I thought about this question as I read Ward Farnsworth’s new book, The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual. The book, of course, is about stoicism and highlights the teachings of various Stoics such as Seneca and Epictetus:
The great insights of the Stoics are spread over a wide range of ancient sources. This book brings them all together for the first time. It systematically presents what the various Stoic philosophers said on every important topic, accompanied by an eloquent commentary that is clear and concise. The result is a set of philosophy lessons for everyone – the most valuable wisdom of ages past made available for our times, and for all time.
There is a chapter entitled “Externals” about how important this term is to the Stoics. “An ‘external’ can be defined as something outside ourselves or outside our power.” In a section on the teachings of Epictetus, there is some excellent information:
3. Externals and Liberty. Epictetus had been a slave. He and other Stoics often spoke of dependence on externals as itself a variety of slavery. Someone attached to externals is enslaved to whoever controls them; Stoic philosophy thus is a way to liberation. Epictetus regarded volition, or will, as one’s true self and as the only part of us that is free.
Whoever then wishes to be free, let him neither wish for anything nor flee from anything that depends on others: otherwise he must be a slave.
If you gape after externals, you will inevitably be forced up and down according to the will of your master. And who is your master? Whoever has power over the things you are trying to gain or avoid….
Epictetus, Discourses 4.1.55 When you see someone groveling before another man, or flattering him contrary to his own opinion you can confidently say he is not free.
People often tell us that our own values and what we are is not that important to the world, and that you have to get used to the superficiality of our culture.
But what if the Stoics were correct? What if losing your values or changing your behavior to suit others makes you nothing but a slave or at least a suck-up? Is that better? I don’t think so. I think the Stoics still have much to add to the conversation about how to live our lives in liberty instead of slavery or indentured servitude.