Epictetus, Identity, and Moral Self
For on whatever side “I” and “mine” are set, to that side the living creature must necessarily be inclined; if they’re in the flesh, it is there that the ruling power will reside; if in choice, the ruling power will be there; if in external things, it will be there.
Epictetus, Discourses, 2.22, 19
It is the most elegant and powerful explanation of human motivation I have ever come across. When I first read Epictetus describing the potent mixture of identity and belief that drives behavior, everything I had never understood about life clicked into place. In its breathtaking simplicity, this one principle describes actions both heinous and heroic, and everything in between.
Armed with this understanding, we no longer need to be surprised by what people do—we know their actions flow naturally from wherever they locate their good. If someone locates their good in elevating or preserving their social status, they will always act in a way that preserves their status, even if they have to sacrifice their friends or their character. Another person might locate their good in wealth, and for another it might be physical appearance or talent. Each of these people will make decisions about their life based on acquiring more of this “good.” Since none of us are sages, we each tend to locate our good in something external to us, and as a result we are motivated to pursue what we value. That’s how we end up chasing after things that, at best, can never make us happy, and at worst, can cause harm to those around us.
The question facing us as Stoics, then, is how to shift our values from external to internal goods. How do we convince ourselves to locate our good in our own character? It’s one thing to understand this idea in theory, but it’s something else entirely to live according to it every day. As I’ve tried to answer this question in my own practice, I’ve come to realize the answer is tied closely to our identity, or what you might call our sense of self. Epictetus tells us as much in the passage above: what else is our idea of “I” and “mine” but our sense of who we really are?
Epictetus doesn’t use terms like identity or self—these are modern terms—but he does have a similar concept, and he uses it all the time: prohairesis. Prohairesis is a protean concept that seems to act as something of a Rorschach test for Stoics; everyone sees something different in it and describes it in different ways. But it is some combination of agency and identity, both your choices and the disposition that leads to you make your choices (Frede, 2011; Graver, 2007; Long, 2002; see my interview last month with Michael Tremblay for an additional perspective.) It is our innermost core, that voice inside our heads, “our decision-making, purposive, and evaluative disposition.”(Long, 2002, p. 220). Prohairesis is the true essence of a person, who you really are as you make decisions about your life.
Our prohairesis is our immediate choice, the sum of our previous choices, and the dispositional cause of our future choices. In any given moment, you may confront a choice about whether or not to take a nap, or whether or not to criticize a friend behind their back. In that moment, you make your choice. But your choice is not merely the result of a moment. It results from the character you have created in yourself over your lifetime. It is based on all your previous choices and the person you have become.
Another way of looking at the concept is through Chrysippus’s cylinder analogy (Graver, 2007). Let’s say you are sitting around one day with some extra time on your hands and a few cans of soup in the pantry. (Obviously you’re on lockdown during a pandemic.) Since you have nothing else to do, you start rolling the soup cans to your toddler or your cat, and your thoughts turn philosophical. Why does the cylindrical can of soup roll? According to Chrysippus, there are two reasons. The proximate cause is that you, or your toddler or your cat, pushed the can and it rolled. But it wouldn’t have rolled if it were a different shape, like a pyramid or a rectangular prism. So the second part of the answer, the principal cause, is the shape of the object itself. Its inherent properties—the features that actually define what a cylinder is—are what make it roll. The cylinder wouldn’t roll in the same way if it had different properties. It behaves the way it does primarily because of what it is.
In the same way, our own actions (and desires, aversions, opinions, and motivations) are the direct result of who we are—the shape of our character, you might say. We make our choices based on what makes sense to us, given our experience and understanding of the world. Our prohairesis is our immediate choice, the sum of our previous choices, and the dispositional cause of our future choices. It is all these things because it is actually who we are. In modern terms, it is your moral self, or perhaps we could call it your moral identity.
Contemporary moral psychologist Augusto Blasi describes the process of creating a moral self as “appropriating the moral norms, principles, and values that one cares about to the developing sense of oneself and integrating them in the sense of who one is" (Blasi, 2004, p. 342). This is very similar to what Stoics do as we work toward a virtuous disposition. We integrate our beliefs about the world—beliefs we have arrived at via our experience and rationality—into our sense of who we are. Blasi outlines how this process might unfold:
Initially, being and wanting to be a good moral person is one self-concept among many others, and perhaps it is not more important for the sense of self than many other self-concepts. At some point and in some people, a selection takes place: certain aspects of oneself are considered to be more “true and real” than many others from the perspective of the sense of self. Eventually, at least for many adults, the various characteristics that are recognized as elements of one's definition are hierarchically organized, and the sense of self acquires unity and depth; the person thus acknowledges that a few aspects of himself or herself are the center or the essence of his or her being…
For these people new and important motives appear: the desire, indeed the need, to maintain one's identity, to exist as the person one feels to be at the core; and also the desire or the need to maintain its unity, to be internally consistent. Intentionally acting against one's core values and commitments is then experienced as self-betrayal and as a loss of one's self. (p. 342)
Notice that Blasi says “a selection takes place.” I think it’s a continuous process of selections—in other words, of choices, or to put it in more Stoic terms, of assents. As we go about our lives, we are constantly confronted with choices about how to respond and what actions to take. Each time we assent to an impression, we are integrating our beliefs about the world into our sense of self. We are deciding which of our beliefs or self-concepts (out of many) we should act on.
Notice also the importance of self-consistency, or what Blasi calls integrity, in this account of moral functioning. Once we form a moral identity, we are strongly motivated to act in accordance with that identity or we risk internal conflict. Many people, unfortunately, often use self-deceptive rationalizations to maintain their sense of themselves as moral, “even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” (Walker, 2004, p. 3). Obviously, that is something Stoics wish to avoid. It’s essential to be completely honest with ourselves about our own inner life, including our areas of improvement.
It’s possible that this is how we begin to locate our good in our own choices and virtuous disposition. Through a long process of integrating our beliefs with our identity, we develop a moral self that we are motivated to maintain in our thoughts and actions. Our rational understanding of virtue turns into our choices for virtue which slowly turns into a virtuous self. Blasi provides a plausible explanation of how this process might work:
Psychologically the motivational force of an ideal is far from being abstract, because it is progressively built on the accumulated effects of many concrete instances in which we actually experienced the importance, the value, and the beauty of the ideal. The ideal of justice, for instance, as psychologically felt, is neither constructed by learning the concept of justice and the various norms of fairness nor by being exposed to speeches about justice, even though all this may help; rather, it is formed by concretely experiencing in oneself and others the positive consequences of small and concrete actions of fairness and the damaging results of concrete injustices. (p. 343)
As we go about our lives, making our choices which accumulate into our character, we have a continuous feedback loop of information and impressions. Each assent to an impression reinforces that belief as part of who we are and what we stand for. As Epictetus says, “It cannot fail to come about that, as a result of the corresponding actions, some habits and capacities will be developed if they didn’t previously exist, while others that were already present will be reinforced and strengthened” (Discourse 2.18, 7).
We can build toward our virtuous ideal by incorporating each positive experience with (for example) justice into our developing sense of self. Every time we manage to act in a just way, we reinforce our perception of ourselves as just, thereby making our moral identity more important and salient to us. With each success, we come more and more to consider ourselves as just, which motivates us to continue acting justly. Eventually, perhaps, our sense of ourselves as just will be so complete that we’re actually unable to act unjustly.
So as you work toward becoming an excellent person, think about what kind of moral identity you have. Is your identity as a moral person more important to you--or less important--than other things? Is the decision you are making right now going to improve your character or not? No matter where you are in your Stoic journey, it is always within your power to try. So let the next impression you assent to be one that moves you closer to wisdom and happiness...and the next, and the next. Because as Epictetus reminds us (in Discourse 3.1, 40), “You yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice, and if you render that beautiful, then you yourself will be beautiful.”
Blasi, A. (2004). "Moral Functioning: Moral Understanding and Personality." In Moral
Development, Self, and Identity, eds. Daniel K. Lapsley and Darcia Narvaez. Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, NJ.
Frede, M. (2011). A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought. Ed. A.A. Long. University
of California Press: Berkeley.
Graver, M. (2007). Stoicism and Emotion. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
Long, A.A. (2002). Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. Oxford University Press: New
Walker, L. (2004). "Gus In the Gap: Bridging the Judgment-Action Gap in Moral Functioning." In
Moral Development, Self, and Identity, eds. Daniel K. Lapsley and Darcia Narvaez.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, NJ.