Epictetus’ role ethics, II: specific roles in an individual’s life

Ancient Roman pater familias

Second part of my discussion of Brian Johnson’s book, The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life. Last time we saw that the most fundamental, overriding, role for all of us is, of course, that of a human being, a member of the human polis. But of course we also play a number of both “natural” (son, father) and “chosen” (friend, co-worker) roles, and we need to develop a good Stoic understanding of how to handle them.

According to Johnson, Epictetus thinks that we have to learn how to recognize the “call” for different roles, by following four specific criteria: (i) our particular capacities; (ii) our social relations; (iii) personal choice, or preference; and (iv) a “divine” sign. (Remember, of course, that “divine” here is to be understood in the broad Stoic conception of god as the universe.)

(i) Particular capacities. As Johnson puts it, “Epictetus regards each of us as having certain natural aptitudes which lay the basis for many kinds of roles from athlete to philosopher. These capacities both proscribe and prescribe certain specific roles.”

At III.15.9 in the Discourses, Epictetus says, for instance, that if you want to be a a wrestler you have to have certain physical characteristics, and at III.21.18 that the role of a philosopher requires “a certain readiness and fitness.” Moreover, “those who have extraordinary abilities should take up the role that employs their special talents. ‘You are able to lead the army against Ilium, be Agamemnon. And you are able to fight Hector one on one, be Achilles’ (III.22.7).”

Epictetus also says that it tends to be obvious to talented people what their talents are and, therefore, what they should do in life. This concept is bundled together with the idea of self-worth, where different people will have a certain assessment of their own value. While we should not over (or under) estimate our self-worth, we should “sell it,” as Epictetus says (i.e., employ it, put it to practice) in due proportion. Don’t sell yourself cheap because know your value and what you can contribute to society.

We realize, of course, that not everyone can be extraordinary (pretty much by definition), or as Epictetus puts it, “not all horses can become swift” (I.2.34), but not all horses have to run either, they can be useful in different roles. If you are not a thoroughbred, you can still be a good citizen of the human polis, and you can do that with your integrity intact.

(ii) Social relations. This is about schesis, which “is a technical term for the name of the intellectual and moral relationships of rational beings to one another.” These relations can be natural (e.g., parent-child) or acquired (e.g., friend, neighbor, etc.).

Interestingly, notes Johnson, Epictetus is pretty clear that just because some roles are acquired it doesn’t mean that we can pick them up or put them down at will. They come with responsibilities, and they need to be played well. Sure, friendships, say, may end. But they better do that for a good reason, or you have failed in your role as a friend. For instance: “For this is what is always prescribed for the fine and good man: to be a praetor? No; but if it is given to him, to maintain his own ruling faculty in that matter. To marry? No; but if a marriage is given to him, to maintain himself in that matter as one who is in accordance with nature” (IV.5.6-7)

What if, given the circumstances, one cannot “live in accordance to nature” (i.e., reasonably)? Then “if you send me to a place where it is not possible for humans to live in accordance with nature, I shall depart this life [by suicide], not out of disobedience to you but as though you were sounding for me the recall.” (III.4.102) “You” here is god, or nature. And the “recall” isn’t a literary instance of god, or the universe, talking to you, but rather a metaphor for your exercise of sound judgment according to the discipline of assent.

Epictetus makes clear that we should act virtuously under whatever circumstances, because our circumstances are the materials the universe throws at us to practice our virtue and strengthen our character.

Johnson perceptively points out that at this point Epictetus in particular, and I would say Stoic philosophy in general, is open to the charge of simply adopting and then reinforcing the customs of whatever society a Stoic happens to be living in, in this case Ancient Rome. But things are not that simple, since Epictetus in fact actively encourages defiance of societal expectations, if there are good reasons to do so:

“[Epictetus] insists that Cynics should be free of the conventional family roles that bind ordinary individuals because those conventional roles inhibit the Cynics’ talent for the itinerant life of ethical reform (III.22.67-82). Similarly, Epictetus advises the individuals in Discourses I.2 to obey or be insubordinate based on whether they have the ability to endure the consequences or not; he does not advise them purely on the basis of convention.”

(iii) Personal choice. Here is Epictetus’ analysis of career choice: “Who do you wish to be? First tell yourself that. Then act accordingly in what you are doing. For in almost every other thing, we see that this is how it comes about. Athletes first decide what they want to be, and then they act accordingly in what follows” (III.23.1-2)

Moreover, at III.21, III.23, and IV.4.42-44 Epictetus advises his students to be concerned with, and cognizant of, the requirements of our chosen career, but not to care about what other people think about our choices. I applied this precept way before I knew anything about Stoicism, when I announced as a teenager to my bewildered father that I wanted to be an academic scientist, a choice he earnestly thought was going to be a “waste” of my talent (because I wouldn’t make much money out of it). I’m sure glad I followed Epictetus’ path on that occasion!

Interestingly, however, in Enchiridion 24.4 Epictetus tells us that we should also look at the needs of our society in order to pick our career, which is perfectly in line with the Stoic concept of cosmopolitanism, whereby we are deeply interconnected with the lives of others, and we should always keep the general good in mind in whatever choices we make.

(iv) “Divine” signs. Under special circumstances, Epictetus believed that we get a personalized call from the universe: “[we get] the recommendation from God that one should occupy this [particular] station, as he recommended to Socrates that he should hold the elenchic station, and to Diogenes of rebuking people in a kingly manner, and to Zeno that of instructing people and establishing doctrines.” (III.21.20) sure enough, Johnson notes that each of the people listed in the passage had, according to legend, received instructions from an Oracle.

In modern terms, we can agree that there are exceptional individuals that feel compelled — for whatever reason — to live an unconventional life, whereby they follow their path regardless of social conventions and expectations. But notice that, within Stoic philosophy, this is acceptable only if the path is an ethical one. The flamboyant artist who leaves his family and children to go pursue his art in an exotic locale (as, famously, Gauguin did) does not do so “in accordance with nature.”

Overall, Epictetus’ theory about special roles, then, can be framed in terms of social narratives within a communal story, whereby it becomes critical for us to identify which roles we can play, and then to exercise ourselves to play them to our best, regardless of whether they are special or humble.

3 thoughts on “Epictetus’ role ethics, II: specific roles in an individual’s life

  1. dsferrara

    This discussion about our roles (I believe the Greek word would be prósopa) according to Epictetus touches one of the things I appreciate the most in Stoicism: its fusion, so to speak, of contemplative and active life. You don’t have to be an ascetic in order to keep your inner self (more or less) protected from the turmoil of the world; you may, while performing your duties as an honorable human being, work within yourself for the increment of your conscience about what you really are.

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  2. Matthew Finch


    I just want to thank you for covering this work and introducing me to it (and, by the way, thank you more generally for your blog and your book). The idea of role-based ethics resonates with me. It seems to offer some great practical tools to assist with ethical reasoning.

    For instance, I want to practice the Stoic virtue of justice, but I don’t always trust my ethical intuitions regarding what is, in fact, just, and I haven’t yet settled on an objective philosophical approach that will settle the matter (I may never). However, when I view any given choice through the lens acting “according to nature” in my role as human/citizen/employee/husband/father/etc., it does offer some clarity.

    Also, a role-based approach emphasizes the fact that one should be mindful of the roles that they choose to accept, and the responsibilities implied. I like the way that the concept of assent applies to roles as well as impressions, though, as you pointed out, some roles are mandatory.

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