Prohairesis

Prohairesis

Prohairesis (variously translated as "moral character", "will", "volition", "choice", "intention", or "moral choice" [Keith Seddon, "Epictetus' Handbook", p. 228] ) is a foundational concept in the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus. The use of this Greek word was first introduced into philosophy by Aristotle in the "Nicomachean Ethics" [Chamberlain C.: "The meaning of "Prohairesis" in Aristotele's Ethics" in "Transactions of the American Philological Association" 114 (1984) 147-157] . To Epictetus, the concept of ‘Prohairesis’ plays such a cardinal role that in the four books of the "Discourses" and in the "Manual" the terms ‘Prohairesis’, ‘Prohairetic’ and ‘Aprohairetic’ appear some 168 times. [Cassanmagnago C.: "Il problema della "prohairesis" in Epitteto" in "Rivista di Filosofia Neoscolastica" LXIX, 232-246 (1977)] [Dobbin R.: "Prohairesis" in Epictetus" in "Ancient Philosophy" XI, 111-135 (1991)] .

Explanation by Epictetus

According to Epictetus, nothing is properly considered either good, or bad, aside from those things that are within our own power to control, and the only thing fully in our power to control is our own volition (prohairesis) which exercises the faculty of choice that we use to judge our impressions. For example, if a person says something critical, that is not bad; or, if something complimentary is said, that is not good, because such things are externals and not in out power to control. By exerting the power of choice, it is possible to maintain equanimity in the face of either criticism and praise, which is a moral good. On the other hand, when people become troubled by criticism, or elated by praise, that is a moral evil because they have misjudged impressions by thinking that things not in their power (such as criticism or praise) have value, and by doing that they place a measure of control of their own life in the hands of others. [John Sellars, "Stoicism", p. 114-5]

The importance of prohairesis for Epictetus is that it exerts a power that allows people to choose how they will react to impressions rationally:

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, realize 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. [ "The Handbook of Epictetus" 20. ]

By exerting their prohairesis (will, volition, or choice), people can choose rationally how to react to impressions.

Quotes

According to Epictetus:1) "Prohairesis is a faculty able to use the impressions and to which all other human faculties are subordinated"
(1a) ‘Discourses’ II,23,6-15

And remember that It has given you something else better of all these things: the faculty that will make use of them, evaluate them, count the value of each of them. For what is it that declares for each of these faculties, how valuable each of them is? Does each faculty do this by itself? Have you ever heard the faculty of sight to say anything about itself? Or that of hearing? They have, instead, been positioned but to do a service, as ministers and servants to the faculty able to use the impressions. If you try to know how valuable each one is, what do you try to know this from? Who answers you? How can there be, then, another faculty better than this one, the one that uses also the rest as ministers and itself evaluates and declares the value of each? Which of those knows what it is and what it is worth? Which of those knows when one has to use it and when not? Which is the faculty that opens and closes the eyes and turns them away from things from which they have to be turned away and moves them towards other things? The faculty of sight? No, but the faculty of prohairesis. Which one shuts and opens the ears? Thanks to which faculty do we become officious and nosey parkers or, again, unmoved by a discourse? Thanks to the faculty of hearing? No, thanks to none other but to the faculty of prohairesis. And then, when the prohairesis sees that all the other faculties that surround itself are blind and deaf, unable to note anything else but those works for which they have been positioned to be its ministers and to do it a service, while prohairesis only notices with sharpness and sees from above not only the other faculties and what each is worth of, but itself too; well then, is the prohairesis about to declare that something else is more powerful that itself? What else does the open eye do but see? Yet whether one must see the wife of someone and how, which faculty tells this? The faculty of prohairesis. Whether we must trust or distrust the words that are said and, if we trust them, to be provoked or not, what tells us this? Is it not the faculty of prohairesis? And this faculty of expressing and embellishing locutions -if it is indeed a peculiar faculty- what else does it do, when the discourse runs into something, but embellish the names and compose them like the hairdressers composes our hair? But whether it is better to speak or to keep silent, to speak in this way or that way, whether this is fitting or unfitting, the time and the need of each thing, which other faculty does say this but the faculty of prohairesis? Do you want, then, that this faculty comes and votes against itself?
-(Translation: courtesy of F. Scalenghe)

(1b) ‘Discourses’ II,23,20-29

And then, since our prohairesis is a faculty so important and placed above everything else, must it come and tell us that the most powerful of the things that are is the flesh? One would have not tolerated this statement even if the flesh itself had said to be the most powerful thing. Now, Epicurus, what is it that declares this? That compiles "On the end", "The Physics", "On the Standard"? That has let your beard grow long? That writes, when dying: "While we spend our last and at the same time blessed day..."? Your flesh or your prohairesis? You acknowledge, then, to have something better than the flesh and are you not mad? Are you indeed so blind and deaf?

What then? Does anyone disparage the other faculties? Far from it. Does anyone say that there is no need or promotion outside of the faculty of prohairesis? Far from it. This would be crazy, impious, ungrateful towards Matter Immortal. Matter Immortal gives back to each its own value. For there is a certain use in the ass but not as much as in the ox; there is a use in the dog but not so big as in a household slave; there is a use in a household slave but not so big as in the citizens; there is also a use in these but not so big as in the magistrates. Yet because some things are better we must not disparage the utility that is provided by the other things too. Also the faculty of expression has a certain value, but not so big as the faculty of prohairesis. When, then, I say this, do not think that I am urging you to neglect the expression, for I am not urging you to neglect your eyes or ears or hands or feet or clothes or shoes. But if you try to know from me: "Of the things that are which one is, then, the most powerful?" What to say? The faculty of expression? I cannot; but that of prohairesis, when it becomes right. For this is the faculty that uses that one and all the other arts and faculties, both small and great. When this happens successfully, a good man is born. When this fails, a bad human being is born. Through prohairesis we are misfortuned or fortuned, we blame each other or we are well pleased; in short prohairesis is what engenders unhappiness when it is neglected and happiness when it obtains our diligence.

-(Translation: courtesy of F. Scalenghe)

2) "Prohairesis is a faculty which is not only able to use the impressions but which also understands their use"
(2a) ‘Discourses’ II,8,4-8

Vegetables are not even able to use the impressions. For this reason you do not speak of "good" with regard to them. The good, then, needs the use of impressions. The use only? For if the use only is needed, then, please, say that also in the other animals there are goods and happiness and unhappiness. Now, you don't say that; and you do it well. For if they have, even to the highest degree, the use of impressions, still they do not have any understanding of the use of their impressions. And suitably: for they have been born manservants to others and not cardinal beings themselves. The ass is it perhaps born as a cardinal being? No. But because we needed a back able to bear something. But, by Zeus, we needed it to walk too. For this reason Zeus added also the use of impressions: otherwise it could not walk. Well then, and here somehow Zeus has stopped. If Zeus had added to the use of impressions also the understanding of their use, it's plain that, because of reason, the ass would not have been anymore our subordinate nor would provide us with these utilities, but would be our equal and similar.
-(Translation: courtesy of F. Scalenghe)

3) "Prohairesis is a faculty not only able to evaluate all other faculties but which is also self-theoretical"
(3a) ‘Discourses’ I,1,1-13

Among the other arts and faculties you will find none that is able to know its own general principles and therefore none able to self-evaluate positively or negatively. To what extent is grammar able to know general principles? To the extent of screening literature. Music? To the extent of screening melody. Does either of them know its own general principles? Not at all. But when, if you write something for a fellow, there is need of the letters that have to be written, these grammar will tell; yet whether one has to write or not for a fellow, grammar will not tell. On melodies also, in the same way, music. It will not say whether one now has to sing and play the lyre or neither sing nor play the lyre. What, then, will? The faculty that knows both its own general principles and all the rest. And what is this? The faculty of reason: for this one only has been assumed from nature in order to apprehend itself -what it is, what it can do, how very valuable it has come to be- and all the others. What else says that gold is wonderful? As gold does not say so itself, it's plain: it is the faculty able to use the impressions. What else distinguishes music, grammar, the other arts and faculties; evaluates their uses and points out the right times? Nothing else. As it was fitting, therefore, the gods made under our exclusive power only the most powerful and dominant thing: the right use of impressions. The rest is not under our exclusive power. Was it because they did not want to? I deem that, if they could, they would have entrusted the rest too to us; but they could not at all. For since they are on earth and tied to such a body and such mates, how could one, in this respect, not be hindered by external things? But what does Zeus say? "Epictetus, if it were possible I should have made both your body and your petty estate free and unimpeded. But as it is, don't let it slip your mind, this body is not yours but only clay smartly tangled. And since this I could not do, I gave you a certain particularity of yours: this faculty of impelling and repelling, of desiring and averting; a faculty, in short, able to use impressions. If you take care of it and set in it what is yours, you will never be hampered, never hindered, you will not sigh, will not blame and will not flatter anyone. What then? Do these things appear small to you?" -"Far from it"- "Are you content with them?" -"I pray the gods I may be!"
-(Translation: courtesy of F. Scalenghe)

4) "Prohairesis is a faculty impossible to be enslaved and impossible to subordinate"

(4a) ‘Discourses’ II,10,1

Analyze who you are. In the first place you are a human being, that is a creature who has nothing more dominant than his prohairesis and who has the rest subordinated to it, being the prohairesis itself neither servant nor subordinate.
-(Translation: courtesy of F. Scalenghe)

(4b) ‘Discourses’ I,17,21

He takes them, spreads them out and explains: "Man, you have a prohairesis by the nature of things unhampered and unconstrained. Here, in the entrails, this has been written.
-(Translation: courtesy of F. Scalenghe)

Clarifying usage

The term ‘Prohairesis’ has been sometimes translated as will, propositum, volition, intention, choice, moral choice, moral purpose, moral character, soul’s disposition. In any case ‘Prohairesis’ is "not" a choice, a pre-choice or a judgement, but the faculty that distinguishes human beings from all other creatures.

Epictetus repeatedly says that ‘We are our prohairesis’ and, as we have seen, defines it as:
#a rational faculty able to use the impressions and to which all other human faculties are subordinated (e.g.: 'Discourses' II,23,6-15; II,23,20-29)
#a faculty capable of using impressions and understanding their use (e.g.: 'Discourses' II,8,4-8)
#a self-theoretical faculty able to evaluate all other human faculties (e.g.: 'Discourses' I,1,1-13; I,17,1-3; I,20,1-6)
#a faculty impossible to be enslaved (e.g.: 'Discourses' II,10,1; I,17,21) and impossible to subordinate (e.g.: 'Discourses' II,10,1; I,17,21; IV,1,161)
Epictetus shows also that our Prohairesis is in full action when we:
#desire or avert
#feel impelled or repel something
#assent to or dissent about something, according to our own judgements.
Due to the understanding that it has of its own use of impressions, our Prohairesis can take two different forms:
#in accordance with Dihairesis, or
#in opposition to Dihairesis.

References


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