As modern Greece struggles with its economic problems, it’s worth remembering: there isn’t a decent concept for living we don’t have the Greeks to thank for.

With help from Wikipedia, try: 

Prohairesis – προαίρεσις

The ‘moral character’ or prohairesis, was brought to the world by Aristotle in the eminently readable Nicomachean Ethics (which first inspired this blog five years ago). Prohairesis is the capacity to reflect, and not be carried away by what our senses serve up.

For the stoic Epictetus, life is all about prohairesis; separating what we experience from how we choose to feel about it:

“Remember that what is insulting is not the person who abuses or hits you, but the judgment that these things are insulting.”

“So when someone irritates you, realise that it is your own opinion that has irritated you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be carried away by the impression; for if you once gain time and respite, you will find it easier to control yourself.”

Prosoche – προσοχή

In the Platonic Academy, prosoche referred to the discipline of “attention” – noticing the judgements that we make about ourselves and the world. 

Once observed, the next step is observing whether or not these judgements are in ‘conformity’ with the reality of our situation; and correcting them as needed so as to maintain appropriate behaviour and equilibrium (ataraxia). 

Prosoche is broadly equivalent to the Buddhist disciplines of ‘mindfulness’ as developed through meditation.

A Greek ‘prosoche’ poem sums it up: 

Give me the Serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.

Areté – αρετή

For Aristotle, bravery is the first virtue. It came up at work this week. 

It is, quite simply, consciously choosing to walk the difficult tightrope between fear and courage:

“A brave man is one who faces and fears what he should for the right reason, in the right manner and at the right time. A brave man performs his actions for the sake of what is noble. Those who err by excess with regard to this virtue are called rash, but one who is exceedingly fearful is called a coward.”

“Men who show courage because they are optimistic and they think they will win are not brave, because they do not act for the right reasons, and when the situation does not turn out well, they end up being cowards.”

“Men who are ignorant of danger are also not brave, but only appear to be so because they have no knowledge of the danger.”

Prohairesis, Prosoche and Areté: character, consciousness and choice, all come together in sophia σοφία; the title above, and Greek for ‘wisdom’ – the root of philosophy φιλοσοφία philo-sophia.

Whatever the state of their οἰκονομία (economy), Greeks deserve our enduring thanks; for all they invented in the life of the mind.

This entry was posted in Achilles, Aristotle, Ethics, Life, Philosophy, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to σοφία

  1. stuart wiffin says:

    Not really related to your topic… but I wonder how it affects the psychology of a nation to know that their best days were more than 2000 years in the past. No matter how proud you may be to have invented all these concepts, it must give you a feeling of inferiority to learn of the extent of the accomplishments of your extremely ancient ancestors.

    • John Worne says:

      Yes I’ve been pondering on this Stuart. Reading Neil MacGregor’s 100 objects it seems pretty much everywhere and every people have had a golden era at some time, with bragging rights constantly shifting. It does sometimes feel a bit like everything has been said, thought, discovered and done – but every time has its up and downsides. I’m quite taken with Steven Pinker’s analysis that the best thing of all about the sweep of history is the decline of violence https://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence?language=en

  2. stuart wiffin says:

    Hmm, I’m unconvinced by Pinker, I’m afraid. It seems to me that violence has been replaced by economic forces which enable the rulers to obtain social and political power with almost no personal physical risk. Also, the spread of media means violence can be imposed/exacted on a relatively small number to coerce the rest of society, as in Budapest 56, Prague 68 and Tiananmen Square 89.

    Still a bit off-topic (but topical!), on the psychology of a nation, I’m thinking about the way a race is shaped by its founding myths and dramatic historical events. For the English, I believe 1215 and 1688 have given us a fervent belief in the rule of law, the idea that rights are something to wrest from established power and then codify in writing to protect. Whereas for the French, laws seem always to have been more aspirational in nature, with the revolution proclaiming equality as a long term goal rather than a description of how things are. (The French are currently debating an animal rights law but this would apparently have no effect on the production of foie gras). A mix of the 2 approaches would be better, but an economic and political union where these different ideas just collide rather than compromise is surely going to encounter a few problems.

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