Saturday, October 17, 2015

Slaves, All Slaves

One of the most striking modern positions is the reluctance to consider the concepts of freedom and slavery from other than political premises. By political premises I mean those factors which control the individual from without. It also seems that people of all types avoid the question, for conservatives, libertarians, and liberals all most often consider economic liberty. The former groups think that that once he is not compelled by the deliberate force of another individual, they think, a man is fully free. The latter often have a broader view, to their credit, but not only do they so often sit ready to enslave some to free others, but they also neglect the human choice in pursuing virtue and true freedom, seeing only victims of circumstance. Eluding all are the various ways in which men enslave themselves.

Cicero enumerates these ways well in one of his least known treatises, Paradoxa Stoicorum, in which he discusses Stoic philosophy's maxims, called paradoxes, (from Gk. παράδοξος, strange) because they contradicted popular opinion. The illustrative section discusses the fifth paradox, that:

Ὄτι μόνος ὁ σοφὸσ ἐλεύθεροσ καὶ πας ἄφρων δουλος.
solum sapientem esse liberum, et omnem stultum servum.
Every wise man is free and every fool a slave.
We see plainly this view considers freedom not from the vantage point of politics, but of virtue. Let us consider the same.

N.B.: I move freely between Cicero's text, in Latin and translation, and my own thoughts.

Cicero begins by questioning the liberty of the man who cannot control his desires. Indeed it seems plain that a man who lusts for food or flesh or is driven by avarice or anger is certainly not free. He is controlled by no one, not even himself, and so he is not free. Freedom is not the total absence of constrictions, but self-control.

#1: Enslaved to Yourself

Suppose then a man is in total self-control, then. Is he by nature free? Let us consider the example of a killer, who controls himself rigidly so that he can achieve his grisly ends. He may deny himself things he wishes, but because his end is wicked we would not consider him free. As Cicero says, he is free who follows the right things, who is virtuous. It is also important to consider the reverse of this position: that a man who only does good because he fears reprisal or out of accident or incidence is not free, for his path is chosen for him, either by force or occasion. Cicero puts it best when he says that he is free who rejoices in duty (qui gaudet officio) and who "says nothing, does nothing, and thinks nothing indeed except gladly and freely," (qui nihil dicit nihil facit nihil cogitat denique nisi libenter ac libere.) Liberty is a condition of the mind, then, and slavery the "obedience of a broken will," (obedientia fracti animi.)

#2: Enslaved by Others

Cicero's next consideration is the slavery of the uxorious man, hilariously caricatured by the felicitous brevity of Latin: poscit, dandum est; vocat, veniendum; eiicit, abeundum; minatur, extimescendum. We might expand Cicero's explanation and say that he is not free who is under anyone's command under compulsion. He may be a king who tyrannizes with taxation, a robber who threatens your life, a bully who hangs ostracism over you, or even a lover or friend who manipulates by withholding, but any such person controls you.

#3: Enslaved to Things: The Lautiores Servi

One of the great trends of Cicero's day was the collection of foreign, especially Greek, artworks and the construction of grand houses. Today we may add gadgets, totems of fashion, luxury cars, and exotic vacations to the list of temptations to which people yield. Cicero is harsh upon the fools he observed oohing and aahing over works of art, saying such things ought to be "non ut vincula virorum sint sed ut oblectamenta puerorum," not chains of men but amusements for children. We may pause to wonder here whether Cicero is fully endorsing this harsh stoic tenet or merely presenting it for the Roman audience, and we may make prudent room for finery, travel, and technology, namely that their pursuit must for enriching ones virtue.

For example, one should dress well not to impress others because you are insecure about your status, but because it is fitting for a man to adorn a fine character with fine clothes. Similarly, one should travel not so that one is seen traveling, but to see loved ones or complete his duties for work. Likewise one should purchase art not to compete with other collectors or be thought fashionable nor one not gaze at nonsensical art so that others think you are a profound thinker, but rather one should collect good art and give oneself to that art which ennobles and enriches the spirit by drama and beauty. Finally, one should use not technology to do his job or as playthings, but to augment his ability to complete his work. By their nature, then, things enslave which one pursues either for the wrong reason or immoderately for the proper reason.

#4: Enslaved to Money

In its most simple sense, enslavement to money is tantamount to enslavement to any physical thing, as above. If one works for money to buy things, then one is still enslaved to the things one hopes to buy. If one acquires money for status, then one is enslaved to the opinions of others. And so on and so forth. Yet because money is no end in itself, but a means to an end, we must also consider it in a different light. Many times we hear people say that they earn money not for anything in particular and that they do not covet money, but that they desire the ability to do what they want. This might seem some wisdom, the realization that money is mere means, but how demeaning is it to work with no purpose in mind! Such work is not the rational pursuit of an end, but either the base indulgence of whim or a waste of one's time, i.e. life. We may rightly think of Creon's words to the guard,

καὶ ταῦτ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀργύρῳ γε τὴν ψυχὴν προδούς. (Antigone 322)
One indeed does sell one's life for money, for work is chosen as money, as means to end. One does not live to work, but works to attain leisure. Ebenezer Scrooge is the archetype, but there are many cheerful Scrooges in the world, not grumpy and miserly, but just as wasteful of life.

#5: Enslaved to Advancement

Cicero then writes of the blind ambition for political office and what a domineering a mistress she is. How people debase themselves climbing the ladder. I would more broadly cast this argument as the blind pursuit of improvement. Who does not see people who pursue more money, better jobs, more interesting friends, more attractive lovers, and so on ad infinitum? This is not in fact pursuit, but flight, flight from what one has and fears to love, and who in fear flees is not free.

#6: Enslaved to Guilt

Finally, we may consider the slavery of the guilty man. Cicero writes in consideration of a man who because of some crime he committed, is not free. This man fears the opinions of all, for he suspects them of knowing his guilt, and as such they are all his masters for he fears them all.

We see then that the waters of liberty are challenging to navigate, not only the political seas but the personal. It is one thing–a good and necessary thing–to free oneself from a political yoke, but it is another–a good and necessary thing too–not to be a slave to oneself. We ought not cast off the rule of the tyrant and declare liberty, for if we do so without regard for self-knowledge, self-mastery and the disciplined pursuit of virtue, then in the words of Cicero, we have simply changed masters.

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