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From Vol. 5, Issue 9, September 2023

Degrees of freedom

Practicing Stoicism || DR. PIOTR STANKIEWICZ

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Understanding Stoic freedom

Freedom is one of the most challenging concepts of all – everybody wants it, while hardly anyone truly understands what it means. What then is the meaning of freedom in Stoicism?

A standard strategy for answering is to argue that the Stoic freedom in not the political one; quite the opposite, that it involves the freedom of one’s inner choices and moral inquiry. That’s undeniably true, though at the end of the day we amass our power to make political choices not only through “external” rights and liberties but via our moral capacities too. This knits together the “inside” Stoic perceptive with the social ramifications this philosophy brings.

Freedom is not outside of us

Where does it all start? At the outset Stoicism teaches us that it is misguided to seek freedom in external things. This is the usual human preconception and a line of thought we embrace intuitively: freedom is the freedom to pursue outside choices, move around and move up in life. Alas, such understanding of freedom often ends up in dependence or misery. This is one of the golden points of Stoicism: the external things, the not-in-our-powers will sooner or later block us up, usually in a painful or miserable way.

What then is the choice for us? We need to turn around the direction of our will. Instead of looking for freedom outside of us – in the great projects of life, external pursuits, and ordinary developments – we need to learn how to find it in ourselves. The key to finding it there is learning how to understand what such freedom is. And now Epictetus comes into play. Freedom, he’d say, is nothing else than employing “mental representations” in a rational way. In today’s language: freedom is to be found not in what we do, but in how we think.

One aspect of such freedom is a negative one. This sadly often comes to the fore and so Stoicism gets its particular shade of frugal austerity. “Exercising human freedom,” the thinking goes, “consists in the ability to withdraw from earthly desires and wants. This way a person attains invincibility: one who doesn’t seek external things cannot be deprived of them.”

Infallible reasoning indeed. And yet a bleak one since it completely forgoes the positive side of such approach. The realization that we can always override the direction of our will and realign our desires and wants (or at least try to do so) is indeed a degree of freedom in itself. It tastes a bit different than the freedom of non-Stoics, but we can acquire a true taste for its unique bittersweetness.

Freedom is in the act, not results

The non-Stoics typically think of it in terms of resignation and renunciation. It seems to them like giving up or retreat. This results, however, from over-focusing on pay-offs of choices (“where such freedom leads us”) instead of on the choice itself. And the Stoics advise us: the taste of freedom lies in the very exercising of it – not in the results. Just as in the Stoic dogma of dogmas, where the valour of virtue consists in the virtue itself.

The beauty of this attitude is that this realignment of thinking can always be done. It doesn’t rest on any external condition, it’s contingent on nothing. There is no outside circumstance, no support, no validation that is required. We don’t need to ask anyone’s permission – our thinking depends on us only.

The power and allure of Stoic freedom

The power and allure of Stoic freedom is that it is completely independent of everything. The ancient sages claiming to be free in the midst of captivity or happy on the torture rack might have overdone the point a bit, yet the principle holds. Stoic freedom is free of restraint. Isn’t it the most genuine freedom of all? It wouldn’t be the case if it wasn’t for the radical simplicity of the Stoic approach. Radical simplicity, or, vice versa, simple radicality. The core message of Stoic freedom is that it doesn’t need anything other than itself and that it involves a massive, radical recalibration of our thinking. And of thinking only, which makes it truly outstanding and out of reach of any external factors. Realizing this translates into the Stoic epiphany, the major breakthrough on the path of Stoic progress that people usually report. It is moreover the exact core of Stoic freedom.

Dr. Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D., is a writer and philosopher, and promoter of reformed Stoicism. He authored Manual of Reformed Stoicism, and Does Happiness Write Blank Pages?