August 27, 2023 - The Stoic Gym Blog
Tag(s): Freedom || Mindfulness || Stoicism ||

Total Freedom: Part 1. Why are we not free?

Chuck Chakrapani

What is freedom? 

We tend to define freedom based on what we think we lack. People who think they don’t have enough money think in terms of financial freedom. Yes, if only they had a million dollars or ten, all their problems would be solved. They would be free. People who live under oppressive regimes dream of political freedom. If only they could escape to a free country, they would be free. People who suffer from chronic pain dream of being pain-free. Freedom for them is a body that is free of pain and does their bidding. People who have serious relationship problems think that if only they could get out of the toxic relationship they are in, they would be free.  There is no shortage of books that purport to tell you how to be financially free, politically free, gain a pain-free body, or whatever freedom may mean to you. Even if what they tell you works, the freedom you gain is almost never absolute. You may gain financial freedom, but you can also lose it. Or you may compromise your principles to please the person who has the power to make it happen. You may also pay dearly for it in terms of your health, or relationships. You can gain political freedom, but the country you run to may affect you negatively in other ways. Your chronic pain can go away, but there is no guarantee that it won’t return. Or something else can take its place. We have seen these things happen.

“Wait a minute,” says the Stoic, “How can you possibly be free if you depend on others to grant freedom to you? How can you be free if, once you get you get your freedom, it can be taken away from you? How can you be free if gaining freedom in one area of your life means giving up freedom in another area of your life?”

Total freedom

Is the Stoic then saying that freedom is impossible? No, what the Stoic is saying is that the only real freedom is total freedom. Total freedom cannot depend on what others do or don’t do; total freedom is not partial. In fact, one of the major underlying themes of Stoicism is total freedom. The most vocal exponent of Stoic freedom, Epictetus, defined freedom this way: 

You are free when you live as you wish; when you cannot be compelled, obstructed, or controlled; your choices cannot be blocked; when you get your desires fulfilled, and when you don’t face anything you want to avoid.  (Epictetus, Discourses 4.1)

This kind of freedom is broader than any kind of freedom we can possibly conceive of. But is it really achievable? Epictetus, who firmly believed so, followed up his definition of freedom with a rhetorical question to emphasize this:

“Who wants to go through life, without knowing of how to achieve this?” (Epictetus, Discourses 4.1)

Seneca agreed:

Freedom is my goal, and it is the reward I am working for. You ask me what freedom is. Freedom means not being a slave to any circumstance, to any constraint, to any chance. (Seneca, Moral Letters 51)

Marcus Aurelius encourages us to pursue our freedom:

You don’t have to give up your hopes of achieving freedom… (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.67)

They didn’t need money to be free. As Epictetus challenged his students,

[I have] nothing but earth and sky, and one poor cloak. And what lack I yet? Am I not untouched by sorrow, by fear? Am I not free?” (Discourses iii, 22)

They didn’t need to be under a free regime. Seneca lived under a brutal emperor and yet he was free. Musonius Rufus was in exile three times. Yet he was free. 

A free person is not one who is not sick, not in danger, not in exile, not in disgrace, not poor. A free person is one who may be sick, in danger, in exile, in disgrace, and poor yet is not bound by any of these.

Show me someone who is sick and happy, in danger and happy, dying and happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. (Epictetus, Discourses 1.48)

Total freedom is not getting rid of all problems in our lives because they will never cease. Total freedom is learning how to be free and happy no matter life hands to us.

Why are we not free?

We all have moments of freedom. Yet often we feel trapped by something or the other in our lives. It could be the job we don’t care to do except for the salary, the place we live in except for the fact we don’t have choice, the relationship we don’t to stay in except for our children. Or something else. Few of us can honestly say that we feel totally free all the time. As we go through life we are caught in many traps. We free ourselves from one trap only to be caught by another. We convince ourselves that, in some unspecified future time, when we have overcome all our obstacles, we will be free. Yet true freedom comes from oneself. Let’s briefly review some of the major traps that rob us of our freedom.

1. Fear of the past and the future

Most of us have a tendency to worry about things that have already happened. We may have had a miserable childhood, we may have lost money in the stock market last year, our mortgage rate may have gone up last month, we might have broken our favourite cup a minute ago. If we review our thinking, we see that a substantial part of it is devoted to mentally fixing things like these – things that happened in the past, things that cannot be fixed. When we are caught up in the cycle of worries – what we should or shouldn’t have done in the past, we are caught up in something from which there is no escape. We cannot be free if we are caught up in something that has a firm grip on us. 

2. Fear of not measuring up

While we worry about the past, we are also anxious about the future. What if my health fails in my old age? What if I don’t have enough money when I retire? Things like these have not yet happened. They may come true, or they may not. Anxiety is our attempt not to miss out on the experience of being miserable now, even if they never come to pass.

3. Fear of public opinion

This a big one. The way this fear robs us of our freedom is quite subtle and most of us don’t even realize how unfree we are when we defer to what others might think. The clothes we wear, the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the places we go to, the words we use, the emotions we display – all these things and more are influenced by what others might think. If we won’t wear the same clothes completely by choice, drive the same car completely by choice, go to the same places completely by choice, use the same words completely by choice, display the same emotions completely by choice, then we are probably doing it for reasons other than choice. 

4. Fear of sickness including death

Fear of illness, old age, and ultimately death are scary to most of us. Desire of longevity or even immortality is as old as human history. 

These fears (and other related ones) are traps that rob us of our freedom. Why these four? While many of us fear these things, the list is not an exhaustive one. However, all our fears and insecurities are interlocking. Once you get rid of your fear in one area, you will find your fear in other areas will also diminish. I chose these four fears, just to have a limited list that, by extension, covers our fears in almost all areas. As most of our fears are inter-related, no amount of wealth, fame, or power can set us free as long we are caught in such traps. The flip side is that we can be free without wealth, fame, or power once we free ourselves from these traps. The Stoic promise is that total freedom is possible. We will see how we can achieve total freedom in this series.

(The second article in this series will be published on August 30, 2023)