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From Vol. 5, Issue 9, September 2023

Our freedom is up to us

Practicing Stoicism || SANTARA GONZALES

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The nature of Stoic freedom

Free is the person who lives as he wishes and cannot be coerced, impeded, or compelled, whose impulses cannot be thwarted, who always gets what he desires and never has to experience what he would rather avoid. - Epictetus. Discourses, Book 4.1

As A.A. Long reminds us in Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, Epictetus’ interpretation of freedom was not a reflection of “liberty in a social or political sense”. The freedom that the Stoic philosopher and former slave wrote about is psychological and depends on our attitude, and not being constrained or enslaved by external circumstances or strong emotions.

Knowing ourselves

Working towards freedom also includes knowing our limits, whether they be physical, pertain to our aptitude, or even be financial. By identifying our limits and testing them, we are able to distinguish what is in our control and what is not. Epictetus had an injured leg that constrained him physically, but it did not prevent him from studying philosophy and becoming a teacher. Freedom can be found in working within our limits or constraints and letting them teach us what we are capable of.

When we truly know ourselves, the opinions of others cease to matter, as they are neither up to us, nor in our control. By focusing on what is up to us, we begin to own ourselves, free ourselves from bondage, and are no longer beholden to desires or harmful emotions.

Drive to acquire

We may find ourselves wanting the latest phone model, the top-of-the-line sneakers, or newest car. However, when we acquire these, we may find that the satisfaction these provide is only temporary and we soon find ourselves desiring the next shiny thing. We become trapped in a cycle of chasing our desires or material possessions for our happiness. If the objects of our desires are outside of our reach, they may even cause us distress. In doing so, we, according to Epictetus, give up our freedom, and become enslaved to our desires.

Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it. - Epictetus. Discourses, Book 4.1

True freedom

We cannot be free if our happiness is tied to things that are fleeting, instead of being based on our inner principles. The definition of freedom varies from person to person. Some may think that freedom means not being physically incarcerated or encumbered; being able to go wherever, whenever we want; amassing wealth, possessions, and status; doing what we wish at any time. However, the Stoics teach us that placing more value on external things such as possessions, wealth, reputation, and social status actually robs us of our freedom, and we become enslaved to things not up to us.

And if you cannot stop prizing a lot of other things, then you’ll never be free – free, independent, imperturbable. Because you will always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6:16.

That it not to say that the Stoics were against striving for a good reputation, social status, wealth, or good health. They did; however, urge us be not place more importance on these externals, which are not up to us, than on the development of a good character.

Freedom is a mindset and a way of living.

For the Stoics, freedom was not only a legal status; it was more than that. Freedom is a mindset we can cultivate and a way of living. We can be physically free, sitting in the comfort of our homes and be psychologically imprisoned or enslaved – imprisoned in lives filled with desires, vice, excess, negative emotions, dependent on material things and other peoples’ opinions. In turn, freedom is a mindset we can cultivate and a way of living.

How to do it?

So how do we embark on the path of Stoic freedom? To be truly free, we must disconnect our wellbeing from anything that is not up to us. By focusing on what is in our control, and disregarding what is not, we free ourselves of the bondage of harmful emotions and a troubled mind. It is not an easy feat and takes effort. Our freedom is up to us, and as Seneca reminds us, it “is the prize we are seeking”. (Letters 51.9)

Santara Gonzales is the Executive Director and co-founder of Wisdom Unlocked, a non-profit organization that uses Stoic principles to help people cultivate good character in difficult circumstances. Please see: