Archive for the ‘Epictetus’ Category

Michael Frede “A Notion of a Person in Epictetus”

November 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Frede, Michael 2007. A Notion of a Person in Epictetus. – Theodore Scaltsas; Andrew S. Mason (eds). Philosophy of Epictetus. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 153-168.

The point Epictetus wants to make is this. People, in what they are doing, in thinking about what they ought to do, should always keep in mind who they are, the person they are, to make sure that what they do fits them, accords with the person they are. To be able to do this one has to know oneself, and one has to practise taking oneself into account in doing what one does. People, though, often are oblivious to themselves, to who they are, to their own person (I.2.14). (154)

As I have already indicated, a person, both in the ordinary and in the reflective, philosophical sense we are familiar with, is something such that it always is the same person. But this does not hold for Epictetus’ use. As we just saw, Helvidius Priscus, if he were struck from the rolls of the senate, would no longer be the same person, but a different person. And the same holds for our use of ‘the person somebody is’. (156)

When we talk of the person, or the sort of person, somebody is, we mainly think of the character or the personality-traits of somebody. This certainly is not what Epictetus primarily is thinking of. This is why I earlier was objecting to the translation of ‘pros¯opon’ in the title of I.2 as ‘character’. When Helvidius Priscus no longer is a senator, he is a different person, but his character will not have changed one iota. (156)

It is an obvious fact, but one little attention has been paid to, that down to the end of the fourth century BC nobody in extant Greek literature talks of human beings as ‘persons’. Neither Plato nor Aristotle in their voluminous works ever speak of human beings as ‘persons’ in any sense of the word, let alone in our ordinary or our philosophical sense of the word. The first time we clearly and unambiguously find something like the absolute,  reflective use of the word with which we are familiar from modern philosophy is in Boethius. In Contra Eutychen et Nestorium, ch. 3, Boethius defines a person as ‘an individual substance of such a nature as to be rational’. (157-158)

‘Pros¯opon’ originally means ‘face’, more precisely the face as you offer it to the sight of somebody who looks at you (cf. the formation of the German word ‘Antlitz’). It, on the basis of this, develops a number of secondary meanings, like ‘mien’ or ‘countenance’, but also ‘front’ or ‘fac¸ade’, ‘the part of something facing something else’. But the most important of these secondary meanings is that of ‘mask’, the mask worn by actors in a drama representing the characteristic features and mien of the character played. (158)

The crucial step was to extend the use of the word to the role a real human being plays in real life or to the person or the sort of person somebody is, for instance ‘the person of King Eumenes’ (Polyb., 27.7.4) or ‘the person of a beggar’ (Teles, VI.52.3 Hense). (159)

To begin with, ‘person’ is never, even nowadays in its ordinary use, just another word for ‘human being’. Moreover, if one looks at Gaius’ Law of Persons, what he is actually discussing are the various status of human beings under Roman law and what the conditions for change of status are. So personae are sorts of persons, that is human beings as they are sorted into different categories for the purposes of Roman law. (159)

But however this may be, it should be clear, given the original use of both words, ‘pros¯opon’ and ‘persona’, that the word ‘person’, in some sense or other of ‘person’, is borrowed from the theatre, that its use for actual human beings is a metaphorical use. (160)

The idea rather seems to be this. We are like actors (rather than the dramatis personae) in a drama. Actors have been given a certain dramatic part or role to play, and what matters is not the role they have been given, but that they play it well. Similarly we in real life have acquired a certain role to play, and what matters is not the role we have acquired, but that we play it well. It is clear from a number of passages that this is how Epictetus thinks of the metaphor (cf. e.g.Diss. I.29.45; frg. XI). (160)

„Remember that you are an actor in a drama. It is the teacher who gives you whichever role he wants to give you…whether he wants you to play a beggar, so that you also play a beggar well, or a lame man, or a ruler, or somebody without office. It is your part to act the given role well. To choose your role is somebody else’s matter.” (Epictetus, Encheiridion; 160)

A good or wise person is one who will play any role he is given well. (162)

Thus the way the notion of a person seems to enter philosophy is as the notion of the sort of person one is by playing a certain role in life. It is a normative notion. It is part of the very notion that the role you play in life as such does not matter. It thus makes the worthiness of human beings independent of the role they play in life. But it also is part of the notion that whatever role you play carries with it certain demands. And we judge you, not by your role, but by whether you live up to the demands of your role. (162)

Popular judgement as to the worth of a human being, and hence what we might call popular morality, is largely determined by two factors, by a ranking of people according to their roles and by how well somebody plays his role. Those who introduce the notion of a person clearly are revisionist in that they reject the ranking by roles. (162)

There is a metaphysical doctrine, which also plays a role in Stoic epistemology, namely the view that any particular or individual of any kind is a member of this kind by sharing a common quality (koin¯e poiot¯ es) with the other members of this kind, but is the particular individual it is by a quality peculiar to it (idia poiot¯ es)which distinguishes it qualitatively from all other members of the same kind (cf. SimpliciusIn Cat. 48.15). So any human being qualitatively differs from all other human beings. Here the uniqueness and individuality of a human being for the first time is given a metaphysical status. (165)

One ought to do things, or try to do things, which are suitable for the particular human being one is, for instance eat the food appropriate for one, pursue things which one has a particular talent for. By contrast, one should avoid things not suitable for the particular human being one is. For not to do so would be to be unreasonable. I already briefly have talked about the third and the fourth type of role, or of sort of person, Panaetius distinguishes. (166)

It is an important part of Epictetus’ thought about persons, which unfortunately I have no time to address, that various roles or sorts of person do not mix (IV.2.10). You cannot, he says, be pleasant to be with in a company of people given to heavy drinking and at the same time modest, orderly, decent (IV.2.6–10). (167)

So Epictetus is concerned with what we might call an integrated, coherent personality. This is what he praises about Socrates (I.25.31:hen ech¯on pros¯opon aei dietelei; cf. III.5.16). It is in this way that Epictetus in some places, like in I.2 or IV.3.3, comes to talk about the person one is. (167)

For it is only by being rational [human vs animal, not rational vs irrational], that we can be any sort of person at all. And it is on this basis that we think we are justified in expecting a certain kind of behaviour from human beings. We call them ‘persons’ in this sense to mark the fact that, given that they are rational, we regard certain forms of behaviour as appropriate and others as inappropriate for them. (168)