σοφία

  

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.

Crystallisation

At the core of Aristotle’s account of ethics and virtue is ‘Prohairesis’ – the central moral character.

I increasingly think of it like a copper sulphate crystal growing on a piece of thread. When you do the classic school experiment, knotted threads provide the core around which a copper sulphate crystal can form, from a saturated solution. But you often get several smaller crystals and imperfections in the main one.

In my thesis, the central moral character forms – like a copper sulphate crystal – when choice and actions start to cohere around a central narrative of who we are and what we stand for. The sub-crystals are alternate versions of ourselves and the imperfections are just that – out of character behaviours, foibles and failings.

Last week I gave a talk where I owned up to once having ‘presentational positions’ on most aspects of work. They were largely free floating from any common ethical foundation. I had ethics ‘in the mix’, but no core crystal.

Expedience, presentational benefit and plausible deniability were as likely to inform my public utterances as beliefs, values or virtue. Not these days. I have Prohairesis – a central moral character which, on my better days, informs and guides my choices.

But to meet Aquinas’s test of virtue I have one major challenge left – slowing down. Talking to a friend at the weekend it transpires that one of the strengths of ‘clever’ people is they are quick. This means they can quickly weigh options and decide on the best action. But the challenge to ‘capable’ people as they progress in life, and into more complicated situations, is to use this processing capability to judge more wisely – not more quickly.

Aquinas has it that a man can make ‘good’ or ‘bad’ moral choices without any guiding core moral character, but they cannot be truly ‘virtuous’ without ‘Prudentia’ – practical wisdom – as the unifying prism. As Herbert McCabe says deliberation should be long and considered, action sharp and decisive. Sometimes I am too quick to decide.

I have Prohairesis forming in a nice crystal on the thread of my life. I’m not bad on Prudentia these days either. But like copper sulphate crystals these things take time to grow, so I should take my time too.