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Epictetus on one’s inner freedom that is immune to external coercion (c. 100 CE)

The ex-slave and Stoic philosopher Epictetus (55-100 CE) argues that one’s inner power to assent or not to assent to something is what constitutes one’s true freedom:

What is it, then, that makes a man free and independent? … ©an any one make you assent to a falsehood? “No one.” In the matter of assent, then, you are unrestrained and unhindered. “Agreed.” Well, and can any one compel you to exert your aims towards what you do not like? “He can. For when he threatens me with death, or fetters, he thus compels me.” If, then, you were to despise dying or being fettered, would you any longer regard him? “No.” Is despising death, then, an action in our power, or is it not? “It is.” Is it therefore in your power also to exert your aims towards anything, or is it not? “Agreed that it is. But in whose power is my avoiding anything?” This, too, is in your own. “What then if, when I am exerting myself to walk, any one should restrain me?” What part of you can he restrain? Can he restrain your assent? “No, but my body.” Ay, as he may a stone. “Be it so. But still I cease to walk.”

What is it, then, that makes a man free and independent? For neither riches, nor consulship, nor the command of provinces, nor of kingdoms, can make him so; but something else must be found.” What is it that keeps any one from being hindered and restrained in penmanship, for instance? “The science of penmanship.” In music? “The science of music.” Therefore in life too, it must be the science of living. As you have heard it in general, then, consider it likewise in particulars. Is it possible for him to be unrestrained who desires any of those things that are within the power of others? “No.” Can he avoid being hindered? “No.” Therefore neither can he be free. Consider, then, whether we have nothing or everything in our own sole power, — or whether some things are in our own power and some in that of others. “What do you mean?” When you would have your body perfect, is it in your own power, or is it not? “It is not.” When you would be healthy? “It is not.” When you would be handsome? “It is not.” When you would live or die? “It is not.” Body then is not our own; but is subject to everything that proves stronger than itself. “Agreed.” Well; is it in your own power to have an estate when you please, and such a one as you please? “No.” Slaves? “No.” Clothes? “No.” A house? “No.” Horses? “Indeed none of these.” Well; if you desire ever so earnestly to have your children live, or your wife, or your brother, or your friends, is it in your own power? “No, it is not.”

Will you then say that there is nothing independent, which is in your own power alone, and unalienable? See if you have anything of this sort. “I do not know.” But, consider it thus: can any one make you assent to a falsehood? “No one.” In the matter of assent, then, you are unrestrained and unhindered. “Agreed.” Well, and can any one compel you to exert your aims towards what you do not like? “He can. For when he threatens me with death, or fetters, he thus compels me.” If, then, you were to despise dying or being fettered, would you any longer regard him? “No.” Is despising death, then, an action in our power, or is it not? “It is.” Is it therefore in your power also to exert your aims towards anything, or is it not? “Agreed that it is. But in whose power is my avoiding anything?” This, too, is in your own. “What then if, when I am exerting myself to walk, any one should restrain me?” What part of you can he restrain? Can he restrain your assent? “No, but my body.” Ay, as he may a stone. “Be it so. But still I cease to walk.” And who claimed that walking was one of the actions that cannot be restrained? For I only said that your exerting yourself towards it could not be restrained. But where there is need of body and its assistance, you have already heard that nothing is in your power. “Be this, too, agreed.” And can any one compel you to desire against your will? “No one.” Or to propose, or intend, or, in short, not to be beguiled by the appearances of things? “Nor this. But when I desire anything, he can restrain me from obtaining what I desire.” If you desire anything that is truly within your reach, and that cannot be restrained, how can he restrain you? “By no means.” And pray who claims that he who longs for what depends on another will be free from restraint?

About this Quotation:

Epitectus (“the acquired one”) knew what he was talking about in his Dialogues when he talked about the difference between slavery and freedom, as he was born a slave. In his philosophy he maintained that he had an “existence”, an inner “thing,” which was not “subject to restraint or compulsion” by others, that only he can use “as he pleased.” By dissociating this “thing,” or inner freedom to assent or not to assent to something, from the material things around oneself, the self could never be a slave to anyone else. The price of doing this might be a high one if one had to give up one’s own life in order to live by this inner freedom not to assent to something one opposed. On the other hand, by refusing to cooperate and to give up one’s own life in doing so, this refusal to assent also deprived one’s would be enslaver from enjoying the benefits of compelling you to do something or from being his slave. Epictetus is quite right to ask “Who, then, after this, has any power over me? Philip, or Alexander, or Perdiccas, or the Persian king?” In another chapter (XXIV “That We Ought Not To Be Affected By Things Not In Our Own Power” he comes close to seeing that passive disobedience could bring an army to its knees if every soldier refused to give their assent and “nobody will dig a trench, or throw up a rampart, or stand guard, or expose himself to danger.”

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