May 2, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Book Excerpts ||

How to Achieve Freedom – 4

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. As long as you desire an external thing, you will have a master. The person who has control over the external thing will be your master.
  2. The way to achieve freedom is not by fulfilling your desires, but by letting go of them.

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

A challenge to the student

“What do you say, Philosopher? A powerful person calls you and asks you bear false witness. Do you go along with it or not?”

“Let me think it over.”

“You’re going to think it over now? Weren’t you thinking over it when you were in school? Didn’t you learn what things are good, what things are bad, and what things are indifferent?”

“I did.”

“And?”

“The right and noble actions are good; wrong and shameful actions are bad.”

“Is living good?”

“No.”

“Is dying bad?”

“No.”

“And prison?”

“No.”

“And what about slanderous and dishonest talk, betraying of a friend, or the flattering of an oppressor? How do they strike you?

“As bad.”

Clearly, you are not thinking through this. You haven’t done so in the past either. Really, how much do you need to think it over – to decide that you should exercise your power to get the greatest goods and avoid the greatest evils? A fine subject for thinking – requires a lot of thought indeed! Who are you trying to fool? You never thought this through. If you had really understood that vice alone is bad and everything else is indifferent, you wouldn’t need time to “think it over.” You would have been able to decide right away using your reason as readily as you use your vision. Do you have to think it over whether black is white? Or, whether light is heavy? No, these things follow from the clear evidence of your senses.

Why then are you now “thinking it over” whether indifferents are more to be avoided than evils? These are not your judgments, are they? You don’t think that jail and death are indifferents, do you? Rather, you think they are the greatest evils.

This is the habit you have been developing from the beginning.

“Where were you?”

“I was in the classroom.”

“Who were you listening to?”

“I was talking with philosophers. Now I have left school, I don’t care for those finicky and foolish teachers.”

 This is how a friend is condemned by a philosopher. This is how he becomes a parasite, this is how he sells himself for money, and this is how he betrays his beliefs when meeting with the Senators. Inside him, though, his true judgments are loudly crying out. These are not some half-hearted thoughts that he is barely hanging onto as a result of empty discussions. These are his true convictions derived from his initiation and training. [According to William Oldfather, the above probably refers an incident that happened during Nero’s reign when Epictetus was still a boy in which Egnatius Celer accused his friend, Barea Soranus.]

“Watch yourself carefully and see how you take the news. I don’t say your child has died, because you may not be able to endure it. I say your oil is spilled or someone drank up all your wine.”

“What if someone says, ‘Hey philosopher, you talked differently when you were in school. Who are you trying to fool? Why call yourself a human being when you’re a worm?’”

“I’d like to know how much self-control they have when they’re having sex. I’d like to see how they control themselves and hear the sounds they make. Whether they even remember their name or any of the discourses they had heard or taught.”

“What has this got to do with freedom?”

“This has everything to do with freedom, whether you rich people like it or not.”

“And your proof is…?”

As long as you have a master, you’re a slave

“What else, but you yourselves. You have this master [the emperor] and you live at his beck and call. You faint when he just looks at you with a scowl on his face. You say before the old men and women of the court, “I can’t possibly do this. I am not allowed.” Why aren’t you allowed? Weren’t you just telling me that you were free?”

“But Aprulla [a rich old woman] won’t let me.”

“Tell the truth then, slave. Don’t run away from your masters, don’t deny having them, and don’t say that you are free when there is so much proof that you are just a slave. If someone who is desperately in love does something against their better judgement, one can at least pity them because they are in the grip of an uncontrollable passion and in a manner of speaking, divine. But who can put up with you – you have a passion for old men and old women, you wipe their noses, wash them, bribe them with your gifts, wait upon them when they are sick; yet, at the same time, you are praying for their death and asking the doctors if they are about to die. Or when you kiss the hands of other people’s slaves for the sake of high honours and offices you make yourself a slave of slaves. What can you expect then?”

And then you proudly wander around as a magistrate or a consul. Do you think I don’t know who gave you that position and how you got it? If I were you, I would rather die than owe my life to Felicio [a freed slave of Nero], putting up with his rudeness and arrogance. I know how a slave behaves when he gets influence and importance.

“Are you free then?”

“God, I wish and pray to be. But I still can’t face my masters. I continue to value my body and try to keep it healthy, although it is hardly healthy. But if you want to see an example, I will point to Diogenes.”

Examples of free people: Diogenes and Socrates

Diogenes was free. Why? Not because his parents were free because they weren’t. He was free himself because he got rid of all handles of slavery. There was no way anyone could get close to him, capture him, and make him a slave. Everything he owned was only loosely tied to him. He could let go of everything. If you grabbed his property, he would rather let you have it than be pulled along with it. If you grabbed his leg, he would let go of his leg; if you grabbed hold his body, he would let go of his body. The same with family, friends, and country [the universe itself]. He was aware where they all came from, who gave them, and the conditions attached to them.

But he would never have given up his true parents [the gods] and his real country. He was more obedient to gods than anyone else. He was more willing to die for his country than anyone else. He didn’t pretend to care for the world for show. He was constantly aware that everything that comes into being has a source. Things happen for the sake of the universe at the command of its governor.

So, pay attention to what he says and writes.

“Diogenes, here is why you can speak your mind to the Persian king, and the Spartan king Archedamus.”

Was it because his parents were free? No. No Athenian, Corinthian, or Spartan could speak to the kings as they pleased, but feared and flattered instead, because all their parents were slaves. Someone asked him:

“Why are you then allowed to speak the way you like?”

“Because I don’t consider my body my own. Because I need nothing, and law is everything to me. I don’t care for anything else.”

That’s what made him free.

Just in case you think I chose an easy example of a person without family and social responsibilities (as a solitary person has fewer demands on him to bend the rules), consider Socrates. He had both a wife and children, but he treated them as though they were on loan. He had a country which he served as far as it was duty and for as long as it was his duty. He had friends and relatives, but he treated them as less important than the law and the need to obey it.

When he was drafted, he was the first one to leave home. He faced danger without flinching. When the Thirty Tyrants ordered him to arrest Leon [a leader of the opposition, who they wanted to murder], he never bothered to do anything about it, because he thought it was unlawful. Yet he knew he might die if he refused. But he didn’t care. He was not trying to save his life but his integrity and his honour. These are not matters up for negotiation.

Then, when he was on trial for his life, did he behave like someone with a wife and children? No. He behaved like someone who is not attached. How did he behave when it was time to drink the poison? Crito urged him to escape for the sake of his children, what did he answer? Did he think that this was a stroke of luck? No way. He thought about the right course of action and nothing else. He said that he didn’t want to save his body but the element that grew and thrived by justice but diminished and was destroyed by injustice. He didn’t save his life by acting shamefully. Socrates, who resisted the Athenians’ demand to vote on an illegal motion, who defied the Thirty Tyrants, who spoke so eloquently about excellence and goodness – such a man is not saved by any shameful means. He is saved by dying and not by running away. He was like a good actor who leaves the stage as soon as his role comes to an end.

“What will happen to your children?”

“If I had gone off to another city, you would have taken care of them. If I go off this world, would no one take care of them?”

See how he treats death lightly and jokes about it. If it had been you or I, we would have used philosophical principles to prove that those who act unjustly should be paid back in kind. And then add, “If I escape, I can help many people. If I die, I will be able to help no one.” If there was a mouse-hole of an opening, we would have squeezed through.

But how could we possibly be of use to anyone, with all our friends left behind? Or, if we were useful when alive, wouldn’t we be even more useful to the world by dying at the right time, in the right way? Now that Socrates is dead, his memory is even more useful to us than what he said and did while he was alive.

If you want to be free, if you understand the true value of your goal, then study these principles, these judgments, these arguments, and think about these examples. Does it come as a surprise to you that such a great goal needs many sacrifices? What people commonly consider as freedom, many had hanged themselves, thrown themselves over cliffs. Occasionally, even entire cities have been destroyed. So, for the sake of the true, secure, and unshakable freedom, will you not return to God what he gave you when he asks for it? As Plato says, be prepared not only to die but to be tortured, deported, beaten – in short, to give back everything that is not your own. Otherwise, you will be a slave among slaves – even if you are a consul a thousand times over, and even if you go up to the Palace – you will remain a slave all the same.

And you will see what Cleanthes meant when he said that, “Perhaps philosophers do things that are contrary to expectation, but not contrary to reason.” You will find this to be true. The things that are eagerly sought after and admired are of no use to you once you get them. Meanwhile, those who don’t have them imagine that everything good will be theirs once they get these things. And then they get them. Yet their longing and anxiety remain unchanged. So is their desire for what they don’t have.

Freedom is not achieved by fulfilling your desires, but by eliminating them

You cannot achieve freedom by fulfilling your desires, but only by eliminating them. To fully understand how true this is, work on these principles as diligently as you worked on your other things. Stay up late into the night to develop a liberated frame of mind. Cultivate the company of a philosopher instead of a rich old man. Hang around at the philosopher’s door. There’s no shame in it and you will not come back empty-handed or without profit, if you go there with the right attitude. At least try it. There is no shame in it.