Our many roles in life have a profound effect on how we live our life. From a very practical perspective, we see that they direct our conduct toward others and make our goals clear to us. The ancient philosopher Epictetus (55 C.E.) knew very well the importance of roles to one’s life and, consequently, incorporated it into his lifestyle philosophy. That I call it a “lifestyle” philosophy comes as no surprise as evidenced by the fact that his philosophy is greatly concerned about how one is to approach life. The goal of philosophy, for him, was to arrive at joy and tranquility in life as he says, “So the struggle…is over no slight matter, but whether we are to be mad or sane.”[1] My modest goal in this little essay is to simply expound Epictetus’s teachings on roles, bring them into a modern context, and show how his philosophy can lead to the joy and peace that he sought.

For Epictetus, a role is our place in the world determined by the relation that we hold to other people as well as our mental and physical talents. Our roles tell us how we, individually, should try to live our life. This is precisely what is meant when Epictetus says “Appropriate actions are measured on the whole by our social relationships”[2]  and “If you wanted to be a wrestler, you’d have to look at your shoulders, your back, your thighs; for different people are made for different things.”[3] Roles tell us who we are, and knowing who we are tells us what we should do in life. Likewise, roles tell us who we are not, and knowing who we are not tells us what we should not do. A son should not rule his father, for he is his son, and it is not the nature of a son to rule but to obey the direction of the father.[4] So all people have their roles and their roles determine their duties.

“But how do we know which roles a person has?” For Epictetus, the matter is simple. Look at your relationship to other people. If you are a son or a daughter, then act as a son or daughter would, for that is who you are. If you a father or a mother, then act as they would act. If you are a governor, then act as a good governor would act, care for your subjects. And do the same with every position among people you hold. Also, look at your talents or abilities. If you are strong, then become a soldier or fill any other occupation in which physical strength is needed for success. If you have a talent for woodwork, then become a carpenter. If you are good with numbers, then become an engineer, mathematician, or the like. Fill whatever role that you would excel in the most, given your allotment of talents.

However, it may be argued that Epictetus’s view does not apply to every person. For example, it does not seem to apply to a person who is in a coma. This person is not able to have the same relationship that a sibling or parent normally would. Neither can this person be a carpenter or anything of that sort. So it would seem that not every person has a role since people in this state have so little consciousness that they are not able to actively interact with anybody or anything. Though, I argue that a state of full consciousness is not necessary to have a role, because a role simply means to stand in a relation to others. Notice the things that a person uses in daily life. A piece of paper has a role for a writer, thus the paper has a role to be written upon by a writer. A block of wood has many roles, all depending on who makes use of it (sculptor, shipbuilder, etc.). All these things, although lacking in consciousness, have roles, because they stand in a relationship with other things (i.e., people). It is by virtue of the relationship between the paper and the writer that the paper is written upon by the writer at the writer’s will. The coma patient has the same kind of passive role. Who will doctors care for if not for patients? Surely, a doctor needs patients in order to fulfill the role of a doctor. How will a writer be a writer without paper? So the coma patient has a role of being a patient of the doctor, without which he would not be a doctor. Also, if this patient has a mother or a father, then there still exists a relationship between mother or father and child. Just as the doctor needs patients to be a doctor, so do the parents need children to fulfill the role of being a parent. So the patient still plays the passive role of being someone’s child.

From what is shown, each person has a role in life, which is established by a specific person’s relation to other people. These roles guide our interactions with others by the duties and obligations that a role carries, and from the duties of our roles, we find our meaning or purpose in life. For example, if you are a judge, one of your meanings in life is to administer justice to the best of your ability. Or put simply, your meaning is to be a judge, a father, a son, or whatever roles you have.

The meaning that roles give to our lives can lead to improved mental health, as shown by Peggy Thoits’s article, “Role Identity Salience, Purpose and Meaning in Life, and Well-Being among Volunteers”. The article uses as its theoretical background symbolic interactionism theory, which has similarities to Epictetus’s views on roles. The most striking of the similarities is how a role is defined. In symbolic interactionist theory, roles are “positions in the social structure to which behavioral expectations, including reciprocal rights and obligations, are attached.”[5] In other words, roles are determined and come about by the nature of the relationship between persons. Along with these roles, are attached duties and obligations. This is almost a direct copy of Epictetus’s view in his Manual. Because of this similarity, this article puts Epictetus in a modern context, as the discussion of mental health has increased in popularity since the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.

This study attempts to show that a person who views one’s roles as important (salient) is linked to a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life. And that a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life is linked to better mental health.[6] The roles that we have are of various different levels of importance to us in our life. A mother may hold that her role as “the one who provides for the family” at a higher level of value than her role as “a participant in the nation’s economy” which she, or anyone else, hardly thinks about. A striving student may view as more valuable the role of “studying for the future in order to make a valuable contribution to the world” than he does of his role as “worker who makes it possible for the restaurant to operate efficiently”. It is because we have roles that we value that our lives seem to have some sort of direction and purpose. And without having any roles that we value, our lives would seem meaningless and lacking in purpose. This is because roles provide us with an answer to the question of “Who am I?”[7]. They show us what our goals are and give us direction on how we should act in order to achieve them. From the sense of meaning, purpose, direction, and goals provided by our roles, we arrive at better psychological health.

The results of the study support these hypotheses. The study consisted of a questionnaire and a subsequent interview. In the questionnaire, the subjects were asked questions about how happy or satisfied they were with their lives and whether they felt their lives had meaning or purpose. They were asked whether or not they experienced any signs of depression or anxiety in the past month. They were also asked how important their role was to them as a volunteer with a self-help organization and how much time they spent visiting patients. The results show that those who spent more hours in their work showed better mental health, and those who placed importance in their role as volunteer saw their life as having meaning and purpose. And finally, it found that those who saw their life as having meaning and purpose showed better mental health or psychological well-being. This is how the article demonstrates a connection from seeing one’s roles as important, to believing one’s life to have meaning, to better mental health.

However, it may be argued against this theory that roles are the source of our anxieties and contribute negatively to our mental health. After all, our roles seem to be the source of nearly all of the stress, anxiety, and depression we experience every day. We shall begin by looking in the workplace. Our jobs seem to be an ever-flowing fount of stress and anxiety as deadline after deadline weighs upon us without pause. Look at how your job ties you down and holds you back from doing the numerous other activities you would rather enjoy. Even if you manage to escape these terrors, you will still spend your whole life long in horror as your imagination runs wild just thinking of all of the ways your source of employment may be lost. What if I make a mistake and lose my job, after all, no one is perfect? What if the economy topples and my employer no longer needs me? What, then, will come of me if any of these things happen? If you look at all of the troubles that our jobs supply to us, you will find that there are enough of them to wipe away all signs of peace and well-being. This is because all roles imply obligations and duties. And obligations and duties cause us mental strife when we cannot live up to them or even if we only fear we cannot live up to them.

Next, move to the household, where the troubles and anxieties of the husband become the troubles and anxieties for the wife and vice versa. If the husband losses his job, the wife too is in sorrow. They expend all of their energies and expenses to rear respectable children, and this surely causes much stress for them both. And after all this is done, who knows what kind of citizens those once innocent children will become. If they do become rascals, then how much heartbreak will both the parents have after they tried so hard to prevent such a thing. Here we see clearly how the obligations and duties associated with being a parent cause more troubles than peace of mind. If you look close enough, you will find that in every role, there are duties and obligations the result of which is that the more roles a person has, the more miserable life must be.

This is certainly a valid objection. It would seem that, according to these observations, roles are also a source of mental strife. But Epictetus would argue that the role is not the true source of this strife. This becomes clear when he says things like, “It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them.”[8] In other words, it is not roles that cause us mental strife, but it is our own opinions that we form concerning them. To better understand why Epictetus would say such unusual things, we must examine his understanding of the proper moral character (what he calls prohairesis).

For Epictetus, and for the stoics broadly, virtue is the only good and vice is the only bad. Epictetus describes virtue as our ability to hold correct opinions about things that happen externally or which are simply external to us (these are simply referred to as “externals”). An example of some externals may be our ageing, illness, success or failure in life, and anything which is outside of the motivating power of our being, which we call “the will.” In this sense, virtue does not consist of possessions, honor, success, because these “things” are not you; they are external to who you really are. Moreover, these things are out of your control. There is no guarantee that if you do what seems to be the right thing, you will have success in life or be honored. Even if you try as hard as you can, there is no guarantee that you will avoid becoming ill or avoid death. Virtue cannot rest on these things, because it would seem counter-intuitive to base virtue on things that are out of your control. But, virtue and vice are based on the way that we react or hold opinions about externals.

Now, opinions about externals can be of three types. We can hold the opinion that an external, like illness, is bad. We can also hold that avoiding illness is good. But these things are not in our power. And what is the only good, virtue, and what is the only bad, vice, are completely within our power and up to us. So we must conclude that externals are indifferent, neither good nor bad, since they lie outside of our power and thus, outside of virtue and vice. This is the third, correct and virtuous opinion that we can hold about externals: that everything that happens to us, the outcomes of our actions, or any of the externals are indifferent.

How does all of this counter the stress that is sometimes associated with roles? What all of this means is that if some kind of trouble arises in the workplace or at home or anywhere, you should not be troubled over it. Because these things are indifferent to what is really good or bad, they are nothing to be troubled by. Moreover, these things are out of your control, so it makes no difference to the outcome if you are upset, which is a vice since by being upset, you posit that what happened is truly bad. It makes no difference to the outcome if you are upset, so you should embrace virtue by regarding the “trouble” as it really is, as indifferent, move on and continue to try your best. This attitude towards life is captured beautifully by Keith Seddon when he writes, “The excellent archer does all within her power to shoot well, and she recognises that doing her best is the best she can do.”[9] Notice that the true striving is for “doing her best”. This is the way a person lives virtuously, since doing your best is always in your power. We should not worry ourselves about the greatness of the outcome, for that is out of our control. We should only seek to try our best, and outside of doing our best, we should not worry because our best is the best we could have done. “The non-Stoic views success in terms of hitting the target, whereas the Stoic views their success in having shot well.”[10] The focus of your life should not be in the outcomes you produce, nor should the focus of your life be in “getting what you want”, but in doing the things that are given for you to do to the best of your ability. If you have done this, then you have shot well.

One last important distinction on behalf of Epictetus is that the goal is not to achieve, in your life, a completely desireless, passionless, and emotionless state. Indeed, the very goal for Epictetus is to lead a life full of joy and peace, not merely passive resignation, but an active acceptance of one’s fate or destiny. There is a sense where certain desires, passions, emotions are to be stifled, but this is only when they concern externals that are out of our power. On the other hand, we must learn to find pleasure and joy in what is in our power. Thus, we must be careful with what we invest our desires in. For if we invest our desires in things that are not within our power, and since the desire fully hopes and expects the attaining of what is desired, we shall be miserable.[11] For example, our desire and our focus in life should not simply be in attaining whatever our hearts desire without restraint, such that our goal is to have everything go our way.[12] But, in order to properly invest our desires, we must embrace with joy what Nature has given to us to be in our power. We should focus on the given-ness of life. For Epictetus, this is the core of one’s duty: “Remember that you’re an actor in a play, which will be as the author chooses, short if he wants it to be short, and long if he wants it to be long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, act even that part with all of your skill; and likewise if you’re playing a cripple, an official, or a private citizen. For that is your business, to act the role that is assigned to you as well as you can; but it is another’s part to select that role.”[13]

[1] Epictetus, Robin Hard, and Christopher Gill, Discourses, Fragments, Handbook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 286

[2] Ibid. 295.

[3] Ibid. 172.

[4] Ibid. 295.

[5] Peggy A. Thoits, “Role-Identity Salience, Purpose and Meaning in Life, and Well-Being among Volunteers,” Social Psychology Quarterly 75, no. 4 (November 2012): pp. 360-384, https://doi.org/10.1177/0190272512459662, 361.

[6] Ibid. 363, see Figure 1.

[7] Ibid. 361.

[8] Epictetus, Robin Hard, and Christopher Gill, Discourses, Fragments, Handbook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 288.

[9] Keith H Seddon, “Epictetus | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” accessed April 18, 2020, https://www.iep.utm.edu/epictetu/, e. ii..

[10] Ibid.

[11] Epictetus, Robin Hard, and Christopher Gill, Discourses, Fragments, Handbook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 287.

[12] Ibid. 289. “Don’t seek that all that comes about should come about as you wish, but wish that everything that comes about should come about as it does, and you’ll have a calm and happy life.”

[13] Ibid. 291-292.

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