Philosophy, recent

The Inner Nature of Freedom

All the while, that reign of desires savagely tyrannizes and batters a person’s whole life and mind with storm’s ranging in all directions. On this side fear, on that side desire, on this side anxiety, on that side empty spurious enjoyment, on this side torment over the loss of something loved, on the ardor to acquire something not yet possessed, on this side sorrows over injuries received, on that the burning desire to redress it. Whichever way one turns greed can pinch, extravagance squander, ambition enslave, pride puff up, envy twist, laziness overcome, stubbornness provoke, submissiveness oppress-these and countless others throng the realm of lust, having the run of it.
~St. Augustine,
On the Free Choice of the Will

In an earlier article with Ben Burgis, we argued that it was a mistake to claim that the fundamental divide between the political Left and Right was between an emphasis on equality by the former and liberty by the latter. As we put it, almost “everyone values freedom” regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum. Or, at least, they profess to do so, although things often turn out quite differently in practice. The primarily political differences, therefore, emerge over how best to realize freedom, and of course, what freedom itself means. Does it simply mean the absence of coercion by state authorities, or should we develop a more substantive conception? Professor Burgis and I defended the latter position.

Here, I want to build upon some of these earlier themes by examining a somewhat different issue. That is: to what extent can an individual be uncoerced by the state, and yet remain unfree? This is, of course, a far more speculative question than the purely political one examined earlier, and I do not intend to answer it here. Instead, I want to show how major figures in philosophy and other disciplines have long acknowledged that freedom is not simply a matter of non-coercion, but has an important inner dimension. In the conclusion, I will briefly spell out the political consequences we might infer from taking such an inner conception of freedom seriously.

The Inner Nature of Freedom in Ancient Thought

While concern with state coercion has dominated much of modernist thinking, ancient authors were well aware of it. Even a cursory glance at works of the Ancient Greeks and Confucian or Daoist thinkers would highlight their deep concern with the problems of political tyranny. Confucius famously taught that a good ruler must not become a tyrant, but be someone who strives for benevolence and wisdom in the treatment of his subjects. A ruler who did not would bring disharmony to the realm. Many Ancient Greek authors went further still, with reformers in the vein of Cleisthenes establishing the world’s first democratic regimes. While later Greek thinkers like Plato and Aristotle were less positive in their appraisal of “rule by the many,” they remained hostile to any form of tyranny which would terrorize the people.

But all of these figures also recognized that true freedom is not simply about establishing the right political system. Political liberty was fundamentally linked to inner freedom, which was in some respects far more difficult to achieve. For the Buddha and arguably his latter day proponents like the philosopher Derek Parfit, one of the biggest barriers to achieving inner freedom is the persistent belief in the illusion of the “self.” Each of us believes that we have an inner self which is “what matters,” and devote our energies to slavishly pandering to its ever changing and inconsistent whims and desires. Once we see past this illusion and recognize that the self does not exist in any deep sense, we will be more capable of committing ourselves to what is truly important; whether achieving  liberation from Samsara for Buddah or undertaking those actions which would ensure everything goes best for Parfit. The ancient Greeks took a very different position. For them, the self was indeed what matters, but its inner freedom was continuously barred by the dominance of our more animalistic inclinations. The more rational parts of the human being were enslaved by our focus on desire, or the veneration of doxa-public opinion. In Plato’s memorable allegory, we needed to free ourselves from seeing merely the illusory shadows on the wall cast by public opinion, and use reason to see the world and our real needs as they truly are. Freedom in this sense means training oneself to emphasize reason over animal impulse and the pursuit of crude desires.

Each of these positions is of course quite different from the other. For Buddhists, freedom means liberation from the illusion of the self and the very idea of desire. For Plato and many of the ancient Greeks, it meant discovering one’s truest self and pursuing higher forms of desire. But these different figures agreed that simply being at liberty to do as one wished was not real freedom. Without deeper changes, it could even encourage the most complete kind of self-enslavement.  This was of course what happened in the case of Athenian democracy, where a failure to inculcate inner reflection led to hubris and the reduction of a proud people to a mindless mob tyrannizing others before finally suffering humiliation and defeat at the hands of Sparta.

Freedom and Religious Thinking

As indicated by the introductory quote, many of these ideas about inner freedom found their way into the thinking of various religious figures. This is true of the various Christian and Islamic scholastics, as well as Jewish thinkers like Maimonides. Many of these thinkers were keen to show how the true realization of freedom in human life was in some respect tied to obedience to the will of a just and benevolent God. On the surface of it this may well appear highly problematic, since freedom appears to rely upon obedience to the will of another. It also raises significant problems about how to understand the problem of evil. If evil constitutes a rejection of the true freedom offered by God, does this mean that those who sin are in some sense not really responsible for their actions? Are they simply giving in to a baser nature in the manner of animals? These difficult theological questions would occupy many of the best minds of the Medieval period.

Some insight might be drawn by looking at the Book of Genesis, which presents an archetypal story about the emergence of freedom in the world. God initially creates the world in six days, before resting on the seventh. He also creates the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, and places them in the paradise of Eden. There they are superficially “free” to do whatever they wish, so long as they do not eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Eve is tempted by the serpent, which is craftier than the other animals, and she chooses to eat the fruit before sharing it with Adam. After this, God proclaims that human beings are now like him in “knowing good and evil” and so expels them from paradise.

In this story, holy to all the Abrahamic faiths, God determines that true freedom comes from knowledge of good and evil. Though Adam and Eve were in some senses “free” to do as they wished in Eden, excepting the prohibition on eating the forbidden fruit, this was a highly superficial liberty. They were not truly capable of doing anything wrong, since neither had any sense of what it would mean to act sinfully. After eating the fruit, humanity became capable of knowing what was truly good but also capable of doing what it knew to be wrong. In so doing, we polluted our liberty by misusing it. But this would ultimately lead only to a deeper kind of self-enslavement, as evil individuals could only reduce themselves by denying what was good and engaging in sinful acts of destruction towards others. True freedom, therefore, comes from knowing the good and willing it to be so, which would empower an individual by enabling them to become more like God. This desire to be morally akin to God is our deepest need, since it is for that which we were created. In some respect, quite paradoxically, because this is our deepest need, even our free acts of choosing the good have their ultimate roots in an all-knowing God. As Avincenna wrote:

The volitions that belong to us come to be after not having been, and whatever comes to be after not having been has a cause. Thus our volition has a cause and the cause of that volition will not be an infinite series of volitions, but things that happen externally, whether earthly or heavenly, with the earthly terminating in the heavenly.

Many of these arguments look analogously paradoxical to me. Scholastic thinkers found themselves in the difficult bind of needing to justify both an omniscient and all powerful god who knew everything in advance, but who also permitted a degree of free will and therefore spontaneity in the world. But their ongoing insight, acknowledged even by Nietzsche in his comments about Christianity deepening the Western soul, was that freedom is related to a kind of self-consciousness which generates a world of value. Put more simply, self-conscious beings have value systems which they try to live by. But this in turn always means the potential to fall short of such ideals. This can lead to intense feelings of doubt, anger, resentment, and so on; all the sentiments characteristic of sin. These ideas would later be picked up and secularized by modernist thinkers.

Inner Freedom in the Modern Age

The modern age, particularly with the advent of liberalism, is occasionally heralded for distancing itself from the moralism of the Greeks and religious thinkers. For many, following in the footsteps of Hobbes, Mill, and others, modernity stripped freedom of the senseless metaphysical gloss of earlier epochs and brought it down to earth. Freedom simply meant the liberty to do as one wished without coercion. This, of course, made freedom chiefly a political problem, rather than one with any bearing on the inner life. The conservative scholar Leo Strauss helpfully characterized this break by distinguishing between the liberties of the ancients, concerned with excellence, and the liberties of the moderns, which concerned permissiveness.

But the issue was never quite so simple. Starting with the Enlightenment, many modern authors came to recognize that the problem of inner freedom remained. In its classical period, Enlightenment authors often argued that true freedom could only be achieved once reason was emphasized over emotion, tradition, religious piety, and all other forms of irrationalism. Mature Enlightenment authors like J.S. Mill and Karl Marx were less crude in their dichotomization of reason and irrationality. But they too emphasized that we often remain beholden to the opinion of the public, or ideology, in a manner which we are unable to fully understand or explicate without a great deal of reflection and effort. In each of these cases, modern authors emphasized that freedom involves liberation from various forms of untruth or inauthenticity, which preclude us from recognizing our true interests and living more fulfilled and complete lives.

Perhaps the culminating figure in this tradition was Sigmund Freud, who followed Nietzsche and others in arguing that we are very much not in control of our own inclinations. Many of us are driven by unconscious drives over which we have little control and do not fully understand, even though they determine most of our actions and even the form of our personality. The point of psychotherapy then became to get us to recognize these unconscious drives and master them more effectively without excessive repression, fetishization, and other defenses. Though many of Freud’s more peculiar hypotheses have been rightly abandoned as unscientific speculation, his major point about being driven by psychological drives we do not fully understand and control seems quite plausible. Indeed, some elements of his thinking have become so widely accepted we no longer even recognize their roots in Freud’s theorizing.

The modernist arguments about inner freedom were as varied as any, and ranged from the highly implausible to the profoundly insightful. Modernity was never claimed by a pure movement towards unbridled liberty. Many figures recognized that inner freedom still mattered, and indeed, may perhaps matter more than ever before.


Do these ruminations about inner freedom have anything to teach us today? And do they have any bearing on political problems? The answer to both of these questions is an emphatic yes. Many of the social problems analyzed by these thinkers persist to this day. Some of them have become even more striking.

Take the Greek concern about the pervasiveness of public opinion as a limitation on freedom, shared by later thinkers like J.S. Mill and Søren Kierkegaard. Today we are more embedded in a culture of opinion generation than ever before. We are exposed to a huge array of new media, each of which propagates a given agenda and set of ideological presuppositions. While this offers tremendous opportunities for learning, it also poses a danger. As Neil Postman observed in his classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death, many of these new media simplify information by boiling it down to its most entertaining and superficial forms. The consequence of this is that a steady diet of such “infotainment” can seriously limit our capacity to critically analyze the world in a robust manner. This has consequences for our freedom, since an uncritical population is readily suspect to manipulation.

More deeply, we can think about the impact social media pose to our individuality. In some respects, they enable us to express our identities in a manner that is freer and more empowered than ever before. On the other hand, social media can impose intense pressures on individuals to present an image of themselves which conforms to public opinion. The desire to be liked, not to mention the economic pressure to develop one’s social capital, is now constantly activated through the ubiquity of our exposure to others in digital space. This may well pose a serious danger to our freedom as the pressure to be what others wish us to be becomes ever more intense.

In either case I think it is clear that, even in our relatively permissive age, we need to reflect deeply and carefully on the nature of inner freedom. Failing to do so, or dismissing it as an abstract problem, will not make it go away. Indeed we may well discover that not taking inner freedom seriously means we wind up dealing with serious political consequences. Because if it is true that only a free person can authentically find a kind of fulfillment in life, a society of unfree individuals is unlikely to be stable and content.


Matt McManus is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey. His forthcoming books are Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and What is Post-Modern Conservatism? He can be reached at or followed on Twitter @MattPolProf


  1. dirk says

    From the dystopic novel – We – from Jevgeny Zamyatin (1920): Those two in the Paradise got the choice: or happiness without freedom, or the reverse, a third possiblity was not given. And those,imbeciles, chose feedom, but, consequently longed for centuries for chattels again!!

  2. codadmin says

    Do trees, which are unconscious, intentionally harm themselves like humans harm themselves?

    What problems do unconscious life forms have exactly?

    So, maybe the conscious itself is the problem, and not the unconscious, which may not even exist.

    • Bob Hope Redivivus says

      A gentleman never calls a lady on her mango.

    • dirk says

      Is it a mango Ike? I wonder whether Durer (or?) would have seen or eaten one at his time. It doesn’t look very much an apple though!

        • dirk says

          Don’t think so, is more rosey than orange, and less oval. After 3 days thinking on it, I figure out it’s just a non existing phantasy fruit. The forbidden fruit, so must be juicy and attractive, more so than at that time existing fruits.

    • Joe says

      It’s not a mango, it’s an I-phone, the very first Apple product. Wonder who she was ringing?

      • dirk says

        Either God himself, or the devil (because, was that snake maybe just an undercover, or fisher?).

  3. Whatever it is, she’s making a hot “get me the fuck outta here” call on it. Wolfman McLongshoulders looks like he’s about to bust outta that foliage banana hammock and smush her goodies.

  4. Lightning Rose says

    Adam & Eve: When humans started to make conscious choices, they became self-aware. Oops!

    Tao, Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and every other historical religion is glorious for the 1% of their adherents who actually achieve understanding of their deepest teachings. For the other 99%, they’re at best a superstition ensuring most color inside the lines of an orderly society, and at worst the excuse for mortal oppression by secular forces acting in their name. “Inner Freedom” concerns only the 1% at the tip of Maslow’s pyramid–and that air is pretty thin up there. Joe Sixpack does not share these concerns. But tell him he’s got to give 65% of his hard-earned cash to the State to redistribute to slackers, addicts and losers and he’s going to take his rifle down off the wall. He believes (and has since around 1774) that Freedom means the right to be left alone.

    For most of us, Freedom is adhering to a mutually-agreed-upon Rule of Law. (It’s the “mutually-agreed-upon part that’s tough!) This means my swing must stop short of your jaw, and you don’t have the right to climb in my window and steal my stuff. Harm has consequencs, criminal and civil.

    Social media, however, is like the Wild West with (so far) no such rules. Rumor, slander, false witness and provocation are the order of the day, indeed platforms like Twitter make money incentivizing such. Addicted to outrage, exhibitionism, virtue signaling, and bullying, many mentally-ill and dysfunctional members of society congregate there to perform their wannabe persona for the illusions of attention, self-esteem, or perceived peer group. It is all imaginary.
    It gets very real, however, when the wrong phrase, word, joke, or meme doxxes you out of your reputation, job, and financial security in real life. Not worth it to vent into the ether!

    Please do not assume that “everyone” is on there, curating a fictional life and fighting with imaginary “friends.” A great many of us who have no employment reason to use these platforms avoid them like the plague. You are shouting into a black hole, anyway–who really cares what some generic person thinks about practically anything? Comment boards on sites such as this are just the same thing but with rather better grammar. A moment’s entertainment, killing time.

  5. Farris says

    Can one believe things contrary to public opinion and how far can one take that belief?
    Can one believe his or her race or people is superior to all others?
    If Yes, can he or she extended that belief to their commercial dealings?
    If No, can one raise his or her children in the same anti-social belief without raising the ire of authorities?
    Are of only beliefs, attitudes, opinions and actions which have a public good acceptable?
    Are people free to hate?

    The point not being to argue in favor of hate or other vile opinions but to wonder if these attitudes can be permitted and if not is one’s freedom truly impacted?
    The same could be asked is one free to harm himself?

    Regarding the Garden of Eden reference, Christians believe sin leads to a ruinous life but that mankind is bound to sin. This is why mankind is in need of a Savior. If one proclaims not to be a sinner then what need would he have of Jesus?
    Jesus is freedom from sin.

  6. Milarepa says

    Nitpick: there is a mistake in the article – Buddhists do not seek to achieve samsara, but rather they seek to transcend it by achieving enlightenment. Samsara is the name for the endless cycle of deluded existence in which we find ourselves.

    • Did you miss this?

      “Once we see past this illusion and recognize that the self does not exist in any deep sense, we will be more capable of committing ourselves to what is truly important; whether achieving liberation from Samsara for Buddah or undertaking those actions which would ensure everything goes best for Parfit.”

  7. Stephanie says

    It seems to me that the kind of freedom the author discusses in this article is a personal matter. If we want to make a political point, it should be that the government should not infringe on the intellectual and spiritual space you have to develop and realise your own conception of internal, psychological freedom.

    It seems reductive to me to say that the Right’s notion of freedom is incomplete in some way because it emphasizes freedom from government coercion. That is simply the most appropriate notion of freedom for the political realm. The Right typically also encourages personal connection to the traditions that have the more nebulous, spiritual ideas of freedom discussed here.

    The dismissive way the author refers to the right to explore your own spiritual meaning without government mandate as “permissive” is interesting, because it suggests that government should have a role in forming people’s conception of psychological freedom.

    This seems oxymoronic, because if your government is shaping your mind there’s no rational way you could call that “freedom.” This is the same defiling of language that leads the Left to argue that freedom comes from letting the government take half your income and redistribute it back to you in the form of a single prepackaged, cookie-cutter set of services. “Freedom is Slavery,” and all.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Indeed, we can only concern ourselves as a society by how government powers treat us.
      Personal thinking, liberty, kindness, intellectual curiosity, perseverance, etc. are traits we should cultivate, most likely, but society cannot have a solution to them without pretending that a central planner can impose these on non-compliant people to make a “better” society.

      • dirk says

        Reminds me of Zamyatin’s (again) experiment with the 3 “free men” (they were permitted to write or do whatever came up in their minds, unless harmful for others). In the end, they committed suicide, guaranteed happiness under slavery, so the message went, was the best for all mankind (and this looks very much to be the direction in China now, in spite of the desperate mass movements in Hongkong).

  8. Joe says

    “In either case I think it is clear that, even in our relatively permissive age, we need to reflect deeply and carefully on the nature of inner freedom.”

    The 140 character discussion forums (tweeting) are a counterweight to genuine, deeper thinking, unfortunately. The loudest on social media, in particular, reduce complex arguments to sophomoric aphorisms– McCluhan’s “medium is the message.”

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  10. Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
    Nothin’, don’t mean nothin’ hon’ if it ain’t free, no no
    And, feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues
    You know, feelin’ good was good enough for me
    Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee

    • dirk says

      Oh Lord, won’t you buy me…, a Mercedes Benz!

      • dirk says

        I wait..till delivery…. I wait until free…….!! –

        Looks like that Janis J. (and other protest singers?) have quite another idea of inner freedom as the author and most commenters here. More a negative one. And, of course, as long as it rhymes, it’s already far ahead of being OK.

  11. Ralph Wiggum says

    I didn’t see the word property once. But that’s my understanding of the term freedom: nobody can take or tell you what to do with your property (in a free society), from your external belongings to your body. Liberty is a framework in which you (and other citizens) can use your property (or I guess, exchange it).

    Inner freedom sounds like a non-thing, or just plain non-sense. “Inner” as in mind — well, a mind can be enslaved but not generally the way a body can. An enslaved body will perform whatever labor at no cost or suffer consequences; it has a master. An enslaved mind’s master is generally not a person but an object of desire or obsession (drugs, video games). I suppose an ideology can seem to enslave, but this is more like an agreed upon contract; the mind is not enslaved because it CAN leave anytime it wants to (from the “binds” of the ideology). Soul — I don’t think this can be enslaved unless by Satan (i.e. Faust). Inner as in muscles, guts, gas…kidding.

    I think “inner freedom” is like “water’s personality” (or “hot ice cream”) and what the other might be talking about in terms of mental constraints are peer pressure or simply the limits of human capability and comprehension? I don’t know — I kept looking for the word property (or even slave, which gets to the nitty-gritty; the property we are all born with is our body), not seeing it, and became suspicious the author’s premise (or at least working definition of freedom) was from the first off the mark and so likely setting up a highly specious discourse. It seems like the author possesses an unconstrained vision of man’s inner being, or rather its potential (to borrow Thomas Sowell’s dichotomy).

    • alex Russell says

      In the political realm you may be mainly correct that freedom must deal with the physical world, and not the inner mind, but every society does try to train its citizens inner mind: school, religion, custom, law, and culture. All these things are meant to change your inner mind to make you follow what the society of the day has agreed is in the best interest of that society.

      Your inner mind is influenced, can be trained, by advertising, propaganda, and education. And these things are part of the physical realm.

  12. Klaus C. says

    What will become increasingly important is: liberation from the constraints of the human body, and the often primitive evolutionary heritage that it represents, both “physically” (in terms of disease and longevity) and psychologically, which offers scope for profoundly extending what we mean by human freedom.

    We are already seeing much “liberation of the imagination” in such fields as computer-assisted music production, where composers can command vast musical resources in the comfort of their own homes, at modest expense, and post the results on the internet without requiring any assistance.

    Perhaps more familiar, computer games and emerging virtual reality technology enable the creation of all kinds of complex worlds to explore in what could be a greatly enriched imagination.

    Unfortunately so far, although such worlds are often very inventive and inspiring, they usually just form a backdrop to the primitive violence and conflict that constitutes “the game”. So the cognitive compulsions being fed through such technology still reflect minds bounded by crude hormonal inputs.

    But it’s possible to propose a future in which human minds evolve far beyond the constraints of our biology, driven by a desire to become more creative, co-operative and peaceful, while greatly expanding our means of experiencing the world in beautiful ways we can’t yet even imagine.

  13. Geary Johansen says

    This was a fascinating read- almost a perfect example of writing at its best, because it neither told the reader what to think, nor ‘raised important questions’- but because it provokes the reader to think.

    I have been thinking along these lines, because I recently took Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations test online. I had to take the test several times because, although I scored midway between liberal and conservative for care, fairness and loyalty as expected and had a high score for authority (because of having military father, I guess)- something really weird was going on in relation to scoring high on purity and low on liberty- which given that I am almost always against government intrusion, except in those rare instances where government or the law needs to protect you from the ‘tyranny of others’, left me rather confused.

    It was only when I reconsidered what had happened one of the scenarios put forward in Jonathan Haidt’s book, ‘The Righteous Mind’, that I thought that I might have an answer. In the scenario, you are asked if a man shags a dead chicken, comes in it and then cooks and eats it himself- is it wrong? A conservative would answer yes, because conservatives have a stronger purity drive, and a liberal would answer no, because it would cause no harm to others. My answer was yes, it is wrong- but not because of what society or convention tells you to do in moment, but because in many ways we cannot escape the conditioning of societies we grow up in. It would cause harm to the individual shagging the chicken. He should be free to do it legally, but he should not do it morally- unless one argues that harming oneself for no good reason is moral.

    Of course, we all transgress in minor ways, especially when young- it’s exciting breaking some rules. But transgress in any major way, and you risk sending yourself to hell. The science of detecting lies, relies upon our physiological response to committing falsehoods, and in recent years the stats have improved to the point that a good examiner will be correct 90% of time, and will only ever find the results shift one column- so an expert liar might tell a lie and present as inconclusive, and a guilty or agitated person telling truth, could also appear inconclusive. If the minor sin of telling a lie changes us physically, what does the ‘memory shrapnel’ of major transgression unleash in our psyche’s. We know that doing good makes us feel good, and doing harm makes us feel bad- so those of us who are wise, try to do much good as feasible, limiting harm, because ultimately it encourages mental and physical health, and leads to a more positive outlook on life, which in someways shields us from it’s harshness.

    But perhaps the most fascinating aspect on this topic that has occurred in recent years, is the paedophile scandal within the Catholic Church. Now the cynical may argue that the reason for the cover-up was purely to protect the Church as an institution, and to some extent they would be right. I would suggest that this problem threw the Church into a far more existential crisis- one that challenged the very idea that God could forgive you your sins through the vessel of a priest. Because if the act of committing some sins, especially repeatedly, inculcates the future appetites for those sins, how can you ever truly be forgiven and freed from your sin? The act of contrition requires that you make a positive choice to guard against such sins in the future. Furthermore, when the thought of the sin, is itself a sin- how can you possibly ever escape it? I think the answer lies in being forewarned, adopting the stance of the stoic or the epicurean, and allowing yourself the minor indulgences that we all need to enjoy life, the small sin defeating the greater- especially if you weakness happens to be an occasional single malt whiskey. 🙂

  14. Eric Ebert says

    The author misunderstands the appeal of negative freedom (or non-coercition as he calls it) -> NF is necessary for different conceptions of inner freedom to cohabitate. As he explained, different cultures and different individuals have different, and often conflicting, conceptions of IF. Without this “neutral” arbiter that is NF to delimitate the spaces for each conception of IF, conflicts, violence, and sometimes war is inevitable.

    NF isn’t just a libertarian thing to justify economic inequalities or oppose taxes for the super-rich. One can see its real value outside of the economic area. This is something “libertarian socialists” need to understand, but won’t.

    • Klaus C. says

      “Without this “neutral” arbiter that is NF to delimitate the spaces for each conception of IF, conflicts, violence, and sometimes war is inevitable.”

      So what’s the status of “negative liberty” in relation to such things as anti-discrimination laws?

      Many libertarians argue that while governments are not entitled to discriminate on the basis of sex, race, religion etc. in their employment practices or the provision of services, private businesses and charities should be entitled to do so.

      But if you maintain that this is an example of “negative liberty” leaving space for “inner freedom”, it’s certainly not a recipe for reducing conflict.

      Taken to logical extremes it would be a recipe for all kinds of sectarian conflict, which anti-discrimination laws seek to minimise.

      • Eric Ebert says

        It would only be a recipe for sectarian conflict (and neofeudalism) if tied to an extreme form of propertarianism like “anarcho-capitalists” or right-libertarians are doing. Yet NF does not have to rely on abstractions such as propertarianism or self-ownership to exist. In fact, a pragmatic defense of NF on the grounds of political stability and being free to follow your own definitions of IF might be a more solid ground. It allows for corrections to economic inequalities and anti-discrimination laws to exist if they can preserve those two goals.

        That said I don’t think this is the reasoning behind anti-discriminations laws. To me those stem more from a positive (as in “positive liberty”) attempt to establish horizontal equality. I was thinking more about things like drugs, sex, religion, psychiatry, and the like.

  15. Lucas says

    The article makes the dichotomy between a freedom the government can provide (typical libertarian freedom) and an inner-freedom we must strive towards. However, as the author elucidated, there are myriad conceptions of what exactly this inner-freedom is, or how it can be achieved. I would go further and say we both probably agree that due to the multitude of conceptions of happiness relating to this inner-freedom, it is not something we would want the government to define for us. It seems this is exactly why classical liberals have included in their political philosophy the notion of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, as this inner-freedom, must, necessarily, be something defined and achieved by the individual themselves. Thus, the traditional notion of freedom is a prerequisite for achieving inner-freedom.

    I’m not sure if there were any implications the author intended this essay to have. If he did, then I do not see how this new notion of inner-freedom is supposed to make us more inclined towards democratic or re-distributive positions. That is, unless, he will argue that simple liberal freedoms of non-coercion are not enough to achieve this inner-freedom, and that more re-distribution is necessary to allow more people to reach their own unique inner-freedom. Which, I would presume, the author would like us to value more, so we can say that despite giving up more liberties to the government by increasing taxes, we are enabling more people to reach inner-freedom, thus we actually have a more “free” society when more re-distributive policies are enacted.

    Hopefully, the author can respond, as this is very interesting speculation that questions the very notion of freedom itself. What exactly do we mean when we say we are free? Free from what? The government? Or ourselves?

    • dirk says

      Lucas: read Zamyatin’s We,- if freedom =0, then no crimes, the only way to solve humanity’s criminality, is to solve them from freedom -. I think, apart of from criminality, it can save us from many more things, just look at what’s happening right now in Hongkong, in China! Freedom = problems!

  16. You write: ‘After [the eating of forbidden fruit], God proclaims that human beings are now like him in “knowing good and evil” and so expels them from paradise.’
    True, but look at the reason for expelling Adam and Even from Paradise in the second half of the verse:
    “And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” (Genesis iii:22)

    • Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. (Genesis iii:23)

  17. Lightning Rose says

    It was all downhill when we started eating plants . . . our brains began shrinking, right then and there. And here we are hitting Peak Human Stupid a couple thousand years later! 😉

  18. As I understand it, the source of the Left/Right divide is in two opposed mystical paths of ancient origin. the Left is East, Buddhist; the Right is West, Platonic. The way of the East is fusion; the way of the West is separation. The East seeks to merge the self with the world and ultimately annihilate both; the West seeks to raise the (elite) self above existence. In our own time, Western civilization has made a marked movement to the East…

    Does anybody understand what I’m talking about?

    • Klaus C. says

      Doesn’t match historical reality. While there are strongly conflicting strands within both left and right, a prominent theme of the conservative right is the maintenance of tradition, including religious tradition, and most of the religious traditions of the West are Middle Eastern in origin, quite alien to the liberal, rational and progressive trends of the post-Enlightenment West.

      The right’s emphasis on “family values” and the collectivist mentality associated with this is also very prominent in many Eastern cultures, while the modern left’s unfortunate preoccupation with identity politics is certainly not concerned with “fusion”.

      As for “elites”, the very word has become a term of abuse amongst the Trump-voting right and its equivalent in other Western countries. The scientific, technical and artistic elites of the West are quite strongly aligned with the traditional liberal-democratic left. Many of those critical of the dogmatic tendencies of the modern left are actually left-leaning voices reflecting more genuinely liberal and centrist traditions – the same voices who have long been critical of the conservative right, and its retarding effect on human progress.

    • staticnoise says

      not really. But then I haven’t studied eastern mysticism at all. When you say the West is separation I assume you mean separation from this mortal coil, from this Earth, from the suffering? Then I’d agree with that notion. But while separation from this world means the merging with God or conversely the annihilation in hell are they not ultimately in a round about way the same?

      Interesting to ponder nonetheless!

      • Teilhard de Chardin is one thinker who dealt with this issue. According to him there are only two ways of Mysticism which are “often confused, but opposed.” The “road of the East” is unity through fusion; the “road of the West” is unity through unification. Or again, the way of the East is “to become one with a common ground; this leads to an identification, an ineffable of de-differentation and de-personalization.” The way of the West is “to become one with all by access to the center – unification of the elements within a common focus.”

        Marshall McLuhan also tried to deal with this matter: for him the school of the West “Views man as a spirit fallen into a fallen world. Here in the ‘cave’ we can by unremitting moral effort, by dialectic persistence and self-denial build within our hearts that divine pyramid or temple of Solomon which will enable us to be free of subsequent incarnations.” The school of the East believes that “The condition of men in this world is that of a Prometheus betrayed by a devil-god. Instead of a cautiously conducted retreat from the horrors of existence, it is preferable to rush on any course that promises physical and spiritual annihilation.”

    • Brian_Brooklyn says

      As a Buddhist, I would say that I attempt to rid myself of the illusion/delusion that I am not already connected through the world through what is called dependent origination. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this interbeing. I am already merged (through there is no desire for annihilation–that is a Western Abrahamic misunderstanding). It is just that being human gives rise to the illusion/delusion I am not (though being human is also the best position from which to realize that one is already merged). As Sam Goldwyn said to Billy Wilder when he lost the Academy Awards in 1944–you have to take the bitter with the sour.

  19. dirk says

    And, what I remember from my German youth: -Stattluft macht frei- (has directly to do with my earlier comments on Zamyatin and Joplin).

    Freedom is not a characteristic of the early landscapes of mankind (see also the painting , illustrating the feature on Oligarchy).

  20. Allan says

    @Matt McManus
    “Indeed we may well discover that not taking inner freedom seriously means we wind up dealing with serious political consequences. Because if it is true that only a free person can authentically find a kind of fulfillment in life, a society of unfree individuals is unlikely to be stable and content.”

    What makes you think that it is true that only a ‘free’ person can authentically find a kind of fulfillment in life?
    What do you mean by ‘free’ here?

    Then I want to suggest to you some more reading before you write your book… Do you have a spare email address I can send some suggestions to?

  21. Anj says

    But can we really blame social media for making us more shallow & conformist thus less free or is it really just a window into our hidden neuroses?
    In any case it’s certainly a community service that saves one time & suffering from finding out the ‘truth’ too late.
    A picture certainly is worth a thousand words….

  22. Rebecca Stayman says

    Matt, thank you for your very well organized essay. It’s nice to see the problem laid out with broad historical context. Look forward to reading more from you.

  23. Brian_Brooklyn says

    @Matt McManus

    “For Buddhists, freedom means liberation from the illusion of the self and the very idea of desire.”

    Actually, no. If a person has a human rebirth, the arising of desire is a consequence that cannot be avoided. As a Buddhist, I am not liberated from desires–they keep arising nanosecond by nanosecond. What I am is unattached from them, and in the state of unattachment, I can apply the Eightfold Path to their evaluation.

    Abrahamsim takes the path of dividing desires into good ones and bad ones, indulging the good ones and trying not to indulge the bad ones (an attempt which seems to fail often thereby necessitating the need for the category of sin and the practice of forgiveness).

    Question: When you write: “Freedom simply meant the liberty to do as one wished without coercion,” was there any concept for these thinkers that causing harm to others presented a limit on liberty?

    Thank you.

  24. dirk says

    I think Weinstein’s odd behaviour is a good example where the inner freedom can catapult you when in a powerful position.Will we ever read a psychological report of this (and of other powerful ones) behaviour?

  25. augustine says

    Put more simply, self-conscious beings have value systems which they try to live by. But this in turn always means the potential to fall short of such ideals.

    A system that fosters flourishing must accommodate failure as well. That tension is vitally important, even definitional. So where’s the problem here?

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