How to Achieve Stoic Freedom

Dream without making dreams your master

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share three emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

The ancients did not acheive freedom by doing whatever they wanted. Instead, they found it in their character. In the lifelong project of becoming better, we too can find our freedom.

Often, we create unhappiness for ourselves by subordinating our desires to things outside of our control. When we do this, we become dependent on externals.

Epictetus tells the story of the two ancients, one who is free, the other not:

When Florus was deliberating whether he should appear at Nero's shows, taking part in the performance himself, Agrippinus replied, 'Appear by all means.' And when Florus inquired, 'But why do not you appear?' he answered, 'Because I do not even consider the question.' For the man who has once stooped to consider such questions, and to reckon up the value of external things, is not far from forgetting what manner of man he is.

Epictetus, Discourses 1

Florus is subject to the whims of chance. He placed his happiness in Nero’s hands and became the plaything of a mad emperor. In contrast, Agrippinus is sovereign. What Nero wanted was irrelevant to him, Agrippinus already knows what to do.

This does not mean that Agrippinus was not bound by external forces. Nero banished him from Italy. He didn’t have a choice in that. He found freedom by taking full responsibility for what was up to him and doing what he knew was right. A life without any constraint is random. The Stoics believed that being truly free requires wanting what is good and pursuing excellence.

Initially, we learn to do the right thing because it is in our interest. If we don’t do it, we’ll be punished by others. Then we learn to act well because we’re obligated to. If we don’t, we’ll lose our self-respect. Finally, we do what is right because that is who we are. Our actions flow from our nature. This is the stage that Agrippinus, at his best, reached.

Attaining this level requires constant training and vigilance. With dedication and practice, we each will become more liberated, resilient, and calm.

🎯 Action

Choose one action to do in order to become more free, in the classical sense. Do not merely follow your desires or act randomly, but act in line with what you know is good.

🔗 Links

🎧️ William Stephens has spent decades mastering the teachings of Epictetus. Listen to an interview with him here. We cover his view of freedom and self-respect in detail.

☁️ Here’s a poetic way to understand the ancient view of freedom:

If you can dream without making dreams your master.
If you can think without making thoughts your aim.
If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.

Rudyard Kipling, If

These lines come from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, If. Written for a father to his son, it’s full of Stoic ideas.

🏛️ One reason doing what we want does not result in free action is that our desires our not our own. Instead, we acquire them by imitating others.

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1 Referral — Cheatsheet on The Most Important Stoic Concepts— get access to our list of the most important Stoic concepts with links and instructions for putting each into practice.

3 Referrals – The Stoic Training Program PDF — in this 10-page guide, we share the three main ideas and practices that ground a Stoic approach to life.

5 Referrals – Five Stoic Meditations get five downloadable meditations to go deeper into your practice.

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