Epictetus’ role ethics, I: the fundamental role of a human being

Ancient Greek theater masks

I am going to start a series of posts covering Brian Johnson’s The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life, since I found the book both to provide an excuse to go back to Epictetus — always a good thing, and to present a rather under-appreciated aspect of his original contributions to Stoicism. Johnson’s book is substantive enough that I’m planning to devote a total of six essays to it, scattered over the next month or so.

The Role Ethics of Epictetus is the result of Johnson’s PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago. He is now at Fordham University in New York, where he is an assistant professor of philosophy. Despite the fact that the book is, therefore, a scholarly treatment of the subject matter, it is surprisingly approachable also by people with no specific background in ancient philosophy or Stoicism. I highly recommended it.

Let me then start with a brief commentary on chapter one, on the role of a human being. The background to the project is that Johnson focuses on a rather distinctive aspect of Epictetus’ philosophy, continuous with, and yet innovative with respect to previous Stoic philosophy: the idea that we play a number of roles in life, that each role carries its own ethical implications, and that a major challenge is posed by how we navigate multiple roles when they are in conflict.

By the time of Epictetus, the idea of ethical roles was not new in Stoicism, having being discussed by Cicero in the context of Posidonius’ philosophy. And indeed in a later post of this series I will follow Johnson in comparing and contrasting Epictetus’ and Posidonius’ (via Cicero) treatments of the matter. Our first stop, however, is what Epictetus considered to be the most fundamental and overarching of our roles: that of a human being.

Epictetus, argues Johnson, imported the idea of roles from Socrates, and makes very clear what he is talking about in various parts of the Discourses and the Enchiridion. For instance:

“Remember that you are an actor in a drama, which is as the playwright wishes; if the playwright wishes it short, it will be short; if long, then long. … For this is what is yours: to finely play the role that is given; but to select [that role] itself is another’s.” (Enchiridion 17)

This, as we shall see in due time, sounds a bit more fatalistic than it is actually meant to be, as Epictetus acknowledges elsewhere that some roles are “natural” (given) and others are chosen (by us). Moreover, although the straightforward interpretation here is that “the playwright” is God — and indeed, that is clearly what Epictetus means — we should resist the temptation to read the passage in a Christian key, remembering the standard Stoic equation of God with Nature or the Logos, meaning that the universal web of cause-effect “selects” our role, and we play it.

Johnson argues that the fundamental question of our existence, who am I?, for Epictetus is equivalent to inquire into which roles we play in life. These roles, in turn, are of two kinds: one common to all, that of a human being; and a number of others (father, brother, husband, wife, neighbor, citizen) that are specific to certain individuals and not necessarily shared by all.

Interestingly, observes Johnson, the term that Epictetus uses for role is prosôpon, which is understood as “mask” within the context of Greek drama. Epictetus, then, translates the idea of an actor’s multiple roles on the stage to the ethical concept of roles in everyday life.

Identifying our roles is crucial, because a correct identification tells us what is actually good for us to do or to avoid. But Epictetus, prompted by a student’s question, refuses to tell him which are his roles, responding that “you are the one who knows yourself” (Discourses I.2.11), a clear echo of the Delphi oracle injunction adopted by Socrates as a guiding principle in his life: know thyself.

Still, independently of our specific roles, we all share the fundamental one, what Epictetus refers to as the “profession [epangelian] of a human being” (II.9.1). Johnson points out that Epictetus does not make the distinction between the universal and the particular roles explicit, but it is strongly implied in the following passage:

“For, if we do not refer each of our actions to some standard, we shall be acting at random. … There is, besides, a common [koinê] and a specific [idia] standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit [epitêdeuma] and volition [prohairesis]. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (3.23.3–5)

Notice the distinction between common and specific standards, and the explicit precedence Epictetus gives to acting as a human being.

In terms of the specific roles, Epictetus also makes clear to his students that they are to be pursued for the sake of social utility, not for show or personal glory. Johnson notices, for instance, that at III.23.27-29 Epictetus says that one should be a philosopher for the sake of philosophy, not to please the crowd. (I know, hard to imagine that someone could pursue philosophy to please a crowd, but those were clearly different times.)

Johnson says that Epictetus repeatedly answers the question of who and what we are as “a human being,” and that he moreover warns that to fail in that role is the same as forgoing our very humanity, to act as beasts. To quote Johnson directly: “Above all, for Epictetus, to say that we are human beings means that we are rational beings (as opposed to irrational animals) and that we should act rationally (II.9.1–2, II.10.2, and IV.5.12–14). To be rational means that we should follow nature (III.1.25–26) and that we should not act in a violent, careless, gluttonous, or passive manner. … [Epictetus] singles out the following connected set of appropriate acts: to act as a citizen of the world (II.10.1–4), to treat externals as a matter of indifference (IV.3.1–11), to prefer volition (prohairesis) above all else (III.3.5–10 and IV.4.23–26), to eliminate the passions (III.2.2–3), to have fidelity (II.4.1–3 and IV.5.14), and to have a sense of shame.” (Please remember that “passion,” in Stoic lingo, means a negative, destructive emotion, like fear or anger, not what we mean today by that word.)

Here is the Master himself:

“You are a citizen of the cosmos, and a part of it, and not a subordinate part, but a principal part of it. For you are capable of understanding the divine administration, and of reasoning on what follows from that. What then is the profession [epangelia] of a citizen [of the world]? To have no private gain, never to deliberate as though detached [from the whole], but to be like the hand or the foot, which, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise impulse or desire, except by reference to the whole.” (II.10.3-4) (Again, “divine” here is best understood in the Stoic, not the Christian, sense.)

Speaking of citizenship, our cosmic citizenship comes before our national one, which is why Epictetus advises to do like Socrates, to identify ourselves as citizens of the world, not as coming from this or that city or nation. Notice also the reference to “have no private gain,” which Johnson interprets as a nod toward the Stoic notion of preferred and dispreferred indifferents: it is okay to prefer to be wealthy, say, but only while at the same time practicing detachment from wealth itself. And Johnson further connects this to the insistence on volition: “because our human role entails treating externals as indifferent, Epictetus also connects our role with the counterpart claim that we preserve our own volition (prohairesis). The two obligations belong together because we are able to preserve our volition when we have the right attitude about preferred externals.”

In what sense is the role of a human being more fundamental then all the other ones? Epictetus is pretty explicit about this: “the good is to be preferred above every form of relationship. My father is nothing to me, only the good [is something to me]” (III.3.5) This, once more, should not be interpreted literally, as “I don’t give a crap about my father,” which is clear from the several other passages where Epictetus directly exhorts us to care about our father, brother, or other relation. It means, rather, that care for your father (or any other relation) should be treated in the same way as the pursuit of wealth and other preferred indifferents: it is natural and good, but only insofar as it is done virtuously. That excludes both the accumulation of wealth by unethical means, and even the protection of relatives or other relations when it goes contrary to justice and the social good.

Johnson further clarifies: “the grounds for friendly feelings arise directly from the virtues. ‘For where else is there friendship than where there is fidelity, where there is modesty, where there is a gift of goodness and of nothing else besides?’ (II.22.30)” Moreover, Epictetus says that it is precisely the misguided pursuit of external goods, say, of an inheritance, that gets in the way of our proper social relations, for instance among brothers fighting over an inheritance.

In a sense, adds Johnson, it is our universal role that makes possible for us to also have a number of specific roles: “Epictetus emphasizes not an external action, but the attitude behind our actions, not a preferred external, but our role in respect to the preferred external. This reorientation has the remarkable effect of transferring a relation from the unreliable world of externals to the stable (and internal) world of our own volition.”

“What is human nature? To bite and kick, to throw people into prison and to behead them? No, but to do well, to cooperate, and to give thanks.” (IV.1.122)

Epictetus here is not being naive: he knows that human beings often do bite and kick, throw people into prison, and behead them. This isn’t a description of human behavior, but a prescription of what humanity can do when it is at its best, when we “follow nature,” not in the descriptive, but the prescriptive sense, attempting to do the best that our nature allows us to do.

According to Epictetus, when we betray our best nature as human beings — say because we are faithless — we downgrade ourselves to the level of non-rational animals, who follow their instinct without capacity for self-reflection. It is that capacity that characterizes and distinguishes us as a species. We also experience shame, as a result of our ability to evaluate our own actions: “And what is our nature? To be free, noble-spirited, modest. For what other animal blushes, what other comprehends the impression of shame?” (III.7.27)

Johnson again: “this role [as human beings] entails the virtue of rationality: we should use our impressions properly, we should eliminate the passions and be trustworthy, we should critically reflect on our actions, and we should embrace our citizenship in the cosmos. … Our human role requires that we should preserve our own volition (prohairesis): we should cultivate our virtue while treating preferred externals as a matter of indifference.”

Do all of that, and you will have fulfilled the most fundamental of the roles you play in your life, that of a human being.


3 thoughts on “Epictetus’ role ethics, I: the fundamental role of a human being

  1. Massimo Post author


    Sorry, I followed Johnson: unless otherwise specified, he’s talking about the Discourses. When he refers the Enchiridion that’s explicitly noted.


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