True Freedom and the Sleekest Slavery of All

Day 186 of A Year of War and Peace

Yesterday we learned that with war comes conscription and that those conscripted are most likely to be Russia’s serfs. Today this is confirmed as the Emperor’s visit to the Sloboda Palace draws not only a bevy of patriotic tears from the noble and merchant classes but also a commitment of thousands of their serfs to the war cause. Contemporary readers, we noted, may very well be put off by chapters like this where the lives of the serfs are so coercively drafted to the whims and wishes of the ruling class. Those sympathies are justified. The deprivation of liberty is a wretched condition. Epictetus, longtime friend of A Year of War and Peace, and a slave himself, would argue, however, that it’s not just the serfs who are unfree. It just might be that the nobles and merchants are unfree too.

In the first chapter of the fourth book of his Discourses Epictetus imagines a dialog with a Roman consul. In this dialog the two discuss the elements of freedom. The consul argues that he is a free man because he comes from an entire lineage of free men. Epictetus, building up a radical notion of freedom, argues that the consul, too, is a slave. First, Epictetus and the consul agree that the free man is the man who “lives as he wishes, who is proof against compulsion and hindrance and violence, whose impulses are untrammelled, who gets what he wills to get and avoids what he wills to avoid.” The slave, conversely, is the man who “acts against his own will, under compulsion and with groaning.”

The consul initially argues that he then lives as a free man. He is, after all, a consul. Res ipsa loquitur. Not so fast, says Epictetus. What about Caesar? Is the consul not beholden to him? Must the consul, if Caesar so desires, act against his own will, under compulsion and with groaning?

All of a sudden the consul isn’t so quick to assert his freedom. Epictetus uses this opening to illustrate the myriad other ways in which most men are slaves. There is not only our subordinance to our social and political superiors, there is also our obedience to material conditions and circumstances. Man often finds himself in bondage to his fear of death, his fear of loss of property, and the fear of bodily harm. The person who can deprive a man of these things, then, Epictetus argues, is the true master of man.

Given this the nobles and merchants in today’s chapter are not as free as they probably like to think they are. They are beholden to Emperor Alexander, yes, but also to Napoleon whose invasion threatens to deprive them of their wealth and land. In response, in an effort to preserve their wealth and land, the nobles are compelled to act under compulsion and groaning. Just look at Pierre. Yesterday he argued for a calm catalog of Russia’s position before committing resources to the war effort. Today, swept up by the mania induced by the Emperor’s visit, he immediately pledges a thousand men and their maintenance. Count Rostov also acts against his will. He returns home and gives his son Petya permission to join the army. This is something he was previously against. These rich men, these nobles, yoked to their positions and possessions, are beholden to what Epictetus calls the sleekest slavery of all.

Fortunately, according to Epictetus, there is a way to free ourselves from our bondage. The first step is to divest ourselves of our attachment to the things that bind us.

DAILY MEDITATION

This is what you should practice from morning till evening, beginning with the meanest and frailest things, with an earthen vessel or a cup. Afterwards, proceed to a tunic, a dog, a horse, a piece of land, and thence to yourself, your body and its parts, and your children, wife, brothers. Look around you and in every direction, and hurl these things away from you. Purify your judgments. See that nothing is attached to you or cleaves to you that is not your own and may give you pain when it is torn away. And say while you are training yourself day after day, as you do here, not that you are pursuing philosophy (to claim that title would be pretentious), but that you are providing for your emancipation. For this is true freedom.
Epictetus, The Discourses

This is the one hundred and eighty-sixth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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