Stoic Freedom

Responding to the world

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

🏛️ Theory

Freedom, for the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, is always available. To hear this from a former slave like him is shocking news.

Here’s why he makes that claim.

The freedom that matters is the ability to act well. That’s something no one can take away from us. By aligning our will and reality, we can fulfill our duties to our best ability and be the best that we can be. 

We’re unfree when we overvalue externals. By grasping after wealth, status, and pleasure we put our hopes of happiness in the hands of Fate.

Think of the Stoic case of anger. If we respond to another's insults by becoming angry, they have power over us. They can shape our emotional world. Anyone who gives others this power is not free.

Likewise, anyone who puts their happiness in the hands of fate and fortune has given up their freedom. Their life is not their own.

The Stoic is free because they’re focused on acting well no matter the circumstance. They understand that they always have the ability to respond to events – however others behave. 

In a way, the Stoic just does what they want. But what they want is to be excellent. They aren’t like others who “do what they want” and are puppets to their passions. Seneca wrote about people like this:

Show me a man who is not a slave; one is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear. I will name you an ex-consul who is slave to an old hag, a millionaire who is slave to a serving-maid; I will show you youths of the noblest birth in serfdom to pantomime players! No servitude is more disgraceful than that which is self-imposed.

Seneca, Moral Letters 47

As you realize your freedom, you may find that there’s liberation in limitations. Reality can be bent, but not broken. That is to say: we need the courage to change what we can and the gratitude to accept what we must.

🎯 Action

To the extent you can, freely respond to the world and shape it today.

🎧️ I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Rob Colter – released on Stoa Conversations last week:

💬 A quote on freedom I think about a lot, from G. K. Chesterton:

Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense, every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else.


📰 Another key idea, essential to understanding Stoic freedom, is the dichotomy of control.

What did you think about today's letter?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Join the conversation

or to participate.