April 25, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
How to Achieve Freedom – 2
Key ideas of this discourse
- Understand what is under your control and what is not under your control.
- Be prepared to let go of things you don’t own.
- External things are not the problem, but they we judge them is the problem
This is an excerpt from Stoic Freedom. The complete book is available in print of ebook format from all online bookstores such as Kobo, Barnes & Noble andAmazon. https://amzn.to/2JnS7zA
Understand what is under your control and what is not under your control
After all, no one fears Caesar himself. What one really fears is death, deportation, loss of property, jail and loss of civil rights. Neither does anyone love Caesar, unless he is personally deserving. What one loves is money or the high office. When we love, or loathe, or fear these things, anyone who controls them becomes our master. This is inevitable. That’s why we treat them like gods. If they have the power over most benefits we seek, then we treat them as divine. Then we think of the false minor premise, “This person has the power to benefit me the most,” which inevitably leads to false conclusions.
“What then makes a person free and be his own master?”
“Because money, status, and even a kingdom are not the answer, we must find something else. Tell me, how does a person write freely and fluently?”
“By knowing how to write well.”
“How does a person play the harp well?”
“By knowing how to play the harp.”
“Therefore, it follows that in life also we need to know how to live well. You have heard this as a general principle but now think how it applies to specific cases. Suppose what you want is under the control of someone else. Is it possible for you, then, to be free and unrestricted?”
“So, you cannot be free. Now consider this. What is under your control: everything, nothing, or some things?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is it under your control that your body always performs perfectly?”
“Is it healthy whenever you wish?
“To live or die?”
“So, the body isn’t yours. It can be controlled by what is stronger than itself.”
“What about land? Can you have as much as you want, as long as you want, in the way you want?”
“People who work for you?”
“Your pet animals?”
“No. None of this is.”
“Well, if you want so much for your children, your wife, your brother, or your friends to live. Is this under your control?”
“No, not this either.”
“Is there nothing at all that is within your total power and control?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, look at this way. Can anyone make you agree to something that is not true?”
“No, no one can.”
“So, in the area of assent, no one can force or obstruct you.”
“That’s for sure.”
“Can anyone make you choose something that you really don’t want?”
“Yes. They can threaten me with death or punishment and force me to do things.”
“What if you don’t care about dying or being punished? Can they still force you?”
“What do you think about death? Is your attitude to death under your control?”
“Is directing your impulses your own action or not?”
“I have to admit it is.”
“And the choice to do something – that is under your control as well.”
“Yes, but what if I choose to walk and someone stands in my way?”
“What part can they obstruct? Not your decision?”
“No, but my poor body.”
“Yes. A rock might obstruct it as well.”
“So be it. Still I can’t go for my walk.”
“Who told you that walking is under your total control and no one can stop you? What I said was your choice cannot be obstructed. But when it comes to using your body and whether it co-operates are not, I have told you long ago, nothing is your own.”
“I will agree to that as well.”
“Can anyone force you to desire something you do not want?”
“Or propose or plan something or deal with your impressions in any way?”
“No, they cannot. But if I desire something, they can stop me from getting what I want.”
“If you desire something under your control, how can they stop you?”
“And who said that, when you desire what is not your control, you can’t be stopped?”
“Are you saying, then, I can’t desire health?”
“No. Nor anything else that is not under your control.”
If you cannot get or keep something at will, then it is not your own. Keep your hands, and more importantly your desire, far away from it. Otherwise, you will be making yourself a slave, putting your head under the yoke. The same thing happens if you value something that is not under your control; or develop a passion for something under someone else’s control, or that is perishable.
“Isn’t my hand my own?”
“It’s a part of you. But by nature, it is dirt, subject to restraint and force and therefore a slave to anything physically stronger.”
Be prepared to let go of things that are not your own
And why pick on your hand? As long as it lasts, the whole body should be thought of as a loaded donkey. If a soldier demands it for public service and takes it away, let it go. Don’t resist or grumble; you’ll be beaten, and you’ll lose the donkey anyway. If this is how you should treat your body, how should you treat things that serve the body? If your body is a donkey, then you have a donkey’s bridle, pack-saddles, shoes, barley, and fodder. Let them go too. Give them up even more quickly and more cheerfully than you did the donkey.
“When you are so prepared and trained to distinguish what is your own from what it not; to know what can be obstructed from what cannot; and to see clearly that what cannot be obstructed is your only concern, is there anyone to be afraid of anymore?”
“Of course not. What is there for you to be afraid about? About things that are your own in which good and evil reside? Who has the power over these? Who can take them away? Who can block them? No one can anymore they can hinder God. Or is it your body and property – things that are not your own and of no value to you – that you are afraid for? What else have you been studying from the beginning except distinguishing between what is your own and what it is not, what is in your power and what is not, what can be blocked and what cannot? What’s your purpose in talking to philosophers? So, you could be as lost and miserable as before; not be free of fear and anxiety?”
What has pain to do with you? Only when you anticipate something fearful and it becomes true, is it painful.
What will you desire now? All your desires are now only for things under your control as they are good and within reach. You want nothing outside your sphere of choice. So, there is no place for irrational or impulsive desire.
When this is your attitude, who can intimidate you? How can one person be intimidated by another – by appearance, speech, or meeting? It is no more possible than that a horse, a dog, or a bee can make another horse, dog, or bee intimidated. No. What makes people afraid is things? Whenever someone has the power to give or take away things from you, you become fearful.
External things are not the problem, our judgments about them are
[The dialogue that follows is based on a complicated metaphor of tyrants, fortress and bodyguards. It is explained along these lines by W.A. Oldfather: The fortress and the bodyguards are actual external things such as wealth and reputation, which are harmless in themselves. They become dangerous only when you judge them falsely to be of value. The tyrants are our false judgments which make us believe that external things are of value. Once we get rid of our false judgments, there’s no need to get rid of the external things themselves. They may hurt those who hold false judgments about them, but not us. We cannot get rid of all external things anyway. Some, like death and disease, are inevitable. Therefore, every person must do the work for themselves and get rid of false judgments. The main point of this metaphor is that you can’t be free just by getting rid of external things, because they’re harmless. You can only be free by getting rid of your false judgments about them.]
“How to destroy the tyrant’s fortress?”
“Not by weapons or by fire but by judgements. But if we destroy the fortress, do we also destroy our judgements about fever, and about pretty women? Do we destroy the things in our internal fortress, along with the inner tyrants who torture us every day, though they may look different at different times?
“It is here you must begin. You must attack the fortress and drive out the tyrants. Give up your body and its different parts, your influence, property, reputations, offices, honours, children, brothers, and your friends. They’re not your own. When the tyrants are driven out there’s no need to destroy the fortress, as far as I am concerned. It does no harm to anyone by being there. You don’t have to drive out the bodyguards. They can stay. How can they affect you? Their sticks, spears, and knives are meant for others, not for you.”