Q. The Stoic ideas of the hegemonikon and the concept of kataleptic phantasia (the latter of which may sometimes be interpreted ambiguously) - I’m curious to know how you’d describe these concepts as an integral part of Stoic nature and, if so, how would you say that they relate to the operating consciousness of a traditional Stoic. In other words, how the two concepts play into the cognitive and perceptual nature of the Stoic mind.
A. I’m not sure that the concept of kataleptic impressions is ambiguous. Epictetus gives clear examples:
“‘Feel, if you can, that it is now night.’ That is impossible. ‘Put away the feeling that it is day.’ That is impossible.” (Discourses I.28)
If it is now day, we cannot convince ourselves that it’s actually night. Or vice versa. That’s because we are having a kataleptic impression about which part of the day we are currently experiencing. That is a kind of impression that is simply undeniable.
Of course, non-sages are nevertheless fallible, so they may think they are experiencing a kataleptic impression, but they may be mistaken. The classic example is narrated by Diogenes Laertius:
“One day when a discussion had arisen on the question whether the wise man could stoop to hold opinion, and Sphaerus had maintained that this was impossible, the king, wishing to refute him, ordered some waxen pomegranates to be put on the table. Sphaerus was taken in and the king cried out, ‘You have given your assent to a presentation which is false.’ But Sphaerus was ready with a neat answer. ‘I assented not to the proposition that they are pomegranates, but to another, that there are good grounds for thinking them to be pomegranates. Certainty of presentation and reasonable probability are two totally different things.’” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.177)
Sphaerus was not a sage, so he could simply assent to impressions that seemed reasonable to him, as much as they had the appearance of a kataleptic impression.
As for the hegemonikon, it is, as Marcus Aurelius (VII.28) calls it, our “ruling faculty,” meaning whatever is the seat of the will. It’s function is to exercise our prohairesis, a term used by Epictetus (e.g., Enchiridion 14) to mean what we nowadays call volition.
When I say, with Larry Becker (in his A New Stoicism) that we have the power to change our internal causal structure, what I mean is that the hegemonikon is capable of recursively applying it’s faculty of judgment to its own previous judgments, thereby improving the faculty itself.
In modern terms, we might say that we learn how to arrive at better decisions because our frontal lobes are capable of generating self-reflecting judgments. The frontal lobes are areas of the brain that are particularly developed in both humans and other great apes. The frontal lobes are the largest of the four lobes of the mammalian brain, and experimental research has associated them with the following functions: reward, attention, short-term memory tasks, planning, and motivation. They also allow us to project the future consequences of our intended actions, to choose between what seem to us as good or bad actions, to override and suppress socially unacceptable responses, and to assess similarities and differences between things and events. That sounds to me very much like what the Stoics were talking about whenever they used the term hêgemonikon.
The better our hegemonikon works, the more likely we are to arrive at correct opinions. The Stoic sage is a person who has perfected her ruling faculty to the point where all her perceptions are kataleptic. If you ask me, though, sages are only ideal individuals, they don’t actually exist.