The One Habit of a Highly Successful Stoic by Brian Earl Johnson

The Quest to Get Organized

When I was starting graduate school, I was very concerned about how I was going to manage it all. I had already worked hard as an undergraduate, sometimes juggling six classes a semester. But, I knew that the workload was about to get tougher because I was headed off to a graduate school that proudly sold t-shirts emblazoned with “Where fun goes to die” and “Hell does freeze over.”

Detecting my uncertainty, a buddy recommended that I get organized with a day planner. He was a fan of the Franklin Planner system and he urged me to take the seminar. I definitely like what I saw in the seminar, especially its emphasis on determining what my values are. Since I was already planning on studying philosophy with an emphasis on ancient ethics, I felt entirely comfortable defining my values. One of the clearest then was a commitment to lifelong learning.

While the Franklin Planner brought some measure of order in all I had to do, something wasn’t quite working, either. The paper planner was cumbersome, especially since it had two full pages for each day. Since it made sense to carry a full semester or quarter at a time, it was a heavy book that had to go around with me to my classes. At that time, there were certainly electronic organizers (Palm Pilots), but I did not find those satisfactory either. Paper was both tactile and larger so it engaged my senses better; I have felt vindicated about that dissatisfaction now that an emerging set of studies show that we learn better when we write by hand and when we use printed books as opposed to ebooks.

And, something else was awkward for me with the planner: as a student, my schedule was relatively fixed so the primary “action” of my planner was in the sprawling to do list. In the paper planner, the to do list is kept in a kind of bookmark that one moves with each day. My list felt out of control because it was constantly having new items (such as reading assignments or test preparation) and it seemed so Sisyphean to keep re-writing it on new cardstock.

In my third year of graduate school, two books came my way at just the right time to help me solve this ongoing puzzle about how to organize my life.

First, I read Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I read the book because I had decided to work over the summer at a retail store where the Franklin Planner company sold their products. The had merged with Stephen Covey’s organization to become Franklin-Covey. (Although they are now out of the brick and mortar storefronts, the company remains by having returned to its roots in offering seminars on getting organized). I liked many ideas contained therein from the so-called “big rocks” exercise to its approach to negotiating: win-win or no deal

But, I was most taken with how Covey approached getting organized. Not only did he prefer the broader week-at-a-glance approach, but he urged that we organize our life around our roles. He writes that

We each have a number of different roles in our lives – different areas or capacities in which we have responsibility. I may, for example, have a role as an individual, a husband, a father, a teacher, a church member, and a businessman. And each of these roles is important.” (from the chapter, “Begin with the End in Mind”)

He adds that, when we draw up a mission statement for our lives (a common practice in the “get organized” literature), we should look at each of your roles. “What are the values that should guide you [in those roles]?”

Second, in my Greek reading group at school, I was assigned the job of translating and commenting on Epictetus’ Discourses 1.2, “How may a man preserve his roles on every occasion?” That discourse resonated powerfully with the approach I had already learned from Covey. I had been experimenting with organizing my life around my roles and I had found, exactly as Epictetus declared in Discourses 2.10 that once we know our roles, it is often immediately obvious what to do. In turn, this role-bound approach helped me to see with greater clarity what was more important (as opposed to what was merely urgent but not important) — another helpful idea I had picked up from Covey.

It was the confluence of these two books that started me on my path of researching Epictetus, eventually yielding my own book on him, The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life.

The Habit of Epictetus: Identify and Prioritize Your Important Roles

Foundational to Epictetus’ account of roles is his distinction between two sets of roles: one set contains a single member, our role as a human being. The other set includes the myriad of our specific roles such as sister, brother, citizen, teacher, soldier, and so on. These latter roles entail natural relations of family but also acquired roles of marriage, friendship, and our profession.

From the get go, Epictetus insists that our human role is the most fundamental and we must never compromise our humanity — lest we become wild beasts, sheep, or worms. This role requires that we must act as human beings. For ancient philosophers, being human is a normative concept: a human being is not whatever a human being does. If we act like beasts, for example, we have failed our humanity and become no better (if not worse) than a dumb animal. For a Stoic, that is a fate worse than death.

What does our role as a human being require of us? Here are some highlights according to Epictetus:

—To be rational. Epictetan rationality has both an internal and an external aspect. Internally, rationality pertains to how we use our mind; we must be logical. Externally, rationality means that we deal with each other by means of persuasion instead of by the fist. Of course, I may have to raise my own fist to protect myself against those who are blatantly irrational, but force is always the last recourse. Animals, by contrast, have violence as their first and only recourse.

—To act as a citizen of the world. Cosmopolitanism was first explicitly identified as a virtue by Diogenes the Cynic, but it was the Stoics who made it a universal value. We should all recognize that we are citizens of the world first and then, secondarily, citizens of some local state.

—To treat externals as indifferent. The Stoics readily accept that life presents us with a wide array of preferables (health, political freedom, family, etc.) and we should pursue them. But, we should not, they held, treat such externals as ethical goods. By this stance, he believes, we preserve our volition and our inner freedom. We also eliminate the passions.

—To engage in self-reflection, that is, to examine our actions from an ethical point of view.

About our various specific roles, Epictetus has much to say, but I would like to extract two key ideas for this blog post.

First, Epictetus is emphatic that we limit our specific roles to our capacities, to what we can do. He considers this aspect utilizing both a humble and a grand-scale example. On the humble scale, he talks with a man who unrealistically fantasizes about outfitting his city with civic structures because it has need of them. Epictetus replies that the city also has need of shoemakers and blacksmiths. It is:

sufficient if each man fulfill his own proper function … ‘What place, then, shall I have in the State? says he. Whatever place you can have and at the same time maintain the man of fidelity and self-respect that is in you. (Handbook, 24.4, Oldfather translation)

Epictetus similarly wonders about the grand-scale role of Socrates, a role that demanded immense prowess. In looking to that role, Epictetus urges us to recognize that not all horses can become swift (Discourses 1.2.24). We should recognize that Socrates was a kind of Olympian of the spirit and surely only a few have the talents to compete in the Olympics.

In both cases, I am reminded of Cal Newport’s iconoclastic book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You in which he argues, in almost Stoic fashion, that basing your career on passion is dangerous. Newport urges that we should adopt the mindset of a craftsman who utilizes deliberate practice to make his abilities so good one can’t be ignored. Or, as Epictetus puts it:
Yet a bull does not become a bull all at once, any more than a man becomes noble, but a man must undergo a winter training, he must prepare himself and must not plunge recklessly into what is inappropriate for him. (
Discourses 1.2.32).

Second, these roles define who we are and they are absolutely worth living for and dying for. This life and death language is especially dramatic in Discourses 1.2 where Epictetus is debating about an imperial order that all philosophers shave their beards. For Epictetus, a philosopher’s beard has the same status as, say, a modern Sikh and his beard and turban. Epictetus sardonically observes that the Emperor may cut off Epictetus’ head but not his philosopher’s beard because Epictetus’ role is not up to the Emperor (1.2.28-29). In much the same way, Epictetus praises the Olympic athlete who chose death rather than a life-saving medical castration because such s castration would have meant giving up his role as an Olympian (1.2.25-26). Better a dead Olympian, than a role-less man.

Epictetan Success

By appealing to our roles, Epictetus has hit upon a language that his listeners evidently found meaningful and intuitive. Given the popularity of Stephen Covey’s work, this role language still resonates. We should ask, then, what is the highly successful Stoic? On Epictetus’ terms, such a Stoic is four things:

  1. One is fundamentally a good person because one’s humanity is the bedrock of all action.
  2. One is a motivated person; that is, one is motivated to realize one’s roles because it is essential to who one is. Our roles determine what we see as reasonable or unreasonable. Epictetus points out how we can endure anything we find to be reasonable (1.2.1-8).
  3. One is a realistic person; by selecting roles that match our talents, we set realistic goals about what success for us should look like. In rather inspirational language he says, “For I shall not be a Milo [a great wrestler] … and yet I do not neglect my body ; nor a Croesus [an extremely wealthy King], and yet I do not neglect my property ; nor, in a word, is there any other field in which we give up the appropriate discipline merely from despair of attaining the highest” (1.2.37)
  4. One is a patient person; what matters is playing one’s role well. “Remember that you are an actor in a play … For this is your business, to play admirably the role assigned you …” (Ench. 17)

Roles without Stoicism?

Although Epictetus was quite the purist about Stoicism and he could be quite austere — even morbid (cf. fragment 26) — in his advice, he seems to have been open to the possibility that appealing to roles is meaningful even for those who are not Stoics.

Epictetus reveals this side when he says: 

for I should not be unfeeling like a statue,  but should preserve my natural and acquired relations as a man who honors the gods, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a citizen” (3.2.4; my translation).

And, he puts that into practice in Discourses 1.11, “Of family affection,” when he talks with a father who ran away (owing to grief) from a sick daughter. It would have been all too easy for Epictetus to tell this father that his daughter is not a good, that she is a matter of indifference (cp. 3.3.5-10). Instead, he engages the father (dare I say with empathy?) in an exchange about what it is most natural for a father to do: to care for his child.

This side of Epictetus has always been welcome news to me since I do not, in fact, consider myself a Stoic. But, in committing myself to the fulfillment of my roles, I readily consider myself an Epictetan. It was Covey who taught me that roles are the key to getting organized, but it was Epictetus who taught me that roles are the key to realizing virtue.


Brian Earl Johnson is an associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University in New York City. He earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 2007 and specializes in ancient Greek and Roman ethics. Johnson is the author of The Role Ethics of Epictetus. He has contributed an essay, “The American Diogenes: Mark Twain’s Sacred Profanity” in the volume, Mark Twain and Philosophy. He also appears in chapter 2 in Mark Adam’s hilarious book, Meet Me In Atlantis; therein, Adams and Johnson discuss the origin of the Atlantis myth in Plato.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.