Obstacles to Freedom Can Be the Way to Freedom

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius famously observed, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Contemporary writer Ryan Holiday put it this way: the obstacle is the way.

Meditations was a personal journal; Aurelius was writing to himself what he was learning from his experience of life. He never dreamed thousands of years later, millions would find inspiration in his words. Faced with challenges, Aurelius reminded himself to “adapt and convert to [his] own purposes the obstacle to [his] acting.” His choice of purpose didn’t control circumstances in the world, but it did determine his reaction to events.

Aurelius realized that when he failed to meet his standards, in the next moment, he could still make another choice to be guided by his purpose and values. He chided himself “not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.”

We read Aurelius to awaken in ourselves the choice before us when we face an obstacle. In frustration, we may blame external forces and the actions of others for the obstruction. Responding in anger, we may take actions we later regret. 

The words of Aurelius prompt us to acknowledge that we, ourselves, not others, determine the quality of our experience: “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”

We don’t have to pretend to be glad when obstacles arise, but we can use impediments to discover our ignorance and question our beliefs and assumptions standing in the way of overcoming obstacles. In Poor Richard’s Alamanck, Ben Franklin wrote, “The things which hurt, instruct.” More accurately, can instruct, since sometimes we stubbornly refuse to learn. 

Over the millennia, others have echoed Aurelius. 

“Our strength grows out of our weakness,” observed Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay on “Compensation.” “A great man is always willing to be little,” he wrote. “Every man in his lifetime needs to thank his faults. As no man thoroughly understands a truth until he has contended against it.” Emerson explained why: 

Whilst he sits on the cushion of advantages, he goes to sleep. When he is pushed, tormented, defeated, he has a chance to learn something; he has been put on his wits, on his manhood; he has gained facts; learns his ignorance; is cured of the insanity of conceit; has got moderation and real skill. 

In short, Emerson wrote, “Life invests itself with inevitable conditions, which the unwise seek to dodge.”

We may imagine that the powerful and the wealthy lack obstacles, but Emerson gave this counterexample: “the President has paid dear for his White House. It has commonly cost him all his peace, and the best of his manly attributes.”

What about obstacles on a societal level? Today, the outlook for freedom seems bleak, with many obstacles barring its expression. Freedom is objectively declining, and the end of the Road to Serfdom is near. A fearful and illiberal population willingly accepts the decrees of authoritarian politicians. Can these obstacles be turned into an advantage for freedom lovers?

Be reminded that only individuals choose their purpose and course of action. Other influences arise in social processes, but it is an individual who can say, Enough; I will stop dodging the choices I have to make. I will stop blaming others for the impediments I face. I will start to learn from my problems. Authoritarians exploit beliefs that others are to blame for our poor choices.

In his 1951 allegory, Outlook for Freedom, Leonard Read’s character learns how little he knows about freedom. The character begins to see that fascism, communism, socialism “had an unmistakable, common characteristic: belief in the use of organized police force — government — as a means to attain social performance.” He saw living “a life in accord with the principles of violence whereby energy and spirit are inhibited and suppressed,” prevents human flourishing.

Yet, in contrast to the principles of violence is a “life in accord with the principles of love whereby the potentialities of men— in spirit and in energy— can be released from authority.”

Of course, Read is not referring to romantic love, but “to the application of the kindly virtues in human relations such as tolerance, charity, good sportsmanship, the right of another to his views, integrity, the practice of not doing to others what you would not have them do to you.” 

Read pointed to a common error, “thinking of freedom as something separate and apart from [ourselves] and others as individuals — as though freedom had a capacity, independent of man, of coming and going as do comets or sun spots, as though it were beyond their own wills and conduct.”

Read’s character “had, for the first time, a realization that his weakness had been in his own mental stagnation.” Obstacles can impede progress when we refuse to go beyond our “mental stagnation.” In his allegory, Read observed, “If the achievement of individual liberty depends solely on an advancement in understanding the principles of liberty, then it follows that liberty cannot be ours to experience faster than understanding can be advanced.” Grasping what freedom means, Read’s character began “to think of himself as a person having capacities for intellectual evolution.” 

In “Compensation” Emerson wrote, “You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong.” Doing wrong feeds into a cycle of wrongdoing. Emerson offered an example, “All infractions of love and equity in our social relations are speedily punished. They are punished by fear. Whilst I stand in simple relations to my fellow-man, I have no displeasure in meeting him.” 

Those who stand for using government to commit violence against others are “punished by fear.” Authoritarians who commit violence use fear to advocate more violence; this unvirtuous cycle destroys freedom. 

As for the “outlook for freedom” Read wrote, “there was now as much chance of achieving freedom as at any time in the history of the world.” As if confronting resistance, Read’s character asks, “Have not you and others as much capacity for understanding as those who came before you?”

Aurelius is clear. Our advancement depends on how we use obstacles. Read is clear. Society’s advancement toward greater freedom depends on our choices. Read advised, “for man to be fully free he must first appreciate that others, as well as himself, are responsible and self-controlling.”

Before it is too late, will enough of us awaken and begin to evolve our understanding of freedom? Read considered the question over 70 years ago. Today, more obstacles are in the way. If we set our purpose to learn from obstacles, today, there is no better opportunity to choose freedom over violence. Thankfully, Read, Aurelius, and Emerson point the way; the more significant the obstacles, the greater the potential change. 

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