Every time I watch 'The Shawshank Redemption', I find myself searching for the elements of Stoicism that manifest themselves in the movie. While movies like 'The Gladiator' shed light on Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius, 'The Shawshank Redemption' makes many references to Greek philosopher Epictetus and his inner freedom theory which asserts that freedom depends on one’s inner attitude and not on external conditions.
Epictetus grew up a slave and was tortured by his master who broke his leg for pleasure. Andy Dufresne faced similar circumstances when imprisoned.
According to Epictetus, freedom could not be achieved by changing the world because freedom was not physical. He advocated that merely thinking about freedom can generate eudaimonia or happiness in an individual. He believed that good and evil did not exist in nature, and each individual was responsible for their own good and their own evil. Eudaimonia was a choice.
I saw in Andy a stoic Epictetus. He had a quiet way about him — a walk and a talk that just was not normal for such a gloomy place. He observed and memorised the smallest details. He never complained or objected to anything. He strolled like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world — like he had on an invisible coat that could shield him from the prison in which he lived.
Mozart kept him company as his music lived in his mind and heart. He explained how it kept him from forgetting another world — a place not made out of stone that no one can get to or touch. This is the world of Epictetus and his notion of inner freedom that kept him going during his days of slavery and suffering.
The power of the mind
But what is the source of the suffering? We suffer more so in our minds than our reality. It is not things that upset us, but our judgments about those things.
We suffer from our judgments that do not distinguish between what we can control and what we cannot. We are able to control falling in love with someone and letting this love grow, but we cannot control getting them to reciprocate our love.
And even if they happen to reciprocate our love, it is beyond our control to stay in love forever. Distinguishing between what we can control and what we cannot is like a seat belt.
Stoicism is about retaining our freedom to make moral choices, as long as we do not become attached to things that are not within our power to control.