Epictetus on Being a Better Person

What Does it Take to be a Good Person?

No one wants to be a bad person — at least, I assume that that is the case. Where the difficulty and disagreements lie, however, is in just what constitutes a “good person” and how one is to achieve actually being a “good person” at all. There are a variety of theories as to how to best make moral judgments, most of which fall under the headings of “deontological” and “consequentialist” ethics.

  • First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.
    - Epictetus, Concerning such as read and dispute ostentatiously. Chap. xxiii.

    Deontological ethics are duty based: good actions are those which follow the rules and bad actions are those which don’t. If you “do your duty,” then you are a good person. Consequentialist ethics are based, naturally, on consequences: good actions are those which have good consequences and bad actions on those which have bad consequences. If you strive to ensure that all your acts have good results, then you are a good person.

    One way of looking at ethics which is often forgotten is known as “virtue ethics.” This understanding of ethics focuses upon the whole person rather than individual actions taken out of context. According to various forms of virtue ethics, a “good person” is one who strives to embody basic virtues like courage, charity, and justice. If you want to be a good person, you must be a just person — and the way to be “just” is to practice justice.

    There are weaknesses in virtue-based ethics, but they do make an important point about understanding the whole person and trying to integrate one’s actions into an entire life.

    The above quotation from Epictetus exemplifies, at least in some ways, this sort of concern: first understand what sort of person you want to be and then, to be that person, you must do the sorts of things which characterize such a person.

    If you want to be a good person, you must look at what you think of what characterizes a good person — for example, being charitable.

    But you won’t acquire the characteristic “charitable” just by sitting around and reading Aristotle; for that, you must practice charity — for example, by donating time at a soup kitchen. After this sort of practice becomes a habit and second-nature — that is to say, something you don’t have to think about doing deliberately — then it is a quality you posses.

    The quotation from Epictetus can be have a broader application as well. It seems to me that it can be express advice for anyone seeking any sort of goal but who is unsure of how to begin. If you want to become a physician, for example, you won’t achieve that either just by sitting around and reading medical books. Instead, you must actually go out into the world and take action to become a healer.

    Too often people sit around and merely think about what they want or might like to achieve; too few actually go out and take action to make those desires a reality. Perhaps this is part of the human condition, I don’t know. Where do you fall in this — do you make the effort to go out and act?