Freedom is a central theme in Beautiful Rich Sage’s posts. Several posts explore Seneca’s philosophy of freedom. For Seneca and the Stoics, freedom was an important element of the highest good. For us too, freedom is a central idea in the way we live our lives. Although many of us are tuned into the Existentialist’s conception of freedom; a conception increasingly challenged by institutional demands in our working life.
We face increasing challenges to our previously enjoyed freedoms in the face of vast environmental destruction, over-population and climate change. The growth of China and India’s economic and political power is another of many 21st century dynamics fueling an increase in the demands humanity already imposes on this planet. In some areas, these demands have the potential to increase exponentially, with little hope they will be reversed in our lifetime. We also only have to read books like Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism to understand the challenge to maintain our present levels of freedom in the face of web 2.0 industries has increased dramatically.
Yet in the face of these challenges we still have many choices open to us. We can still choose to do things that will improve the planet’s capability for limiting the extent of the sixth mass extinction event. Although, that’s often another way of saying we can choose the limits and challenges we and our society are willing to accept in the interests of humanity’s future.
Where Seneca’s freedom matters
A way into thinking about freedom in the our personal life, in society, and for our planet is by reflecting on Seneca’s ideas about freedom. He thought about freedom in a number of dimensions. One of them was the idea of freedom through cosmic consciousness, not to be confused with ‘the view from above’ common in the Ancient period.
Seneca also discussed philosophy as a way to transform ourselves. In Letter 22 he illustrates the Stoic aim of freeing ourselves from our desires, in this case the desires of ambition as an impediment to doing philosophy.
Another more difficult argument about freedom is Seneca’s view that suicide is a form of freedom. This is not a view that convinced many back in his day, and even fewer in the 21st century West. Although it is a view also attributed nearly 2,000 years later to some of the writers who were thought to be Existentialists. To my mind Seneca’s primary rationale for his thoughts on suicide is as a creative maneuver, an idea that creates mental space to exercise freedom.
Seneca did write about suicide many times, and his view was controversial back then. Why Seneca spent so much time writing about suicide is unknown. It could be that as someone who suffered ill health all his life, in his most wretched phases he contemplated whether it would be a moral act to take his own life.
We do not have to agree with Seneca, but he is a Stoic philosopher, and one of their primary aims was to increase human freedom and choice. So we can reflect on Seneca’s views, contrast it with our own, with Jean-Paul Sartre’s, and with Wittgenstein’s. Then we will have learned something of what we think freedom is and what of it we want for ourselves and our society.
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