Remembering Epictetus’ 7 Functions of the Soul

Today’s reading from The Daily Stoic presents us with Epictetus’ list of “seven clear functions of the mind.” The list has been extracted from the a passage on the purity of the soul in the eleventh chapter of the fourth book of the Discourses.

On the Purity of the Soul

Here is the passage as translated by Steven Hanselman:

“The proper work of the mind is the exercise of choice, refusal, yearning, repulsion, preparation, purpose and assent.”

Epictetus, Discourses, 4.11.6, trans. Steven Hanselman, The Daily Stoic, p.15

I checked Hanselman’s rendering with a couple of online translations.

Here’s a nineteenth century American translation.

“Now the operations of the soul are its pursuits and avoidances, its desires, aversions, preparations, intentions, assents.”

trans. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911)

Here’s a more recent translation which apparently follows closely to the original Koine (or Hellenistic) Greek of Epictetus’ student, Arrian:

“Now, the soul’s functions are to impel, to repel, to desire, to avert, to prepare, to design, to assent.”

trans. Franco Scalenghe

Word Choice in the Translations

Most of the terms are quite similar even where the choice of word differs. However, there is a potentially confusing disagreement between Hanselman and Scalenghe between the second and fourth functions, as can be seen in the table that follows:

Functions / FIELDS Hanselman Higginson Scalenghe
1 CHOICE (2a) [ethics] choice pursuits impel
2 REFUSAL (2b) refusal avoidances repel
3 DESIRE (1a) [physics?] yearning desires desire
4 AVERSION (1b) repulsion aversions avert
5 ORDERLINESS (2d) prepartion preparations prepare
6 DUTY (2c) purpose intentions design
7 ASSENT (3) [logic] assent assents assent

3 Fields of Study for Training in Virtue

However, if we keep in mind that in Book Three of the Discourses Epictetus listed three fields of study for training in virtue into which the seven “functions” in the previous table can be placed, perhaps we will be better able to arrange them appropriately:

“There are three fields of study in which people who are going to be good and excellent must first have been trained. The first has to do with desires and aversions, that they may never fail to get what they desire, nor fall into what they avoid; the second with cases of choice and of refusal, and, in general, with duty, that they 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.”

Discourses, iii. 2. 1

Seven into Three

We can now rearrange the seven functions in accordance with their place in the three divisions and add Holiday or Hanselman’s explanations. We shall also avoid using the terms “repel” or “repulsion.” Finally, let’s tweak the list to try and make it easier to remember:

1a Desire to be better

1b Disdain negativity, bad influences, or what isn’t true

2a Choose to do and think right

2b Refuse temptation

2c Duty – our guiding principle and highest priority

2d Order – prepare for what lies ahead or whatever may happen

3 Judgement – freedom from deception about what’s inside and outside our control (and readiness to accept the latter)


  1. Euphony: Des… Dis … oose.. use. 3 x Ds (1a, 1b, 2c) followed by “d” in the middle of “Order” and the “J” and dge of “Judgement.” Finally, the “t” of “Duty” echoed in the final “t” of Judgement.
  2. Four verbs followed by three nouns.
  3. Two pairs of opposites (Desire/Disdain, Choose/Refuse) followed by a “dodgy” set of three.
  4. The last = “Judgement” like the Last Judgement, which can be pictured as the 20th card of the upper arcana of the tarot.
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