Stray Thoughts On Freedom

Sunday, March 24, 2019
Glendale, California

Stray Thoughts On Freedom

Near the end of Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, she references a lecture she heard at Oxford regarding Isaiah Berlin’s philosophy.

Psychoanalytic psychotherapy always concerns itself with freedom.

It pursues a specific kind of freedom—making the unconscious conscious, increasing agency and autonomy, and liberating oneself from oppression inside and out.

Berlin, actually Sir Isaiah Berlin, lived from 1909 to 1997. A Russian-British social and political theorist, he wrote little. However, many of his lectures were recorded and transcribed.

No wonder Westover learned about him at Oxford, because Sir Berlin worked taught there himself. At the tender age of 23, he was elected to a prized fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford.

Dig this:

If you are lucky enough (and smart, hardworking, creative, etc.) to be appointed to All Souls, you can work on:


No requirements exist for publishing, teaching, or researching;

you are free to sit around and think.

When does that ever happen?

Anyway, Sir Berlin is arguably most famous for his two ideas about liberty.

They consist of:

Negative liberty, referring to the freedom from external obstacles or restraints, and;

Positive liberty, which means freedom from internal constraints.

You find classifications everywhere. Some are meaningless, some discriminate, and some are useful.

This particular dichotomy has merit.

Looking back on my work with patients this past week, I see many examples of these two types of liberty.

(I always fictionalize patient representations, obviously, to protect their privacy and confidentiality).

One middle-aged guy, a remarkably handsome, self-possessed, and successful person, has entered the dating world after more than 20 years of stable marriage. His wife seems to have fallen out of love with him. After counseling, discussion, and more, they decided to separate. He has just recently begun dating—a mind-blowing experience for him because:

a. how long it’s been;

b. he had no plans to resume dating at his age, and;

c. he doesn’t want to freak his kids out.

How do these two concepts apply to him?

Starting with the concept of negative liberty, examples abound. He wishes to avoid the complications of his almost-ex-wife knowing of his dating, mostly out of concern for her feelings. This inhibits him even though she left him. He has not yet told his young-adult children, another liberty-limiting choice. He is understandably concerned about finances, constricting his ability to plan expensive dates or vacations with his newly-found woman-friend.

These limitations refer to external ways he might be prevented from taking certain actions. To review, he feels inhibited in sharing his dating experiences with his ex-wife or children, feels “lost” when it comes to the actual process of dating, and faces financial limits.

The idea of positive liberty carries certain noteworthy features in this particular individual. In the course of our weekly discussions, we have discovered a tendency to behave in an overly caregiving, rescuing way with women. He has also proclaimed, in a way typical of his heightened sense of integrity and responsibility, that he is only capable of dating one woman at a time.

Therefore, even though hundreds of women have expressed an interest on the online dating service he uses, he is focusing on dating only one woman at a time. The woman he is now regularly dating expresses legitimate concern about them engaging in a “rebound relationship.” He’s been out of the dating scene for so long, however, that he literally asked me to explain what’s meant by this word, rebound.

I offered an explanation.

You can imagine how fascinating the ensuing discussion turned out to be.

Berlin specifically defined positive liberty as involving a type of self-mastery. In this gentleman’s case, numerous options for self-mastery exist. He can strive to transcend his caregiving tendencies, for example, or free himself to date more than one woman at a time.

Reflecting on the two concepts in my own life, completely different examples of positive and negative liberty come to mind.

As far as negative liberty goes, I am now, at age 62, probably incapable of trekking through Nepal. (I feel completely normal again post-second-cardiac-surgery, luckily, but am also rather sure that a second, aortic valve replacement would make hiking in extreme weather conditions at high altitude unwise.)

I love traveling, but my financial resources have limits, too. It would probably be stupid for me to visit North Korea, Syria, Yemen, or similar destinations unfriendly to tourists, especially American ones.

I’m in a long-term, committed relationship, so dating is out for me.

Flirting is even questionable. Besides, at my age, it might be construed, to use one of my daughter’s words, as pervy.

Other examples of negative liberty include geography, professional licensure status, a ten-year lease on my current office, and my love for, and generosity towards, my two adult children.

Exploring the idea of positive liberty requires an expression of personal, vulnerable attributes of my own psyche. Naturally, I hesitate to get into too much detail here. Ironically, that is itself an example of positive liberty. Nonetheless, many examples of problems with self-mastery immediately come to mind.

I am way too much “devoted to work and productivity.” Readers may find it noteworthy that this phrase appears as part of the diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive personality styles (or disorders).

Persons with this diagnosis, most common in men but much more commonly diagnosed in women (big surprise), also tend to be highly perfectionistic (yes), extremely frugal (no), prone to hoarding (no), emotionally rigid (yes), orderly (to the max), rigidly adherent to rules and regulations (not so much), and sure of themselves (also not so much).

Where do you find yourself in these two categories of negative versus positive liberty?

One of my takeaways from practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapy for 40 years now comports well with the basic precepts of stoic philosophy and Buddhism:

Strive as much as you can to manipulate the variables, external or internal, over which you have control.

Paradoxically, and at the same time, surrender to the variables over which you have no control.

I believe I’m rather good at the former; I struggle, mightily, with the latter.

Westover refers to a song she heard, noted on page 257 of her book. The lyrics go like this:

 Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery

     None but ourselves can free our minds. 

What an awesome piece of advice!

But one of many personal examples, I eat fairly healthily, exercise regularly, and know when I need help from others like lawyers, doctors, or accountants. However, when I happened to contract endocarditis as second time last November, I absolutely hated the resultant loss of control. The surgeon provided me with strikingly limited options:

a. Undergo an open-heart procedure to remove and replace the prosthetic aortic valve, or;

b. Die.

The disease, and most diseases for that matter, suggest a possible false dichotomy when it comes to Berlin’s ideas. The disease created a negative liberty. An external event, bacterial infection, limited my freedom.

Where was my opportunity for positive freedom? In my attitude towards the operation, I suppose, or in the ways I coped with it. In that example, negative and positive liberties collide. They overlap with one another.

Remember the famous quote from Morpheus in the movie, The Matrix?

Free Your Mind!

Or also consider, from the same movie, remarks made by a shaved-head kid, perhaps a Buddhist initiate, who says regarding telekinesis or psychokinesis:

Do not try and bend the spoon.

That’s impossible.

Instead, only try and realize the truth.

Then you’ll see that it’s not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself. 

Undeniably brilliant words, to be sure, but so much easier said than done.


Westover, T. (2018).  Educated: A Memoir. New York: Random House.

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