Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 3, The Meditations as spiritual exercises

Figs in Winter
4 min readDec 31, 2019

For the ancient Greco-Romans, and particularly for the Stoics, philosophy was not an academic pursuit, but a way of life. So says Pierre Hadot at the onset of the third chapter of his landmark The Inner Citadel, which I am discussing in the ongoing edition of our Stoic book club. (part I here, part II here.) In order to make his point, he frames the whole of Marcus’ Meditations as a set of “spiritual” exercises. But what does that mean, really?

Hadot argues that throughout the book Marcus reminds himself of three fundamental rules of life (more on this in a moment), which are themselves derived from a small set of general principles, or “dogmas.” The word, which today indicates stubborn attachment to unquestionable rules, in Greek simply meant a universal principle, an axiom (which one could criticize and reject) from which one derives specific precepts for practical conduct. Here is an example of a Stoic dogma:

“On the occasion of everything that causes you sadness, remember to use this ‘dogma’: not only is this not misfortune, but it is a piece of good fortune for you to bear up under it courageously.” (Meditations, IV.49.6)

As Hadot points out, this particular dogma itself is derived from a more general Stoic dogma, the notion that the only truly bad things for us are our own bad judgments, and that the only truly good things for us are our own good judgments. That, in turn, derives from an even higher level dogma: the dichotomy of control, according to which the only things that are up to us are our judgments. In fact, we could push things one more level up and argue that the dichotomy itself is derived from the highest Stoic dogma of them all: live according to nature, which means live by taking seriously both the nature of the cosmos in general, and human nature in particular. It is in the nature of things that we only have complete control on our judgments.

In what sense, though, is the Meditations a book of spiritual exercises? Because Marcus realizes that one has to keep recalling one’s dogmas and precepts in order to internalize them and act accordingly, and a very good way…