You Become To What You Give Your Attention

The following is about the philosophy of the Stoics but it is easy to see the direct application to Christianity, the Holy Bible, and the Christian Fathers. There are admonitions in scripture to this same effect.

“My son, pay attention to what I say; turn your ear to my words.” (Proverbs 4:20)

The Stoics were all about routine and repetition. They talked about fueling the habit bonfire. They would have agreed with Aristotle: we are what we repeatedly do. We become what we repeatedly study and focus on.

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”  (James 1:22)

Epictetus said just that. “You become what you give your attention to. If you don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will.” Seneca would say that to study philosophy was to annex the past into our own time. The same can be said about theology. Seneca talked about repeatedly immersing yourself in the great texts of history. “You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. King David wrote:

“Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.” (Psalm 25:5)

Marcus Aurelius, for his part, shows us in Meditations that for all the matters of state that fell before him, all the people he had to work with and places he had to know, what he spent the most time thinking about was philosophy. What he paid the most attention to was virtue. Indeed, almost every page of Meditations has some direct quote or allusion to Epictetus, and references to the works of Panaetius, Chrysippus, Zeno, Euripides, and Socrates. How does one develop recall like that? By pouring over the same texts until the ideas too firm hold. Until they were absorbed. Until they became muscle memory, infused into his train of thoughts.

Marcus would later talk about how the philosopher is one with their weapon – like a boxer, more than a swordsman. A boxer clenches their fist. A fencer has to pick something up. The Christian is called to,

“Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” (Ephesians 6:11)

That’s what we’re trying to do as we study; we’re trying to create a practice – get the reps – that infuses us with our philosophy/theology. That makes us one with it. That inserts it into our train of thought. As Christians, our weapon is the Bible.

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

Make that your goal. It’s not about skimming a couple thousand books. It’s not about “getting the gist of it”. It’s about making it a part of your life and your mind. It’s about lingering and digesting until it takes firm hold. Never to be dislodged. It’s about deciding what you want to become and then giving your attention to the thoughts and ideas and master thinkers who will help you get there.

“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:9)

What say you, Man of Valor?

Adapted from Daily Stoic, 7 Nov 2022

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