Epictetus’ role ethics: VI. Role conflict for people who aren’t Socrates

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Francois Perrier, 17th Century

This is the last installment of my discussion of Epictetus’ role ethics, based on Brian Johnson’s book, The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life, which I highly recommend for wider readership. The previous installments where on the fundamental role of a human being, specific roles in an individual’s life, going to school with Epictetus, conflicting roles and the example of Socrates, and the role of roles). This last essay is about how to deal with conflicts among roles, just in case you don’t happen to be Socrates…

Johnson says that Epictetus provides three examples (other than Socrates) of conflicting roles, examples that should give us guidance on how to apply role ethics to our own lives. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Case I: the extraordinary slave. In Discourses I.2, Epictetus tackles the case of two slaves who are faced with the task of having to hold their master’s chamber pot. One obliges, one refuses. The first one is playing the straightforward role of a slave, while the latter seems to choose instead to put his fundamental role as a human being, and the dignity that comes with it, ahead of the role of slave. As Epictetus colorfully puts it, he wears “the purple stripe in the white toga,” meaning that he stands out from the crowd.

The way the conflict is resolved hinges on each individual’s assessment of his own character, which in turns leads to the choice of whether to accept or refuse to hold the chamber pot. It’s a matter of what a person thinks it is reasonable for her to do. (Incidentally, this is one case in which a Stoic philosopher encouraged slave rebellion, though at the individual, not systemic level.)

As Johnson clearly and succinctly puts it: “A lowly slave can not choose to do the work of an extraordinary individual because he does not have the power to bear it any more than the extraordinary individual can bear to hold the chamber pot. … It is up to our own initiative for each of us to introspect and identify what our own self-worth is since that is the operative and necessary capacity in these two conflicting roles.”

Or as Epictetus summarizes the concept: “Consider at what price you sell your integrity; but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I, 2.33)

Case II: the family man and Cynic marriage. One of the crucial characteristics of Epictetus’ approach to role ethics is that there is no general procedure to resolve conflicts (which is typical of virtue ethics in general), since the world is too darn complicated for that simplistic approach to work (pace both deontologists and utilitarians). Instead, one has to analyze the specifics of each particular case. In the second example, Epictetus claims that it is not possible — as a matter of fact — to be both a Cynic and a family man, because each role is too demanding on its own and it is beyond human ability to successfully carry out both. The exception, which Epictetus has to acknowledge in response to a student’s observation, is Crates, Zeno’s teacher, who, however, was married to another Cynic, Hipparchia:

“‘Yes, but Crates married.’ — You are mentioning a special circumstance which arose out of erotic love, and you are assuming a wife who is herself another Crates. But our inquiry is concerned with common marriage apart from special circumstances, and in this way, we do not find that marriage, under the present conditions, is a matter of prime importance for the Cynic.” (III.22.76)

The idea is that Hipparchia, being a Cynic herself, does not make the same demands in her relationship with Crates that a non-Cynic woman naturally would in the context of a standard relationship. (The reference to eros, by the way, is to contrast the relationship between Crates and Hipparchia — very interestingly — with the standard marriage of the time, conducted by arrangement.)

During the course of this discussion, Epictetus does provide a scenario for a successful Cynic marriage, but the example is telling in itself:

“If, replied Epictetus, you grant me a city of wise men … there will be nothing to prevent him from both marrying and having children; for his wife will be another person like himself, and so will his father-in-law, and his children will be brought up in the same fashion.” (III.22.67-68)

That is, Cynics should only marry within the context of an ideal Cynic society. Which, of course, will likely never actually be realized. As Epictetus reminds his students, with his classical dry sense of humor, the hypothetical scenario does not represent “such an order of things as the present.”

Case III: sailors and soldiers. Here the (tragic) example is that of the Greek King Agamemnon, who according to legend was faced with the impossible choice of sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia, or not be able to sail with his fleet for Troy. (Yes, I know, that is hardly a situation that a modern moral agent can relate to, but you get the idea.)

As Johnson says, “Agamemnon cannot solve [the conflict] by an examination of his role as father or commander, or an examination of his identification with either role. The ‘solution’ must come on a meta-level, by an outsider’s choice.” (In Euripide’s version, Agamemnon’s brother, Menelaus, convinces the Greek commander to follow the advice of the seer Calchas.)

At III.24.31 Epictetus expands on the military metaphor, applying it more widely to life in general: “Do you not know that the business of life is a campaign? It is necessary for one to mount guard, another go out on reconnaissance, and another out to fight. It is not possible for all to stay in the same place, nor is it better so.”

If each of us doesn’t stick to a particular role the whole thing will turn into chaos: “no one will dig a trench, no one will construct a palisade, or watch through the night, or risk his life fighting, but they will seem useless soldiers” (III.24.32). Immediately after, Epictetus even says that one may switch roles, according to what the circumstances require, but one cannot do them all. This is interesting because it is a forceful reminder of the Stoic idea that we are all in the same boat together, that the purpose of our lives is to benefit society at large by doing our part(s) within the broader context of the human polity.

So how do we solve conflicts among our many roles? We go “meta,” so to speak, we listen to external advice. In particular, according to Epictetus, we try to understand the dictates of God (i.e., Nature). But what allows us to correctly interpret what God/Nature suggests we do? Johnson here leaves his readers without an answer, suggesting that we have reached the limits of Epictetus’ role ethics. But I don’t think so. The answer lies in the cultivation of our prohairesis, i.e., our ability to arrive at good judgments, which is in turn the result of the practice of phronesis, or practical wisdom. It is that practice — achieved both through personal self-reflection and constant mindfulness, as well as via the confrontation of our ideas with those of our role models and peers — that allows the prokopton to make, as the word says, progress. Yes, we can go wrong in any specific instance, but to pretend infallibility out of any philosophy of life is simply too much to ask. And rather unwise.