About this Issue

In ancient Rome, Epictetus was a slave; Marcus Aurelius was an emperor. Today they are recognized as two of the greatest exponents of Stoic philosophy. Epictetus and Aurelius grace our banner because this month we propose to talk about a topic where both had much to say: the relationship between inner and outer freedom.

All over the world, great religious and moral traditions have constantly likened these two kinds of freedom. It is good, say these traditions, not to be a slave. But just as slavery to another person is bad, so too is slavery to one’s own thoughts, passions, or instincts. Arguments of this kind can be found in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and many other religions. They can also be found in ancient Stoic philosophy and in many forms of liberalism.

But how do inner and outer freedom relate to one another? Is the relationship more than just metaphorical? Can the good life be had on inner freedom alone? Can a good society exist without it? If the two freedoms must in some sense go together, then how is that cooperation achieved? Does the pursuit of inner freedom entail limits to social freedom, or rather the opposite?

Lead essayist William Irwin draws on diverse philosophical traditions including existentialism, Stoicism, and Buddhism to make the case that inner and outer freedom are not only compatible, but harmonious. Joining him to discuss is a slightly larger than usual contingent of philosophers, including the Cato Institute’s own Aaron Ross Powell and Tom G. Palmer, plus Professor Stephen Asma of Columbia College Chicago, and Prof. Mark D. White of the College of Staten Island/City University of New York.

Lead Essay

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,” https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/11/02/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,” http://thriceholy.net/Texts/Letter90.html.

[11] Epictetus, Enchiridion, Chapter 20.

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

Response Essays

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.

Restoring Social Responsibility to Inner Freedom, with Help from Immanuel Kant

In his lead essay, William Irwin correctly identifies the Stoics and the existentialists as two groups of philosophers who emphasize the importance of inner freedom in the sense of self-mastery and self-definition. But the missing link between them—Immanuel Kant—stressed these things while adding an essential aspect of outward-looking morality that not only connects inner freedom to outer freedom, but also avoids the accusations of self-absorption that Irwin acknowledges.

Inspired by the Stoics and influential on the existentialists, Kant’s moral system is centered on autonomy—his conception of inner freedom—which he understood as the capacity of rational agents to make moral decisions apart from both internal desires and external pressures.[1] To Kant, autonomy has both logically negative and positive meanings, the former aligning more closely with the existentialists and Stoics as Irwin described them. This aspect of autonomy renders the agent able to resist both her own inclinations, especially the selfish ones that would lead her actions away from the moral path, and pressure from peers and society in general, which would lead to unreflective crowd-following and herd thinking. To the degree the agent is successful at this, she will have crafted her own moral identity separate from her desires and the influence of others, very much in the spirit of the Stoics and existentialists (especially the latter’s concept of authenticity).

As such, I agree completely with what Irwin wrote, based on the existentialists and the Stoics, regarding the importance of self-determination. Indeed, our own minds are all we can truly control; as Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”[2] Even when our outer freedom is constrained, by actual chains or by Rousseau’s metaphysical ones, we still have our thoughts, individuality, and character, which only we can control and which no one can take.[3] This truth is too frequently neglected today; as I described in my book The Decline of the Individual, there is a growing danger of voluntarily ceding our choices to others who claim they can make them better, including paternalistic governments and algorithmic decision-processes offered by businesses.[4] The more we cede our choices to others, the more we compromise our own autonomy, authenticity, and very sense of self.

At the same time, Irwin writes that, because our thoughts are the only things over which we have true control, they are the only things we should attempt to control, which strikes me as a limited perspective that rationalizes a passive attitude toward injustice in the world. Although it is true that we cannot control anyone else, we can certainly influence them. We don’t have to resign ourselves to accepting our circumstances and merely determining our own attitudes in reaction to them, especially if we have the opportunity and ability to change them, not only for ourselves but for others. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer counsels us to accept that which we cannot change and to act to change that which we can; a popular refinement today adds that we should change what we cannot accept, which puts an activist spin on what is usually taken to be a verse of temperance of ambition and responsibility.

Irwin is skeptical regarding political action, but action in response to perceived injustice is virtuous and, to Kant, dutiful. This reflects the positive aspect of Kant’s autonomy, which demands action in appropriate circumstances. Even though each agent decides for herself what the right thing to do is, the right thing to do is generally expected to acknowledge the equal autonomy, dignity, and rights of all persons. This requires positive action when the moral law calls for it, the importance of which Irwin minimizes in his focus on the negative, inward-focused aspects of inner freedom. Rather than being futile and inauthentic, being politically active in circumstances that one feels demand action can be considered the highest expression of one’s autonomous self. Autonomy demands not only independence from illegitimate influence, but also action in the pursuit of duty, especially in the face of injustice.

More generally, the way Kant understands autonomy in both its negative and positive aspects is consistent with classical liberty and libertarianism (as I wrote here previously). Specifically, agents achieve mastery over their own thoughts and choices through self-legislation, setting duties for themselves based on the categorical imperative as interpreted and implemented through their own individual judgment based on the moral law (itself based on the dignity and autonomy of all rational beings). Kant wrote of two parts of the will: Wille, by which the agent determines for herself the laws she will follow, and Willkür, by which the agent wills herself to follow those laws. These two parts of the will work together to enable autonomy or inner freedom in a complete sense: deciding what is right and then acting on it. Just as Aristotle’s virtuous person cannot be virtuous solely by intention without acting on it, the Kantian autonomous agent cannot be dutiful without acting on that duty (and for the purpose of it). Furthermore, as Christine Korsgaard writes, through her action an agent “constitutes” herself, which points to the role of action, expressing outer freedom, in reinforcing one’s character, based on inner freedom.[5] Although inner freedom is intrinsically valuable in isolation, especially when outer freedom is constrained, ideally an agent will use outer freedom to express her character.

In classical liberal and libertarian thought, and in democratic societies in general, it is the individual’s responsibility to stand up to power wielded unjustly. In Frank Capra’s 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the naïve and idealistic Jefferson Smith (played by James Stewart) is sent to the U.S. Senate to be a patsy for the political machine controlled by a local newspaperman, Jim Taylor (played by Edward Arnold), including the complicit senior senator, Joseph Paine (played by Claude Rains), who was also a close friend of Smith’s late father. Once he realizes his assigned role, Smith fights to expose the corruption and graft of the Taylor machine, filibustering against a corrupt appropriations bill against the efforts of Paine and the negative publicity campaign orchestrated by Taylor through his newspaper conglomerate. Mr. Smith represents Capra’s belief, as shown in many of his other films also, in the power of the individual to effect change. Along with countless other stories and novels, it serves as an inspirational example of courageous individuals putting their inner freedom, autonomy, and authenticity to use in fighting the corrupt use of power against the interests of other individuals.[6] It wasn’t enough for Jefferson Smith to realize the injustice in his circumstances; he felt compelled to act. We may always have our inner freedom, but when it tells us something is wrong and we can change it—how can we not and still be our true selves?


[1] For a solid introduction to Kant’s moral philosophy, see Roger J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Kant’s Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[2] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959/2006), p. 66.

[3] Remember Whitney Houston’s words in her 1986 hit “The Greatest Love of All” (words by Linda Creed, music by Michael Masser): “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.”

[4] Mark D. White, The Decline of the Individual (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

[5] Christine Korsgaard, Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity (Oxford: Oxford Univer­sity Press, 2009).

[6] I think also of Steve Rogers’ confession to Tony Stark in the 2016 film Captain America: Civil War regarding how he cannot comply with the United Nations resolution limiting his heroic activities: “If I see a situation pointed south, I can’t ignore it.”

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.