There’s an idea, pronounced in the history of (western) philosophy and present, though perhaps less pronounced, in popular culture, that a person can be ‘internally enslaved’, i.e. can fail to be fully free not because of external constraints but because of how their mind is internally organised.
Prominent historical sources for this idea include Plato, the Stoics, Kant, Rousseau, Spinoza, and Hegel – albeit with varying degrees of complexity and nuance. A representative quotation from Rousseau: ““to be governed by appetite alone is slavery, while obedience to a law one prescribes to oneself is freedom”
And this doctrine also has a rather shady history of being put to authoritarian political uses (consider particularly Plato, Rousseau and Hegel), in which it’s suggested that since true freedom is a matter of obedience to one’s rational higher self, no loss of freedom is involved in coercing people away from doing irrational things; hence because these things I don’t want people to do are irrational, prohibiting them leaves freedom intact.
One line of criticism of this tendency (I’m thinking particularly of Isaiah Berlin’s famous Essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, though he’s far from the only example) has been as follows: this authoritarian hypocrisy is inherent in the idea of ‘inner freedom’ and ‘inner slavery’. As soon as you move away from purely external models of freedom, and start enquiring into people’s internal psychological state, you’ve entered a swamp from which you won’t emerge with any coherent or defensible politics.
I think this criticism goes too far, so here I’m going to try to argue that the potential association between this family of views about freedom, and political authoritarianism, is adequately explained by a more specific feature that they share, namely their identification of ‘inner slavery’ as always and exclusively the enslavement of reason by passion.
In all the figures mentioned above, that presentation is consistent. They never complain about the inappropriate enslavement of the passions by reason; they never suggest that an apparently free person might in fact not be free because their own reason dominates them. I think this one-sidedness is a mistake.
For instance, here’s three simplified examples.
Firstly, consider someone whose life is blighted and constrained by their ‘animal desires’. They rationally believe that they will be better off if they don’t waste their money on expensive drugs, or don’t waste their time on unsuitable lovers, or don’t waste their mornings with crippling hangovers, and yet they keep doing so, because ‘their passions overcome their reason’. As a result, they feel ‘powerless’, as though they’re not in control of their lives.
Secondly, consider someone whose life is heavily constrained by a set of beliefs they hold. Suppose they believe that responsible people go to bed early and get up early, and that this makes them more productive, even though this particular person, for reasons of physiology, never feels tired until very late at night, and feels extremely tired until close to noon, and so each night they lie frustratedly in bed for several hours, before rising in the morning to spend several hours feeling tired and struggling to concentrate on anything.
Suppose this person also believes that respectable people take high-paying secure jobs, and so works as an accountant, despite being by temperament a thrill-seeker, and so everyday at work thoughts of more exciting employment crowd into their mind, from which they must irritably push them out. As a result, they constantly feel that they are struggling to overcome various sorts of constraint, and do not feel ‘free’.
Thirdly, for an alternative conception of ‘reason’, consider someone whose life is heavily constrained by habits of critical and reflective analysis. Whenever they face a decision, they pause, inhibiting their first impulse to “Is that a good idea?” “Why did I want to do that?” These insistent questions they take up time, are distressing, because answers are rarely forthcoming, and they render it harder, not easier, to make the decisions, because under the weight of introspection and questioning, the original responses, intuitions and desires that would guide their decision vanish. This person might well recognise their problem, and wish they could stop, could ‘turn off’ at times, but find itimpossible.
Now, all I want to say is that these three people all have an equally good claim to be ‘internally enslaved’, to lack freedom due to the influence of an internal factor. If that concept makes sense, then these should all be taken as prime examples. So why, in the ideology and philosophy of so many prominent thinkers, haven’t they?
Here’s the explanation I would propose: a subconscious equivocation on the term ‘reason’ has allowed it to seem incoherent that domination by ‘reason’ could ever be a bad thing.
On the one hand, ‘reason’ can be used normatively, to describe what is ‘rational’, in the sense of justified, reasonable, and overall a good idea. E.g. ‘to act in accord with reason’ means to act in a sensible, useful, effective way.
On the other hand, ‘reason’ can be used descriptively, to pick out a certain faculty, or creatures that have that faculty: what we might call ‘abstract thought’ or ‘reflective thought’. Adult humans, in this sense, are ‘rational’, while lungfish are not, but this doesn’t mean that all actions taken by humans are always ‘more rational’, in the normative sense, than actions taken by lungfish.
Now, to talk about internal psychic dynamics, different aspects of the mind controlling or dominating each other, we need to use ‘reason’ in the second, factual, sense – ‘rational and ‘irrational’ parts of the soul are something like ‘reflective and unreflective’ parts.
But if we let ourselves sneak in the normative sense of ‘reason’, then ‘reflective and unreflective’ parts become, in essence, ‘correct and incorrect’ parts: a person’s ‘reason’ is not just their ‘abstract thinking’ but their ‘doing the most reasonable thing’. And almost be definition, it can’t be bad to do the most reasonable thing – if it was bad, that would be a reason not to do it, and so it wouldn’t be reasonable.
This makes a person’s complete domination by reflective, abstract thinking appear like it can’t possibly be a bad thing, even though (as the examples above sought to show) it probably can.
This sets up an inherently authoritarian dynamic: a certain faculty, which can be named and identified in factual terms, is automatically correct – there’s no question of whether what it enjoins is actually the rational thing to do, or whether the urgings of unreflective passion are in fact more rational, because ‘reason’ is alwways ‘rational’. That is, a certain part of the mind is given absolute authority: it must be obeyed simply on account of what it is.
This, it seems to me, explains why doctrines of freedom like Plato’s or Rousseau’s have an authoritarian flavour – they conflate the normative and the descriptive in such a way that one faculty becomes automatically correct, hence possesses unlimited authority. This is particularly irritating to me, since I’m quite fond of certain doctrines that might be called ‘rationalism’, and this equivocation enables a sort of ‘rationalism’ which I very much want to avoid.
That means that an account of freedom that took internal slavery seriously need not share that authoritarian flavour, if it’s equally attentive to all forms – slavery to ‘reason’ as well as slavery to ‘passion’.