Epictetus’ role ethics, III: going to school with Epictetus

Philosophy as craft

We have recently been discussing Brian Johnson’s The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life, examining both how Epictetus sees our specific multiple roles in everyday life, as well as our more fundamental role simply qua human beings. This post is devoted to Johnson’s discussion (in chapter 4) of what, in a sense, it was like to be a student of Epictetus. Unlike previous Stoics, Johnson maintains, Epictetus thought that the acts of prokoptontes (those who make progress), and not just those of the Sage, are in fact good, as evident from his three-part educational program.

Johnson summarizes the program in this way: “students of Epictetus’ program begin with a study of desire and aversion in the first topic, then they move on to a study of roles and their appropriate acts in the second topic, and — if they are fortunate — solidify their correct beliefs with a study of logic in the third topic.” He is referring, of course, to the famous three disciplines: assent, action, and desire.

This is fairly radical, because previous Stoics had maintained that mastery of all three fields associated with the disciplines (respectively: physics, ethics, and logic) is necessary to perform good acts, which is why only the Sage achieves that ability. Instead, Epictetus is bringing Stoicism down to the level of everyday people, and is implying, according to Johnson, that one does not actually need logic / assent to do good, correct belief (ortha dogmata, in Greek) is sufficient.

Studying under Epictetus, then, begins with tackling the discipline of desire (and aversion), which is related to the virtues of courage and temperance: “[the first topic concerns] desires and aversions, so that that he [the student] may neither fail to get what he desires nor fall into what he would avoid” (Discourses III.2.2).

This is, of course, based on the famous dichotomy of control, which allows us, when mastered, to focus on what is “up to us” and ignore what is “not up to us.” According to Epictetus, this is “the principal and most urgent” topic (III.2.3).

Johnson claims that, contra the classic interpretation by Pierre Hadot, Epictetus is not really concerned with the topos of physics, but rather with the standard Stoic topic of the ethics of desire and indifference to external things. Johnson, however, simply states his alternative interpretation, without really arguing for it, and I still prefer Hadot’s. But really nothing of import hinges on this.

The crucial point, continues Johnson, is that “for Epictetus, appropriate actions are the proper actualization of our capacity for volition (prohairesis) itself, the core of what is under our control.”

“The second [topic] has to do with appropriate action; for I should not be unfeeling like a statue but should preserve my natural and acquired relations as a man who honors the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen” (III.2.4). As Johnson aptly puts it, “While the first topic disengages us from preferred externals, the second topic re-engages us with the world by summoning us to our roles.”

The novel bit here is that Epictetus is entwining actions and roles, and he does this because we can’t know what actions are appropriate unless we understand which (ethical) roles we play in society. Roles, then, become a guide to social action.

For Epictetus, undue consideration of preferred indifferents is what gets in the way of our relations with others, as in his example of a brother who is about to receive more money than the other brother from their father. Conflict arises because the second brother focuses on the money, not on his more fundamental role as brother.

Importantly, the discipline of desire is now tightly and sequentially related to the discipline of action: “when III.3.5–10 stresses that the right attitude to preferables (the subject of the first topic) makes possible the right relation to others (the second topic), it makes the first topic a prologue to the second topic.”

The third and final topic “falls to those who are already making progress and is concerned with the achievement of certainty in the matters already covered [the second topic], so that even in dreams, or drunkenness, or melancholy no untested impression may catch us off guard” (III.2.5). This third discipline “has to do with assent and what is plausible and attractive” (III.12.14).

Epictetus says that the third topic trains the student to achieve “freedom from deception and hasty judgment” (III.2.2) so that he “may not be liable to be deceived” (I.4.11). Johnson comments: “while the substance of the third topic is logic, part of the function of the third topic is the perfection of the practical reasoning in the second topic (kathêkonta). Because Epictetus treats appropriate acts as one of the key applications of logic, he thus makes the second topic the subject matter of the third.”

At this point in the chapter, Johnson switches to a consideration of the relationship between the third discipline, the topos of logic, and becoming a Sage. He begins with a focus on I.7, where Epictetus engages in a bit of Socratic elenchus with one of his students. The Master asks what is it that logic does, and one of the students answers that it is in the business of establishing what is true and what is false. But, replies Epictetus, is this enough?

That’s where he brings up the example of the money changer. Johnson again: “Is it sufficient, asks Epictetus, for a money-changer to know that he must not accept any counterfeit coins (I.7.6)? Surely not, the student says; the money-changer must also be able to tell what is counterfeit and what is not … The money-changer needs to be able to do more than know what statements follow from the maxim to reject counterfeit coins; he must know the facts of the world relating to his maxim, namely, that an excessively light coin must have some impurities, that pure brass tarnishes quickly, and so forth. Similarly in logic, mere speech is insufficient. Given that ‘what follows’ in speech is not enough, it seems that the student of logic must also learn what facts relate to a claim as well as what actions follow upon a claim.”

The idea, according to Johnson, is that for Epictetus most of us can do the job required by the first two disciplines well enough, and that logic and the discipline of assent are necessary to move from “well enough” to perfection, i.e., from the status of a prokopton to that of a Sage or thereabout. This is a fairly novel and strong conclusion, and I’ll leave it to other scholars to debate it. But Johnson is right when he points out that Epictetus seems to think that mistakes in logic are equivalent to mistakes in ethics, because they both relate to incorrect judgments abut impressions. This is consistent with Epictetus’ take on logic more broadly: it shouldn’t be studied as an end in itself, but as an aid to ethics.

This is clear from bits like the following one, in which Epictetus chides his students for mistakenly thinking that they are educated simply because they can master a bit of logic: “What kind of education, man? The fact that you have studied syllogisms and arguments with equivocal premises? Will you not consent to unlearn all this, if at all possible, and make a fresh start, in the realization that hitherto you have not even touched on the principal matter?” (II.17.26–28)

Or consider this passage: “But no, instead someone [enters my school and] says, ‘I want to know what Chrysippus means in his work on [the logical puzzle called] The Liar’. If that is your design, go hang yourself, you wretch!” (II.17.34) Indeed, at III.2.6 he explicitly complains that wannabe philosophers ignore the first two disciplines and jump straight into the study of logic, without realizing that this should be done only to perfect one’s understanding, in the final stages of one’s training. To start from the end is to get things exactly wrong and to miss the point of training entirely.

Johnson summarizes the idea in a very helpful fashion: “Epictetus has reasons for structuring the topics as he has. Before we can accomplish anything else, we must master our passions; hence, the first topic. Once we have silenced our passions enough that we can heed our own reason, we must immediately seek to become virtuous; that is, we should take up our roles in life and do what is appropriate; hence, the second topic. Finally, if we have made progress and we can afford the time to study, we should perfect our understanding (especially of ethical action) through the study of logic; hence the third topic.”

Johnson at this point turns to the distinction between perfect and appropriate (but imperfect) actions: “according to standard Stoic thinking, intermediate actions are performed on the basis of a reasonable [eulogon] justification [apologian]. They are performed by those who are making progress but who are not Sages and therefore who are not yet truly good. By contrast, only the Sage can perform perfect appropriate actions (katorthômata).”

What Johnson proposes, and which is unorthodox within Stoic scholarship, is that Epictetus locates the Sage in the third discipline and the accompanying topos of logic, and moreover that he thinks prokoptontes can actually perform good (not merely appropriate) actions. I am going to skip his discussion of this matter because nothing practical hinges on it, but interested readers may check pp. 70-76 of the book.

The remaining few pages further elaborate on the concept of the Sage, and here is the take away message: “because Stoicism asserts that only the Sage has achieved ethical goodness, Stoicism does not have a good answer for why agents should bother performing non-Sagely actions given that they lack goodness [I’m not sure I agree with this, see here.]. … Epictetus can tell students and visitors to his school that they will become good if they seek only that which they can control (the subject of the first topic) and if they perform the actions appropriate to their roles (the subject of the second topic). … Unlike in Stoicism proper, it is not a matter of indifference for ordinary individuals to honor their parents, to care for their children, to aid their friends, and so on [I don’t think this is indifferent for Stoicism proper either, because it is how one practices virtue]; it is a matter of goodness. … Epictetus does not rely on the standard of the Sage which amounts to an ideal that may never be made real. Instead, he relies on a standard of goodness that measures our ethical victories by what each person, whether slave or senator, can achieve.” Stoicism, that is, is for everybody, particularly so in Epictetus’ version.

10 thoughts on “Epictetus’ role ethics, III: going to school with Epictetus

  1. Jaycel Adkins

    Tonight is the last class of a Comic Book writing course I have been taking the past 6 weeks. The 5 page comic I wrote was of Arrian reflecting on an incident that happened with Epictetus while he was a student, completely fictional of course.

    What is interesting is that the story began out of Discourses 2.1 concerning ‘caution and courage’ and even includes a line about BugBears/bogey-men. It grew into something a bit different from there, concerning our wished for roles vs. our actual roles.

    I have this book, but haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet, just your blog pieces (trying to run a business while doing homework after 20 years off has been an experience!!).

    There is a certain satisfaction to read this and feel that it’s tracking with what I tried to distill into 5 comic book pages up to a certain point.

    Fate permitted!!


  2. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    Thanks for this post. It seems relevant to me now. I can see a relationship between “physics” and the dichotomy of control, in that my knowledge of modern natural science allows me to accept more easily than someone else might that the scope of what a human being can do is very limited. Consider, for example, the huge split between the New Age misunderstanding known as “quantum consciousness,” the notion that we literally create the world with our minds, and the much more limited scope of the actual relationship between “observation” and quantum mechanical behavior: every time we “observe” something in quantum mechanics, we need to design an experimental apparatus made with other quantum-mechanical objects, and thus actively and significantly interfere with the system. And even then, it’s not that the quantum object we’re trying to experiment with is magically coming into being, it’s that we’re forcing this quantum object, which we already know is going to be there before we make the final measurement or the experiment design would make no sense, to display macroscopic-type physical properties that it doesn’t necessarily have in its untouched state.
    Even then, those physical properties don’t come into being magically according to our conscious will, but according to very well-defined statistical laws that are the same for all people who design and use similar experiments, regardless of their conscious will. Also, something happens when enough quantum things interact with each other that creates a macroscopic object that does, in fact, have well defined physical properties…so, so much for “creating your own reality” in practical everyday situations. Such realism may strike modern consumer society as a bummer, or bad for business, but it’s very good for aiding decision-making.

    After reading this post, I’ve realized that it’s these fundamentals of the dichotomy of control and the reasonable alignment of desires, supported by physics (both modern physics and the broader sense of natural philosophy used by the ancients), that I most need to work on right now. I have trouble getting myself to do what I know I should do, or not do what I know I should not do, on the basis of a distorted vision of what matters vs. what I can control. By definition, I have to make sure that everything that really matters to me is in the category of what I can control. I need to not be fooled by things that seem to be in easy reach but are not, nor scared away by things that I know are hard to reach while forgetting about the valuable in-my-control steps along the way that will in and of themselves make the activity worth doing.


  3. Massimo Post author


    Indeed, that’s why, despite Johnson, I still think Hadot was right to link Stoic physics to the discipline of desire. And yes, I have similar problems to yours, that’s why we keep practicing, right?


  4. Jefferson McCarthy

    Hello. I’m new to Stoicism and also have not read Johnson’s book yet, so maybe assistance with this situation based on roles in Stoic philosophy may be obvious. Anyway here goes, with a ‘skeleton’ of a problem that I’ve been faced with which I think is not an uncommon professional vs. personal roles problem in small-town America.

    Suppose I’m a HR manager in a corporation in a part of the US where there aren’t many jobs. I’ve just been told (in the a.m.) that one division will be dissolved in the afternoon with all division employees losing their jobs. I’ve been told ahead of time because I’ll need to be involved in informing individual employees. I’m expected to keep this information confidential from everyone until the announcement is made (core expectation for HR professionals that I do so, with no exceptions).

    However, I have a close friend (sibling? former wife?) who works in this division and I also know that they are about to close on a mortgage later this morning, and they’re unlikely to get another job locally, so they’re going to be in deep trouble. What guidance might Stoic role philosophy have about what I may do or need to do? E.g. not say anything because of my HR role? say something because of my role as a close friend (sibling, former husband)?

    Thanks for any thoughts.


  5. Massimo Post author


    It seems to me that the virtuous (and Stoic) thing to do is to confidentially alert your friend or relative. It won’t make much of a difference to HR, but a huge difference to the person you care for. It’s not like you are giving them an unfair advantage in competing for a job, say. You are simply saving them from a disastrous financial situation that is not of their making.

    Of course, if HR finds out, maybe because of an indiscretion from your friend, then you will need to serenely face whatever disciplinary consequences, in the knowledge that you did the right thing.


  6. Jefferson McCarthy

    dsferrara & Massimo, thank you for your thoughts. I’m planning on doing some drilling down based on your responses over the next while, but I thought I would write some initial questions that have begun to float around in my head while this thread is current.

    HR managers consent to abide by the code of ethics of their professional organization, and a big component of this code is not releasing confidential information. In my experience, if the company found out that the HR manager had done so, his job and probably his career as a HR person would be toast.

    Let’s assume that HR managers expect to encounter situations like the one I describe at least a few times in their career (I think that’s reasonable based on my experience). If a Stoic is thinking of becoming a HR manager, and knows that he will respond as Massimo suggests, he will also know that this response is in violation of the HR professional code of ethics. Does this mean that a Stoic could not be a HR manager?

    Or let’s say that the HR manager became a Stoic at some point into her career and is subsequently faced with this situation. The Stoic response means that she is no longer abiding by the code of ethics to which she had previously consented. For the sake of her integrity, would she need to resign from her HR position as part of her response? I guess I’m wondering if staying in her HR manager position hoping that her company will not discover what she did, is acting with integrity. Even if she were never found out, it seems that her responsibility based on her role as a HR manager, and her responsibility based on her role as a Stoic are just incompatible.


  7. Massimo Post author


    You raise good points, but my perspective is that an arbitrary code of ethics imposed by a faceless organization is simply not sufficiently binding, ethically speaking.

    If we are talking about real lives, of your friends, about to be ruined, there is no doubt in my mind that the virtuous thing to do is to say the hell with HR’s code.

    No, I don’t think that would damage your integrity, because in fact you are helping someone in need at significant personal risk. That’s integrity.

    If HR offices actually cared about Human Resources they would make provisions for exceptions covering this sort of situations. What, exactly, is the rationale for imposing the silence to begin with? I’m curious.


  8. dsferrara


    If you, say, have been a father before becoming a Stoic you continue to abide by the obligations of parenthood. The commitments you have made in the past remain in force, provided they are consistent with virtue. Starting some Stoic practices is not a magic wand that changes our allegiances.


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