Our Freedom is Pulling Us Back
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All wars that have ever been fought can be explained away as a battle for freedom. Extending our sense of freedom can make us feel on top of the world and diminishing it can take away our happiness. Freedom is the ultimate goal.
In fact, deep down absolutely any goal that we set is because we want to experience a sense of freedom and a release from struggle.
Do you want a lot of money, or do you really want the sense of freedom it can give you?
Do you want to be fit because you would look good, or because of the freedom that it would allow you?
Do you want to be successful because of the status that comes with it, or because of the freedom that comes with it?
People love to think of themselves as free and to look for ways in which they could increase their sense of freedom. We just love to have the ability to make free choices reaffirmed. In fact there was a study done in France that confirmed this exact phenomenon. People were asked to give some money so that a person could use the bus. Do you know what was the key phrase that dramatically increased persuasion and compliance with the request?
But you are free to accept or refuse.
Once their ability to choose was reaffirmed, people were not only more likely to agree, but also gave on average almost twice as much.
Freedom plays a huge part in our lives and so it is no surprise that Leo Tolstoy makes it one of the central themes in his book, War and Peace. Granted, this is a 1000+ pages behemoth of a book, rightly dubbed by many as
one of the best pieces of literature ever written. Hence, quite unsurprisingly, there are many themes that play a part in his book. However, reading through it myself, the freedom motif struck a chord perhaps more than anything else. In the concluding second epilogue of
War and Peace Tolstoy makes, what is in my opinion, one of the best theses on the nature of power, freedom and reason. Going through every bit of wisdom that is contained in this book would be ludicrous, but in this article I do want to go over some of Tolstoy’s ideas on freedom, because I feel they have life-changing power.
Earlier I mentioned that without a sense of freedom man is unable to exist, and Tolstoy fully understood and embraced this idea.
without [the] conception of freedom not only would [man] be unable to understand life, but he would be unable to live for a single moment.
The lack of freedom can drive a man insane and for a good reason. It is a short way to go from believing there is no freedom whatsoever, to going completely nihilistic and apathetic of the world and everything that is going on in your surroundings.
However, Tolstoy goes a step further and also points out that if a man is able to completely detach himself and to examine life completely unbiasedly he would find that he is never completely free in making his decisions while he is in the process of making them.
The problem is, that regarding man as a subject of observation from whatever point of view - theological, historical, ethical, or philosophic - we find a general law of necessity to which he (like all that exists) is subject. But regarding him from within ourselves, as what we are conscious of, we feel ourselves free
Why does he say that we are never completely free in the process of making decisions? What is this law of necessity and the thing that actually constricts our freedom most often? Tolstoy says that it is our past, our character and the motives acting upon us at each inflection point, at each decisive moment, that shape our actions in those decisive moments.
The bottom line is this:
However often experiment and reasoning may show a man that under the same condition and with the same character he will do the same thing as before, yet when, under the same conditions and with the same character, he approaches for the thousandth time the action that always ends in the same way, he feels as certainly convinced as before the experiment that he can act as he pleases. Every man, savage or sage, however incontestably reason and experiment may prove to him that it is impossible to imagine two different courses of action in precisely the same conditions, feels that without this irrational conception (which constitutes the essence of freedom) he cannot imagine life.
The important thing to take away is that a man, at a given point in time, will never be completely free, because given the same character and the same conditions, he will always do the exact same thing. And the truth is that any other way to act would’ve been impossible. Given a man’s character, his actions also become a given. His actions are in fact foretold by his character.
That is a very depressing realization to reconcile and completely appreciate, but actually thinking through it one can reach, ironically, a very freeing perspective. Here’s the thing. Making sure that we take the right actions that are representative of the people we want to be, would be impossible in the very moment we are taking them. This is why we need to take responsibility to be the people we want to be at all times of the day, every day, of every week and of every month. Making the right decisions is thus governed above all else not so much by raw intelligence, as much as force of character and the way that character has been moulded.
We all intuitively know that the moments that shape our life are rare and spread very thin. At the end of our journey, we can pinpoint each of those moments. Life changing opportunities come extremely rarely and that is why it is our duty to do all we can to seize them as they pass by. We never know when those moments will come, but understanding Tolstoy’s concept of freedom and how that applies to our lives, we can appreciate that when those moments do come, how we deal with them will be frighteningly too much outside of our control. How we deal with such moments can make or break us and it is entirely dependent on our character.
This completely shatters the belief that most people have. Since we’re deluded that we have complete control at each moment, we let our values slide and our character decay. When we feel that a certain moment is insignificant and when we feel that the way we act doesn’t matter, we often make the easy choice, even though we might know it is not the right one. We do this, because we think that when the moment does matter, we will be able to pull through and make the good decision. In this way we compromise our character and those rare moments that will end up defining us.
Thus all we can do and all we need to do in life is cultivate our character. To decide what is important to us and live our life accordingly, before the moment to make that decision actually comes. To decide what values we hold dear and live accordingly, before the moment comes to actually demonstrate those values. To decide how we would like to act in the moments that matter and live our live accordingly, before those moments actually come to pass and we realize that our concept of freedom has always been somewhat misguided.