I would now like to turn to the various techniques of the parrhesiastic games which can be found in the philosophical and moral literature of the first two centuries of our era. Of course, I do not plan to enumerate or discuss all of the important practices that can be found in the writings of this period. To begin with, I would like to make three preliminary remarks.
First, I think that these techniques manifest a very interesting and important shift from that truth game which — in the classical Greek conception of parrhesia — was constituted by the fact that someone was courageous enough to tell the truth to other people. For there is a shift from that kind of parrhesiastic game to another truth game which now consists in being courageous enough to disclose the truth about oneself.
Secondly, this new kind of parrhesiastic game — where the problem is to confront the truth about yourself — requires what the Greeks called “askesis”. Although our word “asceticism” derives from the Greek word “askesis” (since the meaning of the word changes as it becomes associated with various Christian practices), for the Greeks the word does not mean “ascetic”, but has a very broad sense denoting any kind of practical training or exercise. For example, it was a commonplace to say that any kind of art or technique had to be learned by mathesis and askesis — by theoretical knowledge and practical training. And, for instance, when Musonius Rufus says that the art of living, techne tou biou, is like the other arts, i.e., an art which one could not learn only through theoretical teachings, he is repeating a traditional doctrine. This techne tou biou, this art of living, demands practice and training: askesis. But the Greek conception of askesis differs from Christian ascetic practices in at least two ways: (1) Christian asceticism has its ultimate aim or target the renunciation of the self, whereas the moral askesis of the Greco-Roman philosophies has as its goal the establishment of a specific relationship to oneself — a relationship of self possession and self-sovereignty; (2) Christian asceticism takes as its principle theme detachment from the world, whereas the ascetic practices of the Greco-Roman philosophies are generally concerned with endowing the individual with the preparation and the moral equipment that will permit him to fully confront the world in an ethical and rational manner.
Thirdly, these ascetic practices implied numerous different kinds of specific exercises; but they were never specifically catalogued, analyzed, or described. Some of them were discussed and criticized, but most of them were well-known. Since most people recognized them, they were usually used without any precise theory about the exercise. And indeed, often when someone now reads these Greek and Latin authors as they discuss such exercises in the context of specific theoretical topics (such as time, death, the world, life, necessity, etc.), he or she gets a mistaken conception about them. For these topics usually function only as a schema or matrix for the spiritual exercise. In fact, most of these texts written in late antiquity about ethics are not at all concerned with advancing a theory about the foundations of ethics, but are practical books containing specific recipes and exercises one had to read, to reread, to meditate upon, to learn, in order to construct a lasting matrix for one’s own behavior.
I now turn to the kinds of exercises where someone had to examine the truth about himself, and tell this truth to someone else.
Most of the time when we refer to such exercises, we speak of practices involving the “examination of conscience.” But I think that the expression “examination of conscience” as a blanket term meant to characterize all these different exercises misleads and oversimplifies. For we have to define very precisely the different truth games which have been put into work and applied in these practices of the Greco-Roman tradition.
I would like to analyze five of these truth games commonly described as “examinations of conscience” in order to show you (1) how some of the exercises differ from one another; (2) what aspects of the mind , feelings, behavior, etc., were considered in these different exercises; and (3) that these exercises, despite their differences, implied a relation between truth and the self which is very different from what we find in the Christian tradition.
Seneca and evening examination
The first text I would like to analyze comes from Seneca’s De ira [“On Anger”]
All our senses ought to be trained to endurance. They are naturally long-suffering, if only the mind desists from weakening them. This should be summoned to give an account of itself every day. Sextius had this habit, and when the day was over and he had retired to his nightly rest, he would put these questions to his soul: “What bad habit have you cured today? What fault have you resisted? In what respects are you better?” Anger will cease and become controllable if it finds that it must appear before a judge every day. Can anything be more excellent that this practice of thoroughly sifting the whole day? And how delightful the sleep that follows this self-examination–how tranquil it is, how deep and untroubled, when the soul has either praised or admonished itself, and when this secret examiner and critic of self has given report of its own character! I avail myself of this privilege, and every day I plead my cause before the bar of self. When the light has been removed from sight, and my wife, long aware of my habit, has become silent, I scan the whole of my day and retrace all my deeds and words.
I conceal nothing from myself, I omit nothing. For why should I shrink from any of my mistakes, when I may commune thus with my self? “See what you never do that again; I will pardon you this time. In that dispute you spoke too offensively; after this don’t have encounters with ignorant people; those who have never learned do not want to learn. You reproved that man more frankly than you ought, and consequently you have not so much mended him as offended him. In the future, consider not only the truth of what you say, but also whether the man to whom you are speaking can endure the truth. A good man accepts reproof gladly; the worse a man is the more bitterly he resents it”
We know from several sources that this kind of exercise was a daily requirement, or at least a habit, in the Pythagorean tradition. Before they went to sleep, the Pythagoreans had to perform this kind of examination, recollecting the faults they had committed during the day. Such faults consisted in those sorts of behavior which transgressed the very strict rules of the Pythagorean Schools. And the purpose of this examination, at least in the Pythagorean tradition, was to purify the soul.
Such purification was believed necessary since the Pythagoreans considered sleep to be a state of being whereby the soul could get in contact with the divinity through dream. And, of course, one had to keep one’s soul as pure as possible both to have beautiful dreams, and also to came into contact with benevolent deities. In this text of Seneca’s we can clearly see that this Pythagorean tradition survives in the exercise he describes (as it also does later on in similar practices utilized by the Christians) .The idea of employing sleep and dream as a possible means of apprehending the divine can also be found in Plato’s Republic [Book IX, 57le-572b] . Seneca tells us that by means of this exercise we are able to procure good and delightful sleep:
“How delightful the sleep that follows this examination — how tranquil it is, how deep and untroubled. “
And we know from Seneca himself that under his teacher, Sotio, his first training was partly Pythagorean. Seneca relates this practice, however, not to Pythagorean custom, but to Quintus Sextius — who was one of the advocates of Stoicism in Rome at the end of the First Century B. C. And it seems that this exercise, despite its purely Pythagorean origin, was utilized and praised by several philosophical sects and schools: the Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics, and others. There are references in Epictetus, for example, to this kind of exercise. And it would be useless to deny that Seneca’s self-examination is similar to the kinds of ascetic practices used for centuries in the Christian tradition. But if we look at the text more closely, I think we can see some interesting differences.
First, there is the question of Seneca’s attitude towards himself. What kind of operation is Seneca actually performing in this exercise? What is the practical matrix he uses and applies in relation to himself? At first glance, it seems to be a judiciary practice which is close to the Christian confessional: there are thoughts, these thoughts are confessed, there is an accused (namely, Seneca) , there is an accuser or prosecutor (who is also Seneca), there is a judge (also Seneca), and it seems that there is a verdict. The entire scene seems to be judiciary; and Seneca employs typical judiciary expressions (“appear before a judge”, “plead my cause before the bar of self”, etc.) . Closer scrutiny shows, however, that it is a question of something different from the court, or from judicial procedure. For instance, Seneca says that he is an “examiner” of himself [speculator sui] . The word “speculator” means that he is an “examiner” or “ inspector” — typically someone who inspects the freight on a ship, or the work being done by builders constructing a house, etc. Seneca also says “ totum diem meum scrutor”— “I examine, inspect, the whole of my day. “ “ Here the verb “scrutor” belongs, not to judicial vocabulary, but to the vocabulary of administration. Seneca states further on: “factaque ac dicta mea remetior”— “and I retrace, recount, all my deeds and words”. The verb “remetiri” is, again, a technical term used in bookkeeping, and which has the sense of checking whether there is any kind of miscalculation or error in the accounts. So Seneca is not exactly a judge passing sentence upon himself. He is much more of an administrator who, once the work is finished, or when the year’s business is completed, now draws up the accounts, takes stock of things, and sees whether everything has been done correctly. It is more of an administrative scene than a judiciary one.
And if we turn to the faults that Seneca retraces, and which he gives as examples in this examination, we can see that they are not the sort of faults we would call “sins”. He does not confess, for example, that he drinks too much, or has committed financial fraud, or has bad feelings for someone else — faults Seneca was very familiar with as one of Nero’s ring. He reproaches himself for very different things. He has criticized someone, but instead of his criticism helping the man, it has hurt him. Or he criticizes himself for being disgusted by people who were, in any case, incapable of understanding him. Behaving in such fashion, he commits “mistakes” [errores] ; but these mistakes are only inefficient actions requiring adjustments between ends and means. He criticizes himself for not keeping the aim of his actions in mind, for not seeing that it is useless to blame someone if the criticism given will not improve things, and so on. The point of the fault concerns a practical error in his behavior since he was unable to establish an effective rational relation between the principles of conduct he knows, and the behavior he actually engaged in. Seneca’s faults are not transgressions of a code or law. They express, rather, occasions where his attempt to coordinate rules of behavior (rules he already accepts, recognizes, and knows) with his own actual behavior in a specific situation has proven to be unsuccessful or inefficient.
Seneca also does not react to his own errors as if they were sins. He does not punish himself; there is nothing like penance. The retracing of his mistakes has as its object the reactivation of practical rules of behavior which, now reinforced, may be useful for future occasions. He thus tells himself : “See that you never do that again;” “Don’t have encounters with ignorant people;” “In the future, consider not only the truth of what you say, but also whether the man to whom you are speaking can endure the truth;” and so on. Seneca does not analyze his responsibility or feelings of guilt; it is not, for him, a question of purifying himself of these faults. Rather, he engages in a kind of administrative scrutiny which enables him to reactivate various rules and maxim in order to make them more vivid, permanent, and effective for future behavior.
Serenus and general self-scrutiny
The second text I would like to discuss comes from Seneca’s De tranquillitate animi [“On the Tranquillity of Mind”]. The De tranquillitate animi is one of a number of texts written about a theme we have already encountered, viz., the constancy or steadiness of mind. To put it very briefly, the latin word “tranquillitas” denotes stability of soul or mind. It is a state where the mind is independent of any kind of external event, and is free as well from any internal excitation or agitation that could induce an involuntary movement of mind. Thus it denotes stability, self-sovereignty, and independence. But “tranquillitas” also refers to a certain feeling of pleasurable calm which has its source, its principle, in this self-sovereignty or self-possession of the self.
At the beginning of the De tranquillitate animi, Annaeus Serenus asks Seneca for a consultation. Serenus is a young friend of Seneca’s who belonged to the same family, and who started his political career under Nero as Nero’s nightwatchman. For both Seneca and Serenus there is no incompatibility between philosophy and a political career since a philosophical life is not merely an alternative to a political life. Rather, philosophy must accompany a political life in order to provide a moral framework for public activity. Serenus, who was initially an Epicurean, later turned towards Stoicism. But even after he became a Stoic, he felt uncomfortable; for he had the impression that he was not able to improve himself, that he had reached a dead end, and was unable to make any progress. I should note that for the Old Stoa, for Zeno of Citium, for example, when a person knew the doctrines of the Stoic philosophy he did not really need to progress anymore, for he has thereby succeeded in becoming a Stoic. What is interesting here is the idea of progress occurring as a new development in the evolution of Stoicism. Serenus knows the Stoic doctrine and its practical rules, but still lacks tranquillitas. And it is in this state of unrest that he turns to Seneca and asks him for help. Of course, we cannot be sure that this depiction of Serenus’ state reflects his real historical situation; we can only be reasonably sure that Seneca wrote this text. But the text is supposed to be a letter written to Serenus incorporating the latter’s request for moral advice. And it exhibits a model or pattern for a type of self-examination.
Serenus examines what he is or what he has accomplished at the moment when he requests this consultation:
SERENUS: When I made examination of myself, it became evident, Seneca, that some of my vices are uncovered and displayed so openly that I can put my hand upon them, some are more hidden and lurk in a corner, some are not always present but recur at intervals; and I should say that the last are by far the most troublesome, being like roving enemies that spring upon one when the opportunity offers, and allow one neither to be ready as in war, nor to be off guard as in peace.
Nevertheless the state in which I find myself most of all — for why should I not admit the truth to you as to a physician? — is that I have neither been honestly set free from the things I hated and feared, nor, on the other hand, am I in bondage to them; while the condition in which I am placed is not the worst, yet I am complaining and fretful — I am neither sick nor well.
As you can see, Serenus’ request takes the form of a “medical” consultation of his own spiritual state. For he says, “why should I not admit the truth to you as to a physician?”; “I am neither sick nor well;” and so on. These expressions are clearly related to the well-known metaphorical identification of moral discomfort with physical illness. And what is also important to underline here is that in order for Serenus to be cured of his illness, he first needs to “admit the truth” [verum fatear] to Seneca. But what are the truths that Serenus must “confess”? We shall see that he discloses no secret faults, no shameful desires, nothing like that. It is something entirely different from a Christian confession. And this “confession” can be divided into two parts. First, there is Serenus’ very general exposé about himself; and secondly, there is an exposé of his attitude in different fields of activity in his life.
The general exposé about his condition is the following:
There is no need for you to say that all the virtues are weakly at the beginning, that firmness and strength are added by time. I am well aware also that the virtues that struggle for outward show, I mean for position and the fame of eloquence and all that comes under the verdict of others, do grow stronger as time passes —both those that provide real strength and those that trick us out with a sort of dye with a view to pleasing, must wait long years until gradually length of time develops color— but I greatly fear that habit, which brings stability to most things, may cause this fault of mine to become more deeply implanted. Of things evil as well as good long intercourse induces love.
The nature of this weakness of mind that halts between two things and inclines strongly neither to the right nor to the wrong, I cannot show you so well all at once as a part at a time; I shall tell you what befalls me -you will find a name for my malady.
Serenus tells us that the truth about himself that he will now expose is descriptive of the malady he suffers from. And from these general remarks and other indications he gives later on, we can see that this malady is compared throughout to the seasickness caused by being aboard a boat which no longer advances, but rolls and pitches at sea. Serenus is afraid of remaining at sea in this condition, in full view of the dry land which remains inaccessible to him. The organization of the themes Serenus describes, with its implicit and, as we shall see, its explicit metaphorical reference to being at sea, involves the traditional association in moral — political philosophy of medicine and piloting a boat or navigation — which we have already seen. Here we also have the same three elements: a moral-philosophical problem, reference to medicine, and reference to piloting. Serenus is on the way towards acquiring the truth like a ship at sea in sight of dry land. But because he lacks complete self-possession or self-mastery, he has the feeling that he cannot advance. Perhaps because he is too weak, perhaps his course is not a good one. He does not know exactly what is the reason for his waverings, but he characterizes his malaise as a kind of perpetual vacillating motion which has no other movement than “rocking”. The boat cannot advance because it is rocking. So Serenus’ problem is: how can he replace this wavering motion of rocking — which is due to the instability, the unsteadiness of his mind — with a steady linear movement that will take him to the coast and to the firm earth? It is a problem of dynamics, but very different from the Freudian dynamics of an unconscious conflict between two psychic forces. Here we have an oscillating motion of rocking which prevents the movement of the mind from advancing towards the truth, towards steadiness, towards the ground. And now we have to see how this metaphorical dynamic grid organizes Serenus’ description of himself in the following long quotation:
(1) I am possessed by the very greatest love of frugality, I must confess; I do not like a couch made up for display, nor clothing, brought forth from a chest or pressed by weights and a thousand mangles to make it glossy, but homely and cheap, that is neither preserved nor to be put on with anxious care; the food that I like is neither prepared nor watched by a household of slaves, it does not need to be ordered many days before nor to be served by many hands, but is easy to get and abundant; there is nothing far-fetched or costly about it, nowhere will there be any lack of it, it is burdensome neither to the purse nor to the body, nor will it return by the way it entered; the servant that I like is a young home-born slave without training or skill; the silver is my country — bred father’s heavy plate bearing no stamp of the maker’s name, and the table is not notable for the variety of its markings or known to the town from the many fashionable owners through whose hands it has passed, but one that stands for use, and will neither cause the eyes of any guest to linger upon it with pleasure nor fire them with envy. Then, after all these things have had my full approval, my mind [animus] is dazzled by the magnificence of some training schools for pages, by the sight of slaves bedecked with gold and more carefully arrayed than the leaders of a public procession, and a whole regiment of glittering attendants; by the sight of a house where one even treads on precious stones and riches are scattered about in every corner, where the very roofs glitter, and the whole town pays court and escorts an inheritance on the road to ruin. And what shall I say of the waters, transparent to the bottom, that flow around the guests even as they banquet, what of the feasts that are worthy of their setting? Coming from a long abandonment to thrift, luxury has poured around me the wealth of its splendor, and echoed around me on every side. My sight falters a little, for I can lift up my heart towards it more easily than my eyes. And so I come back, not worse, but sadder, and I do not walk among my paltry possessions with head erect as before, and there enters a secret sting and the doubt whether the other life is not better. None of these things changes me, yet none of them fails to disturb me.
(2) I resolve to obey the commands of my teachers and plunge into the midst of public life; I resolve to try to gain office and the consulship, attracted of course, not by the purple or by the lictor’s rods, but by the desire to be more serviceable and useful to my friends and relatives and all my countrymen and then to all mankind. Ready and determined, I follow Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus, of whom none the less not one failed to urge others to do so. And then, whenever something upsets my mind, which is unused to meeting shocks, whenever something happens that is either unworthy of me, and many such occur in the lives of all human beings, or that does not proceed very easily, or when things that are not to be accounted of great value demand much of my time, I turn back to my leisure, and just as wearied flocks too do, I quicken my pace towards home. I resolve to confine my life within its own walls: “Let no one,” I say, “who will make me no worthy return for such a loss rob me of a single day; let my mind be fixed upon itself, let it cultivate itself, let it busy itself with nothing outside, nothing that looks towards an umpire; let it love the tranquillity that is remote from public and private concern.” But when my mind [animus] has been aroused by reading of great bravery, and noble examples have applied the spur, I want to rush into the forum, to lend my voice to one man; to offer such assistance to another as, even if it will not help, will be an effort to help; or to check the pride of someone in the forum who has been unfortunately puffed up by his successes.
(3) And in my literary studies I think that it is surely better to fix my eyes on the theme itself, and, keeping this uppermost when I speak, to trust meanwhile to the theme to supply the words so that unstudied language may follow it wherever it leads. I say: “What need is there to compose something that will last for centuries? Will you not give up striving to keep posterity silent about you? You were born for death; a silent funeral is less troublesome! And so to pass the time, write something in simple style, for your own use, not for publication; they that study for the day have less need to labour.” Then again, when my mind has been uplifted by the greatness of its thoughts, it becomes ambitious of words, and with higher aspirations it desires higher expression, and language issues forth to match the dignity of the theme; forgetful then of my rule and of my more restrained judgement, I am swept to loftier heights by an utterance that is no longer my own.
Not to indulge longer in details, I am all things attended by this weakness of good intention. In fact I fear that I am gradually losing ground, or, what causes me even more worry, that I am hanging like one who is always on the verge of falling, and that perhaps I am in a more serious condition than I myself perceive; for we take a favorable view of our private matters, and partiality always hampers our judgment. I fancy that many men would have arrived at wisdom if they had not fancied that they had already arrived, if they had not dissembled about certain traits in their character and passed by others with their eyes shut. For there is no reason for you to suppose that the adulation of other people is more ruinous to us than our own. Who dares to tell himself the truth? Who, though he is surrounded by a horde of applauding sycophants, is not for all that his own greatest flatterer? I beg you, therefore, if you have any remedy by which you could stop this fluctuation of mine, to deem me worthy of being indebted to you for tranquillity. I know that these mental disturbances of mine are not dangerous and give no promise of a storm; to express what I complain of in apt metaphor, I am distressed, not by a tempest, but by sea-sickness. Do you, then, take from me this trouble, whatever it be, and rush to the rescue of one who is struggling in full sight of land.
At first glance, Serenus’ long description appears to be an accumulation of relatively unimportant details about his likes and dislikes, descriptions of trifles such as his father’s heavy plates, how he likes his food, and so on. And it also seem to be in a great disorder, a mess of details. But behind this apparent disorder you can easily discern the real organization of the text. There are three basic parts to the discourse. The first part, the beginning of the quote, is devoted to Serenus’ relation to wealth, possessions, his domestic and private life. The second part — which begins “I resolve to obey the commands of my teachers. . .” — this paragraph deals with Serenus’ relation to public life and his political character. And the third part — which starts at “And in my literary studies… “ — Serenus speaks of his literary activity, the type of language he prefers to employ, and so on. But he can also recognize here the relation between death and immortality, or the question of an enduring life in people’s memories after death. So the three themes treated in these paragraphs are (1) private or domestic life; (2) public life; and (3) immortality or afterlife.
In the first part Serenus explains what he is willing to do, and what he likes to do. He thereby also shows what he considers unimportant and to which he is indifferent. And all these descriptions show Serenus’ positive image and character. He does not have great material needs in his domestic life, for he is not attached to luxury. In the second paragraph he says he is not enslaved by ambition, he does not want a great political career, but to be of service to others. And in the third paragraph he states that he is not seduced by high-flown rhetoric, but prefers instead to adhere to useful speech. You can see that in this way Serenus draws up a balance sheet of his choices, of his freedom, and the result is not bad at all. Indeed, it is quite positive. Serenus is attached to what is natural, to what is necessary, to what is useful (either for himself or his friends), and is usually indifferent to the rest. Regarding these three fields (private life, public life, and afterlife), well, all tolled, Serenus is rather a good fellow. And his account also shows us the precise topic of his examination, which is: what are the things that are important to me, and what are the things to which I am indifferent? And he considers important things which really are important.
But each of the three paragraphs is also divided into two parts. After Serenus explains the importance or indifference he attributes to things, there is a transitional moment when he begins to make an objection to himself, when his mind begins to waver. These transitional moments are marked by his use of the word “animus”. Regarding the three topics already noted, Serenus explains that despite the fact that he makes good choices, that he disregards unimportant things, he nonetheless feels that his mind, his animus, is involuntarily moved. And as a result, although he is not exactly inclined to behave in an opposite fashion, he is still dazzled or aroused by the things he previously thought unimportant. These involuntary feelings are indications, he believes, that his animus is not completely tranquil or stable, and this motivates his request for a consultation. Serenus knows the theoretical principles and practical rules of Stoicism, is usually able to put them into operation, yet he still feels that these rules are not a permanent matrix for his behavior, his feelings, and his thoughts. Serenus’ instability does not derive from his “sins,” or from the fact that he exists as a temporal being — as in Augustine, for example. It stems from the fact that he has not yet succeeded in harmonizing his actions and thoughts with the ethical structure he has chosen for himself. It is as if Serenus were a good pilot, he knows how to sail, there is no storm on the horizon, yet he is stuck at sea and cannot reach the solid earth because he does not possess the tranquillitas, the firmitas, which comes from complete self-sovereignty. And Seneca’s reply to this self-examination and moral request is an exploration of the nature of this stability of mind.
Epictetus and the Control of Representations
A third text, which also shows some of the differences in the truth games involved in these self-examination exercises, comes from the Discourses of Epictetus -where I think you can find a third type of exercise quite different from the previous ones. There are numerous types of self-examination techniques and practices in Epictetus, some of them resembling both the evening examinations of Sextius and the general self-scrutiny of Serenus. But there is one form of examination which, I think, is very characteristic of Epictetus, and which takes the form of a constant putting on trial of all our representations.
This technique is also related to the demand for stability; for given the constant stream of representations which flow into the mind, Epictetus’ problem consists in knowing how to distinguish those representations that he can control from those that he cannot control, that incite involuntary emotions, feelings, behavior, etc., and which must therefore be excluded from his mind. Epictetus’ solution is that we must adopt an attitude of permanent surveillance with regard to all our representations, and he explains this attitude by employing two metaphors: the metaphor of the nightwatchman or doorkeeper who does not admit anyone into his house or palace without first checking his identity; and the metaphor of the “money-changer” who, when a coin is very difficult to read, verifies the authenticity of the currency, examines it, weighs it, verifies the metal and effigy, and so on.
The third topic has to do with cases of assent; it is concerned with the things that are plausible and attractive. For, just as Socrates used to tell us not to live a life unsubjected to examination, so we ought not to accept a sense-impression unsubjected to examination, but should say, “Wait, allow me to see who you are and whence you come” (just as the night-watch say, “Show me your tokens”). “Do you have your token from nature, the ones which every sense-impression which is to be accepted must have?”
These two metaphors are also found in early Christian texts. Johannes Cassian [A.D.360-435], for example, asked his monks to scrutinize and test their own representations like a doorkeeper or a money-changer. In the case of Christian self-examination, the monitoring of representations has the specific intention of determining whether, under an apparently innocent guise, the devil himself is not hiding. For in order not to be trapped by what only seems to be innocent, in order to avoid the devil’s counterfeit coins, the Christian must determine where his thoughts and sense-impressions come from, and what relation actually exists between a representation’s apparent and real value. For Epictetus, however, the problem is not to determine the source of the impression (God or Satan) so as to judge whether it conceals something or not; his problem is rather to determine whether the impression represents something which depends upon him or not, i.e., whether it is accessible or not to his will. Its purpose is not to dispel the devil’s illusions, but to guarantee self-mastery.
To foster mistrust of our representations, Epictetus proposes two kinds of exercises. One form is borrowed directly from the Sophists. And in this classical game of the sophistic schools, one of the students asked a question and another student had to answer it without falling into the sophistic trap. An elementary example of this sophistic game is this one: Question: “Can a chariot go through a mouth?” Answer: “Yes. You yourself said the word “chariot”, and it went through your mouth.” Epictetus criticized such exercises as unhelpful, and proposed another for the purpose of moral training. In this game there are also two partners. One of the partners states a fact, an event, and the other has to answer, as quickly as possible, whether this fact or event is good or evil, i.e., is within or beyond our control. We can see this exercise, for example, in the following text:
As we exercise ourselves to meet the sophistical interrogations, so we ought also to exercise ourselves daily to meet the impression of our senses, because these too put interrogations to us. So-and-so’s son is dead. Answer, “That lies outside the sphere of the moral purpose, it is not an evil.” His father has disinherited So-and-so; what do you think of it? That lies outside the sphere of the moral purpose, it is not an evil. “ Caesar has condemned him. “That lies outside the sphere of the moral purpose, it is not an evil.” He was grieved at all this. “That lies within the sphere of the moral purpose, it is an evil. “ He has borne up under it manfully. “That lies within the sphere of the moral purpose, it is a good.” Now if we acquire this habit, we shall make progress; for we shall never give our assent to anything but that of which we get a convincing sense-impression.
There is another exercise Epictetus describes which has the same object, but the form is closer to those employed later in the Christian tradition. It consists in walking through the streets of the city and asking yourself whether any representation that happens to come to your mind depends upon your will or not. If it does not lie within the province of moral purpose and will, then it must be rejected:
Go out of the house at early dawn, and no matter whom you see or whom you hear, examine him and then answer as you would to a question. What did you see? A handsome man or a handsome woman? Apply your rule. Is it outside the province of the moral purpose, or inside? Outside. Away with it. What did you see? A man in grief over the death of his child? Apply your rule. Death lies outside the province of the moral purpose. Out of the way with it. Did a Consul meet you? Apply your rule. What sort of thing is a consulship? Outside the province of the moral purpose, or inside? Outside. Away with it, too, it does not meet the test; throw it away, it does not concern you. If we had kept doing this and had exercised ourselves from dawn till dark with this principle in mind —by the gods, something would have been achieved !
As you can see, Epictetus wants us to constitute a world of representations where nothing can intrude which is not subject to the sovereignty of our will. So, again, self-sovereignty is the organizing principle of this form of self-examination.
I would have liked to have analyzed two more texts from Marcus Aurelius, but given the hour, I have no time left for this. So I would now like to turn to my conclusions.
Conclusion of Techniques of Parrhesia
In reading these texts about self-examination and underlining the differences between them, I wanted to show you, first, that there is a noticeable shift in the parrhesiastic practices between the “master” and the “disciple”. Previously, when parrhesia appeared in the context of spiritual guidance, the master was the one who disclosed the truth about the disciple. In these exercises, the master still uses frankness of speech with the disciple in order to help him became aware of the faults he cannot see (Seneca uses parrhesia towards Serenus, Epictetus uses parrhesia towards his disciples) ; but now the use of parrhesia is put increasingly upon the disciple as his own duty towards himself. At this point the truth about the disciple is not disclosed solely through the parrhesiastic discourse of the master, or only in the dialogue between the master and the disciple or interlocutor. The truth about the disciple emerges from a personal relation which he establishes with himself; and this truth can now be disclosed either to himself (as in the first example from Seneca) or to someone else (as in the second example from Seneca) . And the disciple must also test himself, and check to see whether he is able to achieve self-mastery (as in the examples from Epictetus) .
Secondly, it is not sufficient to analyze this personal relation of self-understanding as merely deriving from the general principle “gnothi seauton”— “know thyself”. Of course, in a certain general sense it can be derived from this principle, but we cannot stop at this point. For the various relationships which one has to oneself are embedded in very precise techniques which take the form of spiritual exercises — some of them dealing with deeds, others with states of equilibrium of the soul, others with the flow of representations, and so on.
Third point. In all these different exercises, what is at stake is not the disclosure of a secret which has to excavated from out of the depths of the soul. What is at stake is the relation of the self to truth or to some rational principles. Recall that the question which motivated Seneca’s evening self- examination was: “Did I bring into play those principles of behavior I know very well, but, as it sometimes happens, I do not always conform to or always apply? Another question was: “Am I able to adhere to the principles I am familiar with, I agree with, and which I practice most of the time? “ For that was Serenus’ question. Or the question Epictetus raised in the exercises I was just discussing: “Am I able to react to any kind of representation which shows itself to me in conformity with my adopted rational rules? What we have to underline here is this: if the truth of the self in these exercises is nothing other than the relation of the self to truth, then this truth is not purely theoretical. The truth of the self involves, on the one hand, a set of rational principles which are grounded in general statements about the world, human life, necessity, happiness, freedom, and so on, and, on the other hand, practical rules for behavior. And the question which is raised in these different exercises is oriented towards the following problem: Are we familiar enough with these rational principles? Are they sufficiently well-established in our minds to become practical rules for our everyday behavior? And the problem of memory is at the heart of these techniques, but in the form of an attempt to remind ourselves of what we have done, thought, or felt so that we may reactivate our rational principles, thus making them as permanent and as effective as possible in our life.
These exercises are part of what we could call an “aesthetics of the self. “ For one does not have to take up a position or role towards oneself as that of a judge pronouncing a verdict. One can comport oneself towards oneself in the role of a technician, of a craftsman, of an artist, who -from time to time- stops working, examines what he is doing, reminds himself of the rule of his art, and compares these rules with what he has achieved thus far. This metaphor of the artist who stops working, steps back, gains a distant perspective, and examines what he is actually doing with the principles of his art can be found in Plutarch’s essay, “On the Control of Anger“.