Monday, August 14, 2006

Principle Personae of Cicero

Models are models. They are ways of looking at the world, but they are not the world. So: many are useful, but none are true.

A book I am reading references Cicero's De Officiis and his theory of four personae. It's intriguing enough that I'll have to spend some time over the next couple of years with the Stoic philosophers... not just for this theory. I enjoyed Marcus Aurelius before I knew what a Stoic was.

This model is interesting, and only having a one-paragraph description gives me great freedom to misunderstand it in creative and useful ways. Some of my best insights have come from misunderstanding a teacher and playing with it until it worked.

The theory (as I understand it) is that who we are is a combination and interaction of four personae (in ancient Greek theater, literally masks the actors would wear):

1) Who we are by virtue of our shared natures. People are people, and this is why we can communicate and trade across gender and geography and language barriers. No other human is so different from us that he doesn't need to eat. Within parameters, similar things interest or excite us, cause fear or pleasure. Given similar problems, tools and parameters people come up with remarkably similar solutions. This can go beyond humans to animals- even a flatworm will seek food and avoid pain and so will a human- but only so far. Flatworms don't hit their enemies with sticks.

2)Who we are by virtue of chance. What color and gender and religion and wealth and caste you were born was just pure dumb luck. Whether your parents died early or your great grandparents hung around was luck. There were many, many things , from genetics to accidents of birth to coincidence that severely affected who and what you have become. This interacts powerfully with the "shared nature" above. You can create a child who seeks abuse and thinks it is love and will go on to choose mates who are cruel. It is against "shared nature" and in one sense unnatural (even a flatworm avoids pain) but by accident of birth that a child can never control, they can get pain and love mixed up.

3) Who we are by our individual spirit. Cicero points out that there are greater differences in temperament than in physical bodies. We all have a shared nature just as our bodies are designed on a similar bi-laterally symmetrical, bipedal, binocular plan; but our individual natures are even more disparate than all the variations you can find in the human body. Different children, even as babies, have different attitudes. More interaction- do fighters and rebels recover better from bad chance or push away the boundaries of shared humanity? Do the thoughtful and incisive see consequences and defeat the negative works of chance? Does a passive attitude condemn your personality to be forged mostly by luck and shared humanity?

4) Who we choose to be. This is the most powerful, to me (but perhaps only certain "individual spirits" can truly use will). It allows a conscious integration of the other three. It allows the individual to choose whether to look at chance as a misfortune or a challenge.

It's all in the interaction.

I'll have to play with it some more. It looks good for analysis: What's wrong in my life? Is that a product of the human condition, luck, my personality or my choices? Are there choices I can make to change that?

There's also power in recognizing luck as luck. If you were born poor it can be a problem, a challenge or simply a fact. It is not a message. It is a factor in everything else, but NOTHING in this complex interaction has the power to determine the end. A friend writes that in every person's life, there are plenty of things that they could decide are reasons for failure- if they choose to. Everybody has enough excuses already. But if you can point to even one person who started with less and did more than you have, you are deluding yourself.

I'm not sure the model can be used to drive, however. I'm not seeing how I could use it as a tool to plan a future.


Kai Jones said...

Meh. Aren't 3 and 4 the same thing? Aren't your choices dictated by your personality?

Rory said...

I think they affect one another very much... but you can be a pessimist and decide to smile. You can be in a deep depression and choose to commit suicide ot help someone else.

they are closely tied, but I think there's a valid difference.

Mac said...

This points to the two highest priorities in the development of a human - knowledge of Self, and nuture of the child. #1 gives us a place to stand to view all Reality - isn't that what every philsopher, theologian, seeker seeks? a place to stand, an anchor, at least one place that doesn't constantly change from which we can try to figure out the world? # 2 gives the direction, what experiences to seek and how to treat ourselves and the world. It's all in the education - the one area that is totally bankrupt in human culture.