Epictetus part 14: Set yourself free

Note: this is the thirteenth part of a weekly series, in which I translate and discuss the Enchiridion (Handbook) of Epictetus. New posts will be released every monday morning (GMT).

Apatheia means being free from passions or emotions. It includes a lack of desire for things you should not desire: the things that are not in your control. In this sense, the stoic concept of freedom is much broader than generally acknowledged. We must not only seek to be free from others, but to be free from our own erroneous desires. To wish for eternal life, for instance, is foolish:

If you want your children and your wife and the people you love to live forever, you are stupid: because you want what is not in your control to be in your control, and what belongs to others to belong to you. Likewise, if you want your slave to make no mistakes, you are a fool: because you want what is bad not to be bad, but something else.

What we do control, is our mind. We can take away our desires from things that are not in our control and redirect them to what we should desire (which is virtue).

However, if you want to avoid misdirecting your desires, you can do that. So practise that, which you can do.

Desiring things that are not in our control is not only foolish, we also imprison ourselves by it. If you make yourself dependent on things that others control, you become a slave to them. Whether your master is your employer, your wife or Fortuna, you are not free. If you depend on the wheel of fate, you are its slave. Epictetus makes this magnificently clear in the following sentence:

A master over anyone is the person who has the power to grant or take away what the other person wants and doesn’t want. Anyone who wants to be free should not want anything, nor avoid anything which is controlled by others. Otherwise, he is bound to be a slave.

His advice: set yourself free. Do not desire what is not in your control, and do not averse what is not in your control. Only then, you can truly be free.


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