Freedom Is Having A Mind Superior To Injury

Here is a short but powerful thought from the Stoic philosopher Seneca’s essay On the Constancy of the Wise:

Liberty is having a mind superior to injury, a mind that makes itself the only source from which its pleasures spring, that separates itself from all external things, avoiding the unquiet life of one who fears everybody’s laughter, everybody’s tongue. For if there is anyone who can offer an insult, who cannot?

Seneca, On the Constancy of the Wise Man 19.2

Seneca’s words here go against the easy assumption that the ultimate freedom in life would be being liked by absolutely everyone.

We think if this were the case we’d have no worries, no conflicts, and no one jealous of us or badmouthing us behind our backs.

In reality, trying to get to a point where everyone likes you would mean being constantly worried about how each and every person is judging you.

It would mean a perpetual state of anxiety in which you were always living to satisfy other people’s expectations rather than actually making your own choices.

In a strangely comforting sort of way, when you are disliked by someone, it is proof that you are living according to your own principles and exercising the freedom you have to be yourself. It simply means that the person who dislikes you lives according to standards that don’t align with your own.

There are a lot of people in the world, after all, so it’s bound to happen sooner or later.

Realizing this, you are much less likely to be concerned that such a person would disapprove of you. You can almost treat it as evidence that you’re on the right track.

It’s not that you should actively try to be disliked, of course, it’s that you should live your life with the courage to accept that being disliked for who you are will inevitably occur sometimes.

This courage and acceptance affords you freedom. Freedom to be your best self. Freedom to be who you want to be, not who someone else wants you to be.

As Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, it’s about focusing on what we actually have control over:

Someone will disdain me? That is his concern. My concern is that I not be found doing or saying anything worthy of disdain.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.13

Another approach Seneca offers for navigating the fear of disapproval is basically to lighten up a little, to learn to laugh at ourselves sometimes:

No one becomes a laughingstock who laughs at himself. It is well known that Vatinius, a man born to be a butt for ridicule and hate, was a graceful and witty jester. He made jokes at the expense of his own feet and shriveled jowls; in this way he escaped the raillery of his enemies — chief among them Cicero — who were even more numerous than his deformities.

Seneca, On the Constancy of the Wise Man 17.2–3

While you might be resistant to the idea at times, it’s hard to deny that life goes much easier when you’re able to poke fun at yourself.

It’s easy to assume that finding humor in your own faults is self-defeating. You might think it makes you a pushover or that it will lead to you being taken less seriously by other people.

But the more you react to jokes at your expense, the more offended or angry you get that you aren’t being taken seriously, the longer those jokes will persist.

It’s better to be in on the joke than to be the joke. The former scenario takes the sting out of the joke, the latter just stings.

The Stoic teacher Epictetus offered actionable advice for such situations that is befitting of a standup comedian swatting off a heckler:

If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, “He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.”

Being able to laugh at yourself means you’ll never run out of things to laugh at and will be less susceptible to the disturbance caused by the cruel words of others.

Someone who is impervious to that kind of treatment inevitably gets taken seriously, whereas someone who always meets insult with outrage will never be taken seriously because their emotional buttons are so easily pushed.

You don’t always need to laugh, of course. Another option Seneca gives us—if the insult is obviously based on truth—is to simply agree:

And this thing we call an insult – what is it? They make jokes about my bald head, my weak eyes, my thin legs, my height. How is it an insult to be told what is obvious?

Seneca, On the Constancy of the Wise Man 16.3

To summarize from a Stoic point of view, it’s not our concern if someone disdains us—our only responsibility is to do nothing deserving of disdain. Added to this, if we can laugh at ourselves when it’s appropriate to do so—or simply agree with factual statements—we achieve freedom by making our minds superior to injury and avoid disturbance by neutralizing the cruel intentions of others.