September 3, 2023 - The Stoic Gym Blog
Total Freedom: Part 3. How to Achieve Total Freedom
As we discussed earlier, we feel that we lack many things – money, prestige, a pain-free body, meaningful work, excellent family and social relationships – and that when we attain them, we will be free. Yet the Stoics insisted that true freedom does not come from wealth, prestige, a perfect body, work that you like, or even your relationships. Yes, they may all be desirable (“preferred indifferents”), but they cannot make you free. You can be wealthy but miserable, famous but insecure, have a perfect body but have mental health issues. Externals such as money, prestige, a pain-free body, meaningful work, excellent family and social relationships can make us happy for a while, but not for any length of time. The only true freedom is what we create ourselves whether we have any of these externals or not.
In one of his writings, Viktor Frankl, the famous holocaust survivor, talks about this kind of freedom. While in a concentration camp, one day he suddenly felt that he was completely free. None of the prison walls or prison guards could do anything to him. The walls may have stopped him from going outside, the guards might have even killed him, but his ability to think, judge, and feel what he felt like (even be happy) was his choice that could not be taken away from him. It is this feeling of total inner freedom that Stoics thought of as true freedom. This type of freedom does not require that things be a certain way and does not depend on getting something we don’t have now.
Many people believe that they will be free if they get some external thing they don’t have now. This can include a past with no regrets, a future with no anxieties, being treated fairly (as we see it), others who always think well of us, and a pain-free body. There are many other things as well, but these include some of the most common reasons why we feel we are not free. Let us look at them more closely.
1. Freedom from the past and future
When we worry, we are caught up in the past. When we are anxious, we are caught up in the future. So we cannot be free when we are trapped in the past or the future. Worries and anxieties are caused by our tendency to try to control what is not under our control.
Whenever I see a person suffering from anxiety, I think, well, what can he expect? Unless you want something not under your control, how can you be anxious? - Epictetus, Discourses 2.13.
You don’t have to worry or be anxious, says Marcus Aurelius. And, you don’t have to wait long. You can let go of the past and the future and have all you have been working towards right now.
You have been trying to reach many things by taking the long way around. All these things can be yours right now if you stop denying them to yourself. All you have to do is let go of the past, trust the future to providence… - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.1.
And Seneca points to the absurdity of being unhappy before the things we are anxious about actually happen. We anticipate sorrow and experience misery now when we could be happy and free.
What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you feared as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they should; some torment us before they should; and some torment us when they should not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow. - Seneca, Lucius. Letters From a Stoic 13.
We don’t control the past – it has already happened. We don’t control the future – it is not predictable. So right path to freedom is not to be excessively concerned about these but confine ourselves to doing what is under our control to do today.
2. Freedom from envy
Envy is often a part of our decision not to be free even when we have everything we need to be free. We may be happy with the raise we got at work until we learn that a colleague got a higher raise. Now we are unhappy. The same raise that made us happy yesterday makes us unhappy today. This kind of unhappiness is very common. It can be about your house, your job, your accomplishments, or anything else. Our happiness is not decided by what we have but what others have. What others have is not under our control and thus we are trapped. What took away our freedom is our judgment that someone else should not have more than us. Since it is likely that someone else will always have more, resentments are a quick way to lose our freedom. Our envy does not affect the person envied. It only deprives us of our freedom. We inflict this on ourselves and we can choose not to do so.
3. Freedom from other people’s opinions
This is a big one. From “What will the neighbours think?” to irrational demands like, “Everyone should respect me”, this self-imposed trap makes many of us unfree. 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, are all influenced by what others think. It is not always bad to consider “what others may think”. We live in a society and there is nothing wrong in being adjusted to it. But when we depend on other people’s approval for everything we do, we give up our freedom. Such fear of public opinion may also show up as anxiety and make us unable to act effectively. This is well explained by Epictetus.
[A] musician when singing by himself has no anxiety, but when he enters the theatre, he is anxious even if he has a good voice and plays his instrument well; because not only does he wish to sing well, but also to be liked by the crown: but this isn’t in his power. – Epictetus. Discourses 2.13.
So to be free, we need to free ourselves from being concerned about what others might think about us, unless we are doing something offensive to others. Not bothering about public opinion will carry us a long way to total freedom.
4. Freedom from the fear of sickness, including death
The thoughts that we should always be healthy and never die are irrational beliefs and not consistent with reality. We can deal with this in two ways. First, we must realize that sickness and death are inevitable and, therefore, not under our control. Second, because these are not under our control, we should accept them and not be afraid of them. Here is Epictetus in conversation with a student:
“Do you mean to say that you are immune from illness, death, age, and disease?”
“No, but I would die and bear disease God-like. This much is in my power. This I can do. All other things you say are not in my power and I cannot do them. I will show you the strength of a philosopher.”
“What kind of strength are you talking about?”
“A desire that is always fulfilled. An aversion that does not face what it wants to avoid. The right choice. A well-considered assent. This is what you shall see.”
– Epictetus, Discourses 2.9
What is Epictetus talking about here? He is just saying that if you can do nothing about death or disease, accept it with dignity. Your only other alternative is to be miserable.
How about other things that enslave us?
Here we covered four major causes of our being trapped, losing our freedom. But if we look more closely, the causes and solutions are the same, no matter what the problem is. The structure of all our problems is the same, no matter where they arise, when they arise.
- We have an irrational belief. (For example, my past and future should be under my control, others should not have more than me, others should always think well of me, I should never get sick.) These beliefs are irrational because they are not under our control.
- We think we can control things by controlling what is not under our control. (For example, we cannot change our past, change everyone’s thinking, or live forever.)
- We think once change the externals we will be free. (For example, we think we will be free if we have more money, more prestige, and the like.) Externals don’t have the power to set us free.
So the only way to be totally free is to identify the irrational beliefs that underlie our thinking, realize that we are trying to control what cannot be controlled by manipulating the externals, and fully know that externals can never lead us to freedom. Once we fully comprehend this, then we will be fully focussed on what is under our control. When you are only dealing with what is under your control, you are totally free and no one can take this freedom from you.