July 4th is the celebration of the United States of America'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 2019, 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).
"That person is free who lives as he wishes, who can neither be constrained, nor hindered, nor compelled, whose motives are unimpeded, and who achieves his desires and doesn’t fall into what he wants to avoid." (v. 1, p. 217)
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 little wench’, he says, has enslaved me, a cheap one too. Me whom no enemy has ever enslaved.'
Poor wretch, to be the slave of a young girl, and a cheap one at that! Why do you still call yourself a free man, then?" 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 this man can learn to "escape from desire and fear, how could he be a free man?" (v. 21-23, p. 218-219)
When we look at animals in the zoo or birds in a cage, a part of us feels sorry for them. They are not free! Others might say, "but the animal is safe; gets its food delivered to it; has a place to sleep!" Indeed, the animal is living a "soft life" like many humans do. But "the softer the life, the more it is a slave." (v. 24, p. 219) It cannot really do what it wants to do. It must do what the zookeeper demands. Indeed, "that is why we call free only those animals that won't put up with captivity, but escape through death as soon as they're captured." (v. 29, p. 219)
Diogenes remarks accordingly somewhere that the only sure means to secure one’s freedom is to be happy to die, and he writes to the king of the Persians, ‘You cannot enslave the Athenian state,’ so he says, ‘any more than you can enslave the fishes.’ —‘How so? Can’t I capture them?’—‘If you do,’ he replies, ‘they’ll immediately leave you and be gone like fish. For as soon as you catch one of those, it dies; and if the Athenians come to die when they’re caught, what good will you gain from your armed force?’ This is the language of a free man who has examined the question in all seriousness and, as might be expected, has found the right answer. But if you look elsewhere than where it is to be found, why be surprised that you never find it? (v. 30-32, p. 219)
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 all that one wants without being subject to hindrance or constraint." (v. 46, p. 221) 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 him say ‘master’ from his heart and with true feeling, even if the twelve fasces are being carried in front of him, then call him a slave; and if you hear him exclaiming, ‘Wretch that I am, what things I have to suffer!’, call him a slave too. In a word, if you see him wailing, complaining, and living unhappily, call him a slave in a purple-bordered robe. If he does nothing of that kind, however, don’t yet declare that he is free, but get acquainted with his judgements, and see whether they’re in any way subject to constraint, or hindrance, or unhappiness; and if you find that to be the case, call him a slave on holiday at the Saturnalia. Say that his master is away from home; but he’ll be back soon, and then you’ll see what this man suffers! Whoever holds control over anything that the man desires, and can procure it or take it away [is that man's master].—‘Do we have so many masters, then?’—Yes, so many. For even before these human masters, we have circumstances as our masters, and there are any number of those. Because in truth, it is not Caesar himself whom people stand in fear of, but death, banishment, confiscation of their property, imprisonment, loss of civil rights. Nor does anyone love Caesar himself, unless Caesar happens to be a man of great worth, but it is riches that we love, or a post as tribune, praetor, or consul. As long as we love, hate, or fear these things, it necessarily follows that those who have power over them will be our masters. For that reason, we even worship such people as though they were gods, because we suppose that anyone who has the power to confer the greatest advantages on us is divine. And then we wrongly lay down this minor premise, ‘This man has the power to confer the greatest advantages.’ It is bound to follow that the conclusion drawn from these premises must be false too. (v. 57-61, p. 222-223)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, "do we have nothing that is exclusively within our power, or is that the case with everything, or are there some things that are within our power while others are within the power of other people?" (v. 65, p. 223) 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. This is "the dichotomy of control" or as William Irvine more succinctly puts it, the "trichotomy of control" (see links: here, here, and here)
- Things entirely, 100% in our control
- Things completely, 100% out of our control
- Things in-between, partially in our control, and partially out of out control
Can you have as much land as you want? NO. But you can control some actions to gain land.
Can you have as many clothes, houses, horses, cars, family, friends as you want? NO. But you can control some actions to acquire these things.
It sounds like we don't have complete control over anything. What do we have control over?
"Can anyone make you give your assent to what is false? - 'No one can.' ... Can anyone force you to direct your impulses towards anything you don't want? 'Indeed he can. For when he threatens me with death or imprisonment, he can force me to it.' If you were to despise death, however, or chains, would you still pay any heed to him? - 'No.'" (v. 69-71, p. 224) Therefore, if you can control your attitude about death and prison, you can control your attitude about anything!
The point: "that which is not in your power to procure or keep as you wish is not your own. Keep not only your hands well away from it, but first and foremost your desire; otherwise you've delivered yourself into slavery, you've put your head under the yoke, if you attach value to anything that isn't your own, if you conceive a desire for anything that is subject to anyone else and is perishable." (v. 77, p. 225)
Practice and be prepared to distinguish everything into two categories:
- what belongs to you, what you can control
- what does not belong to you, what you cannot control
And for those things partially in your control, be prepared to have a "reserve clause" and keep your eyes wide open to recognize that things may not go as you'd expect.
After time, and much practice, you will will be able to "distinguish those things that are not your own from those that are ... [and you will be able to] keep your desire fixed on [those things that are in your control] ... [there will be no one] left whom you need fear." (see v. 81, p. 225)
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.
"How is a citadel destroyed, then? Neither by iron, nor by fire, by by judgements. For if we pull down the citadel in the city, have we also pulled down the citadel of fever, the citadel of pretty girls, or, in a word, the citadel within us, and shall we have driven out the tyrants whom we have inside us, who we have exercising their sway over us day after day, sometime the same ones, sometimes different? But this is where we must begin; this is where we must set out from to destroy the citadel and drive out the tyrants: we must give up our poor body, and it various parts and faculties, and our property, reputation, public posts, honours, children, brothers, and friends, and regard all of that as being not our own. And if the tyrants are driven out from there, what need do I have to raze the citadel?" (v. 86-88, p. 226)
Epictetus more succinctly describes this process:
I have submitted my impulses to God. It is his will that I should have a fever? That is my will too. It is his will that I should direct my impulses towards a certain thing? That is my will too. It is his will that I should desire something? That is what I want too. It is his will that I should get something? That is what I want too. He doesn’t want that? Nor do I. And so it is my will that I should die, my will that I should be tortured. Who can still hinder me, then, contrary to my own judgements; who can constrain me? No more than that would be possible with Zeus. (v. 89-90, p. 226)We learn and gain this trust by "observing the wishes of God and his governing order." (v. 100, p. 227)
He continues with this line of reasoning and how God sent us to earth "with a small portion of flesh" to "observe his governing order, and accompany him in his procession and take part in his festival for a short period of time ... then, after having beheld his pagaent and festival for the time that is granted to you, to take your leave when he conducts you away, after having first paid obeisance to him and having thanked him for all that you've heard and seen." (v. 104-105, p. 228) Then we depart this life, "grateful and reverent" to "make room for others." (v. 106, p. 228)
But while you are here, if the conditions "don't suit you, go away. He has no need of a spectator who is always complaining about his lot. He needs people to join in his festival and dances, so that they may, on the contrary, greet them with applause, and view them with reverence, and sing hymns in praise of the assembly. As for the grumblers and cowards, he won't be sorry to see them gone from the assembly; for even while they were present, they didn't behave as though they were at a festival, and didn't fill their proper place, but lamented instead and found fault with the deity, their lot, and their companions, unconscious of what had been granted to them, and the powers that they had received for the opposite use - greatness of soul, nobility of mind, courage, and the very freedom that we are now investigating." (v. 108-109, p. 229)
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. "Begin with the smallest and most fragile things, a pot, or a cup, and then pass on to a tunic, a dog, a horse, a scrap of land; and from there, pass on to yourself, to your body, and the parts of your body, and to your children, your wife, your brothers. Look around you in every direction, and cast these things far away from you. Train yourself in this way, day after day ... [as a] slave on the way to emancipation. For this is the way to true freedom." (v. 111-115, p. 229)
And then, if God or fate calls upon you to lose all these things, and you are tortured, flogged, jailed or beheaded, then you may be called "a noble spirit [who] comes off with added profit and advantage, while the person who is truly harmed, and suffers the most pitiful and shameful fate, is the one who, instead of being human, turns into a wolf, a viper, or a wasp." (v. 127, p. 231) In other words, you who suffer at the hands of others, are the ones who profit and show the true qualities of a human being. While the ones who do the torturing, flogging, jailing and beheading are wolves, vipers and wasps.
Verses 130 and 131 summarize it all:
The person who isn't subject to hindrances is free ... who desires nothing that is not his own ... those [things] that are not within our power, either to have or not to have ... our body ... our property ... this is the road that leads to freedom, this is the only deliverance from slavery, to be able to say one day with your whole heart,
Guide me, Zeus, and thou, O Destiny,Diogenes was the perfect example of a person renouncing externals. "Diogenes was free. He had cast off everything that could allow slavery to gain hold of him to enslave him. Everything that he had he could easily let go; everything was only loosely attached to him." (v. 153, p. 234)
To wheresoever you have assigned me.
"His true ancestors, the gods, and his true country ... the universe." (v. 154, p. 234)
"And when he had to drink the poison, how did he behave then? When he could have saved himself and Crito said to him, 'Make your escape for the sake of your children,' and what did he reply? Did he regard that opportunity as a godsend? Not at all, he thought only about what would be proper for him to do; the rest he didn't even consider or take into account. For he didn't want, so he said, to save his poor body, but to save that which finds growth and is preserved through right action, and is diminished and destroyed through wrong action." (v. 163, p. 235)
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 that "now that Socrates is dead, the memory of him is no less useful to the human race, or even much more useful than all that he did and said while still alive." (v. 169, p. 236)
Epictetus pleads to us to "reflect on these things, these judgements, these arguments, and look at these examples, if you want to be free, if you desire freedom in accordance with its true value." (v. 170, p. 236)
"For the sake of true freedom, which is secure against all treachery and is inviolable, won't you return that which God has given you when he demands it back? Won't you not only, as Plato says, practise to die, but even to suffer torture, to go into exile, to be flogged, and in a word, give up everything that is not your own? Otherwise, you'll be a slave among slaves." (v. 172-173, p. 236)
See for yourself - experiment if you must. Once you have gained what you desire (health, wealth, fame, fortune, ease, the next gadget, etc), you will only be met again with a new desire for "what [you don't] have. For freedom is not attained through the satisfaction of desires, but through the suppression of desires." (v. 174-175, p. 236)