Epictetus’ role ethics, V: the role of roles

Helvidius Priscus

We are coming close to the end of our running discussion of Epictetus’ role ethics, based on Brian Johnson’s highly recommended book, The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life (we’ve got one more installment after this one, coming out next week; meanwhile, here are part I, part II, part III, and part IV).

Chapter 6 (I skipped one chapter, which is why this is the fifth post in this series) is about the role of roles in Epictetus’ general framework, i.e., it addresses the question of how exactly Epictetus meant people to play their roles within his original, and innovative within Stoicism, ethical theory. Johnson puts forth three possible interpretations, arguing then for why he prefers one at the expense of the other two. Following his discussion will further clarify Epictetus’ thought, which has very practical implications for the way we, as modern Stoics, conduct our lives and play our own roles.

In Discourses I.2 Epictetus says that some people will find it reasonable to endure a beating, or even being hanged, given certain circumstances, going on to observe, however, that what is reasonable for someone may not be reasonable for someone else. Hence this telling quote: “you are the one that knows yourself, of how much you are worth to yourself and for how much you are selling yourself. Different men sell [themselves] at different prices.” (I.2.11)

Epictetus then sets up a series of dyadic examples that he presents to his students, each dyad comprising someone who is going and someone who isn’t going to do a certain thing, given the same circumstances. But what accounts for the different behaviors of people facing what appear to be identical situations? There are three possible interpretations of what Epictetus is getting at:

(i) “A deflationary reading — in each dyad, there is only one role-type and it is to be identified with the agent who takes the dramatically resistant action” [e.g., the agent who does not allow others to beat him].

(ii) “A concessionary reading — in each dyad, there is only one role-type and it is to be identified with the agent who takes the ‘lesser’ course of action” [e.g., the agent who does allow others to beat him].

(iii) “An egalitarian reading — in each dyad, there are two role-types and both have relative merit” [e.g., for one agent it is acceptable to take the beating, for another it isn’t].

Beginning with the deflationary reading, Johnson says that it appears, prima facie, reasonable. When presented with each pair within a given dyad, “we naturally surmise that [Epictetus] identifies these ethically exemplary figures with the acts of resistance (e.g., refusing Caesar’s order) while treating their counterparts as pusillanimous or ethically compromised.”

Johnson says that the deflationary reading is consistent with Discourses I.2, but that it ends up providing us with a rather condescending picture, where “Epictetus intends the example(s) to glamorize resistance to a demeaning command and to show us that it is only a Stoic sage who would face a beating with equanimity.”

Johnson discusses in detail the examples of Florus, who wonders whether to obey a command from Nero to attend the games, and Agrippinus, who tells him not to value externals such as being in the good graces of an emperor (even at the possible cost of his life). In the same section of Discourses I, Epictetus also tells us about Helvidius Priscus and his dialogue with the emperor Vespasian, with Helvidius reminding Vespasian that it is up to the latter to decide whether to put him (Helvidius) to death because he dares to speak critically of the emperor at a Senate meeting, but it is up to Helvidius, as a Senator, to so speak.

Johnson concludes that “[the deflationary] interpretation has an important advantage in that it tries to treat the impressive characters of Discourses I.2 as sage-like figures and thus Epictetus sounds like a standard Stoic. … [but] it fails to make sense of the concept of a role. Epictetus begins Discourses I.2 by stating that we find actions reasonable according to our roles, but the preceding [deflationary] interpretation requires that everyone’s role be exactly the same and thus it eliminates any value to Epictetus’ initial claim that reasonableness varies according to role.”

It seems to me that Johnson is right here. While there is a way to read him as a “standard Stoic,” that reading does not do justice to Epictetus’ innovative account of roles. Let us, therefore, move to the second possible interpretation, the concessionary view.

According to this second reading, “the resistant action represents a perfect appropriate action as dictated by Stoic ethics, whereas the more passive (role-bound) action is offered as a ‘second best’ alternative for agents who are unable to perform the ideal appropriate act,” or, as Johnson puts it, “we turn to roles when we cannot infer [or act according to] the will of nature.”

The concessionary view absorbs the criticism raised against the deflationary account, by essentially presenting us with a two-tier ethics: if you are Stoic enough, go for action A; but if you aren’t, then play action B, which follows from your specific role(s) in society. This take on Epictetus’ role ethics also accounts for the idea (e.g., in I.2.11 and I.2.33) that we should not sell ourselves cheap, that we should settle as minimally as possible.

But there is a problem: “We encounter some difficulty in transferring [this analysis] to the example of Florus, who has been ordered by Nero to appear in a public spectacle. … Agrippinus does not hesitate to tell Florus what to do.” So it looks like Epictetus actually thinks that certain behaviors are simply not acceptable, even though they may be reasonable for a particular agent, in this case Agrippinus, who doesn’t want to risk his life by antagonizing Nero. Because of this sort of tensions between the text and the concessionary account, Johnson moves to the final possibility, the egalitarian reading.

The idea, defended by Johnson as the best of the three interpretations, is that there are indeed two roles in each dyad posed by Epictetus, they both have relative merits, and it is up to the agent to discover which one fits his own character. Epictetus says at I.2.11 that different men sell themselves at different prices, and at I.2.33 that one should not sell one’s prohairesis, i.e., one’s ability to make choices.

An interesting example is found at I.2.11, where a slave asks Epictetus if he should agree to hold his master’s chamber pot, obviously a humiliating action. Epictetus does not respond directly, but says that, as Johnson summarizes is, “it is for the slave himself to determine if the role of a slave genuinely belongs to him or if, for example, he is a figure like Diogenes the Cynic who can be bought as a slave and yet insist that his role is to govern humanity (Diogenes Laertius VI.29–30). Under one role, the slave should obey; under another, he should resist.”

Johnson continues: “the slave who recognizes that his role is that of a servant should obey, not in a pusillanimous fashion, but with as much grace (and perhaps humor) as he can muster.” Moreover, “in order to become the best versions of ourselves, we must discover our roles and fulfill them without a tremor and without distress. In turn, we must come to know ourselves and what we are worth. … Discourses I.2 reveals itself to be as much concerned with the nameless slave who must hold the chamber pot as it is with Helvidius who must resist Caesar because both figures are capable of determining what is reasonable by calculating what befits their respective roles.”

What about Epictetus himself? What is his role, and how does it compare to that of other philosophers? Epictetus will not be superior to Socrates, he says, “but if I am not too bad, that is enough for me” (see Discourses I.2.36-37). Know the price of your soul, but whatever you do, don’t sell it cheap.