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Exploring Encheiridion 1 – Episode 31


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The Path to Freedom vs the Path to Slavery As I noted in the last episode, the focus of this podcast series exploring the Encheiridion will be Epictetus’ concept of freedom, which is not the same as the commonly held concept of freedom as a human right or political entitlement. Epictetus designed his Stoic training program to free us from the judgments, desires, and impulses that enslave us psychologically. This program works even if we are bound in real physical chains, constrained by prison bars, or living under a tyrannical rule that denies us that commonly held conception of freedom. Therefore, as we proceed through the Encheiridion, we must set aside the idea of freedom as it relates to our physical autonomy and political liberty. That is not what Epictetus is talking about. For him, enslavement does not entail chains or bars. Instead, the slave is the person bound by their passions and false beliefs. Freedom, therefore, is emancipation from those psychological bonds, and Stoic training is the path toward that true form of freedom.[1] This opening chapter of the Encheiridion presents us with two paths: the path of slavery and the path of freedom. Most people choose the path of slavery and remain bound by their desires for things and events not within their control—not up to us. They desire and seek things powerless to produce true well-being, servile to external circumstances, and impeded by the actions of others. As a result, they are frustrated, psychologically pained, have a troubled mind, and blame external circumstances (God) and other people for their unhappiness. Fortunately, Epictetus provides us with an alternative path—the Stoic path toward true freedom. This path teaches us to break the bonds of those externals and to desire and seek only those things that are in our complete control and thus are naturally free from external circumstances, unimpeded by others, and unconstrained by Nature. Epictetus makes an astounding promise to those who follow the Stoic path toward that true form of freedom. He says: No one will ever put pressure on you, no one will impede you, you will not reproach anyone, you will not blame anyone, you will not do a single thing reluctantly, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy, because nothing harmful will happen to you. (Ench 1) When we read that promise, it naturally inclines us to ask: Who wouldn’t want that? Who wouldn’t want that life of ultimate freedom? Almost everyone will nod in agreement and say they want that life of psychological well-being. However, most people will not follow the Stoic path toward true freedom because it requires significant effort and entails a commitment to the transformation of our thoughts and behaviors. That commitment deters most people. Sadly, most people choose to remain enslaved by their passions and false beliefs. They lack the motivation needed to achieve these “great things” the Stoic path promises. Those who do find the motivation to embark on a philosophical way of life do so for a variety of reasons. Whatever the motive, those who embark on the Stoic path are seeking something they do not currently have, and that is psychological well-being. They may have been seeking happiness in externals such as wealth, health, reputation, etc., and now realize those things only provide the illusion of well-being. This brings us to the point of departure for the Stoic path—the choice to desire and seek only what is up to us and treat everything else as indifferent to our true well-being. As Epictetus makes perfectly clear, the list of things completely within our control—up to us—is quite short: That list includes “our faculties of judgment, *motivation, *desire, and *aversion—in short, everything that is our own doing.” The alternative list—not up to us—includes “our body and property, our reputations, and our official positions—in short, everything that is not our own doing.” William Irvine,

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