere, you're cut off by another driver. You act instinctively and brake to avoid an accident. You're acting unconsciously; your driving experience kicks in and your parasympathetic nervous system takes care of things.

But you're human, so probably that's not the end of things.

Your instinctive reaction to a potentially dangerous event is called the first movement in Stoicism. All other animals would respond automatically to avoid danger, and then move on with their lives. 

Not us humans. 

We like to ponder what has happened to us in the past. We like to do some serious time travel in our minds, and tell ourselves all kinds of stories. 

That other driver is an asshole, he could've killed us both!

But is this true? Were you really in danger? Is what you're thinking reasonable? What are you even thinking and feeling now? What's going on in your head?

After this first impression coming in from the outside, you start to attach all kinds of labels to the situation. You build up a story, and you're probably not even aware of it. This labeling is what causes you to feel the emotions you're feeling. Stoics call these impressions.

Your impression could be that you were in great danger and narrowly escaped death. Depending on your state at that moment, you could feel any range of emotions. You could feel anger and flick your middle finger, or you could be grateful that nothing harmful happened. The story you tell yourself and the conclusions you draw from it will define the resulting feeling and follow-up stories.

It’s the perception of outside events that bother us, not the events themselves.

When the stories we tell ourselves go unchecked, we’re bound to be dragged along by negative emotions. This faulty thinking is called pathos in Stoicism.

The discipline of judgment makes us aware of our labels (impressions) and provides us with ways to correct our thinking. This will in turn balance out our emotions, so we’re more likely to experience Happiness; well-being.

How to make good judgments?

There are several ways to carve the way for good judgments but it boils down to radically changing our self-talk. It’s important to note that this is not a sudden change that will happen with a flash of insight. We need to return to these exercises every day.

I’ve written about journaling and meditation quite a bit already. These are systems to build habits that help cultivate strong thinking patterns. 

The trick is to become aware of your judgments and to then apply adequate thinking to your automatic self-talk. The more you do this, the better the quality of your actions.

Luckily there are fellow Stoics who help us with tools. As an example, I recently talked to Caleb Ontiveros, the creator of the Stoic meditation app named Stoa. Caleb has some great insights on how we form automatic judgments, and how meditation can help us become aware and correct them.

In the first guided meditation of his app, he focuses on the discipline of judgment. The exercise provides insights and guides us through mindfulness meditation. I highly recommend you listen to it (YouTube), but I’ve outlined the steps below so you get an idea what it's like:

  • Find a quiet place where you can sit for about 10 minutes.
  • Be aware of your posture, sit up straight.
  • Set a purpose. Why are you doing this?
  • Set expectations for this session. Know that meditation can be difficult. Think of past meditation sessions and be aware of the challenges you can experience.
  • Prepare for adversity. Think of potential distractions and realize there will be thoughts running through your head. Remind yourself to return to the focus of attention (your breath).
  • Commit to finishing the practice. You’ve purposefully decided to meditate, so follow through to the end.
  • When sensations or thoughts occur, notice them and return to the point of focus. Don’t judge any of them, just observe.

Through mindfulness meditation, you create a space between external inputs and your response to them. This is exactly what Viktor Frankl referred to:

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Once you become aware of automatic value judgments, it’s time to remove their power. In this regard, I like Chris Fisher’s exercise that he based on Epictetus’ words in Discourses 2.18: “Stop it, strip it, see it.”

The longer version is: 

Step 1: Stop the impression when you become aware of it.
Put up a roadblock and inspect it. What labels are you attaching to the event?

Step 2: Strip all labels.
What's actually happening? Someone cut you off. That’s what happened. You’re not in danger, the event has passed. You feel you’re in danger because you’re telling yourself that’s the case.

Step 3: See the situation from a cosmic perspective.
Why feel anger at the other driver? How's that going to help? Who knows what's up with him. Maybe he’s on the way to the hospital because a loved one had an accident. Maybe he was just in deep thought because of a mean manager at work. You don’t know, but it’s not personal. Show some compassion, you’re not perfect either.

Listen to this exercise on Chris' podcast episode about the discipline of judgement.

Your turn

The stories we tell ourselves matter. They can bring us bliss, or bring us to the deepest parts of mental hell. What sucks is that most people are not even aware of this self-talk.

Being able to think straight is easier said than done. It takes daily work. In this article, I’ve outlined two ways to do this, but there are many more. Let me know in the comments or by email what has helped you. Practical Stoicism is all about documenting these thinking models.

Understanding and reasoning with ourselves are essential for well-being. But apart from being rational, we’re also social animals. No man is an island, so we need to interact with reality and with others.

Having a cosmic perspective is needed to flourish. Not every modern Stoic is into this, but I think we cannot leave Stoic physics out of Stoicism. By understanding how our universe is a web of cause and effect, and where we fit in as humans, we gain focus in our thinking and our actions. This will be the subject of the next article.

For now, keep kicking ass and get to know yourself.

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Ramses Rudolph

As a teacher by training and being a practical philosopher, I'm interested in ancient European and Eastern philosophy. Having studied Zen Buddhism for years, I combine other wisdom philosophies with Stoicism.

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