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


Found in The Works of Epictetus. Consisting of His Discourses, in Four Books

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? … [C]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.”

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.”