Play The Part You’re Given: Epictetus, Teles, and Shakespeare

Epictetus, Encheiridion, 17

“Remember that you are an actor in a drama, whatever kind the playwright desires. If he wishes it to be short, it is short. If he wants it to be long, it is long.

If he wants you to act as a beggar, act even that part seriously. And the same if you are a cripple, a ruler, or a fool. This is your role: to play well the part you were given. It is another’s duty to choose.”

Μέμνησο, ὅτι ὑποκριτὴς εἶ δράματος, οἵου ἂν θέλῃ ὁ διδάσκαλος· ἂν βραχύ, βραχέος· ἂν μακρόν, μακροῦ· ἂν πτωχὸν ὑποκρίνασθαί σε θέλῃ, ἵνα καὶ τοῦτον εὐφυῶς ὑποκρίνῃ· ἂν χωλόν, ἂν ἄρχοντα, ἂν ἰδιώτην. σὸν γὰρ τοῦτ᾿ ἔστι, τὸ δοθὲν ὑποκρίνασθαι πρόσωπον καλῶς· ἐκλέξασθαι δ᾿ αὐτὸ ἄλλου.

On Facebook M. L Lech let me know that this sentiment appeared in the work of an earlier cynic philosopher

Teles the Philosopher, On Self-Sufficiency (Hense, 5)

“Just as a good actor will carry off well whatever role the poet assigns him, so too a good person should manage well whatever chance allots. For chance, as Biôn says, just like poetry, assigns the role of the first speaker and the second speaker, now a king and then a vagabond. Don’t long to be the second speaker when you have the role of the first. Otherwise, you will create disharmony.”

Δεῖ ὥσπερ τὸν ἀγαθὸν ὑποκριτὴν ὅ τι ἂν ὁ ποιητὴς περιθῇ πρόσωπον τοῦτο ἀγωνίζεσθαι καλῶς, οὕτω καὶ τὸν ἀγαθὸν ἄνδρα ὅ τι ἂν περιθῇ ἡ τύχη. καὶ γὰρ αὕτη, φησὶν ὁ Βίων, ὥσπερ ποιήτρια, ὁτὲ μὲν πρωτολόγου, ὁτὲ δὲ δευτερολόγου περιτίθησι πρόσωπον, καὶ ὁτὲ μὲν βασιλέως, ὁτὲ δὲ ἀλήτου. μὴ οὖν βούλου δευτερολόγος ὢν τὸ πρωτολόγου πρόσωπον· εἰ δὲ μή,  ἀνάρμοστόν τι ποιήσεις.

Diogenes Laertius, Ariston 160

“[He compared] the wise man to a good actor who could take up the role of both Thersites and Agamemnon and play either appropriately

εἶναι γὰρ ὅμοιον τὸν σοφὸν τῷ ἀγαθῷ ὑποκριτῇ, ὃς ἄν τε Θερσίτου ἄν τε Ἀγαμέμνονος πρόσωπον ἀναλάβῃ, ἑκάτερον ὑποκρίνεται προσηκόντως.

Epictetus, Discourses 1.29

“There will soon be a time when the tragic actors will believe that their masks and costumes are their real selves. You have these things as material and a plot. Say something so we may know whether you are a tragic actor or a comedian. For they have the rest of their material in common [apart from the words]. If one, then, should deprive the actor of his buskins and his masks and introduce him to the stage as only a ghost, has the actor been lost or does he remain? If he has a voice, he remains.”

ἔσται χρόνος τάχα, ἐν ᾧ οἱ τραγῳδοὶ οἰήσονται ἑαυτοὺς εἶναι προσωπεῖα καὶ ἐμβάδας καὶ τὸ σύρμα. ἄνθρωπε, ταῦτα ὕλην ἔχεις καὶ ὑπόθεσιν. φθέγξαι τι, ἵνα εἰδῶμεν πότερον τραγῳδὸς εἶ ἢ γελωτοποιός· κοινὰ γὰρ ἔχουσι τὰ ἄλλα ἀμφότεροι. διὰ τοῦτο ἂν ἀφέλῃ τις αὐτοῦ καὶ τὰς ἐμβάδας καὶ τὸ προσωπεῖον καὶ ἐν εἰδώλῳ αὐτὸν προαγάγῃ, ἀπώλετο ὁ τραγῳδὸς ἢ μένει; ἂν φωνὴν ἔχῃ, μένει.

 W. Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7 (spoken by Jaques)
                                        All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…
Image result for ancient greek vase actors

One response

  1. There is also, according to Suetonius, a tradition about Augustus comparing his life to a part on the stage:

    “On his final day, he asked whether there was a crowd waiting outside for him, and looking for his mirror, he asked for his hair to be arranged and his drooping cheek bones be propped up. His friends were admitted to the room and he asked if he seemed to them to have played his part in the comedy of life well, and he added the verses

    ‘Since it has been played so well, give a round of applause, and send us all off the stage with joy.'”

    Supremo die identidem exquirens, an iam de se tumultus foris esset, petito speculo, capillum sibi comi ac malas labantes corrigi praecepit, et admissos amicos percontatus, ecquid iis videretur mimum vitae commode transegisse, adiecit et clausulam:

    εὶ δέ τι
    Ἐπεὶ δὲ πάνυ καλῶς πέπαισται, δότε κρότον
    Καὶ πάντες ἡμᾶς μετὰ χαρᾶς προπέμψατε.

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