April 28, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

How to Achieve Freedom – 3

Key points of this discourse

  1. The person who cannot be blocked is free.
  2. The person who can be blocked is a slave.
  3. You cannot be blocked if you don’t desire external things, things that are not your own.
  4. This is the road to freedom.

This is an excerpt from the book 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

Align your wants to conform to reality

Personally speaking, I was never kept from something I wanted or forced to have something I did not want. How did I manage it? By subjecting my will to God.

  • Does He want me to be sick? So do I.
  • Does He want me to choose something? So do I.
  • Does He want me to want something? So do I.
  • Does He want me to get something? So do I.
  • Does He not want me to get it? Neither do I.

So, I say yes even to death and torture. Who can stop me now? Who can force on me what I do not want? I’m as completely free from hindrance and compulsion as God himself.

[Another way to interpret the above is to say that when we don’t fight or complain about the inevitable realities of our life – where we don’t have a choice anyway – and act only on things that are in our control, we become unstoppable.  As psychologist and philosopher William James put it, “Be willing to have it so. Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.”]

This is how cautious travellers act as well. When they hear that there are robbers along the way, they do not go off on their own but wait for a group of people who travel together and go with them. A sensible person will behave the same way in life, thinking, “There are many thieves and bandits, many storms and many chances to lose my valuable things. How can I be safe? How can I escape thieves and robbers? Who should I attach myself to? Some rich and powerful person? What good will it do me if he loses his position and breaks down? What if my travel companion himself turns against me and robs me? What should I do?” By thinking this way, the traveller concludes that if he allied himself with God he would safely complete his journey.

“What do you mean by ‘allied himself’?”

“It means acting in such a way that whatever God wants, that is what we also want. If he doesn’t want something, we don’t want it either.”

“How can we do this?”

“By paying attention to his purpose and design.”

Enjoy what is given to you, for the time it is given to you

What has he given me as my own and what has he kept for himself? He has given me power over my choices, free of all restrictions and compulsions. How can he make the body, which is made of dirt, unrestricted? So, he put it along with other things in the cosmic cycle such as my property, my furniture, my house, my children, and my spouse. Why should I fight against it? Why should I try to grab something that lies outside the area of my choice, something that doesn’t belong to me? [While they are given to me] I’ll keep them in the spirit they are given, for as long as possible. One who has given it can also take it away. Why should I resist? It would foolish to resist someone who’s stronger than me. More than that, it would be wrong.

Where did I get things when I came into this world? My father gave them to me. Who gave them to him? And who made the Sun, the fruits, the seasons, human fellowship and social order?

You have received everything – including your life – from your benefactor. Yet, you are angry with the giver for taking things back?

Who are you? Why did you come here? Isn’t it God who brought you here? Hasn’t he shown you the light? Hasn’t he given you the people who support you? Hasn’t he given you your senses? Hasn’t he given you reason?

How did he bring you here? As a mortal, as one who would live here in flesh for a while, witness his grand design, and share briefly the pageant and the festival with him. So why not enjoy the feast and pageant while you are able? And when the time is up and when he leads you out, why not go out thanking him for what you have seen and heard?

“But I want to enjoy the festival a while longer.”

“Yes. So would newcomers to mysteries – they would like the initiation ceremonies to continue. So would the Olympic crowd – they would like to see more contestants. But the festival is over. Discreetly move on. Be grateful for what you have seen.”

Make room for others to get in. It is now their time to be born, as it was yours once. And, when they are born, they need a place to live. Their necessities of life need to be taken care of. But if those who came earlier wouldn’t leave, what would happen? Why are you so greedy and dissatisfied? Why do you crowd the world?

“Yes, but I want my wife and children with me.”

“Why? Are they yours? Don’t they belong to the one who gave them to you? The one who created you as well? Will you hang on to what’s not yours and refuse to give them up? Do you want to challenge someone better?”

“Why did he bring me in this world with all these conditions attached?”

“If you don’t like it, leave. He doesn’t need fault finders. He needs those who are keen to join in the festival and the dance – those who would applaud the festival with their praise and acclaim. He wouldn’t mind dismissing the grumpy and the cowardly.”

How to use external things

Even when such people are invited, they don’t act as though they are at a festival or play their proper role. Instead they whine, find fault with God, their fortune, and their fellow human beings. They don’t appreciate their own powers and resources given to them for the opposite purpose – to be generous, high-minded, courageous, and free – exactly what we are talking about now.

“Then why did I get the external things?”

“To use them.”

“For how long?”

“For as long as the lender pleases.”

“What if I can’t live without them?”

“They won’t be, if you don’t get attached to them. Don’t tell yourself that they are essential, and they aren’t.”

This is what you should practice from dawn to dusk. Begin with the least valuable and fragile thing like a jug or a cup. Then apply the same idea to clothes, pets, and property. Finally, apply the idea to yourself, your body parts, your children, your wife and others. Look around you in every direction. Mentally get rid of everything. Keep your judgments pure. See that you are attached to nothing that doesn’t belong to you and can be painful if taken away from you. While you are training yourself every day, don’t be pretentious and say that you are “pursuing philosophy.” Rather say that you are preparing for your liberation.

True freedom

For this is true freedom. This is the freedom that Antisthenes gave Diogenes who said that never again would he be a slave to anyone. Then he was captured by the pirates. What did he do? Did he call any of them his ‘master’? Did he use any other word that would mean the same thing?  No. He screamed at them for feeding their prisoners badly. How did he behave when he was sold? He immediately started criticizing his new master – that he shouldn’t dress this way, or shave that way, and that he should teach his sons to live differently. Why not? If the same master had bought a personal trainer, he would have used the trainer as his master as far as exercises are concerned. The same goes if the master had bought a doctor or architect. In every field, the person with skill is superior to one without. So, in general, how can a person with knowledge of how to live be anything but the master?

“Who is the master of the ship?”

“The captain.”

“Why? Because if you disobey him you will be punished.”

“But so-and-so can also punish me.”

“But not without consequences.”

“I thought he could.”

“If he punishes without having the authority to do so, he cannot get away with it.”

“How would a master who puts me in chains be punished?”

“The very act puts him in chains. You yourself know this is true if you accept that human beings are civilized animals and not wild beasts. Answer this: When does a plant do badly?”

“When it goes against its nature.”

“When does a bird do badly?”

“When it goes against its nature.”

“So it is with humans. What then is human nature? Biting, kicking, throwing someone in prison or killing him? No, but being kind, cooperative, and having good will toward others. Like it or not, he feels badly whenever he acts unreasonably.”

“So, Socrates didn’t do poorly then?”

“No, but his jurors and accusers did.”

“How about Helvidius at Rome?”

“He didn’t. But his murderer did.”

“How do you figure that?”

“You don’t say that a cock that just won has fared badly, even if severely wounded; but rather the one that is beaten without a scratch. You don’t call a dog happy if he doesn’t hunt or work, but only when you see him sweating, labouring and exhausted by the chase. What is odd in saying evil is everything that’s contrary to nature? Don’t you say this about other things? Why do you make human beings the only exception?”

“When we say that human beings by nature are gentle, affectionate, and faithful, aren’t we being ridiculous?”

“No, we are not.”

“Isn’t it the reason why people don’t suffer even when they are beaten, jailed, or killed? And the victim may be dignified in his suffering and come through as a better and more advantaged person? Isn’t it also true that the person who is really harmed, suffers the most, and is disgraced, is the one who has become a wolf, a snake, or a wasp instead of a human being?”

A Summary of the principles

Very well then. Let’s review what we agreed on.

  • The person who is not blocked and has ready at hand whatever he needs is free.
  • The person who can be blocked or forced to do against their will is a slave.
  • You cannot be blocked if you don’t desire external things, things that are not your own.
  • What things are not your own? Things over which you don’t have the power to decide –  to have or not to have, to have in the way you want, or at the time you want. Our body, its different parts, and our property, therefore, are not our own.

This is the road that leads to freedom. This is the only road that frees you from slavery. This is what make you say at any time from the bottom of your heart

Lead me Zeus, Lead me, Destiny

To the goal I was long assigned.