Epictetus’ role ethics, IV: conflicting roles and the example of Socrates

After our recent “Stoic advice” marathon, let me get back to Brian Johnson’s study on Epictetus’ role ethics, to which I have already devoted three posts (on the fundamental role of a human being, on specific roles in an individual’s life, and on going to school with Epictetus). Today we are going to examine what happens when two of our fundamental roles conflict with one another, by way of examining the Stoic example par excellence, that of Socrates.

Epictetus tells us, in Discourses II.5.26, that human beings are members of two cities: “For what is a human being? A part of a city; first, [of that city composed] of gods and humans; and then, of that which is said to be as close as possible [to that], [the city] that is a certain small copy of the universal [city].” In other words, we are both members of the (macro)polis of humanity at large, and of the specific (micro)polis, such as Athens, or Rome, or New York, in which we happen to have been born or chosen to live. Inhabiting the first polis determines our broader, and — as we have seen — more fundamental, role as human beings; the second polis determines a variety of additional, more local roles for us to play to the best of our abilities.

“What, then, is the profession of a citizen? To keep nothing profitable in private, to plan about nothing as if he were detached [from everyone], but [to act] just as the foot or the hand, which, if they had reason and understood the construction of nature, would never exercise an impulse or a desire in any other way than by reference to the whole. . . . [Our place] is assigned from the arrangement of the whole, and the whole is more sovereign than the part, and the state more sovereign than the citizen.” (II.10.4-5)

As Johnson rightly points out: “Epictetus distinguishes our political citizenship from our cosmic citizenship, and he values cosmopolitanism over our more narrow commitments because it is our relation to nature that makes possible our civic communities.” This, I think, is an important reminder for the modern Stoic as well: we are human beings first, members of specific human communities next. This is an attitude that has all sorts of practical consequences, for instance when it comes to how we should think of issues like immigration, our impact on climate, and so forth. In all these cases, concern for our own community or nation-state should take a back seat to concern for humanity at large.

At II.5.27-29, Epictetus refers to the specific case of Socrates — according to Johnson’s reading — in this fashion: “‘Then [is it necessary] for me to be put on trial now?’ Now then, [is] someone else to be sick with fever, someone else to be at sea, someone else to die, someone else to be condemned? For it is impossible in such a body [as ours], in this [universe] which encompasses us, among such fellow-inhabitants, that such things not happen, some to one man, some to another. It is your task, therefore, to come forward and say what you ought, to arrange these things as is fitting. Then that man [the judge] says, ‘I judge you guilty.’ [I reply], ‘Let it be well with you. I have done my part, and it is yours to see whether you have done yours.’ For there is some danger for that man [the judge], do not forget that.”

Socrates, according to Epictetus, is a human being and a citizen of the cosmos, and he therefore should concern himself only with his own prohairesis, his faculty of judgment, and not with what is not under his control (e.g., the judges’ decisions and actions — the judge faces his own “danger,” meaning that he may misuse his prohairesis and arrive at the wrong judgment, which is bad). But Socrates is also a particular human being, a citizen of Athens, a husband, a father, a friend, and so forth — all of which roles impose additional duties and constraints on him.

Epictetus clearly suggests that Socrates’ role as a gadfly to the Athenian society is in tension with his roles as a friend, husband, and father, but that Socrates is the kind of man who can live a healthy (meaning eudaimonic) life even though he has family and friends — as opposed to the Cynic, whom Epictetus says should devote himself entirely to his calling and forgo family and friends.

Interestingly, Epictetus goes so far as saying that Socrates’ role as a gadfly mandated that he be a pain in the neck of his fellow Athenians even at the cost of his life: “if we are presently beneficial, will we not be more beneficial to humanity after we have died when it was necessary and as it was necessary? And since Socrates is now dead, the memory [of him] is no less beneficial (or is even more beneficial) to humanity than what he did or said while he lived.” (Discourses IV.1.168-169)

For Epictetus, argues Johnson, we are simultaneously a member of the cosmic polity (because we share in the universal Logos) and of specific polities (because we have a body that is located in space and time), and Socrates’ choice of priorities shows us how the two roles are related to each other: for the virtuous person, the first will always override the second. True, most of us will not need to rise to the level of a Socrates, and indeed Epictetus acknowledges that Socrates was special in his mission as a gadfly. He was almost, though not quite, a Cynic figure. But there are countless everyday occasions that afford us the opportunity to rise above our local concerns and do the right thing for humanity at large, thereby sharing in the spirit of Socrates. We can welcome refugees from war-torn countries, even at some cost to our own welfare; we can change our life style and vote for politicians who wish to implement policies that will lessen our impact on the environment, even if this means a less comfortable life style for us and our families. Above all, let us truly practice the Stoic ideal of cosmopolitanism:

“Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, ‘I am Athenian,’ or ‘I am from Corinth,’ but always, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” (Discourses I, 9.1)


Categories: Epictetus


3 replies

  1. Seems unlikely but, by chance, is this the same Brian Johnson who co-authors with Ekhart Tolle?


  2. Ron,

    I don’t think so, this is his Amazon page: http://tinyurl.com/y8serh7q.


  3. I have a generally favorable view of this post. I’m grateful to be a citizen.

    “What, then, is the profession of a citizen? To keep nothing profitable in private, to plan about nothing as if he were detached [from everyone], but [to act] just as the foot or the hand, which, if they had reason and understood the construction of nature, would never exercise an impulse or a desire in any other way than by reference to the whole. . . . [Our place] is assigned from the arrangement of the whole, and the whole is more sovereign than the part, and the state more sovereign than the citizen.” (II.10.4-5)

    This reminded me in part of the early Christian Church story in Acts, the warm and fuzzy beginning …

    Acts 4:32 “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. 33 And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. 34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, 35 And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”

    … which quickly led to the capital punishment of 2 members for retaining some profit on the sale of a private possession:

    Acts 5:1-6 “But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.”

    7-10 “And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much. Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband.”

    “And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.”

    Powers in conflict kill a few, or millions, to make an example, to gain wealth, territory, to send a message – to impose ideology, to strike fear in the hearts of ordinary citizens, to keep them in line, to convert them, enslave them, gain their loyalty, etc.

    State imposed altruism is not voluntary, it’s a threat.

    Voluntary altruism, like Socrates, sounds Christ-like (if I choose to also view the flip-side of self-sacrifice in a humble beneficial pay-it-forward sense). The opposite of a threat. And I do.

    Socrates sacrificed himself for the what, the Polis? The Demos? (both in conflict), future Philosophers? Perhaps all of these and more.

    Perhaps something is to be learned through conflicts.

    So I try to have respect toward both the cities and the fly-over states.

    If I have a dwelling, I try to be diligent in protecting it and its inhabitants by locking its doors.

    Citizen of city, state, nation, world, … infinite cosmos.


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