What Are The Three Stoic Disciplines?

This short explainer will provide you with a straightforward understanding of what the three Stoic disciplines are and how you can use them to guide your Stoic practice.

Definition Of The Three Stoic Disciplines

The three Stoic disciplines, according to Stoic philosopher Epictetus, are what the aspiring Stoic must practise to live fully according to Nature.

They are as follows:

  • The Discipline of Desire. Otherwise thought of as Stoic Acceptance, the discipline of desire guides us on what we should want, what we should avoid, and generally what we should spend our time on. It is closely aligned with the Stoic virtues of Courage and Moderation.
  • The Discipline of Action. Otherwise thought of as Stoic Philanthropy, the discipline of action guides us on how to live in harmony with other people. It is closely aligned with the Stoic virtue of Justice.
  • The Discipline of Assent. Otherwise thought of as Stoic Mindfulness, the discipline of assent guides us on how to make good judgements about what happens to us. It is closely aligned with the Stoic virtue of Wisdom.

* Stoic Acceptance, Stoic Philanthropy, and Stoic Mindfulness terms courtesy of Pierre Hadot/Donald Robertson.

What the Stoics Said

The three disciplines come to us directly from book three of Epictetus’s Discourses (2.1-5):

There are three fields of study in which the man who is going to be good and excellent must first have been trained.

The first has to do with desires and aversions, that he may never fail to get what he desires, nor fall into what he avoids; the second with cases of choice and of refusal, and, in general, with duty, that he may act in an orderly fashion, upon good reasons, and not carelessly; the third with the avoidance of error and rashness in judgement, and, in general, about cases of assent.

Among these the most important and especially pressing is that which has to do with the stronger emotions; for a strong emotion does not arise except a desire fails to attain its object, or an aversion falls into what it would avoid. This is the field of study which introduces to us confusions, tumults, misfortunes and calamities; and sorrows, lamentations, envies; and makes us envious and jealous—passions which make it impossible for us even to listen to reason.

The second field of study deals with duty; for I ought not to be unfeeling like a statue, but should maintain my relations, both natural and acquired, as a religious man, as a son, a brother, a father, a citizen.

The third belongs only to those who are already making progress; it has to do with the element of certainty in the matters which have just been mentioned, so that even in dreams, or drunkenness, or a state of melancholy-madness, a man may not be taken unawares by the appearance of an untested sense-impression.

How Can I Use The Three Stoic Disciplines Right Now?

To use Epictetus’s words, the three disciplines are “fields of study”. It’s difficult, therefore, to offer an immediate implementation in the form of a single exercise. Instead I will categorise some key practical concepts and techniques of Stoicism to give an idea of how one might go about training in the disciplines.

The Discipline of Desire (Stoic Acceptance)

These posts contain practical exercises to help you separate what you can and can’t control, accept Fate, and gain perspective on what is worth spending time on.

The Discipline of Action (Stoic Philanthropy)

These posts contain practical exercises to help you understand the Stoic virtues, determine what true goodness is, and use these guidelines when dealing with other people.

The Discipline of Assent (Stoic Mindfulness)

These posts contain practical exercises to help you use your capacity for reason, reassess your value-judgements, and positively change your way of thinking.

The Three Stoic Disciplines