Epictetus and the Nature of Freedom

Once we truly internalize what Epictetus is saying, we also realize that we are always completely free in the Stoic sense, regardless of our circumstances

Massimo Pigliucci
Jan 7 · 7 min read
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[image: Statue of Freedom on top of the US Capitol building in Washington, D.C., WikiSource; this is essay #262 in my Patreon/Medium series]

“‘But suppose I choose to walk, and someone obstructs me?’ What part of you will they obstruct? Certainly not your power of assent? ‘No, my body.’ Your body, yes — as they might obstruct a rock. ‘Perhaps; but the upshot is, now I’m not allowed to walk.’ Whoever told you, ‘Walking is your irrevocable privilege’? I said only that the will to walk could not be obstructed.” (Epictetus, Discourses IV.1.72–73)

What does it mean to be free? I live in a country where the word “freedom” is thrown around in all sorts of contexts where it hardly belongs. As when people think that not wearing a mask in the middle of a pandemic is a statement of freedom, as opposed to what it really is: an attitude of callous social irresponsibility. Or, just as I was writing this, when “freedom fighters” violently storm the US Capitol building in order to overturn a fair election. A bit more helpfully, my dictionary says that freedom is:

“The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.”

But Epictetus warns us that such a conception of freedom is too broad and unrealistic. Speech and thought certainly do enter into it, but not action, as he discusses with one of his students in the quote that opens this essay. When the student says that he might decide to walk, but someone might impede that action, Epictetus’ response is that the student is being careless with words. What, exactly, may be impeded? Our ability to carry out the action, but not the decision that the action is the right one for us, at this moment. That is, the execution of our actions may be limited by other people, or by circumstances. But our will, which is what decides whether we should attempt to engage in a given action or not, cannot be impeded by anyone, under any circumstances. When the student complains that even so, the fact is that he may not be able to walk, Epictetus chides him again: whoever told you that walking falls within your sphere of freedom?

“Some things are up to us, while others are not. Up to us are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not up to us are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Enchiridion 1.1)

This dichotomy, sometimes referred to as the Stoic fork, says that everything falls into two categories: what is up to us, and what is not up to us. The second category includes everything external, such as health (“body”), wealth (“property”), reputation, and career (“office”). Why? Because although we can influence these things, the outcome of our actions depends also on other people or circumstances, that is, it is not entirely “up to us.” For instance, we are currently in the middle of a pandemic, and I can certainly influence the chances that I will be infected by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome CoronaVirus 2 which causes COVID-19. I can wash my hands regularly, I can practice social distancing, I can wear a mask when outside, and I can abstain from travel. But viruses are sneaky things, and I might still end up infected, despite my best efforts to the contrary.

“There are three things in which people ought to exercise themselves who would be wise and good. The first concerns the desires and the aversions, that we may not fail to get what we desire, and that we may not fall into that which we do not desire. The second concerns the movements (toward an object) and the movements from an object, and generally in doing what we ought to do, that we may act according to order, to reason, and not carelessly. The third thing concerns freedom from deception and rashness in judgment, and generally it concerns the assents.” (Discourses III.2.1)

The three disciplines here are listed in inverted order when compared to the quote in the Enchiridion, but the correspondence is clear:

Some things are up to us, while others are not. The only things truly up to us are our judgments. Everything else we can only influence.

Put this way, we can make perfect sense of what Epictetus is telling his student in the opening quote: my friend, the only thing that is up to you is the judgment that prompts you to walk, right now, under these circumstances. Whether you will actually be able to walk is not (entirely) up to you. Your freedom, therefore, lies not in the execution of your actions, but only and exclusively in the process of judgment that leads you to want to perform such actions.

“If you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly.” (1.3)

Paradoxically, this means that we are free even when we are in prison. Like Nelson Mandela, for instance. He spent a good portion of his life imprisoned by the Apartheid government in South Africa, but his captors could not control his will. He was determined to work toward a better world and freedom for his people. That determination was his and his alone, while of course actually succeeding in what he aimed at doing depended on other people and circumstances.

Socrates Café

Socrates Café is all about making ours, on local and global…

Massimo Pigliucci

Written by

Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

Socrates Café

Socrates Café is all about making ours, on local and global scales, an inclusive, thoughtful and participatory society where regular exchanges of ideas and ideals among diverse people take place.

Massimo Pigliucci

Written by

Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

Socrates Café

Socrates Café is all about making ours, on local and global scales, an inclusive, thoughtful and participatory society where regular exchanges of ideas and ideals among diverse people take place.

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