April 21, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

How to Achieve Freedom – 1

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. You are free when you live as you wish; when you cannot be compelled, obstructed, or controlled; your choices cannot be blocked; when you get your desires fulfilled, and when you don’t face anything you want to avoid.
  2. When you desire something, anyone who has power over that becomes your master.


This is Epictetus’ longest discourse. It will be presented in several parts. What follows is an extract from Stoic Freedom. The complete book is available (ebook and print versions) from all major online stores such as Amazon http://amzn.to/2CV4i3j

Who is free?

You are free when you live as you wish; when you cannot be compelled, obstructed, or controlled; your choices cannot be blocked; when you get your desires fulfilled, and when you don’t face anything you want to avoid.

 “Who wants to go through life, without knowing of how to achieve this?”

“No one.”

“Who wants to be deceived, reckless, unjust, undisciplined, mean and ungrateful?”

“No one.”

“So, no bad person lives the way they want. No bad person is free. Who wants to live in sorrow, fear, envy, and pity? Who wants to fail to get what they want and to get what they do not want?”

“No one.”

“So, can we find a bad person free from fear, frustration, or misfortune?”


“So, we find no one who’s free.”

The many ways we are unfree

If you are a powerful person (such as a two-term consul), you will tolerate such talk only if I add, “But you are smart. This doesn’t apply to you, of course.” But if I tell you the truth and say, “You are as much a slave as one who is sold three times over,” what can I expect but a punch in the nose?

“How can you call me a slave? My father is free, my mother is free, and there’s no agreement for my selling me. Besides, I am a senator and a personal friend of the king himself. I have been twice consul and I have many working for me.”

“Most worthy senator, in the first place, your father could have been a slave in the same sense that you are, along with your mother, your grandfather, and all your ancestors. And, even if they were all free, what does it prove? What if they were noble and you are mean-spirited? What if they were brave and you are a coward? And what if they were disciplined and you are unrestrained?

“What’s that got to with being a slave?”

“Don’t you see, when you act against your will under protest and compulsion, it is no different than being a slave?”

“Maybe. But who has the power to compel me except the king, who has power over everyone.”

“So, you agree you have at least one master. Don’t let the fact that he is also the master of others comfort you. It just means that you’re a slave in a large household. You remind other citizens, ‘Because of our master, we’re free.’”

Let’s set aside your master for a moment. Just tell me this.

“Have you ever been in love, maybe with a man or a woman, a free or an unfree person?”

“What that has to do with being free or being a slave?”

“Weren’t you ever asked by the person you love to do something that you didn’t want to do? Didn’t you ever flatter her? Have you never kissed her feet? Yet, if someone forced you to kiss the feet of your master, you’d think it an outrage and the height of despotism. If this isn’t slavery, then what is?”

Haven’t you ever risked going out at night where you didn’t want to go, spent more than you wanted, and said words of misery and woe, put up with being ridiculed and thrown out? If you are too embarrassed to admit it, observe the words and actions of [the mercenary soldier] Thrasonides who fought many campaigns, perhaps more than you. He went out at night even when [his slave] Geta wouldn’t dare go. If he had been forced to go by his master, he would have gone out protesting loudly and complaining bitterly about his condition. What then does Thrasonides say? “No enemy could enslave me, and yet a pretty girl did.” [From Misoumenos of Melander.] Poor guy, to be enslaved by a girl, a cheap one at that! How can you still call yourself free? What’s the point in bragging about your military victories?

Then he asks for a sword to kill himself and gets angry at the person who, out of kindness, refuses to bring it. Then he sends gifts to his girl who despises him, and begs and weeps, and the moment he has had some success, he becomes ecstatic. But until he has learned to get rid of his lust and fear, how could he be free?

Think about how we apply the idea of freedom to animals. People raise lions in cages as tame animals, feed them, and even take them around with them. Who will say such an animal is free? Is it not true that the more softly a lion lives, the more slavish it is? And what lion that has sense and reason would care to be one of those lions? Birds, when they are caught and reared in cages, will do anything to escape. Some even prefer to starve themselves to death than endure such a life. Those that barely survive pine away and fly off the moment they get any opening. Such is their desire for natural freedom, to be independent and uncaged.

“Well, what’s wrong with being here in a cage?”

“What a silly question! I was born to fly as I please, to live in the open air and sing. You want to take away all this from me and then ask, ‘What’s wrong with being here in a cage?’”

For this reason, we will call only those animals free that are not willing to be captive and, as soon as they are caught, escape by dying. It is for this reason [the Cynic philosopher] Diogenes says somewhere that one sure way to guarantee freedom is to be ready to die. He wrote to the King of Persia, “You can enslave the Athenians no more than you can enslave fishes.”

“Why? Can’t Athenians be captured?”

“Perhaps they can. But he moment they are captured, they will give you the slip and be gone, like a fish that dies when caught. If Athenians die like that when caught, what good is your military force?”

This is the voice of a truly free person who has deeply thought about freedom and found the truth about it. If you keep looking for it in the wrong place, is it any surprise that you won’t find it?

Don’t keep looking for freedom in the wrong places

A captive person wants to be set free. Why? Is it because he cannot wait to pay taxes when free? No, it is because he believes that, because he is not free he has been living in misery and with restrictions. He says,

“If I am set free, it’s all happiness right away. I don’t have to attend to anyone, I can talk to anyone on equal terms, I can come and go where I please.”

Then he is set free. But he has nowhere to go and looks for someone to flatter to get his next meal. Then he sells his body, gets a sugar daddy, and finds himself in a far worse position than the one he escaped. Even if he makes a fortune, being a man of no taste, he falls for a cheap woman. In his misery he longs to be captive again and says,

“How was I any worse then? Someone fed me, clothed me, and took care of me when I was sick, while I did hardly anything in return. Now I have many masters instead of just one! But if I get a ring of office on my finger, then my life will be blissful and fulfilled.”

To get them he suffers the humiliations that go with it. Then, when he gets them, it’s the same old story all over again. Now he says,

“If I serve in the army, then all my troubles will be over.”

So, he joins the army and goes off to a tour of duty and suffers as much as any convict. He goes off on a second tour of duty and then a third. Finally, he becomes a senator and finds himself a captive in fine and luxurious company.

We fail to apply our preconceived ideas correctly to specific situations

Socrates used to say “Don’t be foolish. Learn ‘what every specific thing means.’” [Xenophon’s Memorabilia]. Don’t apply your preconceptions casually to things. You get into trouble when you are unable to apply common preconceptions correctly to specific cases. Different people think that different things are bad. Someone thinks she is not well, but it is not true; the problem is she is not applying preconceived ideas correctly. Another imagines he is poor, another thinks he has a harsh parent, and yet another believes that powerful people don’t care for her. All these things really mean one thing and one thing only: None of them knows how to apply their preconceived ideas correctly.

After all, who does not have a preconceived idea of what is bad? That it is harmful, we have to avoid it, and we should use every means to get rid of it. Preconceived ideas don’t conflict among themselves. Conflict arises when we start applying them.

What exactly is this bad and harmful thing that we should get rid of? One person says that it is not being a friend of Caesar. He’s off the mark. He is not applying his preconceived ideas right. He is upset and is seeking something that is not relevant. Even if he succeeds in getting the friendship he is after, he still hasn’t got what he wants.

What he wants is what all of us want: To be peaceful and happy, to do what we like and not be forced to do what we don’t like. But when he gets the friendship of Caesar, can he not be restrained or obstructed? Will he be happy and peaceful?

“Who will tell us this?”

Well, who better than this man here, already a friend of Caesar.

“So [friend of Caesar], please step up and tell us when did you sleep more soundly: now or before you became of friend Caesar?“

“Go away. Don’t mock me. You have no idea how difficult it is for me. I barely start sleeping, a person comes in and announces, ‘Caesar is up already and about to make and appearance.’ Then come troubles and anxieties.”

“So, when did you eat better, now or earlier?”

Listen to what he says here too: When he is not invited to dine with the emperor he is upset. When he is invited he dines like a slave dining with his master, anxious the whole time not to say or do anything stupid.

What do think he is afraid of? To be whipped like a slave? He should be so lucky. No, he is such a great man, a friend of Caesar and, as befits such men, his head might be chopped off. That’s what he is afraid of.

“When were you more peaceful while taking a bath? When were you more relaxed while working out? In short, do you prefer: your present life or the previous one?”

“I bet that there’s no one so stupid or forgetful that they don’t regret being close to Caesar; the closer they are, the more they regret.”

The person who controls what you desire controls you

If neither the so-called kings nor their friends live as they wish, who is left that can be called free? Look for it and you’ll find nature has given you means for finding the truth. But if you find it difficult to find it by yourself, listen to those who looked for it before you. What do they say?

“Do you find freedom to be good?

“The best.”

“Then, can someone who has obtained this greatest good be unhappy or unfortunate?”


“So, would you call someone who is unhappy, miserable, and mournful, unfree?”


“We now have gone beyond buying and selling stuff. Because, if you are right to agree with our discussion so far, then the Great King himself cannot be free if he is unhappy; neither can any prince, or consul, or two-term consul.”


“Now tell me this. Do you think that freedom is something grand, glorious, and valuable?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“Is it possible that someone who has something this grand, glorious, and valuable be mean-spirited?”


“Therefore, if you find someone grovelling before another, or flatter insincerely, without hesitation call them unfree. It doesn’t matter if they do it to get a meal or a governorship, or a consulship. Call them petty slaves if they do it for petty rewards and call them slaves on a grand scale if they do it for big rewards.”

“Again, I agree.”

“Do you think that freedom is something independent and self-sufficient?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then anyone who can be hindered and compelled by someone else is not free. Don’t be concerned about the status of their ancestors, or whether he was ever bought or sold. If someone calls another ‘Master’ with feeling call him a slave, even if twelve attendants go ahead of him. Or, if you hear, ‘God, the things I have to put up with!’, call that person a slave. In short if you find anyone moaning, complaining, or miserable, call him a slave in a purple toga.”

“What if he doesn’t do any of these things?”

“Still, don’t call him free yet. Find out how he judges. See if he feels boxed in, disappointed, or dissatisfied. If you find any of these, call him a slave on holiday at Saturnalia [where slaves had special privileges]. Say that his master is away. He will soon return, and you will see his true condition.”

“When who returns?”

“Whoever has the power to give or take away the things he values.”

“Do we have many masters, then?”

“We do. Even when there is no one else, circumstances are our masters – and there are many. Anyone who controls any one of them controls us all.”