August 2, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

Play Your Different Roles Well (Epictetus’ Discourses in Plain English II.10)

Chuck Chakrapani

Key ideas of this discourse

You have different roles to play: a human being, a citizen, a father or a mother, a son or a daughter, and a brother or a sister.

You should act in a way that is consistent with your role. For example, if you are a brother, check to see if your actions are consistent with your role as a brother.

When you don’t play your role in a way that is appropriate to that role, you lose your character.

Unfortunately, a loss of character is not accompanied by illness or loss of property. So, you don’t even realize what you have lost.

If someone hurts us, they pay a penalty because they injure themselves. If we try to hurt them in return we injure ourselves.

Develop character with a view to making the right choice, not for show in a debating forum.

You are a human being

Who are you?

First, you are a human being. Your highest quality is the power to choose. Everything else you have is subject to that, but the power to choose itself is unrestrained and absolute. The second faculty is reason which separates you from wild animals and animals like sheep.

You are a citizen of the world

The two faculties – power to choose and reason – makes you a citizen of the world. You are a principal part of it, not a subsidiary. No part of the world is designed to serve because all of them are of primary importance. You understand how the world is governed and what follows from it.

What does it mean to be a citizen? It means not acting for purely personal gains, detached from the interests of the society, just like a foot or hand, if they had the rational faculty, would not choose to act in any other way except with reference to the whole body. This is why philosophers say, “If a good person knew disease, death, or disability is in store for him, he would actually welcome them. He would realize that it is part of the universal plan. The universe is more important than the part, and the state is more important than any citizen.” But since we don’t know the future, we should choose things that are preferable by nature, because we are born for this purpose.

You are someone’s son/daughter

You are someone’s son or daughter. In this role, consider what you have also belongs to your father. Obey him, do not hurt him by words or deeds or complain about him. Yield to him and cooperate with him to the best of your ability.

You are someone’s brother/sister

In your role as someone’s brother/sister, be respectful, ready to yield, and gracious. Do not fight over material things, things over which you have no control. Give them up cheerfully so you may have a larger share of things over which you do have control. The cost of the material thing you give up – whether it is food or some furniture – is nothing compared to the goodwill you gain in return.

Remember your role as you play it

If you are a council member, remember the duties of a councillor; if young, duties of the young; if old, duties of the old; and, if a father, duties of a father. When you consider your title as you play different roles, it will become obvious what you are expected to do. Thus, if you speak ill of your brother, I say to you, “You have forgotten who you are as a brother.” If you are a metalworker and cannot use a hammer properly, then you have forgotten your skill as a metal worker. It is no trivial matter if you become your brother’s enemy, forgetting what it means to be a brother. If you – instead of being gentle and social – have become a dangerous wild animal ready to bite, do you think you have lost nothing? Or do you have to lose money before you feel you lost something? Is that the only loss that counts?

Do not lose your character

If you lost your skill in language or music, you would consider it a big loss. Yet you seem to think it is a trivial matter to lose your ability to be honest, gentle, and dignified. Abilities in language and music come from external causes. There is no shame in having them or losing them. But losing your positive traits is your own fault. Not having positive traits, or losing them once having had them, is shameful, dishonorable, and worthy of rebuke.

There is no one who is bad and doesn’t pay the penalty. A victim of unnatural lust loses the man in him. So does the man who uses him, besides many other things. An adulterer loses self-respect, self-control, and good behavior; his ability to be a good citizen and neighbour. An angry person loses something, a fearful person something else. They may not have lost in terms of money, and may even stand to gain by such behavior. But if you reduce everything to money, you might think that someone who loses his nose does not suffer any harm.

“Yes, they do. They lost something physical.”
“But what about something psychological, such as the sense of smell? What about a faculty which is beneficial if you had it but injurious if you didn’t?”
“What faculty do you mean?”
“Don’t we have a sense of fairness?”
“Yes, we do.”
“If you destroy it, have you not suffered any harm? Not sacrificed anything? Not lost something that belonged to you? Don’t we have a natural sense of affection, helpfulness, and compassion? If you carelessly allow yourself to lose these qualities, would you consider yourself unharmed and undamaged?”
“Why shouldn’t I harm someone who harmed me?”
“Think about what philosophers said about what “harm” is. If good and evil is the result of our choice, is this not what you are saying: “Since he hurt himself by harming me, shouldn’t I also hurt myself by harming him?” “

We don’t see our great loss when we lose our character

Why don’t we put it like this to ourselves? When our body or possessions are involved, we see harm. But when our choices are involved, we don’t see any harm at all. After all, if we have been deceived or if we have done something wrong, we don’t get a headache, or lose our eyes or hips or lose our property. We are not interested in anything beyond these. We don’t care whether our choice is honest and trustworthy or shameless and untrustworthy, except as a topic of trivial classroom debate. So, we make some progress in terms of our debating skills but not in terms of our character.

Think about this

No one becomes bad without suffering loss or damage. Epictetus, Discourses II.7.10 [RH]