Practical Philosophy

Don’t Always Agree with Your Impressions

It is illogical and harmful to always accept our first impressions.

Previously, I posted about the the doctrine of Perception by Marcus Aurelius and how we tend to add an unhealthy portion of subjective interpretation into what we see around us.

In this post, I want to reflect on a similar and very practical doctrine from Traditional Stoicism that I read today: The doctrine of assent.

According to Ted Brannan, Philosophy and Classics professor at Cornell, the doctrine of Assent is “the linchpin of the Stoic system.” It is our ability to agree (assent to) or disagree with our own first impressions.

The flow of events

The best way to understand the doctrine of Assent is to picture the flow of our thoughts.

  1. Event – The circumstance that presents itself. e.g. A car cuts us off.
  2. Value Judgement – The judgement we make about the event. e.g. That driver doesn’t follow the rules. He is rude and a bad person.
  3. Impression – The combination of the event and your value judgement, presented like a ticket. e.g. The car cut me off + he is a rude and bad person.
  4. Assent – Your choice to either agree with or discard the impression “ticket” presented to you.
  5. Inner Citadel – Your mind, your soul, your character. The thoughts you let assent to your inner citadel make up who you are.

Protecting our Inner Citadel

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. You soul takes on the quality of your thoughts.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I believe that letting in accurate information may be different from letting in the right information. Why? Because it’s all too easy to get consumed by negative thoughts.

If I read the news in the morning, stories of murder, violence and the darker side of humanity effects me. Now I try not to read the news as often as I used to. I make an effort to protect my mind.

When we assent to negative impressions – cursing the world – cursing people – this colours our soul. We begin to see the world in a negative light. Small, innocent details reinforce our view that the world is bad.

Don’t accept the first impression

Hastily accepting our first impressions not only harms us, it’s illogical. The stoics argued that most impressions are a mixture of “what really happened” with a healthy dose of subjective judgements (which can get extremely subjective if not checked).

  • The man didn’t smile at me. – The objective event that occurs.
  • The man is rude. – My subjective interpretation of the event.

If I agree (assent) to this impression, I’m accepting it with circumstantial evidence that I couldn’t possibly know for certain. How can I know he is rude? Can I read his mind? Do I know his malicious intent?

It’s harmful and illogical to always accept first impressions as absolute truth. Check what you think before you let it assent to your inner citadel.

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