The Hard Part Of Stoicism. What Determines Whether You’re A Slave Or A Free Man

You will ever remain a slave as long as you do not disentangle your relationship with the externals (stuff that you cannot control).

The only thing that you can really control is your choices.

The externals are many, basically everything. Your health, your wealth, the health of the people you love, the death of your loved ones, the way the world is being managed at the moment, natural disasters, your beauty, your success. 

You are able to influence all of these, of course, but not ultimately control them.

You cannot get mad when you throw a die and you get a 4 instead of a 6. It’s irrational to be mad at chance.

The only thing that you can control is your volition/will. This is where the all-famous Stoic “freedom” lies. 

Human life the Stoics appear to have considered as a game of great skill; in which, however, there was a mixture of chance, or of what is vulgarly under- stood to be chance. . . . If we placed our happiness in winning the stake, we placed it in what depended upon causes beyond our power, and out of our direction. 

We necessarily exposed ourselves to perpetual fear and uneasiness,and frequently to grievous and mortifying disappointments. 

If we placed it in playing well, in playing fairly, in playing wisely and skillfully; in the propriety of our own conduct in short; we placed it in what, by proper discipline, education, and attention, might be altogether in our own power, and under our own direction. Our happiness was perfectly secure, and beyond the reach of fortune. 

Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Freedom, in a way, brings a sort of contentment and tranquility, for you are able to decide how you will act, and you are no longer encumbered and worried about things that are not in your control anyway. 

Slavery is the state of not being able to act one way or another because of an external force, adding to that, you are forced to work in a way that you’d rather not. 

One example could be getting angry about someone calling you a stupid bastard. Being called a stupid bastard is clearly an external (happens a lot while driving), and getting angry about such a petty thing is something you’d rather not do, but angry you are, and therefore, a slave to the thing dictating your action.

Internally, our choices are naturally free but become subject to slavery because of our choice to let them be. 

Freedom is therefore in our hands.

Being called a stupid bastard can cause initial excitement in you, but with enough practice, it can become something laughable and easy to disregard. One great example is when comedians roast each other. They say horrible things between themselves, and the best amongst them, are able to laugh about the insult, and even use it in their routine, and come out unscathed.

In a darker area of life, even while experiencing torture, splendid characters of history have chosen to act in the way they see fit. James Stockdale is a good example. While spending time as a war prisoner in Vietnam, he became a leader and an example of courage, in an absolutely terrible situation.

It’s easy to forget where freedom lies, to forget that the only realm of true freedom is within, with our choices. 

Whenever we think about Stoicism, and control, at least for me, we think about controlling choices that impact the outside world. Such as working, cleaning, or so. But there is a constant choice, that is happening all the time, that being, CHARACTER.

Character, a choice

Content and tranquility are faculties that Stoicism deems important, and that, through diligent practice of the philosophy, can be achieved even while experiencing the direst circumstances. 

The Stoics claim that good and evil, or “good and bad”, happen purely in the mind, and no place else. 

Being called a stupid bastard, is not bad in itself, it’s just a thing happening, whether you decide that it is something bad for you, something that deserves punishment, or something laughable, that deserves nothing but a good laugh, is up to you.

It is hard to achieve tranquility if we let our unquestioned and unreflected judgments decide whether things that happen (externals, being called a “stupid bastard”) are good or bad. 

And even worse, to let our actions be decided by the initial judgment that is given by the external thing without having first correct reasoning and assessment of the thing happening and our response.

Many people have done things they later regretted because of the lack of this faculty.

Good and evil are a faculty of the mind. We are the ones choosing to see things as good or evil because of the faculty of the mind of opining, of judging. 

“His ship is lost.” What has happened? His ship is lost. “He has been led off to prison.” What has happened? He has been led off to prison. The notion that he fares badly, each man adds on his own. 


Another example: 

We speak of a “sunny” room when the same room is perfectly dark at night. Day fills it with light; night takes it away. 

So it is with those things we term “indifferent” or “middle,” such as riches, strength, beauty, reputation, sovereignty — or their opposites: death, exile, ill-heath, pain, and all the others that we find more or less terrifying. 

It is wickedness or virtue that gives them the name of good or evil. By itself a lump of metal is neither hot nor cold: thrown into the furnace it gets hot, put back in the water it is cold. 


We speak of a man of an “impressive character” when he, or she, can fare with whatever happens in a lofty way. 

What that man of a “strong character” is doing, is nothing but actively using his inner capacity of “choosing” to act (in action and also attitude) in a certain way (usually the ideal way) amidst a strong impression caused by an external. 

The ordinary man places his life’s happiness in things external to him, in property, rank, wife and children, friends, society, and the like, so that when he loses them or finds them disappointing, the foundation of his happiness is de- stroyed. 

In other words, his center of gravity is not in himself; it is constantly changing its place, with every wish and whim. 

Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life


The fountain of content must spring up in the mind. . . . He, who has so little knowledge of human nature, as to seek happiness by changing any thing, but his own dispositions, will waste his life in fruitless efforts, and multiply the griefs which he purposes to remove.

Johnson, The Rambler no. 6

And this, right here, is the really hard part about this. 

It is easy to understand this, but it is really hard to apply. 

It is painfully easy to get used to things going well in your life. When you have a home, food, and love from the people around you, it is very easy to start to center your foundation around that pretty arrangement of life. 

But then, life happens, and the foundation that you think was rock solid, cracks, and the once good fortune that you were experiencing, shows its true colors, and transforms from a beautiful princess, into a dragon. 

It is at this point that you remember, that fortune never was something under your ultimate control, and that you let your most important treasure, your character, become rusty. 

Therefore it is necessary, mandatory even, if you aim to be a Stoic, to always remember, that a strong character, in the way of a strong disposition toward knowing and enacting your power to choose what life will mean to you, and how you will act depending on the meaning you give to life, is essential to living a good and worthy life. 

And more than that, to live life as a free man.

So use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her, and gain all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations. A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance

Enjoyed what you read? Why don’t you subscribe so you can get a letter weekly?

Subscribe here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *