What Does Epictetus’ Mean By “Prohairesis”
A key idea of Stoic philosophy, worked out in detail by Epictetus.
For several years now, I’ve been doing quite a bit of research work — piecing together a lot of passages from a wide array of texts, and reconstructing theoretical and practical perspectives, dealing with a term that plays a major role in ancient moral theory. In the Greek, it is prohairesis. It gets translated in many different ways, ranging from “choice” (with a number of qualifiers, such as “moral” or “deliberate”) to “commitment”, to “faculty of choice” to “moral purpose”, and even. . . (this is why I got interested in it) “will”.
Last Fall, I gave an invited talk as part of the Midwest Seminar in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, “Prohairesis in Epictetus’ Stoic Moral Theory” (you can watch the video of it, if you like, here — and the slides are available here). I was honored to get to present my research and reflections, and delighted with the questions and discussion it provoked. But, why is prohairesis an important topic?
What Does Prohairesis Mean?
Lexically, prohairesis is a noun derived from the verb haireein, which has a core meaning of taking or grabbing, and derivatively, selecting — particularly when coupled with the prefix pro-. So in its original sense, prohairesis means something like taking one thing “before”, i.e. in place of, instead of, another. Or if you like, pre-ferring or “preference.”
As you’ll find out if you watch the video of the talk — or if you do some digging around in ancient authors — the term prohairesis gets used quite a bit in Ancient Greece, particularly in Athens, where its context tends to be in the interplay between political life, oratory, and ways of living. Speechwriters and orators like Demosthenes, Isocrates, and Lysias incorporate the term in their compositions, sometimes using it to denote a person’s choices as determinative of their character or their way of life. Plato himself uses it, mostly in a verbal form, but at least once as the actual noun.
It’s when we get to Aristotle that prohairesis becomes something much more important to moral theory. Before that, it just names choices or commitments a person makes, that are in some sense revelatory of who that person is and what he or she is basically about. In Aristotle’s ethico-political works, it becomes a concept central to his moral conceptions. Just to give you some sense of this, when he is discussing how it is that intellect or reason on the one side, and affectivity, emotion, and desire on the other come together in the human being, he makes prohairesis a vital juncture point. It is, as he says, intellect informed by affectivity or affectivity informed by desire — nous orektikos or orexis dianoetike (recognize that last bit from anywhere?)
The Stoics before Epictetus did use the term prohairesis, but they didn’t make much use of it. We are handicapped of course, by the fact that we possess no extant texts from the early or middle Stoa. But we do have a number of fragments, quotations, and summaries, and what we can glean from them indicates that Stoics before Epictetus tended to view prohairesis as a type of boulesis, rational desire, or as a choice before a choice (hairesis pro haireseos), thus perhaps a choice as determinative of other choices.
There were quite a few other ancient authors between Aristotle and Epictetus who end up using the term as well. The historian Diodorus Siculus, the middle Platonist and biographer Plutarch, and the Jewish Platonist Philo of Alexandria are just a few. (Incidentally, I’m now set in a resolution to eventually write an article, or perhaps a short book, about how this term has been used in so many way by so many interesting authors.) After Epictetus, there are quite a few as well. But none of them do with the term what he does. . .
Epictetus’ Transformation of Prohairesis
One of the contemporary authors I mention in the course of the talk is the late Michael Frede. In his work, A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought, he views Epictetus’s considerably expanded conception of prohairesis as getting very close to the later notion of will as we find it, for example, in thinkers like Augustine. It certainly is a locus of freedom for Epictetus, for reasons I’ll soon mention.
One thing is very clear in the history of this term, where Epictetus is concerned. The only person who comes near to the expanded range of this moral conception is Aristotle, and even he doesn’t come close to Epictetus’ prohairesis, which is no longer something like a function and is now an actual faculty (well. . . as close as the Stoics get to faculties, since they don’t really have a faculty psychology). So, that’s clear. There’s Aristotle, the first person to make prohairesis central to moral theory, and then there’s Epictetus, the first person to push prohairesis far along the direction towards what would come to be called the will.
Some scholars think that this means that there was an “Aristotelian influence” upon Epictetus, but that’s rather difficult to see, let alone support, the more time you spend with the two thinkers and their texts. Epictetus says relatively little about Aristotelians (or Aristotle himself), and what he does have to say is not positive.
Although it’s something I admittedly need to do more thinking about, it seems to me at this time that the claim that Epictetus drew his conception of prohairesis in part from Aristotle has at best a rather circular justification. Since Aristotle is the main other person to use the term that Epictetus uses in a way remotely similar to how Epictetus uses it, Epictetus must have drew upon Aristotle somehow, for some reason. Why? Because we see it in both of their writings.
What does Epictetus do with prohairesis? He expands it far beyond what any other author, Stoic, Aristotelian, or otherwise, had in mind in using the term. By the time he is done with it, it signifies the very core of the person — the self, if you like (and it’s worth pointing out that two great contemporary classicists, Christopher Gill and Richard Sorabji engaged in a bit of sparring over precisely how to interpret prohairesis in terms of the self).
What More Can Be Said On The Topic?
Given how often prohairesis gets invoked, mentioned, explained, or referenced in Epictetus’ Discourses, there’s a lot more to be said about it, and during the talk I focused in on four main features of that moral conception. These of course, don’t entirely exhaust what can or needs be said about the matter, but they do cover a considerable portion of the ground.
The first thing I had wanted to get straight about — and to effectively convey to the audience — was the extent of prohairesis in Epictetus’ moral theory. As I just mentioned above, for him, it is not just a faculty or function of the human being. It names something essential to a human person, something at the very center of agency, personality, even identity. It is where the fundamental good and bad for a human being reside — in fact, the good, as Epictetus tells us, consists in a certain kind or state of prohairesis. Going still further, the central Stoic distinction between what is in our control and what is not in our control turns out to map on to what lies within the domain of the prohairesis and what does not.
The Stoics also talk quite a bit about the “ruling faculty” or the “rational faculty”. Epictetus stresses that other faculty, that of choice, the prohairesis. But, as it turns out, when we examine his texts closely . . . it’s not really an other faculty. Instead, all of these are actually the same faculty, just being named in different ways and looked at in alternate perspectives. So the ultimate identity of these faculties is a very interesting second feature.
Something that all three of those same and different faculties have in common is the third feature I discussed during the talk. Prohairesis possesses what is called “reflexivity”. Choice can determine its own choice — that’s one main reason why it is free choice, so free that it can even give away or subordinate that very freedom of choice to something or someone else to determine. The rational faculty likewise is able to contemplate itself, and to engage in judgement about itself. This is what makes both of them aspects of that very “ruling faculty”.
The fourth feature moved us finally directly into moral theory. Earlier Stoics talked quite a bit about “living in accordance with nature”, and about virtue as the good (not just a good). Epictetus talks only occasionally about virtue (by comparison to other Stoics, that is — he does talk about virtue and the virtues when he needs to), but what he does talk about a lot is having, maintaining, or keeping one’s “prohairesis in accordance with nature”. That is the essence of the good for Epictetus. The question then is what doing this means.
I give a few examples taken directly from Epictetus during the talk, but there’s so much more to be said about the matter that it provides a good place to bring this to a close (and to promise another post specifically on that topic).
This post appeared originally in Orexis Dianoētikē
Gregory Sadler is the president of ReasonIO, the editor of Stoicism Today, a speaker, writer, and a producer of highly popular YouTube videos on classic and contemporary philosophy. If you’d like to support his ongoing work, bringing philosophy to the broader public, he has a Patreon site where you can donate.