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Prosochē: The Practice of Attention – Episode 5


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This episode of Stoicism On Fire kicks off a series I call the path of the Prokopton. A prokopton is someone who is making progress along the Stoic path. This podcast is about the practice of Attention. The Stoics called it prosochē in Greek, and that word signifies an attitude and practice of attention. Pierre Hadot considered prosochē the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude.[1] It is a state of continuous, vigilant, and unrelenting attentiveness to oneself—to the present impressions, present desires, and present actions, which shape our moral character (prohairesis).[2] My aim in this episode is to help you understand why it is so important to practice attention while on the path of the prokopton. When you relax your attention for a while, do not fancy you will recover it whenever you please; but remember this, that because of your fault of today your affairs must necessarily be in a worse condition in future occasions. (Discourses 4.12.1) Prosochē is essential for the prokoptōn to practice the three Stoic disciplines prescribed by Epictetus (Discourses 3.2.1-5). Constant attention is necessary to live in agreement with Nature. Once one embarks on the path of the prokoptōn, the attitude of prosochē serves as an ever-present, vigilant watchman to ensure we continue to make forward progress. As Epictetus warns, relaxing our attention (prosochē) is not only dangerous because of the faults which may be committed in the present, but he further warns that “because of your fault today your affairs must be necessarily in a worse condition on future occasions” (Discourses 4.12.1). The attitude and practice of prosochē focus our attention and provides the foundation for the Stoic disciplines, whose aim is a life of excellence (aretē) lived in accordance with Nature, wherein we experience human flourishing or well-being (eudaimonia). Attention - Not Perfection Before further discussion about the Stoic concept of prosochē, which can appear onerous at first glance, it is helpful to understand that progress in Stoicism does not require perfection. Yes, to be a Stoic sage does require perfection, but that’s not what I’m talking about right now. This episode is about making progress toward that ideal of the sage. It is unlikely any of us will ever become sages. Nevertheless, we can make progress—we can be a Stoic prokopton. Epictetus is clear on this issue, “So is it possible to be altogether faultless?  No, that is impracticable..” (Discourses 4.12.19). The practice of Stoicism requires attention, not perfection. The goal of the prokoptōn is continual progress toward the perfection of the sage, without the expectation that he will ever achieve it. The Stoic sage serves as an ideal which we attentively focus our mind on as we practice the disciplines of assent, desire, and action. Again, according to Epictetus, the practicable goal of Stoicism is not perfection; instead, it is “to strive continuously not to commit faults” with the realistic hope that by “never relaxing our attention, we shall escape at least a few faults” (Ibid). So, what are we to do when we fail in our practice? What do we at those moments when we fail to live our Stoic principles? Epictetus provides us with a clear answer: In this contest, even if we should falter for a while, no one can prevent us from resuming the fight, nor is it necessary to wait another four years for the next Olympic Games to come around, but as soon as one has recovered and regained one’s strength, and can muster the same zeal as before, one can enter the fight; and if one should fail again, one can enter once again, and if one should carry off the victory one fine day, it will be as if one had never given in. (Discourses 3.25.4) There are two important points here that we have to balance. First, we have to pay attention to our thoughts, desires, fears, intentions, and actions. That means we’re going to have to focus on some area in our thinking that is less than ideal.

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