Think of the emperors of Rome. They had enormous power. They controlled immense territories. They commanded large empires. They had endless fortunes.
Yet one can’t read about an emperor like Nero and not be struck by how powerless he seemed to be. Not politically, but in the personal sense. As Seneca notes, Nero and his peers were slaves to ambition, to attention, to pleasure, to whims and impulses.
Epictetus, working in Nero’s palace just as Seneca was, noticed the same thing. He realized that the free men of Nero’s court were actually less free than he was. A slave, Epictetus might have been in chains, his name literally meaning “acquired one,” but he was certainly less of a slave to ambition or lust or fame than the people who owned him or ruled over him. And freedom? That would be far easier for him to earn than breaking free of temptations would be for the wealthy and powerful—then and now.
In The Girl Who Would Be Free, Epictetus’ father advises his young child to stop trying to control the whole world and instead conquer the empire between our ears. That is, to get ahold of our mind, our desires, our aversions, our fears, our passions, our emotions. His admonition echoes a line from another Stoic slave, uttered in real life (and not in fable): “Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself.”
That’s what the journey of Stoicism is about. That’s what we’re trying to rule. Not other people. Not armies. Not territories. But ourselves first. If we can do that, we’ll not only wield great power than few possess, but we’ll actually make ourselves worthy of having power over others too.