Epictetus On How Perception And Accountability Can Render Freedom


Epictetus (Photo credit: Wikipedia) (PD)

How perception and accountability can render freedom.

The Stoic Epictetus famously believed that his mind was free even if his body was enslaved, and this was enough freedom for him.

The Stoic word for freedom, ἐλευθερία, emphasizes the freedom from external coercion that modern compatibilists argue is the only freedom in the idea of voluntary actions and “free will.”

But long before the Stoics, Aristotle had used “depends on us” (ἐφ’ ἡμῖν), to describe the kind of internal freedom Epictetus prized.

Epictetus knew that some actions in the world were external to his will and out of his control. Like all Stoics, he said we should not be bothered by anything out of our control. Our emotions should only respond to things that we can control, that depend on us, and these he called προαίρεσις.

For Epictetus, good and evil were exclusively involved in things under our control, not in external events. The events themselves were neither good or evil, but these were in our view of events.

Chrysippus had identified things that depend on us as not necessitated (though fated), because they causally depend on our assent (συνκατάθεσις) or dissent. Our assent is needed for us to assume moral responsibility for our actions.

Epictetus taught his students to distinguish clearly those things that were up to us from those beyond our control (ἀπροαίρεσις). These included anything that might, under some circumstances, be beyond our control. Normally we are free to walk about, a prime example of free action for Lucretius, but Epictetus had been put in a cage, so the act of walking was not included for him.

To achieve the Stoic goal of the serene and undisturbed life (ἀταραχία), Epictetus severely limited the things in our power (τά ἐφ’ ἡμῖν) to internal mental activities like assent and intention.

Epictetus very likely accepted Chrysippus’ view that our assent was causally determined (fated), but as long as our assent was in the causal chain we could be said to originate our actions so they “depend on us.” Our actions are not necessitated. If we were to dissent, they would not happen.

But like Chrysippus, his distinguishing things in our control from those not up to us suggests that Epicurus appreciated that our assent and dissent was a choice (προαίρεσις) between alternative possibilities. He said that even god cannot affect decisions that are “up to us.

  • swabby429

    Thank you.

  • BuzzCoastin

    a pretty Buddhist philosophy

    Epictetus is one of a long line of western thinkers
    who recapitualte the perenial philosophy
    Heraclitus, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, the Gnostics, Plotinus
    to name a few

    • Jin The Ninja

      the stoics and the ‘eastern schools’ have uncannily much in common.
      i could see an exchange of ideas, by way of persia. however that would mean much of the mythos surrounding ‘classical civilisation’ would be false.

      • BuzzCoastin

        Heraclitus, the Buddha & Laotzu
        are all around the same time, about 500bce
        there are forms of Tibetian Buddhism
        that claim descent from a Buddha 2000 years prior to Sid
        The Laotzu is obviously very much older than 500bce
        probably Mu influenced
        going back go The Great Flood ~5 fo 3.5 bce
        3500 bce

        • Jin The Ninja

          i have zero doubt that practical daoism is a syncretised and codified version of ancient han and yellow river peoples’ shamanistic practices. more and more scholars are making that connection. i read a very interesting treatise recently that said both ‘wu shamans’ and ‘tongji spirit mediums’ are the legacy of pre-shang practices. although like you i prefer zhuangzi, you cannot read the iching without noticing the matrifocal and pantheist disposition of the text.

      • Calypso_1

        Not sure how far back into antiquity you are contemplating but the link is there with Greco-Buddhist Central Asia on into the Kushan Empire.

        • Jin The Ninja

          any alt. historical ideas i have aside- the greco-buddhist art of central asia fits perfectly with the model of cultural exchange to which i am referrring. i rarely see an acknowledgement in either more traditional journals of academia (okay, this isn’t quite true- as i have seen it introduced as an idea, but never concluded) or popular culture. there is an overarching assumption that ancient cultures tended to be landlocked and hermetically sealed. particularly non european ones. the classical civs are often assumed to be the origin of thinking, of art, of ideas- and conquest aside- they are assumed to be steadfast in their culture-imparting to others, but never taking on another. however, in the anthropology of religion- in both greece and rome (and the near-eastern civs)- we see a great interplay and syncretisation of deities, theological concepts and myths. i don’t mean the stoics literally copied ‘eastern’ philosophical concepts, rather they adopted ideas (and conversely their ideas were adopted by others) that epistemologically worked within the philosophical modes and paradigms of the time. i remain deeply interested in the ‘evolution’ (probably an outmoded descriptor of the actual history of) of religion- specifically how ‘shamanism’