Category Archives: Epictetus

How to make progress with your Stoic practice (or learn to drive a car), Epictetus style

“you are just an impression!” (from Action Philosophers!)

There are different ways to understand and practice Stoic philosophy, and this is true not just for the differences between ancient and modern Stoicism, but even within ancient Stoicism itself. After all, the philosophy evolved over a course of more than five centuries from Zeno of Citium to Marcus Aurelius, and it is still evolving today, after an hiatus of 18 centuries.

One of the classic ways to approach Stoicism is through Epictetus’ famous three disciplines: desire/aversion, action, and assent. I have discovered that I’m partial to this way of thinking, since I structured my first book on Stoicism according to the Epictetean disciplines, and I’m currently finishing a new book on Stoic spiritual exercises with my friend Greg Lopez, also, as it happens, organized using the same framework.

The basic outline of the three disciplines is found in Discourses III.2, a section entitled “What a person must train himself in if he is to make progress, and that we neglect what is most important.” Here is how Epictetus puts it (from the excellent Oxford Classics translation by Robin Hard):

“There are three areas of study in which someone who wants to be virtuous and good must be trained: that which relates to desires and aversions, so that he may neither fail to get what he desires, nor fall into what he wants to avoid; that which relates to our motives to act or not to act, and, in general, appropriate behaviour, so that he may act in an orderly manner and with good reason, rather than carelessly; and thirdly, that which relates to the avoidance of error and hasty judgement, and, in general, whatever relates to assent.” (III.2.1-2)

Epictetus goes on to actually tells us which discipline is most important:

“Of these, the most important and most urgent is that which is concerned with the passions, for these arise in no other way than through our being frustrated in our desires and falling into what we want to avoid. This is what brings about disturbances, confusions, misfortunes, and calamities, and causes sorrow, lamentation, and envy, making people envious and jealous, with the result that we become incapable of listening to reason.” (III.2.3)

Once we have reasonably mustered the discipline of desire/aversion, we can move on to the discipline of action, which is concerned with putting into practice what we have learned so far:

“The second is concerned with appropriate action; for I shouldn’t be unfeeling like a statue, but should preserve my natural and acquired relationships, as one who honours the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen.” (III.2.4)

Finally, the advanced student can move to the third and last discipline:

“The third belongs to those who are already making progress, and is concerned with the achievement of constancy in the matters already covered, so that even when we’re asleep, or drunk, or depressed, no untested impression that presents itself may catch us off guard.” (III.2.5)

Epictetus even goes on to complain that some misguided colleagues put too much emphasis on logic chopping, considering the discipline of assent as the primary one:

“But philosophers nowadays neglect the first and second areas of study to concentrate on the third, dealing with equivocal arguments, and those that are developed through questioning, and those that are fallacious, like ‘the Liar.’” (III.2.6)

He chides his students, warning them not to fall into this trap, out of too much self-assurance:

“Is it in this regard that you fall short, then? Have you achieved perfection in the other areas of study? When a bit of money is involved, are you secure against deception? If you see a pretty girl, can you resist the impression? If your neighbour receives an inheritance, don’t you feel a bite of envy? And are you lacking in nothing else at present than unshakeable judgement?” (III.2.8)

One way to make sense of what Epictetus is saying here is that our progress in Stoicism should follow something like this sequence:

theoretical understanding of the basics > practical implementation > refinement and automation

The discipline of desire/aversion tells us very clearly what we should properly desire (good judgments) and be averse to (bad judgements), together with whatever is neutral or “indifferent” (everything else). What is this knowledge good for? So that we can act properly toward other people, which is the essence of the discipline of action. After all, “ethics” and “morality” respectively come from Greek and Latin words referring to our character and our social customs. The very point of ethics is to learn how to live pro-socially. Once we are more comfortable with the first two disciplines, then, we can move to refine our understanding of “impressions,” interrogating them whenever they arise, in a way made memorable by another Epictetean quote:

“Practise, then, from the very beginning to say to every disagreeable impression, ‘You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ Then examine it and test it by these rules that you possess, and first and foremost by this one, whether the impression relates to those things that are within our power, or those that aren’t within our power; and if it relates to anything that isn’t within our power, be ready to reply, ‘That’s nothing to me.’” (Enchiridion I.5)

It strikes me that this sequence is pretty much the way we learn lots of things that have theoretical and practical components. For instance, driving a car. Typically, you begin with a bit of theory, during which an instructor, or a book, tells you the things that it is proper to “desire” (e.g., putting blinkers on when turning, respecting speed limits, etc.) and those to be “averse” to (e.g., crossing a red light, not respecting pedestrian precedence). You then begin to put these precepts into practice, because after all you are going to driving school not just for the sake of learning the theory, but because you want to drive a real car, on actual streets. (This step is where a lot of philosophy gets lost: many of my colleagues, and consequently their students, stop at the theory, as if it had intrinsic value without the practice.) Finally, once you are confident about the basics of how theory and action go together, you can get more nuanced and begin to automate your behaviors, so that you don’t have to stop and consciously take care of every detail while you are driving. Internalizing the theory makes the practice smooth, and you graduate from beginner to experienced driver. Or student of Stoicism!

The analogy between finding your path to virtue and learning to drive a car can be pushed even a bit further, I think, though one ought to be wary of not stretching analogies to the breaking point, after which they become useless or downright misleading.

Once we learn how to drive, we usually don’t forget it. The acquired skills stay with us. Analogously, several (though not all) ancient Stoics thought that once acquired, virtue cannot be lost. And yet, we can make sense of those cases in which we do lose it: if we suffer an injury that impairs parts of our body or brain that are necessary to drive, we won’t be able to do it any longer. Similarly, there may be situations in life (e.g., a degenerative brain disease) that will actually make us regress in terms of virtue. Moreover, unless we are Formula 1 drivers (and not even then, really!) we are not perfect, and we can incur into accidents. But the right attitude in those cases is to learn from our mistakes, overcome our fear of getting into a car again, and resume driving. Similarly, we can slip back in our virtuous practice, but that’s no reason to give it up. We pick ourselves up, reflect on where we went wrong, and resume our quest for becoming better human beings.

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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.

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.

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)

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.

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.

Epictetus’ role ethics, I: the fundamental role of a human being

Ancient Greek theater masks

I am going to start a series of posts covering Brian Johnson’s The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life, since I found the book both to provide an excuse to go back to Epictetus — always a good thing, and to present a rather under-appreciated aspect of his original contributions to Stoicism. Johnson’s book is substantive enough that I’m planning to devote a total of six essays to it, scattered over the next month or so.

The Role Ethics of Epictetus is the result of Johnson’s PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago. He is now at Fordham University in New York, where he is an assistant professor of philosophy. Despite the fact that the book is, therefore, a scholarly treatment of the subject matter, it is surprisingly approachable also by people with no specific background in ancient philosophy or Stoicism. I highly recommended it.

Let me then start with a brief commentary on chapter one, on the role of a human being. The background to the project is that Johnson focuses on a rather distinctive aspect of Epictetus’ philosophy, continuous with, and yet innovative with respect to previous Stoic philosophy: the idea that we play a number of roles in life, that each role carries its own ethical implications, and that a major challenge is posed by how we navigate multiple roles when they are in conflict.

By the time of Epictetus, the idea of ethical roles was not new in Stoicism, having being discussed by Cicero in the context of Posidonius’ philosophy. And indeed in a later post of this series I will follow Johnson in comparing and contrasting Epictetus’ and Posidonius’ (via Cicero) treatments of the matter. Our first stop, however, is what Epictetus considered to be the most fundamental and overarching of our roles: that of a human being.

Epictetus, argues Johnson, imported the idea of roles from Socrates, and makes very clear what he is talking about in various parts of the Discourses and the Enchiridion. For instance:

“Remember that you are an actor in a drama, which is as the playwright wishes; if the playwright wishes it short, it will be short; if long, then long. … For this is what is yours: to finely play the role that is given; but to select [that role] itself is another’s.” (Enchiridion 17)

This, as we shall see in due time, sounds a bit more fatalistic than it is actually meant to be, as Epictetus acknowledges elsewhere that some roles are “natural” (given) and others are chosen (by us). Moreover, although the straightforward interpretation here is that “the playwright” is God — and indeed, that is clearly what Epictetus means — we should resist the temptation to read the passage in a Christian key, remembering the standard Stoic equation of God with Nature or the Logos, meaning that the universal web of cause-effect “selects” our role, and we play it.

Johnson argues that the fundamental question of our existence, who am I?, for Epictetus is equivalent to inquire into which roles we play in life. These roles, in turn, are of two kinds: one common to all, that of a human being; and a number of others (father, brother, husband, wife, neighbor, citizen) that are specific to certain individuals and not necessarily shared by all.

Interestingly, observes Johnson, the term that Epictetus uses for role is prosôpon, which is understood as “mask” within the context of Greek drama. Epictetus, then, translates the idea of an actor’s multiple roles on the stage to the ethical concept of roles in everyday life.

Identifying our roles is crucial, because a correct identification tells us what is actually good for us to do or to avoid. But Epictetus, prompted by a student’s question, refuses to tell him which are his roles, responding that “you are the one who knows yourself” (Discourses I.2.11), a clear echo of the Delphi oracle injunction adopted by Socrates as a guiding principle in his life: know thyself.

Still, independently of our specific roles, we all share the fundamental one, what Epictetus refers to as the “profession [epangelian] of a human being” (II.9.1). Johnson points out that Epictetus does not make the distinction between the universal and the particular roles explicit, but it is strongly implied in the following passage:

“For, if we do not refer each of our actions to some standard, we shall be acting at random. … There is, besides, a common [koinê] and a specific [idia] standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit [epitêdeuma] and volition [prohairesis]. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (3.23.3–5)

Notice the distinction between common and specific standards, and the explicit precedence Epictetus gives to acting as a human being.

In terms of the specific roles, Epictetus also makes clear to his students that they are to be pursued for the sake of social utility, not for show or personal glory. Johnson notices, for instance, that at III.23.27-29 Epictetus says that one should be a philosopher for the sake of philosophy, not to please the crowd. (I know, hard to imagine that someone could pursue philosophy to please a crowd, but those were clearly different times.)

Johnson says that Epictetus repeatedly answers the question of who and what we are as “a human being,” and that he moreover warns that to fail in that role is the same as forgoing our very humanity, to act as beasts. To quote Johnson directly: “Above all, for Epictetus, to say that we are human beings means that we are rational beings (as opposed to irrational animals) and that we should act rationally (II.9.1–2, II.10.2, and IV.5.12–14). To be rational means that we should follow nature (III.1.25–26) and that we should not act in a violent, careless, gluttonous, or passive manner. … [Epictetus] singles out the following connected set of appropriate acts: to act as a citizen of the world (II.10.1–4), to treat externals as a matter of indifference (IV.3.1–11), to prefer volition (prohairesis) above all else (III.3.5–10 and IV.4.23–26), to eliminate the passions (III.2.2–3), to have fidelity (II.4.1–3 and IV.5.14), and to have a sense of shame.” (Please remember that “passion,” in Stoic lingo, means a negative, destructive emotion, like fear or anger, not what we mean today by that word.)

Here is the Master himself:

“You are a citizen of the cosmos, and a part of it, and not a subordinate part, but a principal part of it. For you are capable of understanding the divine administration, and of reasoning on what follows from that. What then is the profession [epangelia] of a citizen [of the world]? To have no private gain, never to deliberate as though detached [from the whole], but to be like the hand or the foot, which, if they had reason and understood the constitution of nature, would never exercise impulse or desire, except by reference to the whole.” (II.10.3-4) (Again, “divine” here is best understood in the Stoic, not the Christian, sense.)

Speaking of citizenship, our cosmic citizenship comes before our national one, which is why Epictetus advises to do like Socrates, to identify ourselves as citizens of the world, not as coming from this or that city or nation. Notice also the reference to “have no private gain,” which Johnson interprets as a nod toward the Stoic notion of preferred and dispreferred indifferents: it is okay to prefer to be wealthy, say, but only while at the same time practicing detachment from wealth itself. And Johnson further connects this to the insistence on volition: “because our human role entails treating externals as indifferent, Epictetus also connects our role with the counterpart claim that we preserve our own volition (prohairesis). The two obligations belong together because we are able to preserve our volition when we have the right attitude about preferred externals.”

In what sense is the role of a human being more fundamental then all the other ones? Epictetus is pretty explicit about this: “the good is to be preferred above every form of relationship. My father is nothing to me, only the good [is something to me]” (III.3.5) This, once more, should not be interpreted literally, as “I don’t give a crap about my father,” which is clear from the several other passages where Epictetus directly exhorts us to care about our father, brother, or other relation. It means, rather, that care for your father (or any other relation) should be treated in the same way as the pursuit of wealth and other preferred indifferents: it is natural and good, but only insofar as it is done virtuously. That excludes both the accumulation of wealth by unethical means, and even the protection of relatives or other relations when it goes contrary to justice and the social good.

Johnson further clarifies: “the grounds for friendly feelings arise directly from the virtues. ‘For where else is there friendship than where there is fidelity, where there is modesty, where there is a gift of goodness and of nothing else besides?’ (II.22.30)” Moreover, Epictetus says that it is precisely the misguided pursuit of external goods, say, of an inheritance, that gets in the way of our proper social relations, for instance among brothers fighting over an inheritance.

In a sense, adds Johnson, it is our universal role that makes possible for us to also have a number of specific roles: “Epictetus emphasizes not an external action, but the attitude behind our actions, not a preferred external, but our role in respect to the preferred external. This reorientation has the remarkable effect of transferring a relation from the unreliable world of externals to the stable (and internal) world of our own volition.”

“What is human nature? To bite and kick, to throw people into prison and to behead them? No, but to do well, to cooperate, and to give thanks.” (IV.1.122)

Epictetus here is not being naive: he knows that human beings often do bite and kick, throw people into prison, and behead them. This isn’t a description of human behavior, but a prescription of what humanity can do when it is at its best, when we “follow nature,” not in the descriptive, but the prescriptive sense, attempting to do the best that our nature allows us to do.

According to Epictetus, when we betray our best nature as human beings — say because we are faithless — we downgrade ourselves to the level of non-rational animals, who follow their instinct without capacity for self-reflection. It is that capacity that characterizes and distinguishes us as a species. We also experience shame, as a result of our ability to evaluate our own actions: “And what is our nature? To be free, noble-spirited, modest. For what other animal blushes, what other comprehends the impression of shame?” (III.7.27)

Johnson again: “this role [as human beings] entails the virtue of rationality: we should use our impressions properly, we should eliminate the passions and be trustworthy, we should critically reflect on our actions, and we should embrace our citizenship in the cosmos. … Our human role requires that we should preserve our own volition (prohairesis): we should cultivate our virtue while treating preferred externals as a matter of indifference.”

Do all of that, and you will have fulfilled the most fundamental of the roles you play in your life, that of a human being.