Prosoche: Illuminating the Path of the Prokopton
Prosochē, the practice of attention, is the fundamental spiritual attitude necessary to practice Stoicism as a way of life. It is the practice of consistent, vigilant attention to impressions, assents, desires, and actions, for the purpose of creating excellence (virtue) in one’s inner self and thereby experiencing a good flow in life (eudaimonia). This post is excerpted from an essay I wrote on prosochē in 2013, if you find this post interesting, I encourage you to read the essay.
What is Prosoche?
Prosochē (προσοχή) [pro-soh-KHAY]—the attitude and practice of attention—is the state of continuous, vigilant, and unrelenting attentiveness to oneself—the present impressions, present desires, and present actions that shape one’s moral character (prohairesis).
Prosochē is essential for the prokoptōn (one making progress) to practice the three Stoic disciplines prescribed by Epictetus (Discourse 3.2.1-5), because constant attention is necessary to live according to Nature. Once one embarks on the path of the prokoptōn, the attitude of prosochē serves as an ever-present, vigilant watchman to ensure one continues to make forward progress. As Epictetus warns, relaxing our attention (prosochē) is not only dangerous because of the faults we commit in the present, but “because of your fault today your affairs must be necessarily in a worse condition on future occasions” (Discourses 4.12.1).
Obviously, the practice of prosochē is not easy, and the descriptions of prosochē as tension, vigilance, self-consciousness, etc., are enough to deter mere mortals. However, it is not as daunting as it first appears if we remember Epictetus taught us that perfection is “impracticable” for the prokoptōn. Our task is the continuous practice of attention to present impressions, present desires, and present actions. We can leave perfection for the ideal of the sage. Moreover, Marcus Aurelius offered some practical advice that further reduces the perceived burden of prosochē by limiting the span of our attention to the present.
Attention – Not Perfection
It is helpful to understand that we can travel the Stoic path and make progress even though we fall short of the perfection of the Stoic sage. Epictetus is clear on this issue, “So is it possible to be altogether faultless? No, that is impracticable…” (Discourses 4.12.19). 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 is an ideal which the prokoptōn attentively focuses his mind on as he practices the disciplines of assent, desire, and action. Again, according to Epictetus, the practicable goal of Stoicism 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).
It is helpful to keep in mind that Stoicism is a path toward a destination we will likely never arrive at—sagehood. It is the path itself that enables us to live the most excellent life and experience the most happiness (good flow) possible. When we fixate on the goal of sage-like virtue, it is easy to become discouraged or consider our efforts hopeless. However, remaining attentive to present impressions, present desires, and present actions, moment-by-moment, is a manageable task. That is up to us. The rest we must trust to providence. When we stumble off the path, which we will inevitably do, it is important not to fret. Rather, we should get up, dust ourselves off and get back on the path. Do not think on it any longer than necessary to absorb the lesson. That is the goal of the Stoic prokoptōn (one making progress). Epictetus is a demanding teacher; yet, even he cuts us non-sages some slack.
Attention to the Present
As Pierre Hadot points out, Marcus Aurelius’ prescription for the practice of the Stoic disciplines is distinct from the teachings of Epictetus in one way—Marcus Aurelius focuses on the present. Throughout his Meditations, he teaches us to narrow the focus of our attention to the present—our present representations, present impulses, and present actions. Hadot refers to this practice as, “circumscribing the present.” We find within the Meditations that only our present thoughts and actions are within our control (2.14), and the past and future are indifferents (6.32).
As Epictetus would say, “Things outside the sphere of choice are nothing to me” (Discourses 1.30.3). Most people struggle to relinquish their compulsion to fret over the past and worry about the future. The prokoptōn benefits by relinquishing his concern about the past and future, over which he has no control, and focusing his attention (prosochē) exclusively on the present. Hadot suggests that circumscribing the present has two additional benefits. First, by facing difficulties and hardships one moment at a time, they become more bearable. Second, it clears our mind of unnecessary concerns and increases our attention (prosochē) on present thoughts and actions.
The scattered, constantly distracted, and transient attention most of us give to the events of our lives epitomizes the attitude of mindlessness—not prosochē. The prokoptôn must constantly apply the fundamental rule of life—the distinction between what is in our control and what is not—to determine what to pay attention to. By doing so she limits her attention to that which is within her control at the present moment:
present representations—proper discernment of the impressions that press themselves on our psyche.
present impulses—the desires and aversions that define our moral will (prohairesis).
present actions—the present acts inspired by one’s moral will.
At this point, one can reasonably ask why? Why embark on the difficult Stoic path, which will set me apart from the mass of humanity who mindlessly seek pleasure and avoid pain? One might feel the exalted promise of eudaimonia (happiness, flourishing) sounds appealing but still wonder if is worth the effort. Can’t a person reap the benefits of Stoicism by simply studying the Discourses of Epictetus, and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius? It is simply a matter of understanding Stoic logic, physics, and ethics—right? Not quite. Certainly, one can benefit from a thoughtful reading of the Encheiridion and Meditations alone; historically many people have. The wisdom and insight within those writings will surely affect anyone who approaches them with an open and inquiring mind. However, to reap the full benefits of Stoicism, the philosophy must be lived. There are no short cuts to a flourishing life—one must live in accordance with Nature.
Prosochē—attention to oneself—is an essential element for practicing Stoicism as a way of life. However, it does not stand alone. It is impossible to isolate the practice of prosochē from the three Stoic disciplines (assent, desire, and action). Prosochē is the necessary foundation upon which the Stoic disciplines rely.
By now you should understand that prosochē is the practice of paying constant, mindful attention to the assents, desires, and actions which define your moral character at the present moment. Prosochē provides our rational faculty (hēgemonikon) with the knowledge necessary to effect change within itself. It is the essential foundation of the three Stoic disciplines and a necessary practice of the prokoptōn. Now, it’s time to take a brief look at how to incorporate this practice into a life lived in accordance with nature.
The Path of the Prokopton
Stoicism can be distilled to one fundamental rule of life—the distinction between what is in our control and what is not (Handbook 1). However, the ability to make such distinctions in daily life rests upon a basic understanding of Stoic doctrines and continued practice at living in accordance with Nature.
Each step or stage along the path of the prokoptōn relies on theory and practice—eudaimonia is not possible without aretē, which is not achievable unless one learns to live in accordance with Nature, etc., etc. The prokoptōn must learn enough theory, as they progress, to appropriately and intelligently direct their practice toward the Stoic virtues that create eudaimonia. Progress requires perpetual education and consistent application. The practice of Stoicism is an iterative process, with theory and practice synergistically enabling each other at every step. The theory is never “an end in itself” it must be “put in the service of practice.” As Julia Annas wrote,
The person who has studied ethics, then, needs to go on not only to study the other two parts but to integrate their results with ethics to produce a unified understanding from all three perspectives.
Furthermore, unless one becomes a Sage—an ideal state that no one can realistically expect to achieve—there is no intermediate resting place where the prokoptōn can stop and relax their attention without finding themselves “necessarily in a worse condition on future occasions” (Discourses 4.12.1). Stoicism, as a way of life, is not easy—it requires constant effort and vigilant attention. Epictetus compares the effort required to that which is needed to win at the Olympic games (Handbook 29).
The path of the prokoptōn relies on the spiritual attitude of prosochē to illuminate one’s assents, desires, and actions. This foundation is essential for the prokoptōn to practice the three Stoic disciplines. In turn, the Stoic disciplines enable the prokoptōn to live in accordance with Nature, in a state of self-coherence, where the Self—one’s guiding principle or rational nature—is in coherence with universal Reason. Finally, living in accordance with Nature develops virtue—excellence of character—which is both necessary and sufficient to attain eudaimonia—a state of happiness or flourishing.
Stoicism is not easy; neither is it a mystery—it is a way of life. The prokoptōn must utilize the Stoic disciplines and the penetrating rays of prosochē to illuminate their path toward eudaimonia.
 Hadot, P. (1995). Philosophy as a Way of Life. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, p. 84
 Hadot, 1995, pp. 59 & 84; also see Hadot, P. (2002) What is Ancient Philosophy? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 138
 Hadot, P. (1998) The Inner Citadel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 131-137
 Hadot, 1998, p. 132
 Hadot, 1995, p. 60
 Annas, J. (2007) ‘Ethics in Stoic Philosophy’, Phronesis 52: 58-87, (p. 62)
 Hadot (1998)