Saturday, December 10, 2005

I do not play Iago.

The noble-spirited man, we are told [ Fragment XI ], plays well whatever role the Deity assigns him. Oedipus the proud king or Oedipus the blind beggar & outcast. Odysseus in purple or Odysseus in rags.

That’s fine, I suppose, but what if the roles assigned to me are of a somewhat different character. Suppose I am assigned to play an Iago in this life. Or maybe I’m given a choice: you may play either an Iago or a MacBeth or a Richard III.
No, I refuse to play any of these roles.

“God would never assign any such roles to a good man.”
Really? Well, he seems comfortable assigning them to millions of others. He assigns the roles of thief and pervert and murderer and war criminal to millions of otherwise ordinary people who never wished for them. Why I am immune to such an assignment?

“What impiety! I bet you'll turn out to be the next Ted Bundy or William Calley.”
Sorry, I don’t do mass-murderers or war criminals either.
“ But if you are assigned one of those roles, you must and will play it, and probably play it very well."
No, I don’t think so.

The problem here, I hope you can see, is that the concept of “ the role in life assigned me by God” is useless, or even meaningless, as some philosophers would say. God does not show up at rehearsal and say to the actors, “These are the parts you play, willingly or unwillingly. Whatever you want or think or choose doesn’t matter. You WILL do as I say.” God does not "assign" us roles. Other people try to.

Our parents, our teachers, our friends, the state, society at large all try to pressure us into assuming certain roles. “You will go college and med school and become a successful doctor like your father. If you do, we will support you and give you a car & nice apartment and pay your tuition. If instead you wish to persist with this artist thing, then I think it’s time you moved out and found yourself an apartment and got a job to pay your own bills. Try that and see how you like living in poverty and squalor. The world needs doctors, not artists.”

And so it does. But I will not be “assigned” that role. I have chosen for myself the role of an artist. And if my parents and society and God don’t like, that’s tough.

“You will fail and suffer for your hubris.” Maybe. Probably. But I will fight relentlessly and without compromise for the life I WANT.
“Your life will not flow smoothly and tranquilly. The roles we occupy are not something in ourn power.”
I don’t expect it to, and we shall see whether I have the power to create the life I want. What I wish to do, you see, is to create something beautiful & true, not repose with the Lotus-eaters in a Prozac-fueled serenity. Conflict with the cultureless money-worshipping culture that surrounds me is an inevitable fact of life, but I have chosen that conflict and I am proud of it.

Do you see the attitude I'm trying to illustrate? A life is a terrible thing to waste. We run straight at that danger when we start thinking in terms of “accepting the roles assigned to us” by anyone. This is not a play, it’s real life. We will accomplish with our life what we go after relentlessly with all our resources and skills and heart. Do not accept anything.

2 Comments:

Blogger Bill Vallicella said...

Blog on, my man, you are starting to get the hang of it.

7:11 PM  
Blogger Henry Jones said...

Your interpretation of the 'actor in a play' analogy is wrong.

Epictetus does not say that God assigns us to play the role of a good person or an evil person. He says that we are assigned roles as friends, parents, disabled people, shopkeepers, and so forth. It is up to us how we engage with those roles. How we do that will determine whether we are good people of bad people.

5:42 PM  

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