T he first-century Stoic philosopher and teacher Epictetus was an enslaved person who succeeded in getting an education and, eventually, his freedom. Images of freedom, slavery and self-belonging (oikoiesis) recur in his teaching. ‘A slave is always praying to be set free,’ he writes. He evokes the horrors of enslavement by describing the suffering of caged animals and birds that refuse to eat in captivity and starve to death, though he also occasionally repeats a conventional set of ideas about slavery, claiming, for example, that runaway slaves are ‘cowards’, and that none of them ever dies of hunger. Slavery powered the Roman Empire; in the first century CE , between 10 and 20 per cent of the population were enslaved at any one time. But Epictetus was not an abolitionist in a political sense. Like other ancient philosophers, he assumed that slavery was normal and would always exist. He never suggests that those who claimed to own their fellow human beings were committing a moral evil. His aim was to free others from the ‘tyrannic sway’ not of literal enslavers, but of the emotional disturbance caused by false belief.
For Epictetus, even an enslaved person can be ‘free’, through the alignment of their will with nature and the universe. He quotes with admiration a line from Diogenes the Cynic, who was taken captive but still considered himself free, thanks to his philosophical teacher: ‘Slavery became a thing of the past for me after Antisthenes set me free.’ According to one story, Epictetus’ enslaver asked him if he wanted to be set free. ‘Why?’ Epictetus replied. ‘Do you think I am in any way bound?’ In another story the enslaver twisted Epictetus’ leg so aggressively that he warned his tormentor that the bone might break. The enslaver continued to twist and the leg snapped. Epictetus said calmly: ‘I told you you would break it.’ A tyrant can claim your leg, remove your head or kill your family. ‘What can’t be chained or removed?’ Epictetus asked. ‘Your will.’