We seek freedom like a blind man fumbles for his keys. As a result, it is not surprising that we end up imbued with an unsuccessful search, condemned beforehand to failure, without realizing that what we seek outside is within. Without realizing that external freedom is neither more nor less than the extent to which we have managed to conquer internal freedom, paraphrasing Gandhi.
Stoics can give us an incredible lesson about freedom, especially Epictetus, who was a slave in Rome for part of his life. For that philosopher, true freedom does not only mean getting rid of the chains of society, its norms and the pressures to which we are subjected by the others, but to free ourselves from the chains that we sometimes impose on ourselves. And that is a concept that now, more than ever, we should internalize.
Apatheia: The freedom that comes from equanimity
Apatheia is, for the Stoics, the state of mind that we reach when we are freed from emotional disturbances; that is, when we are able to manage our passions and emotions in such a way that they do not generate a desire for things that are beyond our control.
It is not about assuming an indifferent attitude towards the world or succumbing to apathy, but about achieving a state of equanimity in which we have reached enough wisdom to differentiate what we can change and what we cannot, what is in our hands and what runs between them, what is worth fighting for and what we must let go of.
If we are not able to establish that differentiation and become attached to things that are beyond our control, we will end up being slaves to our emotions and desires, condemned to suffer uselessly because we can do little to change the course of these events.
Seneca gave an example that echoes in all of us due to his emotional strength: “If you want your children, your wife and the people you love to live forever, you are stupid: because you want what you cannot control to be under your control and that what belongs to others belongs to you”.
In fact, the philosopher thought that if we want and depend on things that others control, we also run the risk of becoming their slaves. If our self-esteem depends on the acceptance of those around us, we are chained to them. If we let the roulette of destiny mix our emotions, we are also its slaves. The way to achieve true freedom, therefore, would be to get rid of those attachments and desires.
“The owner of one is that person who has the power to grant or take away what he wants or don’t want. Whoever wants to be free should not want anything, or avoid anything that is controlled by others. Otherwise, he will be forced to be his slave”, thought Epictetus.
The mind as the starting point of freedom
The Stoics thought that the only thing we are certain of being able to control is our mind. In his Enchiridion, Epictetus affirms that we have the power to generate our inner peace and that no one else can give us that tranquility, only we can achieve it. The path is obviously not easy.
But we can start by accepting that there are many things that we cannot control. Thus, instead of spending energy uselessly to feed those desires, we can redirect that force on what we can control.
Epictetus explains how our way of approaching things can make us freer or, on the contrary, make us worry and suffer more than necessary: “Illness is an impediment for the body, but not for the power of choice, unless we choose it. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the power of choice. You must apply this to everything that happens to you, because you will find that anything is an impediment to something else, but not to you.”
Epictetus knew very well what he was talking about since he himself was lame, apparently from birth. So his words are not theory but practice. He was convinced that external events will only have the power that we entrust to them. If we become attached to something, and cannot change it, we will end up suffering, imbued in a self-destructive loop.
If we change focus, it occurs e miracle in which nothing changes, but everything changes for us. He explained: “Regarding everything that happens to you, remember to focus your attention on yourself and find what capacity will help you deal with it. If you face an hard work, you will meet resistance. If you are reprimanded, you will find tolerance. In this way, if you get used to it, appearances will not lead you astray.”
It is, therefore, about finding the right quality or ability to balance events, even the most negative ones, so that they do not alter our inner peace too much or even become an opportunity to take another step towards true freedom.
“Whenever something bothers, upsets or distresses us, we should not blame the others, but ourselves; that is, our own opinions. An immature person reproaches the others for the evil that happens to him; a person who has begun to mature reproaches himself; but a mature person does not reproach the other or himself”.
When you reach that degree of maturity, you can enjoy the apatheia that the Stoics venerated, the one that guarantees us the fullest freedom of all: inner freedom.