Against Inner Freedom

As usual, William Irwin delivers a clear and compelling argument, peppered with wisdom from the western classical tradition, 20th century existentialism, and even Buddhist philosophy. He suggests that inner philosophical and psychological freedom is a more pressing human project, and political freedom will either follow personal emancipation or—at the very least—our lack of outer freedom will be more tolerable as we achieve levels of stoic calm.


Irwin is not retreating to the hippie world of lotus-eating. We are not invited to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Rather, he recommends the cultivated, tough-minded discipline of Marcus Aurelius and the Buddha, both of whom described the impermanence of all things as a liberating meditation for overcoming selfish desire and distraction. And well aware that consciousness-training is often parodied as “quietism,” Irwin—like Sartre—carves out an action-oriented form of inner freedom.

Who’s really keeping me down? Is it the elites, the patriarchy, or white supremacy? Is it capitalism, or the social justice warriors? Maybe some of these are real constraints. But before all that, it is me who is keeping me down. I am my own slave. Mastering myself will, according to Irwin, help me see the suffering of others and respond to them with greater action and compassion.

There are two major forms of inner freedom emerging out of traditional philosophy. I want to sketch them and agree with Dr. Irwin that, with great effort, these forms can be attained. But then I want to explore a form of human bondage that gets almost no attention in philosophy, and from which we will not extricate ourselves—nor will we want to.

One form or paradigm of inner freedom is the model of rational control. It can be seen beautifully in Plato’s Republic, but it dominates ancient Greek thought and Enlightenment era philosophy. The other dominant form is the equanimity or tranquility model, and this can be seen clearly in the Buddhist traditions (e.g., sati mindfulness, satori, kensho, samadhi, etc.). The extent to which the rational control form causes the equanimity form is a matter of perennial cross-cultural debate.

Plato suggested that all human beings contain some horrible ingredients—desires and appetites that should not be pursued. Way before Freud, Plato described the “unlawful” pleasures and appetites. “Everyone appears to have them,” he explained, “but in some persons they are controlled by the laws and by reason, and the better desires prevail over them—either they are wholly banished or they become few and weak; while in the case of others they are stronger, and there are more of them.” When asked for clarification, Plato (through his mouthpiece Socrates) describes the bad appetites as those that wake up in our dreams, “when the reasoning and human and ruling power is asleep; then the wild beast within us, gorged with meat or drink, starts up and having shaken off sleep, goes forth to satisfy his desires; and there is no conceivable folly or shame… a man may not be ready to commit.”[1]

Most of us readily recognize this frightening character in ourselves. If we never actually act on our low impulses, then at least we recognize this cretin in our wish-fulfillment fantasies. Whether you agree with Plato here, or the more modern version of the Freudian Id, it is well agreed that chaining up or at least disciplining these inner beasties is a major function of socialization and education. In fact, that’s why the Republic—which many people assume to be a political work—is largely concerned with citizen education. How do you create good character, when so many corrupting influences live inside and outside you?

Rationalists, like Plato, usually suggest that good character (the healthy psyche, or soul) comes when a person’s rational faculty (logistykon) finally tames their lower selfish appetites (epithymetikon). One of the main jobs of education and culture generally is to help young people master this internal hierarchy. But even rationalists recognize that reason can’t do the job alone (it’s pretty unpersuasive on its own) and each individual must enlist the help of their thumos or thymoeides (emotion or spirited passion). An idea alone or a rational calculation cannot inspire an addict to stop his drug of choice. Arguably it can’t even stop me from checking my smart phone every two minutes. But feelings of self-loathing, resolution, fear, or determination might, together with habits, override the negative behavior. These three components of the psyche are combined in Book IX of the Republic as a hybrid or chimera creature. Imagine a writhing multiheaded monster, Plato describes, with gaping mouths and tentacles and claws. This represents our appetites, which are never truly sated. Next, imagine a lion, strong and courageous. This represents the emotional part of our psyches. Finally combine these with a small homunculus human form –a symbol of our rational or logical faculty. In true Greek fashion, Plato asks us to mash them all together inside a single hybrid organism. Now look in the mirror. You are this hybrid.

When reason rules over my emotion, which rules over my desires, I attain inner freedom from my cravings. This gives me psychological freedom from addiction, but also freedom from paranoia about vengeful enemies—I’ll have few enemies because I didn’t wrong a bunch of people in order to satisfy my own urges. And this inner freedom is accompanied by something else important, namely real friends. As many people can attest, it is near impossible to be friends with a tyrant or an addict, because they will sell you down the river for a fix. But the rationally ordered soul is able to set aside her appetites when her friend needs help or companionship. True community is possible with a stable psyche.

The other dominant model of inner freedom is equanimity, or peace of mind. Greeks like Plato thought this followed directly from rational control, but other traditions, like Buddhism, think this peaceful conscious state flows from specific meditation activities. Equanimity-inducing insight might have a rational component, but according to the Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist models it comes rather from abandoning the discursive and limiting logic of the rational mind. Only when I’ve emptied my mind and brought it into the thin slice of the present moment will I attain inner freedom. It is the freedom of emptiness rather than control. Often, these two different forms of inner freedom are conflated, but I’m optimistic that both can be realized with proper training.

Now, however, what about the good forms of bondage? And I don’t mean Fifty Shades of Grey. For monks, nuns, existential heroes, and loner philosophers, there may be a life of individualistic inner liberty, but for the rest of us there is family. My life is never really free in either of the forms we’ve outlined, but not because my reason is lacking, or my appetites are out of control, or my enlightenment is half-assed. We are gloriously unfree in the sense that we have kids, and siblings, and parents, and profound friendships, and other forms of human bondage. These strong bonds do not emerge from the little homunculus of reason—they are not rational ties or duties. Nor should family ties be conceptualized as multiheaded appetites, for family bonds are stronger, less promiscuous, and more durable. Instead, family ties grow in the territory of Plato’s “lion”—the emotional part of the psyche—what we now call the limbic system.

Some critics have pointed out that the libertarian concept of an autonomous “individual” is unrealistic, to which defenders reply that they are equally dedicated to the large-scale social contract. But my claim is different. I suggest that I am never going to have inner freedom because my well-being is inextricably tied to the well-being of my children, siblings, parents and so on. I am not tied to “society”—I don’t actually give a toss about “society.” I am emotionally entwined and entangled with a handful of very specific people, and when they suffer, I suffer. I mean this literally, not figuratively.

Like other social mammals, we are born into care-groups, and our feelings are interwoven with the experiences of our cluster. It is not clear to a baby mammal where she begins or ends, and she must learn the parameters of individuality. I am suggesting that social mammals, like we humans, have a kind of extended nervous system, which reaches beyond the skin barrier to include kin experiences.

Our ability to feel the suffering or deprivation of a family member is part of our instinctual equipment. The recent discovery of “mirror neurons” reveals that our social brains are so sensitive to the feelings and actions of others, that my neural pain pathways “light-up” or activate when I see you undergoing some painful experience. I literally sense a little taste of your pain, just by witnessing it. The subjective wince that I feel at your suffering is neurologically underwritten by automatic brain processing; both my brain stem and anterior cingulate activate when I am poked with a pin, but my anterior cingulate also activates when I witness you getting poked with a pin. There is thus a “shared manifold” of feelings or even an “emotional atmosphere” that humans share with each other. It’s not mystical or spooky, it’s just an under-recognized biological ability.[2] This bond or shared manifold is strongest between family members.

We don’t come into the world as Homo economicus or selfish Hobbesian mercenaries. Contrary to the usual social contract theory, we mammals don’t start out as self-serving egotistical individuals who then need to be socialized (through custom, reason, and law) to endure the compromises of tribal living. Rather, we start out in a sphere of emotional-chemical values, created by family care, in which feelings of altruistic bonding are preset before the individual ego even extricates itself.

There is a kind of bondage, servitude, and even captivity in the very heart of family love, and that is the cost of being attached to one’s children, for example. Most of us wouldn’t trade it for the beatific vision, the enlightenment of the now, or the rational mastery of the philosopher kings. I must agree with George Orwell’s claim that “the essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty…and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”[3]

There is a kind of frictionless ascetic life, with weak family bonds and a strong sense of individual freedom, but I don’t think it should be the ideal philosophical project. Having children gives you important access to significant aspects of the human condition—no one knows the depths of human vulnerability like a parent. Oh sure, Nietzsche can wring his hands about the eternal recurrence, but let him spend a day in the emergency room with his injured kid. That’s real vulnerability. He wouldn’t know about it, because he didn’t have kids.

Beyond things like vulnerability and a sense of the fragility of existence, raising kids also gives you real insight into epistemology and ethics (e.g. how you acquire and develop knowledge and a sense of the good, etc.). So, it’s no accident that some of my favorite philosophers—Aristotle, Montaigne, even Hegel—were also parents.

It is not intrinsically better to be a parent than a non-parent. That is not my point. I’m simply illustrating how there can be forms of emotional bondage that cannot be avoided (via rational control, or meditation), nor would we want to avoid these deep forms of vulnerable connection.

Many of us would like to have inner freedom, and we even fantasize about it. But it is inconsistent with family life, because family life joins your nervous system to all the other nervous systems in your nuclear tribe. It’s a stressful bondage that I wouldn’t trade for anything.


[1] See Book IX of Plato’s Republic, translated by Benjamin Jowett (Vintage Classic, 1991).

[2] Mirror neurons were first discovered by a team of Italian neurologists in the early 1990s and are commonly believed to be one of the most important recent discoveries in neuroscience. One of the original researchers, Dr. Vittorio Gallese, has written (together with N. I. Stamenov) a fairly comprehensive story of the discovery and implications, called Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of Brain and Language (John Benjamins Publishing, 2002). I adopt his helpful term “shared manifold,” which he articulates in “The ‘Shared Manifold’ Hypothesis: From Mirror Neurons to Empathy” in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (Vol. 8, 2001).

[3] See Orwell “‘Reflections on Gandhi” First published: Partisan Review. — GB, London. January 1949.

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.