He says, “If you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not” — in other words, what you do control and what you don’t control — “you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly.”
And this would be a significantly better world than the one in which everybody goes around blaming other people for what they don’t have control over.
Now, my colleague Brian Johnson at Fordham University explained Epictetus’ approach as a type of role ethics. The idea is that we all play a variety of roles in life and that a happy life consists in balancing these roles as best as we can.
There are, in fact, fundamentally, three kinds of roles. First, our basic role as a human being — we’re all members of the human polis. The Stoics were the ones that introduced the term “cosmopolitan,” literally meaning “a citizen of the universal polis.” We’re all human beings, we’re all in the same place, and we have to take care of the same place.
Then there are roles that are given to us by circumstances. You could be, you know, somebody’s son or daughter. That wasn’t your choice; it just happened.
And then there are roles that we choose depending on the circumstances: our career, being a mother or a father – things like that.
These three sets of roles are related in the following way: your basic role as a human being trumps everything else. Everything you do, you should ask yourself first: Is this good for humanity? If it isn’t, don’t do it. It’s a simple test. You will end up doing much less, by the way, if you follow this, as we saved you energy.
And then the rest, you simply balance things out. These roles come with trade-offs. Yes, you want to be the best mother or father and son or daughter and colleague and friend and so on and so forth, but there are trade-offs. And a lot of what Stoic philosophy tells you about, or teaches you about, is how to balance these things.
HOW DO YOU PLAY THESE ROLES?
Well, the most important thing is you play them with integrity. What does that mean?
Well, Epictetus again explains: “You are the one that knows yourself, of how much you’re worth to yourself and for how much you’re selling yourself. Consider at what price you sell your integrity, but please, for God’s sake, don’t sell it cheap.”
What that means is that the goal here is not to reach perfection, whatever that means; it’s just to be the best you can. Don’t compromise and sell yourself cheap, because you only have yourself to sell. That’s it.
Once you’ve sold yourself, then there’s nothing else left. The idea is to be not perfect but just better than you were yesterday, one little step at a time.
Now, let me give you a couple of examples. Epictetus talks about a father who is very distraught because his daughter is sick, and he just can’t take it. He leaves the house, and leaves his wife to deal with the daughter.
And Epictetus says, “Wait a minute. Do you think you were right to have acted that way?”
The father thinks about it for a minute and says, “Well, I was behaving naturally. I was, you know, distraught. I couldn’t help it.”
Well, that brings up the distinction between what is natural to us, our feelings — You don’t control your feelings. If you’re distraught because your daughter is sick, there’s nothing you can do or should do, probably, about it.
But that’s different from the ethical duty that you have toward your daughter: you are her father. You ‘re supposed to stay there even though it does cost you in terms of emotional energy.
So the two virtues that come into play here are courage, to actually do the right thing, to stay with the daughter, and justice, that is, do the just thing, the correct thing, for your daughter.
We also have to, as I said before, balance different social roles. And this has to do with two other virtues: the practical wisdom, the idea of knowing the difference between what’s good for you and what’s not good for you, and temperance, the idea that you can balance things by putting the right amount of energy into everything you do.
Epictetus explains it this way: Reflect on the other social roles you play. If you’re young, what does it mean to be young? If you’re old, what does age imply? If you’re a father, what does father entail? Each of our titles suggest the acts appropriate to it. Imagine you are an actor, you play a role.
Now, the role is not completely determined. You can play the role of a mother, for instance, in many ways. You don’t have to play in the way in which society largely tells you to play.
You just have to play in the way you think it’s the right way to play it. But still you’re a mother or a father, so you have certain duties. The way you cash out these duties, the way you actually exercise those duties, is up to you. But you do have them.
Now, how do we learn to play well our roles in life? There’s many ways — the Stoics were famous for a number of exercises, practical exercises, about these things — but fundamentally, one of the best ways to go is to simply imagine people that actually do well, people that are your role models, people that you can see and use as a pattern after which you change your own life.
The ancients used people that they knew, people that they heard about or even imaginary people. One of their favorite role models was Cato the Younger. I mentioned him earlier; he was the father of Porcia Catonis. He had such a level of integrity that when people in Rome did something wrong — they made a mistake, they didn’t hold up to expectations — they would say, “Well, not everybody can be a Cato.”
He was used as an excuse. It was like, “Not everybody can be that good.” Well, right, but you can try.
One of the favorite ancient role models was Odysseus, who gave up immortality twice and endured 10 years of traveling just to get back home, to get back to his wife and to his child.