How can freedom be possible? Version 1: How can freedom be possible for people in a world of constant disturbance from the pain, misery, and anguish of illness, injury, deprivation, loss, growing old, and the hard indifference of nature and other people; in a world where desperate vulnerability keeps us confined to the most bestial and violent impulses, instincts, reflexes, and passions?

The Stoic answer is that individual freedom is achieved when a person cultivates and asserts his or her innate rationality. Rationality is difficult to define precisely, but there are fairly clear starting points. Rationality is linked to the quality of a person’s voice. A person’s voice is rational if it can be understood, matches norms of linguistic and logical competence, and shows a sense of relevance to the occasion. A person is rational when she can speak her mind and say what she means in a way others can understand. Rational thought can be spoken and understood by others. Existence in linguistic form gives it a kind of objectivity and graspability. It will hold its form while people reflect and evaluate. This is related to a broader meaning, something like “reasonable” or “in agreement with good sense.” Rationality stands up to reflective and collective evaluation and judgment. In addition, rational action, for example, demonstrates a functional awareness of the shapes, costs, and benefits in the natural and social environment. A person’s acts can be seen to have a reason.

Perhaps rationality is clearest in opposition to natural impulse, for example, an impulse to avoid working by simply stealing what you need. The account of Hobbes’s thinking in the posting of February 10, 2012, Mathematical Rationalism in the Baroque Era is exactly relevant to that point. ‘Will’ is the product of rational deliberation in evaluation of consequences, as distinct from merely following immediate inclination or impulse. Bestial reflex or impulse, pre-set by something like biological instinct, is not free, but acts of ‘will’ are discretionary expressions of deliberative calculation. Rationality empowers personal freedom by matching a person’s interests and expectations with the broader structures of the world and with verbal-linguistic accompaniments to acting in the world.

Stoicism was founded on experience of a personal force of mentality which can over-ride habit, appetite, first impressions, and impulsive passion or emotional response. Questioning those responses, delaying or denying action on them, magnifies consciousness of their force and of subjective forces which balance and modify them, specifically the force of rational intellect. That is strictly subjective virtue, a way to encounter subjectivity which bestows new meaning on appearances and objects.

Behind the common sense rationality of an efficient matching up of a person’s activities and vocal performances with features and occasions in their surroundings, there is a philosophical quest for a deep congruence uniting the objective world with the language which refers to its features and with subjective knowledge of the world. The Stoic idea of Logos was taken to imply such a metaphysical congruence or literal unity among matters of fact, knowledge as a mental state, and the linguistic presentation of knowledge. The logic of language was interpreted as the bridge, with rationality or intellect grounded in language. The inward mental activity of thinking was understood as linguistic and propositional, essentially the same in form as a conversation among a number of people, in writing or in speech. A rational self as the locus of thought, in the sense of knowledge of and practice of language, is a crucial piece of rationalism. On that view it isn’t only thoughts that manifest rationality. The objective world is also rational in being lawful, determinate, and predictable; and statements in language are rational when formed according to normal rules. Rationality is a characteristic of all three, just as Truth is. The idea of Truth expresses the fundamental unity of these three modes of being.

Virtue and Individuality

Stoicism was based on the idea of world-intelligence or Logos, which acquired the presence of a benevolent or providential God, identical with the whole of nature. Logos was an all-inclusive principle, completely pre-determining every detail of cosmic existence forever. Stoics attempted to identify some personal individuality within that framework of determinism, fatalism, materialism, and eternal recurrence of historical events. In spite of being officially materialist, Stoics emphasize a special ‘fiery’ nature in Logos. Stoics believed they were aware of that world-soul or ordering intelligence in microcosm in each person’s power of reasoning and choice. With events unfolding according to Nature’s Law the individual could control nothing but his or her own thinking, and could find freedom only in choosing to accept Nature by achieving as broad and inclusive a perspective as possible. Divine Providence determines human circumstances and behaviour to such an extent that the best a person can do is to love his or her fate, but individuals have the power to choose for or against assenting to and loving their embeddedness in nature. However, Stoicism was not mysticism. The desirable condition for Stoics was emotional aloofness from surrounding conditions and events, achieved by awareness of cosmic order and especially by self-control.

The metaphysics of world-Logos, the divine Word or Command, established a heavy framework for the very limited freedom or divine spark of each person. The fundamental insight is that Logos is experienced in two ways, both externally as objective nature, and internally as personal intelligence in which an element of freedom is exercised. Basic to Stoicism is a great divide between the outward world that is beyond the control of any individual, and the inward existence which is entirely under each person’s individual power. There was a core teaching dealing with the individual’s identification of and exercise of freedom. Their teaching was to minimize attachment to the external, and maximize subjective control. In order to develop mental skills, thinking, they used thinking to control attachments to external goods, properties, prestige, reputation, trophies, wealth, and even health, values arising from appetites and ambitions. They emphasized that even when worldly rewards and reputation are taken away, the dearest value remains.

Rationality against Passions, Immediate Impulses, and First Impressions

Stoics identified freedom with ‘reason’ and contrasted it with ‘passions’, and that can be taken as a higher vs. lower distinction. They came to identify abstract reasoning or calculation as the inward spark of divine freedom-fire. It tended to set up an identity between reason and order, law, rules, formality, and control. The focus of Stoicism turned to preventing or controlling flights of passion. Virtue was acting from a practiced process of reasoning. There is ‘pure-reasoning’, such as logic or mathematics, and also ‘practical or moral reasoning’ in decisions about action and behaviour, but on the Stoic view virtue requires a practice of mental calculation, application of principles to particular situations. Passions vs. intellect is an inner conflict. Thinking can achieve control of passions but the outer world is entirely the expression of Logos and beyond the control of any individual’s thinking. Rationality distinguishes between what can be controlled and what not, and highlights the indifference of everything that is beyond control, externalities. The higher vs. lower conflict translates into an inner vs. outer conflict. There is an absolute limit to determinism in Stoicism and that limit is the individual’s intrinsic power of will, understood as an executive expression of rationality.

Ancient Stoicism was officially empiricist. Knowledge was achieved from sense-experience, from the impressions made by sensations on the ‘blank slate’ of individual consciousness. Long before John Locke, Stoics understood persons as ‘blank slates’ onto which impressions were left by the sensations of the body. Sense-experience was the source of truth and knowledge, and not a realm of illusion as it was for Plato. However, since individuals could keep passions in their place by developing a practice of reasoning, the ‘slate’ of individual consciousness could not have been completely blank. A blank slate does not have the ability to reason, nor does it have forceful passions which compete with reason to edit and organize impressions of the body.

It would not be accurate to say that Stoics hated and feared nature at large, and yet they hated and feared nature in the passions of human subjectivity. Stoic acceptance of Logos meant that nature at large was a manifestation of divine providence, and a great accomplishment of thinking was to understand this sufficiently to accept acts of nature as providential. Although social and political role-fulfillment was considered necessary, Stoics practiced non-attachment, indifference, to events, objects, and conditions in the world, and that indifference has much in common with a rejection of ‘outer’ nature in favour of transcendence via a particular power of subjectivity, the inward spark of intelligence.

Intelligence as Virtue

Hellenistic Stoicism and other philosophical sects of that period attracted an important following, even though the world people faced then was hardly more horrifying or discouraging than what most people throughout history have faced. It was a creed that appealed to the powerful classes in the social order of the Roman Empire. Stoicism was widespread and influential in Roman culture during the period when Christianity was developing within the Empire, and made important contributions to Christian thought. Stoics approached ‘religion’ as a mental exercise of rational thinking, rule-governed calculation. The life of freedom based in rational thinking was considered happiest. Mental exercise was their portal to freedom, intelligence, and virtue or authenticity as humans, as well as their personal contact with the spark of divine Logos.

For Stoics, virtue was a focus on what is completely under the control and authorship of each individual, contrasted with ‘external’ conditions which the individual can never fully control. Stoic virtue was precisely subjectivity itself, aloofness from the effects of external objects and circumstances, and instead a concentration on subjective control in personal acts of thought. It was supposed to make a difference and accomplish something crucial for Stoics to do the small personal act of taking hold mentally of their own virtue by thinking about emotional reactions, impulses, and habits. No claims to surpass, defeat, control, lead, or exploit anybody else are involved. You recognize what is most certainly and undeniably your own, your intelligence, and give it a chance to exist. What can be completely authored by each individual is exactly what is most important and fundamental, an inward act of self-realization.


Ancient societies were slave-labour based, and there was a very clear and immediate sense of freedom as not being controlled by a master in daily life. However, that common freedom was not the whole story. There were three levels of freedom: 1) not being controlled by a master, 2) strategic rationality overriding “knee-jerk” impulses in pragmatic situations, and 3) mental transcendence of nature. The most important freedom was conceived as freedom from nature itself, especially as represented in the body, associated with privation, suffering, illness, unquenchable desire, and mortality. Stoics can’t transcend all inclusive Nature, but they transcend the least fiery aspect, the strictly determined external aspect of Nature. Hellenistic Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics thought rational thinking was the route to that greatest freedom. Philosophical sects of the Hellenistic period all shared a program of development of personal rationality with a transcendent purpose, to achieve a transcendent state of intelligence. In that state of developed intelligence an individual rose above the suffering of ordinary body-centered ways of life. It was a deliberate way of “being in the world but not of it”.

With Hellenistic Greek thinkers there was a rise of the individual as author of deliberation and strategic resistance to natural impulses. With Epicureans, the individual was also the sufferer of pleasure and pain. The individual as such was emphasized more than previously, so much so that this is perhaps the historically crucial conception of the dignity of the individual person which is definitive of western humanism. Classical Greece and Rome had strong literary depictions of individual personality in gods and heroes. Thinking sects of the period might be described as developing heroism turned inward.

See also the posting of October 19, 2011, The Transcendence of Intelligence

Copyright © 2012 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.