Discipline of Assent

What really matters is not the event itself, but instead how you think about the event. Your mind is your most powerful tool, but often it is also the reason of your troubles.

The discipline of assent is all about thinking the right thoughts and using reason to guide you.

Your mind can fail you at many important points. Let’s illustrate this with a few examples.

Imagine that you are riding a bike and a car drives dangerously close to you, almost hitting you.

Your instincts take over and you swerve hard in order to avoid a collision. What often happens in an incident like this is that you will start cussing out the driver, making rude gestures and lose your cool.

There are emotions at play here at different points. First, your emotions alerted you to danger and you reacted quick in order to avoid it.

This is the correct use of emotions. However what happened next right after you managed to avoid the accident is that other emotions took over and made you angry.

This is the incorrect use of emotions. Think about it. What is the use of being angry at this point?

The danger to your life is passed. The only thing that you are doing is venting your frustration, which not only serves no purpose, but could even be counterproductive as it makes you more agitated and more prone to an accident.

Instead what you should have done is assented to the first emotion that saved your life, but not assented to the second one.

Imagine another common situation. You are having an argument. Your opponent hits you with some facts which destroy your argument. His position is correct. Yours isn’t.

However instead of reconsidering your position based on these new facts, you just start repeating your illogical talking points louder and louder.

What is happening here is that you have fallen for a cognitive bias. Your ego is at stake and instead of acknowledging the validity of the other side’s arguments, you fear a loss of status on your side and instead buckle down and start wailing about incessantly.

Thinking according to Nature

For the Stoics, the biggest part of living according to Nature was using your head. You need to be able to rise above your imperfections and instead use your ability to reason.

According to current research, there are two ways of thinking that humans engage in. Daniel Kahnemann, psychologist and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, calls this System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast and intuitive. It is based on your emotions. System 2 is slow and deliberate. It is based on reason.

Both have their place. System 1 is good for situations which require an immediate action, such as in dangerous situations as given in the first example.

However, this type of thinking is often hijacked and can lead to cognitive biases.

What you should do instead is to take a step back and engage in System 2 thinking. Thinking out things rationally and critically. This can often lead to much better solutions and actions.

Take control of your emotions

However how do you do that? This is often very hard, since emotions have a way of creeping up on you.

When you feel your emotions are starting to get the best of you, you need to have a couple of techniques under your belt in order to regain control.

One of these is distancing.

There are two kinds of distancing: physical and mental.

For me, the best way to diffuse an emotionally charged situation is to just walk away. If you feel like you are getting into a heated argument, just walk out the door.

I have done that a few times, and immediately your head cools down and the emotions start fading.

However sometimes physical distancing is not feasible, so you will have to use some mental distancing techniques. This means stop and count to 10. Or stop and recite the alphabet in your head!

Be aware of your value judgments

A value judgment is your opinion of a particular situation. Usually people judge situations as being “good” or “bad” or any other type of adjectives.

Let’s go back to the bike situation above. Why did you get mad at the driver of that car that almost hit you?

Since you judged that situation as “bad”.

However is there really any advantage to making this judgment? No. This type of judgment is really irrelevant to the situation.

You cannot change the fact that a car almost hit you. That is a done thing. It happened. Get over it.

Think of it as a sunk cost. It shouldn’t affect your mood.

This is all about metacognition and being able to use your mind to think about what you are doing.

This doesn’t mean not to think about things, since as you know whenever someone tells you not to think of a white bear, the first thing you will think of is: a white bear!

Instead, go back to thinking about what you can affect and what you cannot. What is up to you and what isn’t?

If it is something that you have no control over, like a past event, there is no point for you to put a value judgement on it. Getting angry or sad will not change the event itself.

Another good technique is stripping down things to their first principles. This can be used when you are putting too much value into some things.

For example, some people value things like fancy food or cool clothes. However, if you think about it, what are they really? Fancy meat is just dead flesh of animals. All you need it for is to provide you with basic nutrients like protein, carbohydrates, and fats.

Cool clothes are just strands made out of some plants. The 5 dollar cotton t-shirt or the 70 dollar cotton t-shirt were both made in the same way. A cool logo doesn’t change that fact.

And what about things like gold or money? Gold are just a bunch of shiny stones, while money are just a bunch of paper. They have value only because humans gave them value.

The important thing to remember here is that your frame matters. How you frame things can have a huge impact on your overall outlook on the world.

Whether you think a glass is half-full or half-empty usually affects your actions. If your frame is a negative one, you need to reframe and adopt a more positive frame on things.

Emotions often follow beliefs and in turn influence your actions. Changing these underlying beliefs will affect your emotions and how you react to things and lead to changes in behavior.

Set up a good environment around you

It is easier not to fall for value judgments and emotions if you automate parts of your life. The environment around you affects how you think about things. That is why you need to set up the right environment.

One thing is to set up an environment that puts you in a good mood. Eliminating stresses and other negative things, can have a very positive effect on the rest of your life.

Another thing that you need to is to design your environment in such a way as to encourage positive choices.

For example, if you want to eat healthy, then fill your fridge with healthy foods. That way, if you get hungry and go look for food, the only food you will find is healthy food. This is based on the science of nudges. These are ways you arrange your environment in order to promote a certain type of behavior.

Set up routines in order to take actions automatically without thinking about them. If you want to start going to the gym regularly, set up a pre-gym routine. For example, I take my gym stuff to work, so when I am leaving work I take them with me. This sort of nudges me towards going to the gym instead of straight home.

This way you take out the emotions you are feeling at the moment out of the decision making. Maybe you are not feeling motivated that day, but if you have a routine, this does not have to affect whether you go to the gym or not. Automation helps you not to think about things.

Use reason

The most important aspect of living according to nature for the Stoics was using your reason. This means not falling for cognitive biases, logical fallacies and other such crap and instead using logic and facts to determine what you think and how you act.

Pierre Hadot in his study of the Stoics surmised that the Discipline of Assent was tied to the study of logic. In order to be able to use your brain and make decisions using reason, you need to be able to think logically.

Another thing that you need to do is to be aware of the fact that you fall for cognitive bias. You are human, so it is normal, but there are some techniques that you can use in order to lessen their impact on your decision making process.

Daniel Kahneman proposed a 12 point checklist meant to serve as a way to check: Checklist to help you avoid cognitive biases.

You can use the above checklist whenever you need to make an important decision. This way you can reduce the impact of these biases.

Another thing that you can do when making a decision or arguing a point is to use the old Roman technique of counterfactuals. This is basically arguing a case from the opposite side’s viewpoint.

Before making a decision, always try to see what are the other options. Ask yourself this question:

What are other ways of solving this problem?

By going through different scenarios in your head, you can see what are the strengths and weaknesses of your decision.

Another technique to use when thinking critically is to use probabilites. This is at the basis of Bayesian thinking: How to use Bayesian thinking.

This is a good way to judge the likelihood of something happening. Whenever trying to determine the cause of something, always ask yourself this question:

How likely is this scenario?

Become antifragile and create your own inner citadel

These techniques can help you to build up an inner citadel around yourself. Remember, it is not the event itself that does something, but instead your judgment of that event.

Keeping this in mind can help you become antifragile and overcome all obstacles that come your way.

The Framework for applying the Discipline of Assent

The basic framework for applying the Discipline of Assent consists of these elements:

1) Keep in mind that it is not the event that matters, but your judgment of the event.

2) Take control of your emotions.

Emotions play an important role, for example when keeping you out of danger. However at other times they can hijack your mind. There are a few techniques that you can use in order to keep them in check:

Distancing: Physical and Mental.

3) Be aware of your value judgments.

One technique you can use is to strip things down to their first principles. How you frame things is important. If you have a negative frame, reframe.

4) Set up a good environment around you.

5) Use reason.

1) Study logic.

2) Try to reduce the impact of cognitive biases on your thinking. One way is to use this checklist when making a decision: Checklist to help you avoid cognitive biases.

3) Before making a decision, always try to see what are the other options. Ask yourself this question:

What are other ways of solving this problem?

4) Come up with probabilities of different scenarios: How to use Bayesian thinking.

Ask yourself this question:

How likely is this scenario?


Go back to read about the The Discipline of Desire or the The Discipline of Action.

All the articles in this mini-series:
The Introduction
The Discipline of Desire
The Discipline of Action
The Discipline of Assent

Read More:
Read the article linked below first. This will be one of the most powerful reads ever, as I take lessons from the quotes of Marcus Aurelius directly. Lessons and quotes from the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius:
Marcus Aurelius: How to gather the strength to survive in adversity.

Marcus Aurelius: How To Have Character.

Some of these principles are behind modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an interesting application of Ancient Stoic philosophy to solving mental problems that people often have. I will cover this in the future.

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