The early Stoics reputedly said that “knowledge is the leading part of the soul in a certain state, just as the hand in a certain state is a fist” (Sextus in Inwood & Gerson, 2008, The Stoic Reader, p. 27). This analogy between secure knowledge, having a firm grasp on an idea, and the physical act of clenching the fist seems to be a recurring theme in Stoic literature.
And Zeno used to make this point by using a gesture. When he held out his hand with open fingers, he would say, “This is what a presentation is like.” Then when he had closed his fingers a bit, he said, “Assent is like this.” And when he had compressed it completely and made a fist, he said that this was grasping (and on the basis o f this comparison he even gave it the name ‘katalepsis’ [grasp], which had not previously existed). But when he put his left hand over it and compressed it tightly and powerfully, he said that knowledge was this sort of thing and that no one except the wise man possessed it. (Cicero in Inwood & Gerson, 2008, p. 47)
The sculpture of Chrysippus in the picture here, from the 3rd century BC, shows him holding his hand out with open fingers, in a similar posture. So we have a series of four hand gestures:
- The hand is held open, at a distance, with palm upwards, to symbolise a superficial impression or “presentation”, prior to assent being given.
- The hand is closed loosely, to symbolise initial “assent” or agreement with the idea.
- The hand is squeezed tightly into a fist to symbolise a firm grasp (katalepsis) or sense of certainty, assent has been given to it as an “Objective Representation” or phantasia kataleptike.
- The fist is enclosed tightly in the other hand, to symbolise the perfect “knowledge” of true ideas attained by the ideal Sage, which is elsewhere described as an interconnection of firmly-grasped principles and ideas, forming the excellent character of the wise.
Marcus Aurelius explicitly refers to the Stoic clenching his fist as a metaphor for arming himself with his philosophical precepts or dogmata:
In our use of [Stoic] precepts [dogmata] we should imitate the boxer [pancratiast] not the swordsman [gladiator]. For the swordsman’s weapon is picked up and put down again. However, the boxer always has his hands available. All he has to do is clench his fist. (Meditations, 12.9)
For the Stoics it was important to memorise the precepts and integrate them completely with one’s character in order to have them always “ready-to-hand” in the face of adversity. It’s possible that the physical act of literally clenching the fist, like a boxer, was used as a mnemonic to recall principles required in difficult situations.
It could be that the Stoics used the gesture of the open hand to symbolize withholding assent from impressions, which is one of the most important techniques of Stoic psychology. Epictetus told his students that when they spot a troubling impression they should apostrophize (speak to) it as follows: “You are just an impression and not at all the thing you claim to represent.” (More literally: You are just an appearance and not entirely the thing appearing.) This is what modern psychotherapists call Cognitive Distancing and it would make sense to recall it by using an open-handed gesture as a trigger or aide memoire.
It’s possible perhaps to construct a modern Stoic psychological exercise out of this symbolic set of hand gestures. First, while repeating a precept of Stoicism (“the only good is moral good”, “pain is not an evil”) the Stoic student might initially hold his hand open as if toying with the idea and then progressively close it more tightly, while imagining accepting it more deeply, until he finally clenches his fist tightly to symbolise having a firm grasp of the idea, and closes his other hand around it, to symbolise integrating it more deeply with his character, and contemplating how the Sage might hold this belief. This might be compared to the use of “autosuggestions” or rehearsing “rational coping statements” in modern psychological therapies.
There may also be an additional use, in relation to false or irrational ideas as mentioned above. A modern Stoic might make the open-handed gesture shown in Chrysippus’ statue when he notices an unhelpful or irrational thought occurring spontaneously, and entertain it a while longer, as if holding it loosely in an open hand, at a distance, while repeating “This is just an automatic thought, and not at all the thing it claims to represent” or “This is just a thought, not a fact”, etc. He might also begin with his hand loosely closed, if he’s already given his assent to an impression, and slowly relax his fingers, metaphorically “letting go” of attachment (assent) to the troubling impression.
We don’t know whether the set of symbolic hand gestures described by Zeno was meant originally as a psychological technique of this kind. However, the quote from Marcus Aurelius above could perhaps be read, if taken very literally, as a description of an actual physical practice employed by Stoic students: clenching their fists to arm themselves, like a boxer, with their philosophical precepts (dogmata) in the face of adversity.
Free Email Course
Sign up today for our free email course on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on this classic Stoic text.