Finding a Balance between Inner and Outer Freedom

William Irwin is certainly correct that whom we choose to make ourselves matters more than where we find ourselves. We ought to care more about the content of our character than about external accoutrements. From this weighing of comparative values derives the likewise reasonable conclusion that perhaps we, as citizens, as agents in the civic sphere, care too much about the shape of politics, which is always external to us, and that we do not care enough about cultivating those traits internal to us that play a much larger causal role in the quality of our lives.

The trouble, however, is that he takes this too far, drifting from what ought to be a question of how focus should be split to one of which side is worth focusing on at all. Caring about politics, he says, is something done by people “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.” Stop pretending your problems are political, or have political causes, and get on with the business of making yourself the kind of person who doesn’t—or who, in a sense, can’t—have those problems in the first place.

At the same time, Irwin clearly does care about politics—he tells us he’s a libertarian of the “Nozickian minimal state” sort. And he criticizes Sartre, his existentialist hero, for having the wrong sort of politics. This tension, I think, comes from Irwin focusing too much on the fact of internal freedom and not enough on the mechanisms for achieving it. When we look to the latter—when we ask the question, “By what steps can I make myself internally free in an Irwinian sense?”—we see that caring about politics becomes necessary, at least in the world as we currently find it.

Before getting into why, I need to make a distinction here between caring about what sort of political world we have and caring about politics per se. Think of this, very roughly, as the difference between being an engaged activist with an understood goal and being a fan of reading Politico.

I’ve been pretty vocal in arguing that caring about politics degrades our character. A world where decisions about the contours of our lives—the choices open to us, the environment we live in, the ends we may pursue—are politically determined (i.e., determined through the mechanisms of the state) is a world that sets us unnecessarily against each other. Such a world also encourages us to embrace behavior we ought not, and to accept epistemic standards we wouldn’t in other spheres of our lives. Politics enables citizens to do bad things to us under the morally cleansing guise of “civics,” and so means there are political stakes we should or must care about that, in a better world, wouldn’t be political stakes in the first place. What’s more, politics, because of the incentives driving politicians seeking votes, encourages us to see political battles as more important than they really are, or political differences as greater—starker, more insurmountable—than a reasonable assessment would prove them to be. Thus we’re forced to care about politics, are encouraged to care about politics too much, and are incentivized to view far more than we should through a political lens. All of that is bad.

However, we find ourselves in a political world. Ideally we wouldn’t, because ideally we would do away with the urge to rule each other through the application of state coercion, but we’re not there yet and might well never be. And given how much of our environment is politically determined, or at least politically influenced, and given how much of that has the effect of making the social and economic environment worse, if we care about the world being a better place, and not just ourselves being better within it, we have to care about politics and have to desire political influence. Even if that is only in the service of ultimately banishing politics from our lives.

This latter sort of caring about politics isn’t just valuable outside of the context of Irwinian freedom, but Irwinian freedom, framed as self-authorship through internal autonomy and mindful focus and desire assessment, in fact counsels us to care in just this way.

The first, and least interesting reason, is that to be an Irwinian self-author, whether you go the stoic or Buddhist route or take some other path, you need an environment that grants you the space and resources to do so. Yes, it’s technically true that, as Irwin writes, “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.” But it’s also technically true that I could have drafted this essay by scraping the letters with a rock on a cave wall while fending off bandits and trying to ignore my chronically rumbling stomach and sick and dying children, but it’s a whole lot easier in the safety of my office, with financial security for myself and my family, and with a computer that keeps up with my typing.

The fact is that our lives contain more—and demand more of us—than internal reflection and the cultivation of directed attention. Even Buddhist monks, who have to the greatest extent possible dedicated their lives to that narrow focus, still depend on a functioning society to feed and clothe them and to provide them shelter and keep them safe from predation. And most of us, even as we ought to seek self-authorship, don’t have the luxury of living as monks. We’ve got lives to attend to. The easier those lives are, the more time and resources and available willpower we’ll have to undertake the difficult task of attaining true internal freedom.

Second, even if we have—or ought to have, or ought to seek—total freedom of self-authorship, and total freedom of directed attention and desire, like any other power under our control, we can use it well or poorly. The person you author for yourself ought to be a good person, and an admirable person. And that, I submit, includes being the sort of person who cares about the state of the world and the people in it. Given that we have overwhelming evidence that nothing improves human lives quite as well as political liberty, caring about the good of people means caring about promoting political liberty. To turn entirely inward, to say, “I’m only going to focus on me, knowing that I have the tools necessary already to live happy in even the least happy world,” is to ignore this basic requirement of shared humanity. The Buddha taught not just vipassana meditation, which asks us to look inward, but also metta meditation, which helps us cultivate feelings of “lovingkindness” for all living beings. And what better way to live out genuine love for your fellow man than to set aside at least some of your time to make his life better, or make the world the kind of place where he can more easily lead a better life?

Internal freedom matters—quite a lot. It would be good for all of us to develop and maintain a practice designed to increase it. But we shouldn’t do so in such a way as to cut ourselves off from the equally valuable pursuit of external freedom, because external freedom brings profound positive results, too—and makes the cultivation of internal freedom more likely.

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.