Epictetus and the nature of freedom

[image: Statue of Freedom on top of the US Capitol building in Washington, D.C., WikiSource; this is essay #262 in my “Philosophy as a Way of Life” 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?

This is a profound philosophical point, with endless practical applications. Let us pursue it a bit without entering into a discussion of the treacherous, and — in mind opinion — wasteful topic of free will. (The Stoics were very sensible in that respect, espousing a position that modern philosophers refer to as compatibilism. See here.) All you have to agree to for our purposes is that human beings are capable of volition, i.e., of making decisions. And that decisions are in a different category from actions, though obviously the first one causally leads to the second one.

First, the theoretical, philosophical point. Epictetus is saying that the only thing that is truly and irrevocably up to us is our will, which manifests itself into three distinct (and yet related) subdomains: our endorsed opinions, our decisions to act or not to act, and our judgments. This is clear from the famous opening of the Enchiridion:

“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.

Back to what is up to us. Epictetus lists four things: opinion, motivation, desire, and aversion. The English translation, however, is a bit misleading. The Greek words are: hypolêpsis (“opinion”), hormaô (“motivation,” sometimes translated as “impulse”), arexis (“desire”), and ecclisis (“aversion”). 

Hypolêpsis means agreeing with something. As in: I think that walking at this time would be a good idea.

Hormaô means to set in motion. As in: I am going to (try to) walk.

Arexis means conation, the mental faculty of purpose, desire, or will to perform an action. As in: I wish to begin walking.

Ecclisis means turning out of one’s course, deflexion. As in: I do not wish to begin walking.

Let’s simplify things a bit: aversions are negative desires, so “desire and aversion” is really one category. We are, then, left with three things that are up to us, according to Epictetus: opinions, motivations, and desires. Not at all by chance, these correspond to the three disciplines in which Epictetus wished to train his students, as he explains:

“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:

Discipline of desire and aversion <=> Desires and aversions
Discipline of action <=> Motivations to act / not act
Discipline of assent <=> Opinions, judgments

In a nutshell, the discipline of desire and aversion aims at reorienting our values, so that we should desire what is truly good for us and be averse to what is not good for us. The discipline of action trains us to properly behave toward ourselves and others. And the discipline of assent refines our reasoning ability, so that we may arrive at more sound judgments.

That said, all three disciplines, and corresponding objects of training, really boil down to one thing, and one thing only: sound judgments. Because, after all, both our values and our actions depend judgment. Which means we are getting close to the heart of the matter, which I will make explicit by rephrasing Enchiridion 1.1:

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.

Great. What does this mean in practice? How is this going to change our life for the better? Well, 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. Because nobody can ever thwart our will. This is why Epictetus says, just a bit later on in the Enchiridion:

“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.

This means that we should internalize our goals: focus where our agency actually lies, in our intentions and judgments, do our best, and then accept that sometimes we will succeed and at other times we won’t. Life works that way. It should be clear, but I’m going to spell it out anyway because I’ve seen this sort of mistake plenty of times, that this does not lead to quietism, but only to reasonable plans of action. For the Stoics we have an ethical duty to act, whenever possible, to make the world a better place. But modern Stoic Larry Becker also articulated what he called “the axiom of futility”:

“Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible.”

Or as Kant put it, ought requires can. Make sure you consider carefully what to do, do your best, and be at peace with what happens. That is the way to freedom.

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