how to be free: practical insights by a former slave

how to be free: practical insights by a former slave
Photo by Mohamed Nohassi / Unsplash
“If you feel that you are not free, look for the reason inside you.” — Leo Tolstoy

What does being free mean to you? As per Stoic philosopher Epictetus, freedom is all about making peace with things that lie outside the realm of your power. To accept and understand your limits and strive to live a life of virtue and excellence in spite of them.

In one of his teachings, Epictetus explained, “Freedom isn’t the right or ability to do whatever you please. Freedom comes from understanding the limits of our own power and the natural limits set in place by divine providence. By accepting life’s limits and inevitabilities and working with them rather than fighting them, we become free. If, on the other hand, we succumb to our passing desires for things that aren’t in our control, freedom is lost.”

Epictetus was born into a life of slavery, and as a kid, held a burning desire to be free. However, in the confines of Rome, attaining freedom seemed like an insurmountable challenge. The prevailing law of the emperor, known as Lex Aelia Sentia, dictated that no slave could be granted freedom before reaching the age of 30. Thus, until he reached this milestone, Epictetus remained under the ownership of another individual. (It was also rumored that this master had inflicted a severe leg injury upon him, rendering him permanently crippled for the rest of his days.) As he navigated the life of a slave serving a ruthless and violent master, Epictetus resolved to find another way, to find freedom internally, in the mind, through philosophy.

Rather than complaining about his dire circumstances, Epictetus worked to do the best he could within his limits and lived a life of excellence on his own terms. From his teacher and mentor Musonius Rufus, Epictetus learned an important insight: No matter what happened in the external world, the ultimate power lay within him. You are always in control. As Epictetus later said in one of his lectures, “When you are feeling upset, angry, or sad, don’t blame another for your state of mind. Your condition is the result of your own opinions and interpretations.” He further advised, “Do not wish that all things will go well with you, but that you will go well with all things.”

Through philosophy, Epictetus understood that freedom was not a legal status. It was not a privilege that could be enjoyed only when the empire found it acceptable. Nope. Freedom is an internal mindset. It’s, in essence, a deeply personal choice that each of us has.

In the words of George S. Clason, either you have the soul of a free person or you have the soul of a slave, you can’t be both.

“When you desire something outside your sphere of power,” Epictetus said, “you set yourself up for disappointment. But it is within your power to avoid disappointment, by directing your desires to things that are rightfully yours to obtain and control. If you wish to be free, do not desire anything that depends on another, lest you make them your master.”

By knowing your limits and adapting your life to them, you are no longer a slave to what other people say you can or can’t do and you no longer have to compare yourself to anyone else. You use them as guidelines as to what to honor and what to disregard. Your limits no longer control you, they teach you what is in your control, and what isn’t. Your constraints, as unpleasant as they might be, thus become avenues to cultivate temperance and achieve freedom of a superior kind.