Freedom is a worthy goal: the slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus said it was in fact the highest virtue, and over the course of human history many millions have perished seeking it, attaining it, or defending it.
But, if you’re lucky enough to attain freedom, what will you do with it?
Epictetus thought it was way too broad to define “freedom” as merely the absence of external compulsion and, in the absence of that compulsion, the latitude to do pretty much whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted. For a person can be free in that sense, but still a slave to their internal desires, anxieties, fears, and other, baser instincts like hate. Further, a person can be free in that sense, but that freedom does not give them the right to cause harm to their family, friends, neighbors, or any other fellow human on the planet, even if they desired to do so.
We can see, then, why Epictetus considered freedom to be the highest virtue – there is a distinctly moral component to his descriptions of freedom, an imperative to be free not just from physical, social, or economic restraint, but from the internal demons of fear, greed, hatred, and other thoughts that can compel us to act just as surely as the threat of physical violence. And he believed that no one was free who sought to enslave, constrain, harm, or degrade others in any way – that is inextricably intertwined with being free from vices, since anyone who would seek to cause harm to others was clearly not free from vice. In fact, Epictetus believed that “seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings.”
The short answer, then, to our question of what to do with freedom once we attain it, is two-fold:
- Seek the very best in ourselves: cultivate the four Stoic virtues of Wisdom, Temperance, Courage, and Justice and free ourselves from the mental constraints that will enslave us if we let them
- Care actively for the welfare of other humans: not only seek to cause them no harm, but actively seek to help them achieve their own freedom by exemplifying virtues in our own actions and leading by example, working together with others to create a world that is wiser, kinder, more just, and full of more humans with the courage to help make it so
Freedom is a gift that, once obtained, is properly shared and cultivated in others for the benefit of all.