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Volume 49, Issue 2


Using Our Selves: An Interpretation of the Stoic Four-personae Theory in Cicero’s De Officiis I

David Machek
Published Online: 2015-12-08 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/apeiron-2015-0057


One of the most discussed parts of Cicero’s De Officiis is a theory (1.107–121), attributed by Cicero to a Stoic scholarch Panaetius, which attributes to all human beings four different roles (personae): our universal or rational nature; a set of our individual natural dispositions or traits; what we are by external circumstances; and the vocation or lifestyle that we freely choose. An appropriate action (officium) is to conform to constraints associated with one or more of these personae. Since Cicero does not provide any clear model for weighing up or harmonizing constraints corresponding with different roles, scholars have worried that this theory is unstable and even conflicting. In particular, our individual inclinations often seem to pull against our reason or virtue. The aim of the first part of this article is to vindicate the cogency of the four-personae account by interpreting the relationship between the first and second persona in terms of the Stoic distinction between virtue and indifferent things. Our individual psychological dispositions are quasi-externals that are to be used well by our reason: they are first-order constraints on our reason, which itself is the second order constraint. Therefore, the first and second personae cannot directly conflict with each other. We are to use the individual dispositions well by choosing in the given circumstances (the third persona) a profession or a way of life (the fourth persona) that best suits these dispositions. In the second part, I am trying to show that this two-order psychological model of the self was adopted by other Stoics after Panaetius, particularly Epictetus and Seneca. All these thinkers distinguished between our universal psychological traits, i.e. our rationality, and individual natural psychological dispositions that are to be used well by our reason. I also provide an assessment of how this psychological model bears on recent debates in the scholarship about the Stoic philosophy of self, and suggest how it was motivated by developments in the Stoic ethics.

Keywords: stoicism; self; individual; value; virtue


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About the article

Published Online: 2015-12-08

Published in Print: 2016-04-01

Citation Information: Apeiron, Volume 49, Issue 2, Pages 163–191, ISSN (Online) 2156-7093, ISSN (Print) 0003-6390, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/apeiron-2015-0057.

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