The Basic Psychological Practice of Stoicism
Attention (prosochê) is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude. It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self-consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the spirit. Thanks to this attitude, the philosopher is fully aware of what he does at each instant, and he wills his actions fully. (Hadot, 1995, p. 84)
Ancient Stoic philosophy contains a bewildering array of psychological practices. In my first book on the subject, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010), I tried to provide an overview of them and counted about eighteen altogether. I’ve often asked myself, though, which is the most fundamental psychological technique of Stoicism — the one that people should focus on learning first.
There are certainly different ways of approaching this question. However, one obvious answer comes from looking at the famous Handbook (Encheiridion) of Epictetus. The opening sentence says: “Some things are up to us and other things are not.” Modern Stoics call this “The Dichotomy of Control” and it can reasonably be said that this premise is the psychological foundation upon which the rest of the Handbook builds. The Earl of Shaftesbury, an early modern scholar of Stoicism, called it the “sovereign precept” of Stoicism.
In his discourse On Attention, Epictetus elevates this precept to a daily practice of continual Stoic mindfulness. The Greek word used here for “attention” is prosochê (προσοχή). In modern Greece it’s often used on warning signs where in English we might write “Caution!” or “Beware!” — pay attention, in other words. Epictetus, though, appears to be specifically describing attention to our ruling faculty (hegemonikon), i.e., our use of value judgements. The most important criterion to which Stoics must pay attention when making value judgements is that only what is up to us, our own volition, can be truly good or bad — everything else is (ultimately) indifferent.
Epictetus on Losing Attention
Epictetus begins by warning his students that when they have allowed their attention to lapse in this regard, they cannot simply recover it whenever they choose to do so. They should bear in mind that by failing to pay attention today to the most important things, our lives will be worse tomorrow. What causes most trouble in life is getting into the habit of not paying attention to our ruling faculty at certain times, which further leads to the habit of postponing paying attention at other times, and so on. Epictetus warns his student that to postpone paying attention in this way is to postpone the fundamental goal of life — which Stoics call “living in agreement with Nature”. It also means we’re putting off engaging in proper conduct, and achieving our own true fulfilment and flourishing as human beings (eudaimonia).
Epictetus’ students appear to have felt that it might be in their interests sometimes to delay making the effort to pay attention in this regard. They say they lose themselves in play or singing and become forgetful of how they’re using their ruling faculty to make value judgements. Epictetus argues that if it were good for them to abandon paying attention sometimes it would surely be even more beneficial to stop doing so completely. However, if it’s not generally profitable to let our attention wander, he asks, why not maintain it constantly? Epictetus tells his students that they could have played or sang while continuing to pay attention to their own ruling faculties.
Is there any part of life to which attention does not extend? Will you do anything in life worse by using attention and better by not attending at all? And what things in life are done better by those who do not do them with attention? Does he who works in wood work better by not paying attention? Does the captain of a ship manage it better by not attending?
When we have let our mind loose, he says, by allowing our attention to lapse, we no longer have the power to recall it to reason whenever we choose but rather we allow ourselves to be driven by our instincts.
The famous Daoist scripture Dao de Jing said that the wise man is “cautious like someone crossing a wintry stream”. Epictetus likewise says in the Encheiridion that just as someone walks very cautiously when he has to take care not to step on a sharp object or sprain his foot, the Stoic is always mindful, in his every act, not to harm the ruling faculty of his own mind by lapsing into folly or vice. Epictetus’ own Stoic teacher, Musonius Rufus, likewise said very bluntly that we should never relax our attention because “to let one’s mind go lax is, in effect, to lose it” (Sayings, 52). To abandon mindfulness is, in a sense, to become mindless.
Attention to What?
To what should Stoics pay attention, he asks his students. First and foremost, to the general principles of their philosophy, which they should have ready-to-hand at all times — neither falling asleep, awakening in the morning, eating, drinking, nor conversing with other people without having these basic precepts in mind. In particular, he says that we should continually pay attention to the fact that “no man is master of another man’s will, but that in the will alone is the good and the bad.” In other words, Stoics should be continually mindful of the fact that other people’s actions, or opinions, are ultimately indifferent to them, because all that matters is that their own mind is in agreement with Nature, by which the Stoics mean that they’re living in accord with reason and virtue. As long as I pay attention to this basic realization, I have no cause to be disturbed by external events. As Epictetus says elsewhere, “It’s not events that upset us but our judgements about them” (Encheiridion, 5).
He gives his students a simple example. Suppose that I get the impression that another person isn’t very pleased with me — he’s annoyed with me. The Stoic, paying continual attention to his own ruling faculty, should ask himself: “Is his opinion up to me then?” No, it’s not. My opinion of him is up to me, however, and I should remember to take full responsibility for how I choose to view things. Why should I be disturbed therefore as long as I remember to pay attention to the fact that his opinions aren’t truly up to me? Epictetus actually says his students should only be concerned how God (Zeus) might judge them or perhaps those who are “close to him”, i.e., the wise.
When we firmly grasp that some conclusion necessarily follows logically from a premise, we don’t care for any man who says the opposite. Seeing plainly that 1+1=2, we ignore any fool who tries to convince us otherwise. Why then, asks Epictetus, do we allow ourselves to become upset by those who blame us, and swayed by their opinions of us. Rather we should firmly grasp the fact that virtue is the only true good, which means that other people’s opinions of us — whether they praise or censure — are ultimately indifferent to us. The majority of people don’t know right from wrong, so we should be as indifferent to their opinions as a shoemaker would be to the advice of someone who knows nothing about making shoes. We shouldn’t, in other words, be easily swayed by praise or blame coming from ignorant people with regard to the most important things in life. We have to depend upon our own judgement and that requires unwavering attention to the use we make of it.
Wisdom and Justice
We should therefore always have these basic rules of Stoicism ready-to-hand, paying attention to them continually, and training ourselves to undertake every daily task in this manner. Our mind should be kept focused on the fundamental goal of “living in agreement with Nature”, which means “pursuing nothing external, and nothing which is up to others.” Rather we should pursue our own flourishing, first and foremost, by remembering that we are rational beings, and aiming to live with wisdom.
We can deal in external things (“preferred indifferents”), to some extent, but only insofar as it is reasonable to do so, without becoming emotionally attached to them. Elsewhere Epictetus compares this to players in a game throwing a ball to one another and catching it. Virtue consists in handling externals in the same sportsmanlike way, being willing to catch the ball when it’s thrown and to throw it to another when it’s appropriate to do so.
We should also remember therefore that we are social beings, and what our duties are with regard to other people, both as individuals and communities. Applying moral wisdom to our relationships constitutes the Stoic virtue of justice. We must discern when it is appropriate to play or sing, Epictetus says, and in whose presence, and what the likely consequences of doing so will be.
We must continually pay attention, however, so that we can interact with other people, in our various social roles, without compromising our own moral character and damaging our fundamental wellbeing. We must realize that true harm comes to us, says Epictetus, not from anything external but from our own thoughts and actions. As the Stoics repeatedly like to say, passions such as excessive fear and anger do us more harm than the things we’re upset about.
Conclusion: Nobody is Perfect
Epictetus concludes by reassuring his students: the Stoics concede that nobody is perfect. It’s impossible, even through continual attention, to free our minds completely from vices and passions. Nevertheless, it is within our power to direct our efforts to being perfect. That’s the connotation of the very word “philosopher”, which literally means “love of wisdom”. No man can claim to be perfectly wise but we should nevertheless all aspire to become so — we should all love wisdom. We should be content, says Epictetus, if by continual attention, and the continual desire to live wisely, we at least escape a handful of errors — because we’re talking about the most important errors in life.
When you say that “tomorrow I will begin to pay attention” (to reason and the fundamental goal of life) you should always remember that you are implicitly saying that today you will let yourself be irrational, shameless, and vicious. Today, asks Epictetus, will you then be passionate and envious, and needlessly allow others to cause you pain? “If it is good to pay attention tomorrow,” he says, “how much better is it to do so today?” And because we are creatures of habit, tomorrow it will become easier to pay attention appropriately if I have already done so today.
If you’re interested in learning more about Stoic mindfulness and other practical applications of the philosophy, see my recent book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (St. Martin’s) for more discussion and examples.