How to Be Free - An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life

How much do I want to read more? 9/10

I love Epictetus and I definitely got to read this one version of his "Encheiridion".


The first lesson of the Encheiridion, his handbook guide to Stoicism, insists that everything that is truly our own doing is naturally free, unimpeded, and unconstrained.

You can be externally free and internally a slave, controlled by psychological masters in the form of disabling desires and passions and cravings. Conversely, you could be outwardly obstructed or even in literal bondage but internally free from frustration and disharmony, so free in fact that you found yourself in charge of your own well-being, lacking little or nothing that you could not provide for yourself.

Epictetus in His Time and Place

The work you are presently reading, “How to Be Free,” contains my translations of the Encheiridion and of nine excerpts from the four surviving books of Discourses.

his words strike home because they focus so sharply and memorably on situations that are the common lot of people at every time and place. The emotions to which he propounds remedy—fear, anxiety, envy, anger, resentment, grief—are everyone’s experience.

Stoicism and Freedom

You are enslaved if you set your heart on anything that is liable to impediment, whether because your body lets you down, or passions and emotions have you in their thrall, or you attach your well-being to things that depend on others—people, property, popularity, or simply luck.

Our master is anyone who has the power to implement or prevent the things that we want or don’t want. Whoever wants to be free, therefore, should wish for nothing or avoid nothing that is up to other people. Failing that, one is bound to be a slave. (Encheiridion 14)

Whoever wants to be free from coercion should restrict their wishes and aversions to things over which they have complete control.

Epictetus as Stoic Teacher

is this something that is up to me to decide and get started on, or should I accept it calmly and dispassionately as a situation that was brought about by things that are outside my control?

Accidents happen, a loved one dies, you don’t get the job you applied for, you fall ill. None of this was your doing or responsibility, but in each case you are presented with something else that you can do, namely, treat the situation as an opportunity for exercising your own agency and assessment as distinct from taking yourself to be a victim of forces outside yourself, or as badly done to, or as singularly unfortunate.

Living in Harmony with Nature

External Nature

physical world as an entirely determinate structure of causes and effects. Nothing happens purely by chance or for no reason; and so Stoics find it absurd to complain about natural events that were bound to occur.

Events conform to the divine law even when, from a purely human perspective, things may appear random or upsetting to conventional notions of benefit and harm.

Nothing attributable to external nature is bad or capable of being different from the way it is.

As human beings, we can try to understand external nature and conform to it intelligently in our actions and attitudes, or we can resist it and be forcibly confronted with situations we are powerless to resist because of their natural causality.

Human nature

Epictetus lays out the psychological resources that enable mature persons to live freely within nature.

to treat the mind as the one and only domain in which people can, if they so dispose themselves, be absolutely and unconditionally free, sovereign, and unimpeded.
Mind, he claims—taking mind to include judgment, motivation, and volition—is entirely “up to us”; indeed it is us, if we focus on our powers of self-determination and do not allow things the world serves up to control our desires and aversions.

You achieve harmony with nature and freedom by focusing your mind or will or assent on the things that you can control (desires, judgments, motivations) and accommodating yourself to the rest with the help of reason and understanding external nature.

What Epictetus insists we should do, in order to live as effectively as possible, is confront our impressions (thoughts) especially those that disturb us, and accustom ourselves to manage them, interpret them, understand their occurrence, and thus bring them, or at least our response to them, under the control of our will and faculty of assent.


A good thing, for instance wisdom, is always and unconditionally beneficial to the wise person.

  1. Are such conventional goods as health and wealth always and essentially beneficial to us?
  2. Are they necessary to happiness?
  3. Are they up to us?
  4. Are they mind dependent?
  5. Are they harmonious with our rational nature?

by making happiness conditional on circumstance, we surrender autonomy and equanimity, and put ourselves at risk of failure and disappointment. Conversely, by restricting goodness and benefit to the mind dependent qualities of virtue and wisdom, we can secure the happiness that accords with our nature as rational beings; and we can adapt ourselves effectively to external nature and whatever else is outside our own control.

The Stoics agree, first of all, that we naturally prefer to be healthy and prosperous and that our natural attitude to the opposites of these conditions is negative. They agree, secondly, that we could not live a rational and harmonious life if we ignored these natural inclinations and disinclinations. However, natural preferences and dislikes need to be sharply distinguished from “desires” and “aversions,” in which we fully commit our will and vest our expectations of happiness.
When we desire something or are averse to it, we typically treat the thing in question as a really big deal. Epictetus recommends us, then, not to “desire” health and premise our happiness on securing it, but accept it gratefully if it comes our way.

As the Stoics see it, you can flourish in adverse situations and you can fail to live well in favorable ones.
In that endeavor what matters are not the gifts of fortune, obtaining natural preferences, and avoiding naturally dislikable things, but “making reason our decisive principle in everything”, whether we encounter adversity or prosperity.

Isn’t it natural and only human to think that happiness is heavily dependent on external circumstances? Is the Stoic way of life accessible to the ordinary fallible person that most of us are?

Freedom and Ethics

“It is every creature’s nature . . . to shun things that look harmful or cause harm, and to like the look of things that are beneficial or bring benefit . . . and that wherever people’s interest lies, that’s also the site of their reverence”
Ethics according to this Stoic viewpoint starts from and must accommodate our basic human interest in our own individual benefit or good. We do not start from instincts of altruism. To make room, then, for the good of others, Epictetus needs to show that his message of mental freedom is not a solipsistic benefit but socially advantageous and consonant with living in harmony with human nature construed quite broadly.

Seneca, writing at the time of Nero, had said it memorably: “Freedom is the prize we are working for: not being a slave to anything—not to compulsion, not to chance events—making fortune meet us on a level playing field” (Moral Letter 51.9).

A Free Will?

“Will,” can also be translated by “choice” or “decision,”
they are “up to us”.

What interests Epictetus is not the history and opportunity of our decision making (whether you or I could have become different persons from how we turned out) but what we aim for with the choices and wishes that we actually make.

It consists of a state of mind and character that is free from frustration and disappointment, and free to do whatever it wants to do, because it wishes for nothing that falls outside its own power to achieve.


“a selection from Epictetus’s speeches containing those that are most timely and most essential to philosophy, and which most stir the soul”
encheiridion is literally a little thing for carrying in the hand.

I recommend readers to spot the implicit arguments that Epictetus constantly employs by his use of conditional clauses: “if you want this, then the consequence will be that,”

The Encheiridion


Some things in the world are up to us, while others are not.
Up to us are our faculties of judgment, motivation, desire and aversion. in short, everything that is our own doing.
Not up to us are our body and property, our reputations, and our official positions—in short, everything that is not our own doing.
Moreover, the things up to us are naturally free, unimpeded, and unconstrained, while the things not up to us are powerless, servile, impeded, and not our own.

Keep this in mind then: if you think things naturally servile are free and that things not our own are ours, you will be frustrated, pained, and troubled, and you will find fault with gods and men.
But if you think you own only what is yours, and that you do not own what is not yours, as you really don’t, no one will ever put pressure on you, no one will impede you, you will not reproach anyone, you will not blame anyone, you will not do a single thing reluctantly. No one will harm you, you will have no enemy, because nothign harmful will happen to you.

Keep in mind, then, that you have to be highly motivated if you want to achieve such great goals. You will have to forego some things completely, and postpone others for the present. But if you want both at the same time—the things that are really yours plus prominence and wealth in addition—you will probably not get even the latter because of wanting the former as well, and you certainly will not get the former, which are the only way to secure freedom and happiness.

Right now, then, make it your habit to tell every jarring thought or impression: “You are just an appearance and in no way the real thing.” Next, examine it and test it by these rules that you have. First and foremost: does it involve the things up to us, or the things not up to us? And if it involves one of the things not up to us, have the following response to hand: “Not my business.”


Keep in mind that desire presumes your getting what you want and that aversion presumes your avoiding what you don’t want, and that not getting what we want makes us unfortunate, while encountering what we don’t want makes us miserable.

So if, among the things contraty to nature you restrict aversion to those that are up to you, you will experience none of the things you don’t want, but if you are averse to sickness or death or poverty, you will be miserable.
So move aversion away from everything that is not up to us and transfer it to the things contrary to nature that are up to us.

As for desire, give it up completely for the time being. Otherwise, if you desire any of the things that are not up to us, you are bound to be unfortunate, while none of the things up to us, which it would be fine to desire, will be available to you. Confine yourself to motivation and disinclination, and apply these attitudes lightly, with reservation and without straining.


In the case of everything that attracts you or has its uses or that you are fond of, keep in mind to tell yourself what it is like, starting with the most trivial things. If you are fond of a jug, say: “I am fond of a jug.” Then, if it is broken, you will not be troubled. When you kiss your little child or your wife, say that you are kissing a human being. Then, if one of them dies, you will not be troubled.


Whenever you are about to start on some activity, remind yourself what the activity is like. If you go out to bathe, picture what happens at a bathhouse—the people there who splash you or jostle you or talk rudely or steal your things. In this way you will be more prepared to start on the activity, by telling yourself at the outset: “I want to bathe, and I also want to keep my will in harmony with nature.” Make this your practice in every activity. Then, if anything happens that gets in the way of your bathing, you will have the following response available: “Well, this was not the only thing I wanted; I also wanted to keep my will in harmony with nature. I shall not do that if I get angry about what is happening.”


It is not things themselves that trouble people, but their opinions about things. Death, for instance, is nothing terrible (otherwise, it would have appeared that way to Socrates as well), but the terrible thing is the opinion that death is terrible. So whenever we are frustrated, or troubled, or pained, let us never hold anyone responsible except ourselves, meaning our own opinions. Uneducated people blame others when they are doing badly. Those whose education is underway blame themselves. But a fully educated person blames no one, neither himself nor anyone else.