Stoic Freedom

Stoic Freedom (Deep Resistance Part 4)

by W.D. James | Jan 26, 2024

Life can be so easy
Life can be so hard
Make you wanna cuss and fuss
Make you wanna tear things all apart
You try to stay calm and not act a fool


– Cedric Burnside, Hard to Stay Cooli

Epictetus (roughly 50-135 AD), was born into slavery in a Greek colony in modern-day Turkey, which was part of the Roman Empire at the time. His name is not in fact a proper name. It means ‘acquired’. So, the name by which he was known simply denoted his status as property. How ironic (and apropos) then that he became a preeminent philosopher of freedom. We don’t know the circumstances, but he gained his freedom sometime around midlife. He set up as a philosopher in Rome, but was banished along with all the other philosophers by the Emperor Domitian in the 90s and relocated to northern Greece and opened a successful school of philosophy. Later in life he may have had more positive contacts with Roman Emperors. In the next century, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, known as one of the ‘Five Good Emperors,’ would recognize his intellectual debt to Epictetus. Aurelius himself was a student of Stoic philosophy and his Meditations is considered a classic text in the Stoic tradition.ii

As with Diogenes, we have no writings of Epictetus that come directly from him. However, his student, Arrian, copied down lectures and exchanges he had with students in the book known as The Discourses. Further, a summary was made by taking key passages from the Discourses and condensing them into a handy little summary of Epictetus’ teaching known as the Enchiridion or Handbook.iii So, our source material is better than with Diogenes’ scattered fragments.

Stoic Freedom

Epictetus was known for his resilience and ability to help build resilience in others. A famous story has his owner wrenching Epictetus’ leg, Epictetus telling him that if he keeps doing that the leg will break. When the snap is heard, Epictetus says “I told you that would happen.” Of course, there are no images of Epictetus from his own day, but in later ages it was customary to present Epictetus with a crutch as he walked with a limp for the rest of his life. In the modern era, Admiral James Stockdale, best known as the Vice-Presidential running-mate of the populist independent candidate Ross Perot in the U.S. Presidential Election of 1992, is an exemplar of Stoic fortitude. Earlier in life (but at 42, he was no young man), in 1965, he was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy and was shot down over North Vietnam. He ejected from his plane, but broke both of his legs (Stockdale too would be ‘lame’, walking with two canes for the rest of his life) and was captured by the North Vietnamese. He was kept, shackled, in a very small and unhygienic cell for nearly 8 years. He and his fellow prisoners would be physically and psychologically tortured on a routine basis for the duration of those years. Stockdale attributed his ability to hold up under these circumstances to the teaching of Epictetus. In college, a professor had turned him on to the Enchiridion and he had memorized some of the key passages and principles in the work and relied on practicing these while a captive.iv


The Stoic school of philosophy was founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC in Athens. ‘Stoic’ means ‘porch.’ The first Stoics taught while walking along a covered and columned walkway which ran along one side of the marketplace in Athens. It rose to prominence as the self-sufficient Greek city-states gave way to empires, first that of Alexander and then to that of Rome. It is well suited to people who have lost the relative freedom and agency that come with residing in small communities and find themselves very small and very powerless in an imperial setting. All of the most prominent Stoics were actually later Romans, as was Epictetus. Other prominent Roman Stoics include Epictetus’ teacher Musonius Rufus and Seneca. In many ways, Stoicism became the unofficial philosophy of the Roman Empire with numerous adherents and academies all over the Roman world. This may also account for why Stoicism is experiencing a real revival in our own day as the individual is increasingly subsumed into a global regime he or she can do little to control.

In terms of its strenuousness, Stoicism can be situated between Cynicism and Aristotelianism. As noted in a previous essay, the Stoics held great respect for the Cynics, but felt they had overdone it on the asceticism and break from society. However, they felt Aristotle was not strenuous enough. He had famously argued that happiness, or flourishing (eudemonia), required virtue, but that virtue was not sufficient: one also needed certain external goods like a measure of wealth, the ability to participate in political self-governance, and to some extent just good moral luck. The Stoics wanted to return to what they saw as the Socratic doctrine that virtue (moral excellence) was sufficient for happiness. In a 1915 address, which I think is still one of the best and most helpful explications of Stoic thought, Gilbert Murray put it like this: “Rank, riches, social distinction, health, pleasure, barriers of race or nation – what will these things matter before the tribunal of ultimate truth? Not a jot. Nothing but goodness is good. It is what you are that matters…”.v That fierce logic, goodness is good, and nothing else is, is at the heart of the existential hardiness of a life lived according to Stoic principles.

In this and the next essay, we will look more closely at the teaching and practice of Epictetus. Here we will look at his focus on freedom. In the next essay we will look at his teaching on Natural Law and virtue. For the Stoics, it is reason that links all of those things together. It is, however, a very expansive and holistic conception of reason. As Hadot explains:

For the Stoic, the same Reason was at work in nature (and physics), in the human community (and ethics), and in individual thought (and logic). The single act of the philosopher in training for wisdom thus came to coincide with the unique act of universal Reason, which is present within all things and in tune with

Stoic Freedom

This points to the three-legged stool (the Stoics also used a garden and an egg as analogies) of the components of a comprehensive Stoic philosophy: physics (we would be more likely to say metaphysics), ethics, and logic. With the Romans, ethical reflection came to take center stage while the other components drifted into the background.

The Stoic path is one of self-possession, moral striving, a resilient freedom.

Philosophic Practices

As with Diogenes, we will begin the exploration of each practice with a set of quotations. We will then develop what the spiritual exercise behind them involved and, finally, extrapolate practices of resistance.

Practice 1: The dichotomy of control

Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible. Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us. These areas are quite rightly our concern, because they are directly subject to our influence. We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives. Outside our control, however, are such things as what kind of body we have, whether we’re born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in society. We must remember that those things are externals and are therefore not our concern. Trying to control or to change what we can’t only results in torment. Remember: The things within our power are naturally at our disposal, free from any restraint or hindrance; but those things outside our power are weak, dependent, or determined by the whims and actions of others. (3)vii

In knowing and attending to what actually concerns you, you cannot be made to do anything against your will; others can’t hurt you, you don’t incur enemies or suffer harm. (4)

If…you avoid only those undesirable things that are contrary to your natural well-being and are within your control, you won’t ever incur anything you truly don’t want. (6)

Don’t demand or expect that events happen as you would wish them to. Accept events as they actually happen. That way peace is possible. (15)

People don’t have the power to hurt you. (27)

Stoic Freedom

With the first extended quotation, we get Epictetus’ presentation of what later philosophers termed ‘the dichotomy of control’. Things are either in our control or they are not. This is the strict logic that everything in existence is either ‘A’ or ‘not A’. The logic is solid, but it probably strikes us as too black and white. Yes, some things I control. Yes, some things I do not control. But aren’t some of the things in the list under ‘don’t control’ things I have some control over (like my body or my reputation)? Contemporary philosopher William B. Irvine, in A Guide to the Good Life: the ancient art of stoic joy (Oxford, 2009), develops Epictetus’ idea into a ‘trichotomy of control.’ Things are either in our control, not in our control, or somewhat in our control. This preserves Epictetus’ logic and the moral implications of the teaching however. Those things which are somewhat in our control really have two facets, one of which is in our control and one which is not: it just helps us apply Epictetus’ logic in ways that fit with our common sense better. For instance, to take an example Irvine uses, I might want to win a tennis match. Since this involves externals, Epictetus would have counselled this should remain indifferent to us: we should not really desire it (though perhaps we could prefer it). Irvine analyses this in terms of what is and is not in our control when it comes to winning a tennis match. How good the other player is, what the court conditions will be, etc… are not really up to us. That I intend to practice hard (the actual practice might get interrupted by circumstances beyond my control, but the intention is mine to determine), that I attempt to follow my coach’s advice, that I do my best on the day of the match: these are up to us and will influence the outcome of the match. Irvine says there is nothing wrong, from a Stoic perspective, in wanting to practice hard, follow my coach’s instruction, and playing hard. That is where I should focus my attention and desire. Nothing can prevent me from that and they will increase the chances of victory. Nevertheless, having done all that, I should tranquilly accept the outcome of the match.

Freedom can be understood in a rudimentary fashion as being able to do what I want to do. We moderns focus on making the world such that I can have as many ‘wants’ as possible and the world will oblige me in fulfilling as many of them as possible. The ancients focused on what the Stoics would have called the other ‘handle’. I can seek to discipline my ‘wants’. If I only want what is in my control, I will always be free (though possibly externally in chains). The teaching is simple: desire what is in your control (primarily, desire to be good) and you will be free, unimpeded, and happy. Desire what is not in your control and you will not be free, others and the world will thwart your desires, and you will be frustrated.

Morally this is rooted in the Socratic dictum that ‘A bad man cannot harm a good man.’ If our true good rests solely on being good, nothing external can diminish that. Yes, a bad man might kill you, enslave you, cause you pain, and take your possessions. Epictetus certainly knew that and experienced that. However, Socrates and Epictetus would insist these do not constitute ‘harm.’ The only essential thing is to be good. Genuine harm would come from becoming bad. That is not in the power of others, but only in our own power. We may choose to become bad but no one can make that choice for us. If my fundamental desire is to be good, I remain free to do that. If I choose to do that I am also happy (the choice itself constitutes me as good), though externally I may have many disadvantages. This establishes what later Stoics called ‘the inner citadel.’ With this worldview and this discipline I establish an impregnable inner source of strength.

Cedric Burnside, in the song quoted above, is dealing with the same reality. It’s hard to stay cool. Maybe you won’t. But that remains the goal. The Blues can be seen as an extended meditation on how to maintain your ‘cool’ in adverse circumstances.

Practice 2: Negative visualization

As an exercise, consider the smallest things to which you are attached. For instance, suppose you have a favorite cup. It is, after all, merely a cup; so if it should break, you could cope. Next build up to things – or people—toward which your clinging feelings and thoughts intensify. Remember, for example, when you embrace your child, your husband, your wife, you are embracing a mortal. Thus, if one of them should die, you could bear it with tranquility. When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it…. (7)

We come to what may be the hardest Stoic practice or spiritual exercise. In a mild version we call it ‘negative visualization.’ The practice would consist of thinking of all the negative things that might happen to you. Imagine them. Then think along Stoic lines to try to put them into perspective. Finally, think of how you would and should respond if that negative thing came about. If the universe is kind to you and the thing does not happen, be grateful. If it does, at least what might have been a crushing blow will be something you are better equipped to handle.

Epictetus is actually pushing this point a bit further though. It starts with clearly recognizing and accepting what things actually are. Cups are fragile articles. Humans are mortals. The former will eventually be broken and the latter will eventually die. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy cups and love people. It does mean we can’t reasonably expect cups to never get broken and people to never die. We should not desire this but we also should not desire the opposite. If we do, our desires are out of alignment with what things are and how existence is. You will be unhappy if your desires are out of alignment with reality.

It is from teachings like this that Stoicism gets its reputation for being cold, a reputation I think that is not really deserved. The Stoics would say it is perfectly reasonable to love your child. In fact, they say that as we are all children of God (meaning something like a panentheistic universe) we should love everyone. Also, it is natural to be sad when a loved one dies. But there are limits. We are not to be destroyed when this happens. We are to mourn and then to accept this is how things are (trusting in what they see as an ultimately providential order). What healthy alternative is there really?

Practices of Resistance

The dichotomy of control

  • We can easily be overwhelmed with all the problems and malevolence we see around us.
  • First, sort out what is within your control and what not.
  • Prefer the good. Prefer truth to propaganda, justice to oppression, virtue to vice, etc….
  • However, desire what you can control: to come to know the truth, to love justice, to acquire virtue. This is where Stoicism yields its practical effectiveness.
  • In this way, you will form an inner citadel that the malevolent forces of the world cannot assail.
  • You will remain free.
  • Influence the world and those around you within the bounds of your power.
  • We may still lose. That is possible.
  • We may win. That is possible.
  • We will marshal our power most effectively if we are not depressed and downtrodden because it is a hard struggle or one that is not solely up to our actions.
  • The virtuous defeated remain virtuous. For the Stoics, that was a sufficient basis from which to live and enjoy happiness.
  • The virtuous victorious remain virtuous and the world is made better. Be grateful. Providence favors this outcome.

Negative visualization

  • It is a good world, but it is not an easy world.
  • Love the truth.
  • Do not accept lies, and by all means do not impose wishful lies on yourself.
  • Understand reality; what the natures of things are.
  • Do not expect nature to be other than nature is.
  • Experience and feel natural sentiments, but balance these with a reasonable understanding of how things are.
  • Injustice and oppression have their day, but they are not within the nature of things.
  • Imagine trials and tribulations you will encounter if you put yourself on the side of justice and freedom. Prepare in advance to meet those head-on.
  • Realize there could well be costs. Weigh those. Decide how you will respond if those costs are imposed.
  • Remember Epictetus when his cruel master was breaking his leg and Stockdale in his cell and under the torturer’s power. They persevered. You have the same nature they did. They, not their adversaries, became the inspirers of future generations.

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i Listen to the whole song here: Cedric Burnside- “Hard to Stay Cool” (OFFICIAL VIDEO) – YouTube

ii As an historical and pop culture footnote, Aurelius shows up in the film Gladiator (2000), played by Richard Harris. He is the good but very old Emperor who dies early in the film.

iii As with Diogenes, I have opted for a non-literal but more flavorful translation that seeks to capture Epictetus’ meaning: Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, translated and interpreted by Sharon Lebell, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995. This contains the whole of the Enchiridion as well as a few supplemental passages from The Discourses.

iv See James Bond (honestly, that’s his name) Stockdale, Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, 1993.

v Gilbert Murray, The Stoic Philosophy, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915, pp 30-31.

vi Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, translated by Michael Chase, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002 (original French edition, 1995), p. 139.

vii For the sake of simplicity, I will not separately footnote each quote from Epictetus. I will just note the page number on which the quote occurs in the Lobell text.

This essay first appeared on Winter Oak.

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