Last week I introduced my favorite Greek philosopher, Epictetus. The passage I read today from The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness seemed perfectly suited for our current world. Note that the writing I am going to mention was originally written 1600 years before the founding of the United States of America. Epictetus was neither a liberal or a conservative, nor had any view on American politics, because there was no America.
“Understand what freedom really is and how it is achieved.”
Epictetus invites us to look at the truth of freedom. I looked up the definitions of freedom and thought it was interesting that most of the definitions, including the Cambridge Dictionary, defined freedom as “the condition or right of being able or allowed to do, say, think, etc. whatever you want to without being controlled or limited.” I think many of our Don’t Tread on Me neighbors have latched on to this definition. But Epictetus does not agree with that meaning.
“Freedom isn’t the right or ability to do whatever you please.”
I am sure that doesn’t make a lot of people happy, but to me it is an important point of freedom. Freedom is not a three-year-old throwing a tantrum because she wants candy for dinner or the driver who cuts me off because of his right to drive fast and dangerously. Freedom is not Bart Simpson do-what-you-feel, but a state of acceptance and responsibility focused on more than our selves. Epictetus invites us to see freedom based on knowledge and deep understanding.
“Freedom comes from understanding the limits of our own power and the natural limits set in place by divine providence.”
Epictetus’ view of freedom is based on a realistic view of ourselves and acceptance of our limited power. As a society we have agreed that, at least in most of the world, we drive the right side of the road. If we want to be part of society, we are limited in where we drive. Our external power is limited. Our internal power is unlimited.
The true core of freedom is in the mind, not in our actions. As Epictetus said,
“By accepting life’s limits and inevitabilities and working with them rather than fighting them, we become free.”
By accepting the truth of life, society’s rules, and the way things truly work, we find freedom. Freedom is a state of mind, not a state of action. We find freedom in acceptance, not defiance. We lose freedom when we fight against reality. Much of the anger and fear that people feel these days is because they are fighting against “life’s limits and inevitabilities.”
“If, on the other hand, we succumb to our passing desires for things that aren’t in our control, freedom is lost.”
I want the freedom of perfectly sunny days, each and every day. The truth is there are hurricanes. I can not control the weather. I can not stop an advancing storm. That does not mean I don’t have freedom. It just means if I want to experience freedom, I need to stop being Don Quixote fighting battles I can never win. This goes back to the serenity prayer – knowing those things I need to accept and those I can change, and having the wisdom to discern between the two.
How do you view freedom? Is freedom the action to do just as you please, without thought of those around you? Is freedom the serenity which comes from accepting reality? Is freedom a state of mind or a state of action? What responsibility do you have for your neighbors when your view of freedom infringes upon their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?