Examples of Character

"But this," you say, "would not be worthy of me."

Well, then, it is you who must introduce this consideration into the inquiry, not I. For it is you who know yourself how much you are worth to yourself, and at what price you sell yourself. Men sell themselves at various prices.

For this reason, when Florus was deliberating whether he should go down to Nero's spectacles and perform in them himself, Agrippinus said to him, "Go down": and when Florus asked Agrippinus, "Why do not you go down?" Agrippinus replied, "Because I do not even deliberate about the matter." For he who has once brought himself to deliberate about such matters, and to calculate the value of external things, comes very near to those who have forgotten their own character. For why do you ask me the question, whether death is preferable or life? I say "life." "Pain or pleasure?" I say "pleasure." But if I do not take a part in the tragic acting, I shall have my head struck off. Go then and take a part, but I will not. "Why?" You consider yourself to be only one thread of those which are in the tunic. Well then, it is fitting for you to take care how you should be like the rest of men, just as the thread has no design to be anything superior to the other threads. But I wish to be purple, that small part which is bright and makes all the rest appear graceful and beautiful. Why then do you tell me to make myself like the many? If I do, how shall I still be purple?

Priscus Helvidius also saw this, and acted conformably. For when Vespasian sent for him and commanded him not to go into the Senate, he replied, "It is in your power not to allow me to be a member of the Senate, but so long as I am, I must go in." "Well, go in then," says the emperor, "but say nothing." "Do not ask my opinion, and I will be silent." "But I must ask your opinion." "And I must say what I think right." "But if you do, I shall put you to death." "When then did I tell you that I am immortal? You will do your part, and I will do mine. It is your part to kill. It is mine to die, but not in fear. It is your part to banish me; mine to depart without sorrow."

What good then did Priscus do, who was only a single person? And what good does the purple do for the toga? Why, what else than this, that it is conspicuous in the toga as purple, and is displayed also as a fine example to all other things? But in such circumstances another would have replied to Caesar who forbade him to enter the senate, "I thank you for sparing me." But such a man the Emperor Vespasian would not even have forbidden to enter the Senate. He knew that such a man would either sit there like an earthen vessel, or, if he spoke, he would say what Caesar wished, and add even more.

In this way an athlete also acted who was in danger of dying unless his private parts were amputated. His brother came to the athlete, who was a philosopher, and said, "Come, brother, what are you going to do? Shall we amputate this member and return to the gymnasium?" But the athlete persisted in his resolution and died. "How did he do this, as an athlete or a philosopher?" As a man, and a man who had been proclaimed among the athletes at the Olympic games and had contended in them, a man who had been familiar with such a place, and not merely anointed in Baton's school. Another would have allowed even his head to be cut off, if he could have lived without it. Such is that regard to character which is so strong in those who have been accustomed to think in a certain way of themselves that they conform themselves to the highest principles.

For Epictetus, and for most of the stoics, there is a limit to the amount a person should make himself subservient to other humans. The limit is found where a person's basic principles are confronted. Here Epictetus has given several examples of people who defied the highest power in Rome or faced the very extremity of vicissitude. The story of Agrippinus is sufficient to illustrate the point. Like many other noble Romans he had been ordered to act out depraved parts in one of Nero's shows.

Nero, who was pretty much a failure as a Roman Emperor and administrator, saw himself as a great actor and even as a gladiator. He pranced about on stage to the forced applause of his subjects. He expected the Roman nobility to do the same. Agrippinus declined the Emperor's demand. This seems a strange example when Epictetus has already told that the slave should do his master's bidding. But there is a difference between these two examples. In the first we considered human action alone. In the second we see human action tied to a principle. For Agrippinus the principle was the traditional freedom and rights of the Roman Senate.

Agrippinus was given a choice, either participate in Emperor Nero's farces, or face execution or loss of his property and banishment. Because the first choice violated his principles as a free Roman, he did not even consider this choice. For him it was not an option.

In the same way, the early Apostles would not disavow their beliefs when persecuted. Stephen is a perfect example. In Chapter 7 of Acts he is brought before the Sanheddrin. There he is given the choice to disavow his belief in Jesus. This he refuses to do. In fact, he gives a sermon and promptly seals his fate. Had he backed down, his life would have been saved. Instead, he was stoned. In verse 60 we can still hear his voice reverberating down the centuries, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin." The verse also records, "And when he had said this, he fell asleep." - meaning he finally succumbed to the rocks raining down upon him.

Our choices are not always so dramatic or life-threatening. But we too make choices everyday that confront our conscience, our beliefs and our principles. It can be something as simple as copying an answer from a test-paper or copying software (or music) illegally. Yet how we choose in these cases is an indication of the content of our character, even as exercising the right choices helps mold our character in a positive way.

And what does Epictetus mean in these paragraphs when he goes on about "the purple"? The Roman nobility wore togas that were trimmed in purple. It was the mark that set them apart. What Epictetus wants us to understand by these references is that an action might seem futile on the face of it. But the action serves to dignify the person who takes it, and also to set a shining example for those who come after.

Chapter 2:

  1. How to Maintain Proper Character
  2. Chamber Pots and Character (2a)
  3. Examples of Character (2b)
  4. Philosophers and Beards (2c)
  5. A Soul's Worth (2d)
Stoicism and Christianity Index

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This is a translation and explanation of the first book of the Discourses of Epictetus. His words are in regular text, comments are in bold.

Biographical Information on Epictetus

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