Saturday, June 20 – Revolutionary Stoicism: Liberty
By Charmika Monet TOKYO, JAPAN
“What is freedom, you ask? It means not being a slave to any circumstance, to any constraint, to any chance; it means compelling Fortune to enter the lists on equal terms.” (Seneca, On Baiae and Morals).
The pages of extant Stoic literature are littered with references to freedom and slavery. The quest for freedom is so important to the philosophy that no exploration of its tenets would be complete without its mention. Freedom, the Stoics believed, was a psychological state rather than a physical condition. It could not be defined by the subject’s relationship to material or external factors. As such, freedom was a permanently available option to the mind sufficiently trained in attaining it. Once attained, it transformed not only the possessor’s mind but their actions as well. These actions are the manifestation of liberty. Stoicism’s insistence on the universal availability of freedom was one of the concepts that initially drew me to the philosophy, as many of my life’s decisions have been made around maximizing freedom for both my present and future selves.
My initial foray into Stoicism found what I felt to be a complete, coherent philosophy, with an understanding of humanity that was as enriching as it was beautiful. I continue to believe this. But 2020 has been a year of great disruptions to the normal flow of life – a pattern that is likely to be increasingly common in the coming years. It has allowed many of us more time to reflect on ourselves and the nature of the world around us. The fact that this time is regularly and unjustly stolen from us due to our forced participation in the death cult that is Capitalism is but one of the ideas great swaths of people are coming to realize. For my own part, I’ve come to reevaluate how I interpret the texts of the ancients. I’ve tended to approach Stoicism with a literal and conservative eye, making direct parallels between ancient Roman society and institutions, and those of the modern world. But an encounter with 20th-century philosophy has given me a new perspective on literary interpretation. The society the Romans inhabited was culturally very different from our own, with different assumptions, sociological relations, and various other aspects. Roman life was qualitatively different from mine as a 21st century American. Times have changed, and so too should our interpretations of these central concepts, as should the methods by which we perform them.
This essay is my first attempt at developing an extended theory of freedom, based on a mildly deconstructed reading of the ancients. First, we can deduce from the above description that – logically, liberty can be neither conferred nor revoked by the State. If liberty is a psychological state available to man wherever he is, irrespective of his circumstances, then it stands to reason that it cannot be a “natural right” as there is no way for this right to be denied. However, we know that the Stoics strongly advocated participation in society and even government (indeed, it is this very tradition that has influenced the subsequent millennia of jurisprudence in the Western tradition). So what does this imply about our responsibility toward others in society? If liberty is fundamentally distinct from material circumstances, does this give license to all manner of behavior? Is my responsibility toward the Congolese child laborer to merely teach him mental fortitude as he sacrifices his body to produce another iPhone? The ancients were not blind to physical suffering in slaves and laborers, the sick and the poor. As powerless, or perhaps unimaginative as they had been in their time, they saw such circumstances as inevitable for some portion of the population. Their insight was that mankind’s dignity was given to him by Nature, as inalienable a part of himself as was his past. This dignity was identified with freedom, which was itself a result of the proper application of Reason, rather than a matter of circumstance.
I would argue that Freedom so conceived is, rather than a binary (one has it, or one does not), a hierarchy, along which freedom increases in both amount and kind. The higher the species of freedom, the more of our own dignity as humans, or humanity, we are able to achieve. We can conceive, thereby, a new barometer for wealth, one for which there is, in theory, no ceiling, and whose apprehension does not depend on someone else’s denial. It may multiply when men come together to combine their efforts, or evolve as our knowledge of the world evolves. Socrates was a free man when he announced himself a citizen of the world. How might our liberty transform us once we have announced ourselves citizens of the known universe? While the foundation of freedom is something only the individual can achieve, the material conditions the individual inhabits can allow for greater explorations of our human potential. These conditions are the business of society, rather than the individual alone, and even then are subject to the whims of Fortune. But if a society is to be said to be performing optimally, then the liberty of its citizens should be one of its primary concerns.
Though not influenced by the Stoics, Martin Heidegger’s philosophy can shed light on how humans relate to their own freedom. In his Being and Time, he points out that humans are constantly aware of their own finality, and that every action we take, for better or ill, brings us closer to death. This awareness shapes the value of how we spend our time on earth. Throughout our brief existence, the finality of which is never uncertain, we come to take a deep interest in the world we inhabit, the world that both houses and comprises us. We exercise our liberty over the choices we make with how to spend that brief time. Since every action we take brings us closer to non-existence, we exercise our liberty as an expression of our humanity. We become more human when we interact with the world, in our trades and hobbies, when we travel and when we learn. We are at our least human when we do not exercise curiosity about the world, or when we engage in a monotonous activity (economists and theorists were aware of something similar long before, including, perhaps ironically, Adam Smith, who wrote in Wealth of Nations “The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding… and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”). Contrary to the notion that hobbies and so-called leisure activities are primarily distraction, Heidegger argues that they are the highest expression of our humanity. For every minute that we are restricted in our clothing, our speech, our movements, the manner in which we engage in production, or otherwise subjugate ourselves to the will of an authority for the sake of his coffers, we are denying ourselves the ability to express our humanity in its highest form. The freedom to act is integral in the maximization of our humanity.
Despite how desirable this freedom might be, however, heavy restrictions on our thought, actions, and time have been placed upon the vast majority of mankind throughout the history of civilization. It would seem that Total Liberation is beyond reach. It must be borne in mind, however, that the modern world is not a world of want. We have, through centuries of industrial development, and unthinkable amounts of exploitation created a world in which all meaningful scarcity (that is, scarcity of the materials necessary for comfortable survival) has been eliminated. Material resources, as well as social resources, exist in abundance but suffer from poor distribution. Freedom, for many, myself included, is being unfairly siphoned from us.
Currently, and for a while yet to come, much of the world has a new relationship with “free” time. Many of us are suddenly finding ourselves thrown into the world, like newly freed slaves, with an awkward sensation, as though our sense of liberty itself has atrophied. A great number are, as yet, still unfree, as the threat of economic instability imprisons their minds. This is one of the many illnesses of the modern-day that we as philosophers and human beings should seek to rectify. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius reminds us to “Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires,” (Meditations IV v24).
I’m convinced that creating a society that maximizes individual and collective liberty is one of my responsibilities. It should be remembered, of course, that as we acquire this freedom, we should use it virtuously, that is, in the service of prosocial reasoning. We should use this freedom to interact with our world, express our humanity, and – importantly – cultivate our character. The latter has also occupied a great deal of my mental energy while in quarantine. I shall take it up in the following installment.