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Willing Slaves

by Richard Taylor

Epictetus is quoted as saying, in his Discourses,

“Whenever a man can be hindered or compelled by another at will, assert with confidence that he is not free. Do not look at his grandfathers and great grandfathers and search whether he was bought or sold, but if you hear him say ‘Master’ from the heart and with feeling, then call him a slave, though twelve fasces go before him.”

This passage burned itself into my consciousness and memory decades ago, and has influenced a considerable part of my life. It would, I believe, be centuries before another philosopher would make a similar point, when John Stuart Mill wrote, in his essay ‘On Liberty’

“He who lets the world, or his own part of it, choose his plans of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the apelike one of imitation.”

To appreciate the depth of this passage we need to do two things; first, to place it in the context of the Stoic philosophy which Epictetus’s so perfectly embodies, and second, to get a clear understanding of the meaning of slavery. To be a slave is not merely, as Epictetus notes, to be the property of another.

The Stoics, in effect, took Socrates’s philosophy of personal excellence to its logical conclusion. If what matters is what you actually are, then nothing else really matters. And ‘what you are’ means, not what you own, not how you are thought of by your contemporaries, not what your standing in the world is – none of these things. All these the Stoics rightly dismiss as ‘externals.’ You may be rich, but that means nothing with respect to the kind of person you are. You may possess great power, but this, too, reflects nothing on you. The richest and most powerful are often the corrupt. What is most precious to you is you yourself or, as Socrates poetically expressed it, your soul. And indeed, in the Stoic philosophy, this is the only thing that is of value to you. To ascribe corruption to anything is to describe its worst state, so of what use can any external be to you if that is in fact your condition?

From this the Stoics concluded that, just as no external is of value to you, so also nothing can hurt you, except you yourself. What you are is entirely up to you.

© Prof. Richard Taylor 2005

The late Richard Taylor was a well-known philosopher and frequent Philosophy Now contributor. This short piece, kindly provided by his widow, will sadly be his very last contribution to the magazine.

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