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In this compilation of Books 3 and 4 of Epictetus' Discourses — the second of a two-volume set — the philosopher discusses the quest for freedom, the nature of solitude, cynicism, fear, discretion, the avoidance of quarrels, and other subjects of enduring interest and concern.
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CHAPTER 1: On Freedom
That man is free, who lives as he wishes, who is proof against compulsion and hindrance and violence, whose impulses are untrammelled, who gets what he wills to get and avoids what he wills to avoid.
Who then would live in error?
Who would live deceived, reckless, unjust, intemperate, querulous, abject?
No bad man then lives as he would, and so no bad man is free.
Who would live in a state of distress, fear, envy, pity, failing in the will to get and in the will to avoid?
Do we then find any bad man without distress or fear, above circumstance, free from failure?
None. Then we find none free.
If a man who has been twice consul hear this, he will forgive you if you add, “But you are wise, this does not concern you.” But if you tell him the truth, saying, “You are just as much a slave yourself as those who have been thrice sold,” what can you expect but a flogging?
“How can I be a slave?” he says; “my father is free, my mother is free, no one has bought me; nay, I am a senator, and a friend of Caesar, I have been consul and have many slaves.”
In the first place, most excellent senator, perhaps your father too was a slave of the same kind as you, yes and your mother and your grandfather and the whole line of your ancestors. And if really they were ever so free, how does that affect you? What does it matter if they had a fine spirit, when you have none, if they were fearless and you are a coward, if they were self-controlled and you are intemperate?
“Nay, what has this to do with being a slave?” he replies.
Does it seem to you slavery to act against your will, under compulsion and with groaning?
“I grant you that,” he says, “but who can compel me except Caesar, who is lord of all?”
Why, then, your own lips confess that you have one master: you must not comfort yourself with the thought that he is, as you say, the common master of all, but realize that you are a slave in a large household. You are just like the people of Nicopolis, who are wont to cry aloud, “By Caesar’s fortune, we are free.”
However, let us leave Caesar for the moment if you please, but tell me this: Did you never fall in love with any one, with a girl, or a boy, or a slave, or a free man?
“What has that to do with slavery or freedom?”
Were you never commanded by her you loved to do anything you did not wish? Did you never flatter your precious slave-boy? Did you never kiss his feet? Yet if any one compel you to kiss Caesar’s, you count it an outrage, the very extravagance of tyranny. What is this if not slavery? Did you never go out at night where you did not wish, and spend more than you wished and utter words of lamentation and groaning? Did you put up with being reviled and shut out? If you are ashamed to confess your own story, see what Thrasonides says and does: he had served in as many campaigns or more perhaps than you and yet, first of all, he has gone out at night, at an hour when Getas does not dare to go, nay, if he were forced by his master to go, he would have made a loud outcry and have gone with lamentations over his cruel slavery, and then, what does he say?88
A worthless girl has made a slave of me, Whom never foe subdued.
Poor wretch, to be slave to a paltry girl and a worthless one too! Why do you call yourself free then any more? Why do you boast of your campaigns? Then he asks for a sword, and is angry with the friend who refuses it out of goodwill, and sends gifts to the girl who hates him, and falls to praying and weeping, and then again when he has a little luck he is exultant. How can we call him free when he has not learnt to give up desire and fear?
Now look at the lower animals and see how we apply the notion of freedom to them. Men put lions in cages and rear them as tame creatures and feed them, and sometimes even take them about with them. Yet who will call a lion like that “free”? The softer he lives, the worse is his slavery. What lion, if he got sense or reason, would wish to be a lion of that sort? Look at the birds yonder and see what lengths they go in striving to escape, when they are caught and reared in cages; why, some of them actually starve themselves rather than endure that sort of life; and even those that do not die, pine away and barely keep alive, and dash out if they find any chance of an opening. So strong is their desire for natural freedom, an independent and unhindered existence.
Why, what ails you in your cage?
“What a question! I am born to fly where I will, to live in the air, to sing when I will; you take all this away from me, and say, ‘What ails you?’ ”
Therefore we will call only those creatures free, that do not endure captivity, but escape by death as soon as they are caught. So too Diogenes says somewhere, “A quiet death is the one sure means of freedom,” and he writes to the Persian king, “You cannot enslave the city of the Athenians any more than you can enslave fishes.”
“What! shall I not capture them?”
“If you capture them,” he says, “they will straightway leave you and be gone, like fishes; for when you take one of them, he dies. So if the Athenians die as soon as you take them, what is the good of your armament?” These are the words of a free man who has seriously examined the question and found the truth, as is reasonable; but if you look for it elsewhere than where it is, what wonder if you never find it?
The slave is anxious to be set free at once. Why? Do you think it is because he is anxious to pay the tax on his manumission? No! the reason is he imagines that up till now he is hampered and ill at ease because he has not got his freedom. “If I am enfranchised,” he says, “at once all will be well, I heed nobody, I talk to all men as an equal and one of their quality, I go where I will, I come whence I will and where I will.” Then he is emancipated, and having nothing to eat he straightway looks for some one to flatter and to dine with; then he either has to sell his body to lust and endure the worst, and if he gets a manger to eat at, he has plunged into a slavery much severer than the first; or if perchance he grows rich, being a low-bred fellow he dotes on some paltry girl and gets miserable and bewails himself and longs to be a slave again.
“What ailed me in those days? Another gave me clothes and shoes, another fed me and tended me in sickness, and the service I did him was a small matter. Now, how wretched and miserable I am, with many masters instead of one! Still, if I can get rings89 on my fingers I shall live happily and prosperously enough.”
And so first, to get them, he puts up with what he deserves, and having got them repeats the process. Next he says, “If I go on a campaign I am quit of all my troubles.” He turns soldier and endures the lot of a criminal, but all the same he begs for a second campaign and a third.90 Lastly, when he gets the crown to his career and is made a senator, once more he becomes a slave again as he goes to the senate; then he enjoys the noblest and the sleekest slavery of all.
Let him not be foolish, let him learn, as Socrates said, what is the true nature of everything, and not apply primary conceptions at random to particular facts. For this is the cause of all the miseries of men, that they are not able to apply their common primary conceptions to particular cases. One of us fancies this, another that. One fancies he is ill. Not at all; it is only that he does not apply his primary conceptions. Another fancies that he is poor, that his father or mother is cruel, another that Caesar is not gracious. But really it is one thing, and one thing only; they do not know how to adjust their primary conceptions. For who has not a primary notion of evil—that it is harmful, to be shunned, by every means to be got rid of? One primary notion does not conflict with another, the conflict is in the application.
What then is this evil which is harmful and to be shunned?
“Not to be Caesar’s friend,”91 he says.
He has gone out of his way, he has failed to apply his notions, he is in sore distress, he is seeking for what is nothing to the purpose; for when he has got Caesar’s friendship he has equally failed of his object. For what is the object of every man’s search? To have a quiet mind, to be happy, to do everything as he will, to be free from hindrance and compulsion. Very well: when he becomes Caesar’s friend is he relieved from hindrance and compulsion, is he in peace and happiness? Of whom are we to inquire? Whom can we better trust than the very man who has become Caesar’s friend?
Come forward and tell us! when was your sleep more tranquil, now or before you became Caesar’s friend?
At once the answer comes, “Cease, by the gods I beg you, to mock at my fortune; you do not know what a miserable state is mine; no sleep comes near to me, but in comes some one to say, ‘Now he’s awake, now he’ll be coming out’; then troubles and cares assail me.”
Tell me, when did you dine more agreeably, now or before?
Hear again what he says about this: if he is not invited, he is distressed, and if he is invited he dines as a slave with his lord, anxious all the while for fear he should say or do something foolish. And what do you think he fears? To be flogged like a slave? How should he come off so well? No, so great a man as he, and Caesar’s friend, must fear to lose his neck; nought less were fitting. When did you bathe with more peace of mind, or exercise yourself more at your ease? In a word, which life would you rather live, today’s or the old life? No one, I can swear, is so wanting in sense or feeling, that he does not lament his lot the louder the more he is Caesar’s friend.
Inasmuch then as neither those who bear the name of kings nor kings’ friends live as they will, what free men are left? Seek, and you shall find, for nature supplies you with means to find the truth. If, with these means and no more to guide you, you cannot find the answer for yourself, then listen to those who have made the search. What do they say?
Does freedom seem to you a good thing?
“The greatest good.”
Can any one who attains the greatest good be miserable or fare badly?
Whensoever then you see men unhappy, miserable, mourning, you may declare with confidence that they are not free.
“I do declare it.”
Well then, we have got away from buying and selling, and that kind of disposal of property which they deal with. For if you are right in making these admissions, no one who is miserable can be free, whether he be a great king or a little one, a consular or one who has twice been consul.
Answer me once more. Does freedom seem to you a great and noble and precious thing?
Can then one who possesses so great and precious and noble a thing be of a humble spirit?
Therefore when you see a man cringing to another or flattering him against his true opinion, you may say with confidence that he too is not free, and not only if he does it for a paltry dinner, but even if he does it for a province or a consulship. But those who do it for small objects you may call slaves on a small scale, and the others, as they deserve, slaves on a large scale.
“I grant you this too.”
Again, does freedom seem to you to be something independent, owning no authority but itself?
Then whenever a man can be hindered or compelled by another at will, assert with confidence that he is not free. Do not look at his grandfathers and great-grandfathers and search whether he was bought or sold, but if you hear him say “Master” from the heart and with feeling, then call him slave, though twelve fasces go before him;92 and if you hear him say, “Wretched am I, that I am so treated,” call him slave; in a word, if you see him bewailing himself, complaining, miserable, call him slave, though he wears the purple hem. If, however, he does not behave like this, call him not free yet, but get to know his judgements and see whether they are liable to compulsion or hindrance or unhappiness, and if you find any such, call him a slave on holiday at the Saturnalia;93 say that his master is away; he will presently return and then you will learn his true condition.
“In what form will he return?”
In the form of every one who has authority over the things that a man wishes for, to get them for him or to take them away.
“Have we then so many masters?”
Yes, for even before these personal masters, we have masters in circumstance, and circumstances are many. It must needs follow then that those who have authority over any of these are our masters. For no one really fears Caesar himself; men fear death, exile, deprivation of property, prison, disfranchisement. Nor does any one love Caesar, unless he has great merit; we love wealth, the tribunate, the praetorship, the consulship. When we love and hate and fear these, the men who have authority over them are bound to be our masters, and that is why we worship them like gods; for we consider that that which has authority over the greatest benefit is divine; and then if we make a false minor premiss, “this man has control over the greatest benefit,” our conclusion is bound to be wrong too.
What is it then which makes man his own master and free from hindrance? Wea...