Massimo Pigliucci (City College of New York), "Prosoche as Stoic mindfulness"
Routledge Handbook on the Philosophy of Meditation, 2022
On Stoic mindfulness
By Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Philosophy, the City College of New York
On Substack at Figs in Winter, otherwise here
“Mindfulness” has been all the rage for some time now. Here I wish to explore an ongoing debate about whether there is a specific Stoic form of “mindfulness,” what it consists of, and whether it is useful. The answers are going to be relevant to anyone who is either practicing Stoicism already or is curious about the impact that adopting this ethical philosophy might have on their lives.
The debate concerns whether the Stoic concept of “prosochē,” usually translated as “attention” or “mindfulness” is: (a) a truly central idea in ancient Stoicism, and (b) best understood as anything like what we mean today by mindfulness. The two basic positions grounding the debate can be summarized in this fashion:
(I) Prosochē is a central aspect of the philosophy espoused by the second century Stoic Epictetus, and it is useful to translate the term as “mindfulness.”
(II) Prosochē is a minor aspect of Epictetus’s philosophy, and it is misleading to translate it as “mindfulness.”
A major defender of (I) is Chris Fisher, author of “Prosochē: Illuminating the Path of the Prokoptōn” (a prokoptōn is someone who practices Stoicism). He begins, appropriately, by citing Epictetus:
“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 IV.12.1)
“Attention” in the quote above is rendered in the original Greek as prosochē. Epictetus mentions the concept in other places as well. Prosochē, claims Fisher, is therefore crucial for the practice of the famous three disciplines of Epictetus: desire and aversion (meant to train students to redirect their desires toward that which is under their control), action (to guide students when dealing with other people), and assent (to improve students’ judgments).
Fisher was in turn inspired by classicist Pierre Hadot, arguably the man who put Stoicism back onto the modern map of philosophies of life, particularly with three books, Philosophy as a Way of Life, The Inner Citadel, and What is Ancient Philosophy? Here is how Hadot characterizes prosochē:
“A fundamental attitude of continuous attention, which means constant tension and consciousness, as well as vigilance exercised at every moment.” (What is Ancient Philosophy?, p. 138)
Fisher attempts to draw an analogy between Stoic and Buddhist mindfulness, writing:
“Vigilant focus on the present moment, often referred to as mindfulness, is most frequently associated with Buddhism in contemporary times. This is due primarily to the popularization of Eastern mindfulness practices in the West during later part of the twentieth century.” (p. 3)
And here is where the trouble begins. Gregory Lopez (co-author with me of A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control), who is both a practicing Stoic and Buddhist, wrote an essay entitled “Sati & Prosoche: Buddhist vs. Stoic ‘Mindfulness’ Compared,” where he defends thesis (II).
Lopez’s criticism of (I) is two-pronged: on the one hand, he claims that Stoic mindfulness, whatever it is, has little in common with Buddhist mindfulness (also, whatever it is, since there is quite a bit of disagreement on that too!). On the other hand, he suggests that the evidence in favor of a central role of prosochē in Epictetean philosophy, never mind in Stoicism in general, is pretty thin.
Let’s start with what mindfulness means, in and out of Buddhism. Lopez points out that the currently popular conception of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the researcher behind Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). He defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Right off the bat, then, this is not what Stoics are supposed to do. Epictetus tells us very clearly that we should judge our impressions, analyze them in detail, and then decide whether to assent to them or not. So, while Stoic prosochē is indeed about paying attention in the moment, it is most definitely not value neutral.
Lopez continues by explaining that Kabat-Zinn’s version of mindfulness may in turn have little to do with what early Buddhists practiced: “In Pali [an ancient language derived from Sanskrit], the word we translate as ‘mindfulness’ is sati. … [Two similes from Buddhist tradition] seem to indicate that mindfulness can act as a kind of restraint on the mind and ‘streams in the world.’ Note that this is pretty different from ‘mindfulness’ as defined [by Kabat-Zinn]; there it seemed relatively passive. Here it’s not.”
More specifically, sati is a practice of watching four objects of attention as they arise and pass in your consciousness. These areas are: the body, feelings, the functioning of the mind, and the qualities of the mind. The goal is for the agent to remain focused on those four areas, while at the same time setting aside concerns about externals.
Lopez concludes that sati has many of the same qualities of mind that a student has when studying a subject they’re engrossed in. But instead of studying textbooks, the practitioner is studying their phenomenological experience. There is also a judgmental aspect of sati that is not present in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of a more modern form of mindfulness. One does not seem to simply observe passively, but instead one takes note of what phenomena are helpful or hurtful, how they are so, and what makes them arise and cease. In short, sati seems to be the careful self-study of one’s physical and mental experiences.
Which, again, is not really what prosochē is. Yes, the Stoic practitioner is supposed to focus her attention on her own mental (but not physical, body-related) experiences, and to arrive at judgments about them. But this is done with the explicit goal of training oneself to alter one’s natural judgments of what is good and bad, transferring those labels from externals (health, education, wealth, etc.) to internals (one’s own judgments, considered opinions, endorsed values, and decisions to act).
As for the second point, that prosochē isn’t that fundamental in Stoicism, Lopez points out a couple of interesting things. First, there are quotes (e.g., Meditations I.16 and XI.16) where the word is not used in anything like what Hadot and Fisher suggest. In those cases Marcus Aurelius is just saying that we need to pay attention to things, like one’s health. However, as Lopez himself admits, we do find instances in Epictetus of a more mindfulness-like use of prosochē, particularly in Discourses IV.12, an entire section entitled “On attention.”
So, what are we to make about all of the above? I’m going to suggest that we should split the difference somewhere in the middle. I think Lopez is right on both his main points: prosochē bears only a superficial resemblance to either sense of mindfulness in Buddhism (i.e., the ancient sati and the new Kabat-Zinn version). Also, it is true that the case for prosochē to be central in ancient Stoicism is at least doubtful.
That said, I have no problem going with Hadot’s suggestion and re-interpret Epictetus in a fashion that is both innovative and yet clearly bears a family resemblance to ancient Stoicism. Epictetus himself was an innovator within Stoicism, for instance in developing his theory of role ethics.
In the end, to repurpose the concept of prosochē to mean paying attention to all our morally salient choices, as they are unfolding in the here and now, seems to me to be very useful. And while it’s true that the best translation of prosochē is “attention,” that word just doesn’t convey the power of the concept as articulated by Epictetus. Since Buddhists don’t have a monopoly on the term “mindfulness,” we may talk about Stoic mindfulness as a separate concept.
Modern Stoics, like modern Buddhists, are inspired but not unduly constrained by what the ancient authors wrote. Practicing the three disciplines of Epictetus with mindfulness is eminently reasonable and practical.
Referenced paper: Prosoche as Stoic mindfulness, in: Routledge Handbook on the Philosophy of Meditation, ed. by Rick Repetti, Routledge, 2022, chapter 24.
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It seems odd to me to characterize Fisher as attempting "to draw an analogy between Stoic and Buddhist mindfulness" since in his essay he is simply pointing out that the comparison exists out there in the common opinions of people. But his very next efforts are meant to draw how Stoicism has the concepts of self knowledge and attention to the present independently of Buddhism or Eastern philosophy in general, and later makes it clear that they're very different from each other altogether despite some surface commonalities.
It's only useful to use the term "Stoic Mindfulness" if it's directed at people who have some idea of what mindfulness is, to differentiate it from the common variety. But I don't think it's a necessary term without that baggage. I think of the two points, the first is right and the second is a stretch. The "and it is useful to translate it as mindfulness" is only qualified by the fact that it is a way to present the idea to those already familiar. It could be obviated altogether otherwise.
I prefer the simple translation of "attention" since it really is nothing special or different from simply paying attention. Having the precepts at hand (procheiros) to not forget your moral purpose. Not letting the mind wander erratically. That is not anything special that couldn't be called "paying attention". Hard as it may be to sustain. Lopez's argument that it isn't used in a special way is a bit of slip, since it isn't special. The point Epictetus makes is one that any teacher of any practice or craft would make to any pupil - pay attention and remember your training. But it doesn't make it not a Stoic practice either. It's just that it's been overhyped a bit.
I would add that the concept of Sati also includes accepting the natural order in things (according to nature), that also links to Stoicism.
Also that to be able to judge, you must first put yourself in a attentive, "mindfull" state. The one requires the other.
Thanks for lifting the issue.
Pål Melin, Sweden