Epictetus was a slave. That makes him interestingly different from the other prominent Stoics Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. Check out the following quote:
“Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. Personal merit cannot be derived from an external source. It is not to be found in your personal associations, nor can it be found in the regard of other people. It is a fact of life that other people, even people who love you, will not necessarily agree with your ideas, understand you, or share your enthusiasms. Grow up! Who cares what other people think about you!”
What Epictetus says there, has an immense backstory as to what the Stoics contributed to human relationships. After all, we are social creatures, and acting together, is what we do.
There is a book called The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, written by the same person. The book narrates the story of Olaudah. It is a grand story. Olaudah was a slave from Africa. He eventually regained his freedom and managed to become an abolitionist, an arctic explorer, and several other impressive merits for a slave of the 1700s. Impressive story.
In the book, Olaudah tells how, to regain his freedom, he even got a job as a slave buyer.
What the hell, right?
Olaudah considered himself a man of honor. And, to his understanding, it was an honorable thing to extract himself from slavery, within the means that the system provided, which was, buying his freedom back, from a system that enforced slavery itself.
This is nonsensical, you might be thinking. But for Olaudah, it was reasonable, because slavery was the norm of the system he interacted with at that moment in time. To him, being honorable consisted to play by the rules of the “honor system” that the market claimed were true.
When he came into relations with the Methodist church, he changed his mindset and became an abolitionist. Trying to push the entire system and way of thinking of slavery out, seen for its true horrors.
But, what interests us here is this:
Olaudah didn’t even notice, at least at the beginning, that he was playing in the “Master’s game”. In his mind, he was being honorable, and he was, given the context of the play, but still, in an unjust system.
This is troubling.
In which ways, in our modern society, are we acting in the same manner? How are you acting “honorably” in systems that are utterly unjust?
I’m thinking right now, to give a dumb example, about excessive consumerism, to give an example.
It is tremendously easy to fall in the trap of thinking that more consumption, of better goods, will make you infinitely happier. It is scientifically proven that it doesn’t.
Why do we still keep ourselves in the constant chase? Dutifully buying the goods that will:
“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
― Dave Ramsey
In a way, we are acting in the same manner as Olaudah without even noticing it. This needs to be remarked, this way of life, this way of behaving, has become so embedded in our psyches, that we don’t even notice it anymore. Scary, isn’t it?
Olaudah and Epictetus were both slaves. Both needed to live within the context and reality of slavery.
But Epictetus developed a way of thinking that enabled him to become free, even as a slave. And with this, he provided the whole of humanity with a way of thinking that would set anyone free, regardless of his situation.
In ancient times, a slave was considered a dead person. In Rome, if a centurion fell into slavery because of war, he had a funeral, and all his belongings were given away as though he were dead. To the point that if he regained his position in Rome, he’d have to remarry his wife.
A slave was plucked out of his social environment. He had no relations with anyone but with his master, or through his master.
This led Epictetus to embrace a philosophy that set him free, even with the burden of slavery. Virtue is the only goal. Because it is the only thing that cannot be taken with you. The only aspect of yourself that remains forever free.
Epictetus claimed that aspect, man he did.
What happens when this freedom is claimed, is that our focus changes.
If you believe that freedom is only found out there. In your capacity to be free, as society mandates, with all the luxuries a man can have, a la Jeff Bezos, then you will hardly be free. You will be forever playing in the “Master’s” game. Going after empty ghosts of freedom.
But if you embrace the freedom of Epictetus, you will start thinking in different ways. Outside.
“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.”
Outside. What would you do if you found more importance in bravery, knowledge, and self-mastery than in imposed values?
It is a question to ponder upon. How easily do you get angry with others? How reactive are you? How much do you expect other people to act in certain ways? How much time have you lost waiting for the world to go your way instead of making a way for yourself in the world?
Outside, is lonely. You have yourself, and your virtue, which in this sense, is your capacity to judge what is truly valuable. But there is immense power as well. The power of a man or a woman that thinks for himself/herself is scarily powerful.
It is true freedom. Which achieving is difficult, for you are unfree in ways, as I just portrayed, that you can’t even notice. The good news is that you hold the keys to your shackles as well, you just need to realize it, and make the decision of keeping to wear them, or leaving them behind.
Thanks for reading
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