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.
But there’s also modern role models, and there’s a lot of them to pick from. Some of my favorites are Nelson Mandela, who, as we know, spent more than 20 years in prison fighting the apartheid regime. He was very angry, understandably, during that period.
But one of the changing points in his life was when one of his fellow inmates smuggled in a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.” Mandela read it and understood that the way forward was not through anger or hatred, but on the contrary, by extending a hand also to the people, even to the people who were his captors and his tormentors. And that changed his life and changed the life of the people in South Africa.
Another one of my favorite role models is Susan Fowler, who a couple of years ago came out and stood up to the Uber motor company to denounce their sexual harassment culture that was quite widespread at the time.
She risked a lot personally, in terms of career, in terms of friendships, and she did it from a Stoic perspective. I happen to know Susan, and she is, in fact, a practicing Stoic.
My favorite role model at a fictional level is Spider-man, who famously said that with great powers come great responsibility. Well, we don’t have great powers — we’re not superheroes — but we do have power. We have the power of exercising choices, and that power comes with the responsibility of exercising the best choice we can possibly make.
So the general idea, according to Epictetus, is that just like actors in the ancient world, in ancient Greece, we wear a number of masks, and we change them continuously. The same actor would come out on stage and wear a different mask, and the mask will tell the audience which character he was playing in the moment, and it would remind the actor himself that he was now playing a different character.
And the idea is that a happy life is, in fact, a life well-balanced, where you play all these roles as the best actor you can possibly be.
Thank you very much.
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