← Back to Writing

In Praise of Limits

Freedom according to ancient philosophies and spiritual traditions

October 25, 2023

Freedom is held to be one of the highest virtues in today’s world. 

Most of us define freedom as an absence of limitation. The fewer constraints we have, the more free we think we are. Obligations or dependencies are considered to be obstacles that block the path to more freedom. 

I hear these words from entrepreneurs who assume that when they have made enough money, then they will finally be free. I hear these words from friends who tell me that they don’t want to start a family because they don’t want to lose their autonomy. I hear these words from technologists who relentlessly push limits and expand frontiers in the name of profit, impact, and choice. And I hear these words from my former self, who longed for a day when I would finally be good enough to be free to be me. 

These sentiments might seem entirely normal and unavoidable. Indeed, the notion of freedom as an absence of constraints runs deep in our cultural fabric. It played a large part in the liberal and democratic trajectories in the past three hundred years. And it influenced the past centuries’ unprecedented technological progress. But the darker consequences of this approach to freedom are now becoming clear. 

Limitless freedom on smartphones is contributing to a mental health crisis. The belief that “I can be anything I want to be” is fragmenting culture. Limitless growth and consumption in the name of convenience and self-actualization is pillaging the planet (the Stockholm Resilience Center recently shared that six of the nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can survive and thrive in the long-term have been exceeded). Some people are even proposing to expand beyond the greatest limitations we have—our bodies and the planet—by uploading our minds into a computer and moving our civilization to another planet where we simply can continue as before.

We can’t seem to help ourselves from trying to become free of boundaries and limits, regardless of the consequences to ourselves and the world.

But it wasn’t always this way. 

Many ancient philosophies and spiritual traditions held a very different definition of freedom.

They claimed that freedom is not an absence of limits, but is rather what lies on the other side of self-discipline and self-limitation. They saw constraints as conditions to be embraced, not as obstacles that impede who we are. 

These traditions, says author Patrick Deenen, “sought to foster an ethic of restraint. [They] recognized that humankind was singular among the creatures in its capacity to choose among numerous options, and so in need for guidance in that condition of liberty. This liberty, the ancients understood, was subject to misuse and excess: the oldest stories in [these] traditions, including the story of humankind’s fall from Eden, told of the human propensity to use freedom badly.”

These traditions taught that many of our choices in life are not quite as “free” as we think they are. The way in which choices present themselves to us do not emerge in a vacuum. Our choices are influenced by our immature and unintegrated baser instincts, the defense mechanisms we adopt in response to the environments we grow up in, and the political and corporate interests that affect how life’s menu of choices are presented to us. When we face modern life’s barrage of options without discernment, we will struggle to choose well or freely.

Freedom, more deeply understood, is therefore a liberation from what the ancients referred to as the “passions” – the distortions, corruptions, and cravings that infiltrate our consciousness. Freedom is a chiseling away of what is not us to allow space for more of us to be here.

This process is called kenosis in mystic Christianity. It’s a form of spiritual exercise (askesis) that means self-emptying. As opposed to the notions of “destroying the ego” that are popularized in commercialized forms of some spiritual traditions, kenosis is a detoxification of the passions and a letting-go of our survival patterns of the past.

The Orthodox theologian Pavel Florensky referred to this inner work as “purification of the heart”. In classical Greece, Plotinus described it as a process of continuously sculpting your own statue. “Go back inside yourself and look,” he wrote, “remove what is superfluous, straighten what is crooked, clean up what is dark and make it bright, and never stop sculpting your own statue, until the godlike splendor of virtue shines forth to you.”

When we do this inner work of kenosis, we create more space for something deeper within us to be present. Presence itself becomes more present. And something greater, more ineffable than our individualism has space to come forth. We become more intimate with the nature of things, or what in Chinese mysticism is called the Tao

The Tao is commonly translated as the Way, but could also be described as Life Force, Spirit, Intelligibility, the Divine, or the Light. To speak too much of the Tao misses the point, since “the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”. But a few words nevertheless allows us to point towards an essential part of life which often escapes our grasp as participants in modern life. 

The Tao is “the reality beyond predicates,” said C.S. Lewis. “It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time.”

When we live in alignment with the Tao, then life flows more freely. Challenges don’t disappear, but the ease through which they are embraced transforms. When we do the work to sculpt our own statue, then we open ourselves up to this inner wellspring of life.

This is what philosopher Martin Buber called the “grand will”, in contrast to the more egoic “self will”. “The free man,” said Buber “is he who wills without arbitrary self-will. … He must sacrifice his puny, unfree will, that is controlled by things and instincts, to his grand will … He must go out with his whole being. … Then he intervenes no more, but at the same time he does not let things merely happen. He listens to what is emerging from himself, to the course of being in the world; not in order to be supported by it, but in order to bring it to reality as it desires, in its need of him, to be brought—with human spirit and deed, human life and death.”

As Buber points out, learning to listen to the Tao or the grand will is not an elimination or reduction of who we are. It’s the opposite: it’s a shedding away of the thought patterns and defence mechanisms we have identified ourselves with, but that shield us from getting into contact with the deeper layers of our humanity.

“This,” said Plotinus, “is the real goal for the soul… to touch and to behold this light itself, by means of itself. … Eliminate everything [that is not light]!”

This path of kenosis and inner work can be practiced in every moment of our lives. We don’t need to go to leadership workshops to develop in these deeper ways. Every moment can be my practice. Each interaction can be my gateway. Every moment can be my path. 

Freedom then becomes, somewhat paradoxically, a process of submission, obligation, and connection. Dependencies are not in the way of freedom – they become the way. Obligations to family, community, and life itself transform from obstacles blocking freedom into the very fabric through which the tapestry of freedom becomes woven. By sinking deeper into our relational dependencies, we begin to crack our hearts open to the intimate reality that makes up inter-relational existence.

There is a liberation that comes from accepting and coming to terms with the obligations and conditions of our place in this life. That our past was the past. That the pain we experienced occurred and that we survived with a story to tell. That we were born into the flesh and blood of our bodies. That we depend on each other. That our planet is our home.

Accepting these limits doesn’t mean settling or staying passive. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that our potential is contained within our constraints. It’s the recognition that the tree holds within it its fruits and its seeds, and even with all of that potential, the tree cannot be a flower. Our challenges are our path. Our earth is our only home. We cannot escape who we are; we can only try to do so in vain.

The sooner we come to terms with our limits, the sooner we might start to taste something like freedom. 


Subscribe to my newsletter to get my occasional writing spanning philosophy, psychology, living and leading.