Saturday, June 23, 2018

Epictetus Discourses Book 4 Chapter 1 - FREEDOM!

Here in the United States, we are gearing up for the celebration of our nation's independence from England.  One of the well-know revolutionary cries comes from Patrick Henry, who passionately argued, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

The American revolutionaries were pursuing governmental freedom and justly achieved their cause.  Epictetus argues there is a higher, more difficult freedom to attain.  And in this post-modern America in 2018, when so many desires are easily and effortlessly obtained, the freedom Epictetus describes is much more difficult to achieve.  While our Founding Fathers gave us freedom from tyranny, we are left with the task of throwing off the shackles of desire and ease.

I suggest you read the entire chapter (here if you don't have a copy).  For my own benefit (and yours), I have shared the more impactful parts of the chapter below (from the Robert Dobbin's translation).

"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."

So far, so good!  I mean, who doesn't want that?  But there is much more to it!

Epictetus gives some examples of real slavery and real freedom.

"'A pretty woman has made me a perfect slave, something not even my fiercest enemies could accomplish.'"  Poor guy, to be enslaved by a whore, and a cheap one at that!  What right do you still have to call yourself free?"  This passage is in reference to a mighty military leader, whose enemies cannot conquer him, but rather, he is conquered by a cheap prostitute.  "Until he succeeds in suppressing his lust and anxiety, how is he really free?"

The point?  You are closer to true freedom if you have no desires for sex or women.  I know that may be difficult for some to stomach ("how can you live without sex?!").  But if true freedom is your goal, then killing this desire is a must.  Or more to the point: do you control your sexual urges or do they control you?  And how do you know; how can you really find out if you're in control or if your urges are controlling you?  Chew on that for a long while.

"Diogenes says somewhere that one way to guarantee freedom is to be ready to die.  To the Persian king he wrote, 'You can no more make slaves of the Athenians than you can make slaves of fish of the sea.'  'Why?  Can't Athenians be captured?' 'Capture them and straight away they'll give you the slip and be gone, like fish, which die directly [when] they are caught and taken aboard.  And if the Athenians die when taken captive, what good in the end is all your military might?'  There's the word of a free man who has given the subject of freedom considerable thought and, sure enough, discovered the real meaning of the word.  If you continue to look for it in the wrong place, however, don't be surprised if you never find it."

We see that the American revolutionary sentiment is radically similar to fish and Athenians.  Freedom is so precious, death is the only alternative.  There is another example of a revolutionary who wanted freedom.  Next April will be the 100th anniversary of his assassination.  Emiliano Zapata relentlessly pursued his dream of freedom and land, rallying Mexican peasants: "Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas [I'd rather die on my feet, than live on my knees]"

Returning to Epictetus; beginning in verse 33, he describes the life of a slave and the desire for freedom.  When granted his freedom, the slave leaps from the boiling water of servitude and into the frying pan of other "masters" such as making a living, paying taxes, working at a marriage, giving military service, and eventually into living in servitude again - this time as a senator in the government.  The point of this example is that this slave thinks he can find happiness in externals.  And so he spends time, effort and anxiety trying to be free of slavery, then of making a living, then of raising a family, then of military service and finally governmental service ... and he never is content; never gets what he desires.

Indeed, "we all want ... to live in peace, to be happy, to do as we like and never be foiled or forced to act against our wishes."  And we attain that peace, not by seeking freedom in externals, but by focusing on things that are in our absolute control.  And this can be proven: Viktor Frankl found meaning in life despite the most unbearable circumstances; and we can all think of uber-rich celebrities, tycoons and politicians, who despite having everything are still malcontent.  These malcontents are true slaves.

"If you hear someone say 'Master' sincerely and with feeling, call him a slave no matter if twelve bodyguards march ahead of him.  Or if you hear, 'God, the things I put up with!' call the person a slave.  If you just see him disconsolate, angry or out of sorts, call him a slave - albeit a slave in a purple toga.  Even if he does none of these things, don't call him free just yet, acquaint yourself with his judgments, in case they show any sign of constraint, disappointment or disaffection. ... We have masters in the form of circumstances, which are legion.  And anyone who controls any one of them controls us as well."

You may be reading this and saying to yourself, "who is free then?  The way Epictetus describes things, makes it sound like we are all slaves!"  Now we are ready to learn!

Epictetus asks, "What is it then that renders a person free and independent? ... is their nothing that is under our control, is everything under our control - or are there some things we control, and others we don't?"  This is how we have to view everything in our life!  What is under our absolute control and what is not.  Then and only then will we begin to understand where true freedom lies.

Do you have power over your body to perform perfectly anytime you want?  NO

Can you have as much land as you want? NO

Can you have as many clothes, houses, horses, cars, family, friends as you want?  NO

It sounds like we don't have control over anything.  What do we have control over?

"Can anyone make you assent to a false proposition? ... Can anyone force you to choose something to which you're opposed?"  Well, maybe - if they threaten you with death or prison.  Yes - but what if "you despise [it doesn't bother you; you're indifferent to] death and imprisonment - are you still in that person's thrall?"  No.  Therefore, if you can control your attitude about death and prison, you can control your attitude about anything!

The point: "whatever you cannot produce or preserve at will lies outside your range.  Don't let your hands go near it, much less your desire.  Otherwise you've consigned yourself to slavery and submitted your neck to the yoke, as you do whenever you prize something not yours to command, or grow attached to something like health that's contingent on God's will and variable, unstable, unpredictable and unreliable by nature."

Practice and be prepared to distinguish everything into two categories:
1) what belongs to you, what you can control
2) what does not belong to you, what you cannot control

After time, and much practice, you will will have "a fixed and measured desire for the goods of the soul, since they are within your power and accessible.  You [will] disdain external good, so that no opening exists for that irrational, intemperate and impulsive form of desire.  With such an attitude toward things, you can no longer be intimidated by anyone."

Marcus Aurelius spoke of a "fortress" when speaking of our will and attitude.  He said, "Remember that your directing mind becomes invincible when it withdraws into its own self-sufficiency, not doing anything it does not wish to do, even if its position is unreasonable. How much more, then, when the judgement it forms is reasoned and deliberate? That is why a mind free from passions is a fortress" (see Meditations Book 8.48).  Epictetus draws a similar comparison and how that fortress is not demolished from the outside, but rather from the inside.  "We can capture the physical fortress, the one in the city, but our judgement about illness, or about attractive women, remain to be dislodged from the fortress inside us, together with the tyrants whom we host every day, though their identities change over time.  It's here that we need to start attacking the fortress and driving the tyrants out.  Surrender the body and its members, physical faculties, property, reputation, office, honours, children, siblings - repudiate all [of] them."

Epictetus more succinctly describes this process: "I submitted my will to God.  He wants me to be sick - well, then, so do I.  He wants me to choose something.  Then I choose it.  He wants me to desire something, I desire it.  He wants me to get something, I want the same; or he doesn't want me to get it, and I concur.  Thus I even assent to death and torture.  No no one can make me, or keep me, from acting in line with my inclination, any more than they can similarly manipulate God."

He continues with this line of reasoning and how God sent us to earth "to witness his design and share for a short time in his feast and celebration.  So why not enjoy the feast and pageant while it's given you to do so; then, when he ushers you out, go with thanks and reverence for what you were privileged for a time to see and hear."  And when it is over, "make room for other people, it's their turn to be born, just as you were born, and once born they need a place to live, along with the other necessities of life."

But while you are here, "if the conditions don't suit you, leave.  [God] wants people keen to participate in the dance and revels - people, that is, who would sooner applaud and favour the festival with their praise and acclamation.  As for those who are grumpy and dour, he won't be sad to seem them excluded.  Even when they are invited, they don't act as if they are on holiday, or play an appropriate part; instead they whine, they curse their fate, their luck and their company.  They don't appreciate what they have, including moral resources given to them for the appropriate purpose - generosity of spirit, high-mindedness, courage and that very freedom we are now exploring."

And as for the externals God has given us (our body, and possessions, etc) use them!  But "don't get attached to them."  And to succeed in not getting attached to them, Epictetus says that we should reflect morning and night that these externals are dispensable.  "Start with things that are least valuable and most liable to be lost - things such as a jug or a glass - and proceed to apply the same ideas to clothes, pets, livestock, property; your siblings and your wife.  Look on every side and mentally discard them."

And then, if God or fate calls upon you to lose all these things, and you are tortured, flogged, jailed or beheaded, then they "may be majestic in suffering ... and come through a better, more fortunate person; while the one who really comes to harm, who suffers the most and the most pitifully, is the person who is transformed from human being to wolf, snake or hornet."

"The unhindered person is free ... the person who renounces externals cannot be hindered.  ... This is the road that leads to liberty, the only road that delivers us from slavery."

Diogenes was the perfect example of a person renouncing externals.  "Diogenes - he was free.  He had eliminated any means to capture him, there was no opening to attack or seize him in order to make him a slave.  Everything he owned was disposable, and only temporarily attached."

"His true parents - the gods ... his real country, the world at large."

Socrates is another excellent example of a man focused on the right things.  We can wave our hands and say Diogenes had it easy - he had no wife or children to care for.  Fair enough - so lets look at Socrates, "who had both wife and children, but as if they were on loan."  He was drafted to serve in the military.  He served and "fought without regard for his life."  When "ordered by the tyrants to arrest Leon, he did not give a thought to obeying, because he thought the act unlawful, even knowing there was a chance he might die if he refused.  He didn't care; it was not his skin he wanted to save, but the man of honour and integrity.  These things are not open to compromise or negotiation."

"He reflected on the right thing to do, with no thought or regard for anything else.  In his own words, he didn't want to save his body, he wanted to preserve the element that grows and thrives with every act of justice, the element that is diminished and dies by injustice."

While many of us may have rationalized, when confronted with death, that if our life were spared, we would be able to help many people, but that if we are dead, we are of no use to anyone.  But if we look to Socrates, we know "long after his death, the memory of what he did and said benefits humanity as much as or more than ever."

Epictetus pleads to us to "study this - these principles, these arguments - and contemplate these models of behaviour, if you want to be free.  Don't be surprised if so great a goal costs you many a sacrifice.  For love of what they considered freedom men have hanged themselves, have thrown themselves over cliffs - and whole cities have occasionally been destroyed.  For true, inviolable, unassailable freedom, yield to God when he asks for something back that he earlier gave you.  Prepare yourself, as Plato says, not just for death, but for torture, exile, flogging - and the loss of everything not belonging to you.  You will be a slave among slaves otherwise."

"Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it."

"Work day and night to attain a liberated frame of mind."

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