How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life

How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life


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A superb new edition of Epictetus’s famed handbook on Stoicism—translated by one of the world’s leading authorities on Stoic philosophy

Born a slave, the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. 55–135 AD) taught that mental freedom is supreme, since it can liberate one anywhere, even in a prison. In How to Be Free, A. A. Long—one of the world’s leading authorities on Stoicism and a pioneer in its remarkable contemporary revival—provides a superb new edition of Epictetus’s celebrated guide to the Stoic philosophy of life (the Encheiridion) along with a selection of related reflections in his Discourses.

Freedom, for Epictetus, is not a human right or a political prerogative but a psychological and ethical achievement, a gift that we alone can bestow on ourselves. We can all be free, but only if we learn to assign paramount value to what we can control (our motivations and reactions), treat what we cannot control with equanimity, and view our circumstances as opportunities to do well and be well, no matter what happens to us through misfortune or the actions of other people.

How to Be Free features splendid new translations and the original Greek on facing pages, a compelling introduction that sets Epictetus in context and describes the importance of Stoic freedom today, and an invaluable glossary of key words and concepts. The result is an unmatched introduction to this powerful method of managing emotions and handling life’s situations, from the most ordinary to the most demanding.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691177717
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/30/2018
Series: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 179,129
Product dimensions: 4.70(w) x 6.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

A. A. Long is professor emeritus of classics and affiliated professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. His many books include Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, Stoic Studies, and (with Margaret Graver) Seneca: Letters on Ethics. He lives in Kensington, California.

Read an Excerpt


Learning to Desire Each Thing as It Happens

The person who is getting an education ought to approach this process with the following aim:

How can I follow the gods in everything, how can I be content with the divine administration, and how can I become free?

Well, you are free if nothing happens that conflicts with your will and if no one is able to obstruct you.

What does that mean? Are you telling me that freedom is madness?

No, of course not. Freedom and madness don't go together.

But I want my every wish to come to pass, however crazy that may seem.

You really are mad, you are raving. Don't you know that *freedom is something fine and wonderful? To be so happy-go-lucky in one's wishes as to want every whim fulfilled is tantamount to being the reverse of fine — utterly shameful in fact. Think how we proceed in the case of the alphabet. Do I want to write the name "Dio" in whatever way I like? No, I am taught to like it the way it should be written. How is it in music? Just the same, and so it is quite generally wherever some skill or expertise is involved. Otherwise, if knowledge were adjusted to everyone's individual whims, there would be no point in learning anything.

Is it only here, then, in the case of the greatest and most important thing, freedom, that I am allowed to be happy-go-lucky in my wishes?

Not here, least of all! Because education is precisely learning to want all individual things to happen just as they do happen. And how do they happen? In the way that the one who has arranged them has arranged. He has arranged for there to be summer and winter, plenty and dearth, virtue and vice, and all such opposites on behalf of the harmony of the universe. And he has given each of us a body and bodily parts and property and fellow human beings.

Mindful thereafter of this arrangement, we should proceed to education not in order to change the conditions (for this is not granted to us nor would it be better) but in order that, with things about us as they are and as their nature is, we may keep our minds in harmony with what happens. Tell me then.

Is it possible to escape from people?

How could that happen?

But is it possible to change them by being in their company?

Who gives us that option?

What else is there, then, and what resource can we find for dealing with them?

The sort of resource, whereby they will do what seems good to them, but we shall just as surely be in harmony with nature. Yet you are unhappy and discontented. If you are alone, you call it isolation, but if you are in company, you call people schemers and robbers. You even find fault with your parents and children and brothers and neighbors. But when you are alone, you should call it peace and freedom and liken yourself to the gods. And when you are in a group, you should not call it a crowd and a mob and an unpleasantness, but a party and a festival, and so accept everything cheerfully.

What, then, is the punishment for those who don't accept?

To be just as they are.

A man doesn't like being alone.

Let him be in isolation.

He doesn't like his parents.

Let him be a bad son and moan.

He doesn't like his children.

Let him be a bad father.

Throw him in jail!

What jail? You mean where he is now. For he is there against his will, and wherever someone is against his will, there he is in jail. That's how Socrates was not in jail because he was there willingly.


Freedom from Emotional Distress

What is the fruit of these [Stoic] doctrines?

The very thing that has to be the finest and most fitting outcome for people who are getting a real education — tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom. For on these matters we should not trust the many people who say that education is only available to the free, but rather the philosophers who say that only the educated are free.

What do you mean by this?

Well, ask yourself about freedom in this time of ours; doesn't it consist simply in the power to live as we wish?


Tell me then, you people, do you wish to live in error?

We do not.

That's right; no one is free who is in error. Do you wish to live in fear and sorrow and disturbance?

Certainly not.

So, no one who is fearful or sorrowful or disturbed is free, but the person who is relieved of sorrows and fears and disturbances is relieved of enslavement by the very same process.


Freedom from Subservience

Do you think freedom is something great and noble and valuable?

Of course.

Is it possible to be submissive if you obtain such a great and valuable and noble thing?

It is not.

So whenever you see someone groveling to another person or flattering him insincerely, you can confidently say that this man also is not free, and not only if he is doing it for the sake of a meager meal but even if he is hoping for a governorship or a consulship. Call people who act like this for small things petty slaves, and call the others, as they deserve, slaves on the grand scale.

You are right again.

Do you think freedom is something in one's own power and self-determined?

Of course.

You can confidently say, then, that no man is free if someone else has the power to obstruct and compel him. And don't consider his family tree, or investigate whether he was ever bought or sold, but if you hear him say, "Yes sir," within himself and with feeling, call him a slave even if he is preceded by a consular retinue. And if you hear him say, "Poor me, what things I suffer," call him a slave. In short, if you see him wailing, complaining, and unhappy, call him a slave in official dress. If, however, he does none of these things, don't call him free yet but examine his judgments to see whether they are in any way subject to compulsion or obstruction or unhappiness, and if you find him to be of that sort, call him a slave on vacation at the *Saturnalia, and say that his master is away. Soon he will come back, and then you will learn the nature of this man's sufferings.

Who will come back?

Everyone who has authority over anything that the man wants, either to get it for him or to take it away from him.

Do we have so many masters then?

Oh yes! Prior to people we have masters in the form of circumstances, and there are lots of those. For this reason, then, everyone with authority over any of our circumstances is bound to be our master. Caesar himself, you see, is not what people fear; they fear death, exile, confiscation of property, prison, loss of citizenship. In the same way, no one loves Caesar himself, unless he happens to be an outstanding person; what we love are wealth and high position in government or military service. Whenever these are the things that we love and hate and fear, it must be the case that those who have authority over them are our masters.


Freedom to Assent without Impediment

Is it possible for someone who desires any of the things that are up to others to be unimpeded?

It is not.

Is it possible for them to be unconstrained?

It is not.

Therefore they cannot be free, either. So think: do we have nothing that is exclusively up to us, or is everything like that, or are some things up to us and some things up to others?

How do you mean?

When you want your body to be completely sound, is it up to you, or is it not?

It is not up to me.

And when you want it to be in good health?

Not that either.

And when you want it to be handsome?

No again.

And when you want to live or to die?

Not that either.

Therefore, your body is not your own property. It is dependent on everything that is stronger than itself.


And is it up to you to have land whenever you want, for as long as you want, in the condition that you want?

It is not.

And likewise in the case of slaves, clothes, house, and horses?

None of these either.

And if more than anything you want your children to stay alive or your wife or your brother or your friends, are these things just up to you?

They are not.

Have you, then, nothing that is self-determined, that is up to yourself exclusively, or do you have such a thing?

I don't know.

Well, look at it like this and think about it. Can anyone make you assent to something untrue?

No one can.

Therefore, in the domain of assent you are unimpeded and unconstrained.


Let's continue: can someone compel you to have a motivation for something you do not want?

They can: whenever they threaten me with death or with fetters, they compel me to have such a motivation.

Suppose, though, that you disdain dying and being fettered; are you still going to pay attention to them?

I am not.

Is disdaining death your own function, then, or does it not belong to you?

It is mine.

So being motivated is also your own function, or is it not?

I grant that it is.

And repulsion from something? That is also yours.

What if I am motivated to take a walk and another person impedes me.

What part of you will they impede? Surely not your assent?

No, but my poor body.

Yes, as they would impede a stone.

Let that be so, but the fact is that I don't continue with my walk.

And who told you, "It is your function to walk unimpeded"? What I have been telling you is that the only unimpeded thing is the motivation. Wherever there is a need for the body and the body's cooperation, you have heard long ago that none of it is your own.

I grant that as well.

Can anyone compel you to desire something that you don't want?

No one can.

Can anyone exert compulsion over your intentions and projects, or to speak quite generally, can anyone manipulate the way you deal with the impressions you experience?

Not that either; but when I do desire something, they will stop me from getting what I desire.

But how will they stop you if you desire one of the things that are your own and not liable to impediment?

In no way at all.

So who is telling you that you can be free from impediment if you desire things that are not your own?

Am I not to desire health, then?

Certainly not, and nothing else that is not your own, because nothing is your own that is not up to you to procure or to secure whenever you want. Keep your hands right off it, but first and foremost keep your desire well away. Otherwise, you are giving yourself up to slavery and submitting your neck to the yoke, if ever you admire what is not your own and feel strongly for things that are dependent on others and are perishable.

Isn't my hand my own?

It is a part of you, but by nature it is clay, subject to impediment and compulsion, a slave to everything that is stronger. And why do I mention your hand to you? You should treat your entire body like a little overloaded donkey, just as long as that is possible and allowed to you. But if it is pressed into public service and a soldier seizes it, let it go and don't resist or grumble. If you do, you will get a beating and lose your little donkey just the same. Since this is the attitude you need to have to the body, consider what you need to do about the rest of the things that one gets for the sake of the body. Since the body is a little donkey, everything else becomes bridles, saddles, shoes, barley, and hay for the donkey. Let them go too. Dismiss them more quickly and more easily than the donkey itself.


Knowing What to Want

Everything everywhere is perishable and vulnerable. If you get attached to some of them even a little, you are bound to be troubled and discouraged, a prey to anxiety and distress. You will have desires that are unfulfilled and aversions that are fully realized. Are we not willing, therefore, to secure the only safety that has been granted to us — to give up the perishable and slavish things, and work on those that are imperishable and naturally free? Don't we recall that no one does injury or benefit to another, but that the cause of each of these things is a judgment. This is what does harm and wreckage, it is this that is battle, this that is strife, and this that is war.

What made Eteocles and Polyneices the mortal foes that they were was simply this — their judgment concerning kingship and their judgment concerning exile. They judged the latter to be the worst of bad things and the former to be the greatest of goods. This is everyone's nature, to pursue the good and avoid the bad, and to regard a person who deprives us of the one and inflicts us with the other as an enemy and a schemer, even if he is a brother or a son or a father; for nothing is more closely related to us than the good.

So if these things are good and bad, no father is dear to his sons, and no brother is dear to his brother, but everything is full of enemies, plotters, and informers. But if the right will is the only good thing and the wrong will the only bad thing, what place is left for battle, what place for abuse? About what things? About things that are nothing to us? Against whom? Against the ignorant, against the unfortunate, against people who have been deceived about what matters most?


Freedom of the Will

Look, my friend, you have a will that is by nature unimpeded and unconstrained. ... I will prove it you, first, in the area of assent. Can anyone prevent you from assenting to a truth?

No one can.

Can anyone compel you to accept a falsehood?

No one can.

Do you see that in this area you have a will that is unimpeded, unconstrained, unhindered? Come now, is it different in the area of desire and motivation? What can overcome a motivation except another motivation? What can overcome a desire or an aversion except another desire or aversion?

Yet if someone threatens me with the fear of death,they do compel me.

What compels you is not the threat but your decision that it is better to do something else rather than die. Once again, then, it is your judgment that compelled you; in other words, will compelled will. For if God, in taking from himself his own special part, which he has given to us, had constructed it to be impeded or constrained by himself or by something else, he would no longer be God or be caring for us as he should. If you so will it, you are free; if you so will it, you will blame no one, accuse no one, and everything will be in accord both with your own judgment and with God's.


Making Correct Use of Impressions

We are endowed with many attributes that are uniquely requisite for rational creatures, but, as you will find, we also share many faculties with the animals that lack ability to reason.

Do they too pay attention to what happens?

By no means. "Using" and "paying attention" are quite different from one another. God needed the other animals as creatures that make use of their impressions, but he needed us as creatures who pay attention to how we use them. Therefore, it is sufficient for them to eat and drink and rest and copulate, and do everything else that each kind of animal does. For us, on the other hand, to whom God has also given the *power of paying attention, these animal activities are no longer sufficient, but unless we act appropriately and methodically and in harmony with our individual nature and constitution, we shall no longer attain our own ends.

Beings that have different constitutions also have different functions and ends. In those whose constitution is designed for use alone, use of that constitution is quite sufficient. But those who have the additional power of paying attention will never attain their ends unless they exercise this faculty properly.

What, then, is the consequence?

God constituted each of the other animals, either to be eaten, or to serve in farming, or to produce cheese, or for some other comparable use. To perform these functions, what need do they have of the power to pay attention to impressions and to discriminate between them? But God introduced human beings to be students of himself and his works, and not merely students but also interpreters of these things. It is wrong, therefore, for us to begin and end where the nonrational animals do; we should rather begin where they do but end where nature has ended in our case. Nature ended at studying and paying attention to things and a way of life in harmony with itself. See to it, then, that you do not die without having studied these things.


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Table of Contents

How to Be Free, 1,
The Encheiridion, 3,
The Greek Text,
From the Discourses, 97,
1 Learning to Desire Each Thing as It Happens, 101,
2 Freedom from Emotional Distress, 109,
3 Freedom from Subservience, 111,
4 Freedom to Assent without Impediment, 117,
5 Knowing What to Want, 131,
6 Freedom of the Will, 135,
7 Making Correct Use of Impressions, 137,
8 Freedom and Human Nature, 143,
9 Freedom and Dignity, 149,
The Greek Text,
INDEX, 169,

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From the Publisher

“There really isn’t anything else out there quite like this book. A. A. Long, one of the most respected scholars of Stoicism, has produced a fresh, accessible translation of Epictetus’s famous manual, with an introduction that makes the philosopher's wisdom, and Stoicism more generally, accessible to all. I will recommend this edition to friends, colleagues, and anyone who might benefit from a well-thought-out and provocative philosophy of life.”—Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to Be a Stoic

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