May 23, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Epictetus' Discourses

Freedom from Fear

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. You are afraid because you think you would lose things that you value – such as your body and your property.
  2. If you stop caring about external things, no one can frighten you.
  3. Align your desires with what actually happens in life.
  4. External things are useless playthings. Turn your attention to useful things.
Why you are afraid

“What makes a tyrant frightening?”

“His guards, his swords, his posse who shut the door on others.”

“Well then, how is it a child is unafraid in his presence? Doesn’t the child notice the guards? Suppose someone is fully aware of them and of their swords but has come precisely because he wants to die because of some misfortune. He is looking for an easy death at someone else’s hands and he won’t be frightened of the guards either, will he?”

“No, because he wants exactly what makes them frightening.”

“Well then. If you don’t particularly care whether you live or die, and are willing to accept whatever comes your way, what will stop you from facing a tyrant without fear?”

“Nothing.”

“Suppose you felt the same way about your property, your wife, and your children – due to some madness or desperation – you would not value material things either. It would be like children playing with pieces of broken pottery, competing with other children in the game. What tyrant, what guards, what swords could still frighten you?”

If madness, or habit in the case of Galileans [Christians], can make people adopt such attitude toward these things, can’t reason and demonstration teach people that God made everything in the universe? And that the universe is free from hindrance, self-sufficient, and every part of it serves the needs of the whole?

Align what you want with what happens

No other animal can understand nature’s rule. But human beings are rational. They can think about these things and know that he is a part of them, the kind of part he is, and also to know it is all right for parts to work for the benefit of the whole. Human beings are noble by nature, high minded, and free rational animals. So, they notice that some things around them are free, unrestricted, and under their control, and others are not. What is within their control and choice is free and unrestricted. What is not within their choice and control is unfree and restricted.

Therefore, if you decide that your good and advantage lies only in things that are free and unrestricted and completely under your control, you will be free, peaceful, unharmed, high-minded, reverent, thankful to God for all things, never finding fault with anything or blaming anything.

On the other hand, if you decide that your good and advantage lie in external things that are outside you control, inevitably you will be hindered and restrained. You will be slavish to those who have control over the things that you so admire or fear. You will necessarily be disrespectful to God because you believe that He is harming you, unjust. You will be trying to claim more than your proper share and you are bound to become base and mean-spirited.

External things mean nothing

If you have understood these things, what is there to stop you from living light and living with ease, from gently awaiting anything that may happen, and being content with whatever might have happened?

Would you have me poor? Bring it on! Then you will see what poverty is when a good actor is playing the part.

Would you like have me hold office? Bring it on!

Would you like me not to hold office? Bring it on!

Would you like to me suffer hardships? Bring them on, too!

Would you like to banish me? Wherever I you ask me to go, I am well with it.

Here, where I am now, is well with me, not because of location but because of my judgments. These judgements I will carry with me wherever I go. No one can take these away from me. Those are my only things, they cannot be taken away. I am content to have only those, wherever I am, whatever I do.

“But it is time for me to die.”

What do you mean by “die” Don’t talk about it as though it is a tragic thing, but the way it actually is: “It’s time for the materials that you are made of to go back to where they came from.” What is so terrible about that? Is the universe going to be any less because of that? Is anything new or unreasonable about to happen? Is this why you are afraid of bullies? Or of the weapons their bodyguards carry with them? Let others worry about those things. I have thought about them and no one is my master. God has set me free and I know his commands. No one can enslave me. I have the right liberator, and the right judges.

“Am I not the master of your body?”

“What’s it to me then?”

“Am I not a master of your property?”

“What’s it to me then?”

“Am I not the master of your exile and imprisonment?”

“I give you all these, and my body too, whenever you please. Test your power and see how far it goes. Who can I be afraid of now? The officials? What could they do, shut the door on me? Let them shut the door, if I want to enter it.”

“Then why do you come to the door?”

“Because I think it is fitting for me to take part in the game as long as it lasts.”

“Why aren’t you shut out?”

“Because, if I am shut out, I have desire to go in. I always want what actually happens. God’s judgement is better than my desires. I am his servant, his follower. His choice is my choice. His desire is my desire. His will is my will. No one can shut me out. Only a person who tries to force their way in can be shut out.”

“Why don’t you try to force your way in, then?”

“Because I know that nothing good is handed to those who force their way in.”

No. When I hear that someone has been honoured by the head of the state, I ask, “What has he gained? Has he also gained the judgment needed to govern a province? Has he gained the capacity to carry out legal and administrative duties?” Why should I try to force my way in, then? Someone is scattering figs and nuts. The children scramble to pick them up and fight among themselves. But not grown-ups, because they think it is trivial. But if you scatter broken pieces of pottery, even children won’t scramble to get them.

Externals are worthless

Governorships are available? Let children go after them.

Money? Let children go after it.

High offices? Let children fight and go after these, have doors shut on their face, let them take a beating, let them kiss the hand of the powerful and of their servants.

But, for me, they are just figs and nuts.

“What if, by chance, a fig lands on your lap?”

“I will pick it up and eat it. A fig has at least that much value. But no fig has that much value as to lowering yourself to get it, upsetting someone, being upset by someone, or flattering someone who can give it to me. The same is true of all those other things that are not any good and which philosophers have convinced me as being no good.”

Show me the swords of the guards.

“See how big they are, and how sharp.”

“What do they do, these big sharp swords?”

“They kill.”

“And fever, what does it do?”

“The same thing.”

“And a tile? What does it do?”

“The same thing.”

“Would you then want me to be in awe of these things? Bow before them? Be a slave to them all?”

“Heaven forbid!”

Everything that’s born must die, so the world may not stand still or may be blocked. Once I understood this, it made no difference to me whether I die by a fever, a tile, or a soldier. But, if I have to compare, I know that a soldier will bring it about relatively painlessly and quickly. Therefore, I know that I don’t fear anything that a tyrant can inflict upon me. I also know that he doesn’t have anything I want.

Then, why should I admire him? Why should I be in awe of him? Why should I be afraid of his guards? Why should I be happy if he speaks kindly to me and welcomes me? Why should I tell others about it? He’s no Socrates, is he? He is no Diogenes either, is he? Then, is his praise any proof of what I am? I have not been eager to imitate his character, have I? No, but as a player in a game, I come to him and serve him, if he doesn’t ask me to do something stupid or improper. But if he should say, “Go to Salamis and bring back Leo,” I say, “Find someone else. I am not playing anymore.” [For more on Leon and the Thirty Tyrants, see the first discourse in this book.] “Put him in jail,” says the tyrant. I follow, it’s all a game.

“But you’ll lose your head.”

“Is he going to keep his forever? Or, are you, who obey him?”

“You will be tossed out without a burial.” [This is supposed to be an insult.]

“If I am the corpse, I will be thrown out. If I am not the corpse, speak more intelligently, in line with the facts and do not try to scare me.”

Such things are frightening to children and fools. Once a person enters the school of a philosopher, and yet doesn’t know himself, he deserves to be afraid. If he hasn’t learned that he is not his flesh, bones, or sinews, but makes use of these, and governs and understands impressions, then he will flatter those he flattered before.

“But such arguments encourage people to despise the laws.”

Yield to superior and stronger things

Quite the opposite. What arguments (other than these) would make people who follow them readier to obey laws? Law is not within the reach of any fool. And yet, see how these arguments lead us to behave the right way even towards these fools. They teach us not to claim anything in which they can surpass us. They teach us to give way when it comes to our poor body, our property, our children, our parents and our brothers; to give up everything and let everything go. There is only one exception to this: our judgments. They are accordance with nature and it is each person’s special property. What is unreasonable about this? What law did I break? Where you are stronger and superior, I give way to you. So also, where I am superior, you give way to me.

You excel in what you care about

I care about these things, but you don’t. What you care about is how to live in marble halls, how to be served by your staff and servants, how to wear fine clothes, how to have a variety of hunting dogs, musicians, and entertainers at your beck and call. Do I ever care about any of these things? Have you ever, on the other hand, cared about judgments? Or about reason? You don’t know, do you, about its different parts, how they are related to one another, how they are ordered, what it is capable of and what its nature is? Then why are you disturbed if someone else who has studied these things has the advantage over you in these matters?

“But these are the most important things.”

What stops you, then, from turning your attention to them? And who has better resources – books, time and people to help – than you? You only need to pay attention to these matters some day and spend a little time understanding your ruling faculty. Think about what is this faculty that you have, where it came from, how it puts everything to the test and then accepts or rejects.

But so long as you concern yourself with externals, you will have those, in ways that no one else can match. And you will have this ruling faculty the way you want it – dirty and neglected.

Think about this

Once I come to learn that all that comes into being must also perish so the universe may not come to a standstill or be impeded, it no longer matters to me whether a fever brings that about, or a roof tile, or an armed guard. Discourses III.7.27. Epictetus [RH]