Do you know who you should be?

How Stoic role ethics guides the way

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

The Delphic Oracle urged anyone who approached Apollo’s temple to know thyself. Thousands traveled to hear her pronounce who they were and who they should be.

Like Greeks waiting on the words of the Priestess of Apollo, young Romans turned to Epictetus to discover their identities. They too wanted to know their own nature and Fate.

Epictetus offered an answer:

You are a human being; that is, a mortal animal, capable of a rational use of things as they appear. And what is this rational use? A perfect conformity to Nature.

Epictetus, Discourses 3.1

According to the Stoics, who you should be is determined by your roles. This is a deceptively simple idea that, in my opinion, is one of Stoicism’s most powerful and life-guiding ones.

There are two kinds of roles: universal, roles we share, and specific, unique roles.

All of us share the role of being human – we’re rational creatures meant to live according to Nature. That means pursuing knowledge and wisdom to the best of our abilities. We practice this by accurately identifying what is up to us and what is not.

The next kind of role is specific:

So here we take it to be the work of one who studies philosophy, to...lead their own lives without sorrow, fear, or perturbation, and in society to preserve all the natural or acquired relations of son, father, brother, citizen, husband, wife, neighbor, fellow traveler, ruler, or subject.

Epictetus, Discourses 2.14

These roles depend on our relationships, talents, and preferences. Some relationships are chosen while others are unchosen bonds – like our family and city. Our talents or constitution limit who we can be. In those limits, we find freedom. Finally, our choices and preferences narrow our purpose further. We come into the world with natural inclinations. Follow them.

These roles form a hierarchy. First, we should fulfill our human role, then the roles given by our relationships, then talents, and, last, preferences. This rules out anti-social and unjust roles that harm humanity. For example, Epictetus’s teacher, Musonius Rufus, advised his students to be loyal to their parents (a natural relationship) – but that doesn’t mean we should obey them when their requests are made out of ignorance.

With this framework, Epictetus’s students were able to narrow down who they should be. We can do the same.

🎯 Action

Pause and remind yourself of your specific roles.

As inspiration, consider Epictetus’s list:

It is necessary that I not be unfeeling as a statue, but that I preserve my relationships, the natural and acquired ones, as a pious man, son, brother, father, and citizen.

Epictetus, Discourses 3.2

🔗 Links

💬 An intriguing quote about the nature of freedom and limitation from the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz:

If you truly yearn to be free, you must first recognize all the ways you are unfree. Only after constructing a complete catalogue of the constraints upon you can you begin to consider which ones you can and want to diminish or eliminate and at what cost (to you and others you cherish). Your self-liberation will be complete when you are left with constraints to which you willingly, perhaps even eagerly, submit.

Thomas Szasz, Words to the Wise

🧙 If you want to go deep into this issue the best academic treatment is Brian Johnson’s The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life.

📗 Against making a difference – why role ethics a true and how other modern can ethics mislead us.

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