Inner Freedom: Change Yourself, Then Change the World

I came late to the libertarian camp, because it was inner freedom that always seemed most important to me. It still does. So, while I have come to believe that political freedom matters and that government is best that governs least, I continue to believe that inner freedom matters most. If a person is not in charge of how she thinks, feels, and acts, then nothing else matters much. Life in a political utopia would be miserable for a person without inner freedom, and life in a political dystopia could be quite bearable for a person who has it.

To be clear, by talking of inner freedom I do not mean to open a metaphysical can of worms. I leave aside the grand philosophical question of whether free will is possible. Perhaps every event, act, and decision, has been fully determined since the Big Bang. But even if a person comes to believe that determinism is correct, she cannot help but think and act as if she is free nonetheless.[1] No one blames their personal failures and shortcomings on the chain of cause and effect set in motion by the Big Bang. Rather, we tend to blame social conditions and genetics for our regrettable choices and actions. This is where existentialism provides a useful corrective.

Existentialism is a philosophy of “no excuses,” according to which we are utterly free and responsible for the choices we make and the actions we take. [2] In the wake of World War II, Jean-Paul Sartre wagged his finger in the face of his countrymen, many of whom had been cowards and collaborators during the German occupation. Yes, circumstances were difficult, indeed dire, but a person is always responsible for himself. “The environment can act on the subject only to the exact extent that he comprehends it; that is, transforms it into a situation,” he wrote.[3] It is a fundamental aspect of the human condition that we make choices and that we are responsible for those choices. For Sartre, our freedom does not come in degrees, and it does not depend on circumstances. As he says, “there is no situation in which the for-itself would be more free than in others.”[4] We are always completely free. To pretend otherwise is to be in “bad faith,” as Sartre called it. On a related note, Robert Heinlein wrote in Stranger in a Strange Land, “I never do anything I don’t want to do. Nor does anyone, but in my case I am always aware of it.”

Sartre was among my first intellectual heroes, but I could never make sense of his Marxism. How could a philosopher who stressed complete individual freedom and responsibility endorse a political system that restricted individual liberty and externalized responsibility? For many years, I put the concern and curiosity aside. When I finally addressed the issue in my book The Free Market Existentialist, I concluded, as others had before me, that Sartre’s later Marxism could not be reconciled with his earlier existentialism, despite what Sartre and many of his followers said to the contrary.[5]

For me, cultivating inner freedom and self-mastery has been a project for a lifetime. It was almost the only project that mattered until I was into my thirties. I was living in the United States where political freedom was not ideal, but it seemed good enough. Why think about it when there isn’t much that you can do about it anyway? People concerned with politics always struck me as in bad faith, hiding from their own issues and blaming their own failures on a political system that did not control them and that was certainly beyond their control. I still feel much that way. However, there is no denying that there are better and worse political conditions in which to live. So, in finally considering political philosophy, I took my cue from my core existentialist belief that individuals are completely free and completely responsible. What form of government best suits such a view of the human being? My conclusion was in favor of a Nozickian minimal state that guards individual rights by protecting against force, fraud, and theft.

In the economic realm I thus favored a free-market system. Opponents, including the later Sartre and his followers, believe that the free-market system makes us less free because of consumerism, among other reasons. With pervasive advertising and a culture of keeping up with the Joneses, we become slaves to our own desires. Consumerism is the drive and desire for the newest and latest goods and services for the sake of deriving self-worth and signaling worth to others. When we are in the grips of consumerism we appear to lack inner freedom. The threat is real, and it is akin to addiction. From the existentialist perspective, though, we should not legally prohibit addictive substances in the name of freedom. Rather we should speak the truth about them and choose wisely concerning them. Likewise, we should not ban the advertising or the sale of useless junk. Instead we should become mindful consumers, choosing what we need and demanding high quality in exchange for our money.

Consumer culture may be crass, but it is just the kind of challenge that the self-defining existentialist should relish. Desires may arise without my consent, but I am responsible for recognizing them and deciding whether to endorse them. The free market makes available a superabundance of choices and products, but I do not need to endorse my desire for them all. I can be in consumer culture without being of it. For my part, I choose to practice voluntary simplicity. I cultivate a desire for plain and simple things, eschewing fancy cars and clothes and passing on the latest electronics. The Taoist sage Lao-tzu said that he who knows he has enough is rich.[6] I take this to heart. In material terms, I have enough, way more than enough. Yes, someone else will always have more, and there will always be some new and expensive product that I do not have. But so what? This is not a matter of sour grapes. I have desires, but desires do not have me.

Even if we manage to master desires, we must still contend with work. Marx diagnosed work under capitalism as infected with alienation. That is, we feel ill at ease and not at home in our work. Our jobs often lack meaning and purpose. To paraphrase Fight Club, we sell our labor eight hours a day at jobs we hate to buy shit we don’t need. We can address consumerism by self-defining and by mastering our desires. But unless we are independently wealthy, we will still have work to support ourselves. A job without purpose and without autonomy can be crushing, though not necessarily.

Concerning work, again I look to existentialism, this time to Albert Camus’ retelling of the myth of Sisyphus. As the story goes, Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to roll a rock to the top of a hill each day only to have it roll back down again. His labor is forced, difficult, and pointless. Indeed, the fact that it is pointless is the worst part of the punishment. If his back-breaking labor were accomplishing something worth doing, Sisyphus could take solace in that fact. As Camus asks us to imagine the scenario, Sisyphus is not broken by his futile occupation. Instead, Camus tells us that “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”[7] The very fact that the gods are trying to punish him is enough for Sisyphus to take a different attitude towards his task. He will enjoy it, just to spite the gods. How can he do that? Camus does not specify. Perhaps Sisyphus embraces the challenge of the task and takes satisfaction in his progress towards the top of the hill, enjoying a sense of “flow” in the activity.[8]

Thankfully, most of us do not find ourselves in jobs quite as odious as that of Sisyphus, but we all must make choices concerning the work for which we sell our labor. Rather than allowing herself to be defined by her work, the existentialist chooses work that fits with her self-definition, or at least is not in conflict with her self-definition. By contrast, too many people choose careers based on perceived status rather than on personal fit. Of course, not everyone has the luxury of choosing a job that fits neatly with their self-definition. Work is utilitarian; it pays the bills. The standard bearer of voluntary simplicity, Henry David Thoreau, found that he only needed to work six weeks a year to meet his expenses. Those of us who have families and don’t live in a cabin in the woods will find that we need to work more than that. But our work can be infused with the purpose of providing for a family or buying free time for meaningful pursuits.

We may actually choose to work more in our free time. Artistic endeavors are surely work even when they don’t result in remuneration. On the other hand, entrepreneurial activities can be artistic and sometimes remunerative. There is a natural connection among existentialists, artists, and entrepreneurs. The creativity and self-definition that make allies of existentialism and art can be extended to entrepreneurial activity, which is often at least as much about pursuing creative freedom as it is about pursuing profits. We see this all the more in the digital age in which many people have a “side hustle” that allows them to be their own boss, doing work that they enjoy for its creative or personal expression.

Admittedly, my focus on existentialism is personal and idiosyncratic. I experienced the obligatory existential crisis as a teenager, and I found comfort in reading Sartre. There are, though, other philosophies that likewise focus on inner freedom, notably Stoicism. When Sartre hyperbolically says, “the slave in chains is as free as his master,”[9] he might as well be quoting from one of the ancient Stoics. Indeed, Seneca cautioned that wealth and possessions can make us into slaves, writing that, “A thatched roof once covered free men: under marble and gold dwells slavery.”[10] It is striking that the two most widely read Stoics are a former slave, Epictetus, and an emperor, Marcus Aurelius. One man had no external or political freedom, and the other man had seemingly limitless external or political freedom. Yet both found their own minds to be the greatest obstacles to the freedom that mattered most, inner freedom. Both advocated correcting their thoughts and impressions. In Epictetus’ view, it is not the person who reviles or strikes you who harms you, but your own judgment that harms you.[11]

Perhaps the most important insight that the Stoic slave and the Stoic emperor share is that the world outside your own mind is beyond your control. Not even the emperor can control the words, thoughts, and actions of others. Yes, he can influence those things, but all attempts at influence come at a price. One must determine whether the attempt at influence is worth the price. Sometimes it will be, but many times it will not be. Ultimately, then, the Stoics call for acceptance of what is beyond control. This does not mean that the Stoic is a doormat who lets the world walk all over her. Far from it; the Stoic will act to try to change things in the world, but she will recognize that she only has influence over such things, and that ultimate outcomes are beyond her control. What she can control is her own mind. Thus, she can enjoy the peace that comes with the mindset of acceptance.

The ancient Stoics variously put their trust in the logos, or Zeus, or some other sense of the divine. But even as an atheistic existentialist, I can find comfort and freedom in stoic acceptance. I can also find a sense of priorities. If inner freedom is something I can achieve, whereas external or political freedom is at best something I can influence, I would be well advised to make a priority of achieving inner freedom before concentrating on changing the larger world. Marcus Aurelius is famous not just as a Stoic philosopher, but as a good and effective emperor. No doubt, his effectiveness as an emperor derived from putting his own thoughts in order before trying to put his world in order.

We should all learn from Marcus Aurelius that taking personal responsibility is more difficult than is blaming the injustice of the cosmos for the unhappy state of the mind. As the French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”[12] To paraphrase, make your bed and clean your head, then worry about the world.

Such advice faces two criticisms. First, it is easier said than done. Second, it can seem self-indulgent. Indeed, Sartre’s early work was criticized by Marxists like Georg Lukács for being bourgeois in its individualism. Today we might describe someone as having “first-world problems” when they sit around a café bemoaning the meaninglessness of existence. For the moment, let us put aside how best to reconcile the emphasis on inner freedom with the criticism of self-indulgence. As we’ll see, the same tradition that addresses the “easier said than done” criticism also addresses the “self-indulgence” criticism.

Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Sartre often leave readers wondering: How do you it? How do you train your mind to master your emotions and control your thoughts? In a word, the answer is practice. Much as Aristotle called for practice in acquiring virtues such as courage, temperance, and generosity, so too the Stoics call for practice in acquiring the habits of mind that lead to inner freedom. Marcus Aurelius is a particularly self-reflective role model, anticipating the challenges of the day ahead and considering his failures in the day that has passed. If one mines the writings of the Stoics, one can recover some gems for assembling a Stoic training program. But too often the Stoic counsel is: Just do it.

For greater help with the how of inner freedom, we can turn to Buddhism. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that all life is suffering. This sounds grim, but the word translated as suffering, dukkha, might be more accurately translated as “unsatisfactoriness.” The point is that life is characterized by a sense of unease, a feeling that things should be different and better. Why? The Second Noble Truth tells us that the cause of suffering is desire, clinging to impermanent things as if they were permanent. The Third Noble Truth tells us that liberation from suffering is possible. And the Fourth Noble Truth specifies the eightfold path of liberation: right views, right thoughts, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. This is not easy, but at least it is a prescription.

Although Buddhism is a religion, it is also a practical philosophy. All elements of the eightfold path are important, but the last part is perhaps the most important: right concentration. In essence this is meditation. Here we find the training that Stoicism lacks. We do not send a football team onto the gridiron without training and conditioning. Likewise, we should not send ourselves onto the field of life without meditation. The key to overcoming suffering and achieving inner freedom or liberation is to recognize one’s own thoughts as the cause of suffering. Our thoughts commonly arise without our bidding and cause our suffering. The practice of meditation calls for focus on something other than our thoughts, typically the breath or a mantra. Thoughts nonetheless arise as we sit on the meditation mat, but rather than let them take us for a ride, we let them pass like a bus that is not going where we want to be. Yes, this is much easier said than done, but progress is possible, and it has practical results.

I have been practicing meditation for over fifteen years, though I would still consider myself a novice, having sat far fewer than the proverbial 10,000 hours. Even as a novice, I have noticed substantial benefits. Meditation is not an end in itself. As the football player lifts weights in the gym to play better on the field, I count breaths on the meditation mat to live better in the world. Learning to see thoughts arise and let them go while meditating is a transferable skill. I now do it better in the midst of life than I might otherwise have done. The result is less suffering and a greater sense of inner freedom. On live television, award shows typically have a seven-second delay so that they can bleep out obscenities. Meditation has not given me a seven second delay—that would be way too much—but it does help me to pause for a fraction of a second. As a result, I say and do fewer regrettable things that cause suffering to others and to myself. I have greater inner freedom.

But what about the criticism that a focus on inner freedom is self-indulgent? Before takeoff, flight attendants instruct passengers that in case of emergency they should put on their own oxygen mask first before attempting to help others. The same logic applies here. Only by first caring for the self and cultivating inner freedom can we put ourselves in the position to be of maximal benefit for others. Buddhism stresses the virtue of compassion in particular. By recognizing and addressing my own suffering I come to recognize and care for the suffering of others. Once I have addressed my inner freedom, then I am ready to turn my attention to political freedom. When I have changed myself, then I am ready to try to change the world.


[1] William Irwin, “How to Live a Lie,”

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Philosophical Library, 1947), p. 27.

[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1956), p. 731 (hereafter BN).

[4] BN, p. 702.

[5] William Irwin, The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), pp. 33-61.

[6] Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching, ch. 33.

[7] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 1991), p. 123.

[8] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008).

[9] BN, p. 703.

[10] Lucius Annaeus Seneca Letter XC “On the Part Played by Philosophy in the Progress of Man,”

[11] Epictetus, Enchiridion, Chapter 20.

[12] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans A.J. Kreilsheimer (Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1966), section 67.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • William Irwin’s political libertarianism began with his appreciation for inner freedom. Existentialism, Stoicism, and Buddhism have all taught the importance of living a free inner life: Even utopia would be unbearable to someone who is ruled by their desires; to someone who has attained self-mastery, even dystopia could be relatively bearable. Irwin recommends mastery over the impulses as a key part of living a free life, in the broadest sense of that word.

Response Essays

  • Aaron Ross Powell argues that inner freedom is best pursued in a free society, and that these two aspects of the good life are mutually reinforcing. A regard for virtue in either one should lead reflective individuals to give some attention to the other as well. Although many forms of political action seem clearly to be bad for the soul, this need not be the case for all of them.

  • Mark D. White looks to Immanuel Kant’s account of freedom as a way of bridging the gap between inner and outer freedoms. Although our minds may be the only things we can control, there remain many things we can influence indirectly, including other people and the affairs of our society. And to the extent that we can exert a good influence, we should certainly do so.

  • Stephen Asma says we should maybe just give up on inner freedom. An authentic human life would certainly make room for parents, children, siblings, and even spouses, and for the attachments that loving them will entail. So while mastering the appetites is good, so too is family life. It is not always good for mankind to be alone, and family life is the origin of one’s ties to society.

  • Tom G. Palmer argues that inner freedom is a valuable thing, but that it is most reliably obtained when one is not politically oppressed. Precisely defining both inner and outer freedom becomes paramount, because there is a risk of defining either so broadly that it destroys its counterpart. Palmer closes with a defense of the engaged political life, one that understands liberty to be a helpful reinforcement in many different, though related, approaches to self-mastery.