In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca quotes Epicurus in writing, “It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint.”
Quite frankly, Seneca and Epicurus are wrong. The stoic thinkers make two arguments in the short quote, and both fail to live up to the reality of humankind’s existence. The sentiment shared is noble, and certainly rings true in my American ears, but on closer reflection, proves to be a fiction.
The first argument, that it is wrong to live under constraint assumes that human beings can somehow exist separate from society with all needs and desires fulfilled. Stoic thought focuses on our mind and what is within our direct control. Stoicism hinges on the idea that our thoughts and reactions are the only thing we can possibly have true ownership and control over. It encourages us to move beyond our ego, which drives us to acquire possessions, build a reputation, and always bolster our social status with things beyond our control. Stoic philosophy encourages self-awareness and a sense of self-contentedness that comes from controlling one’s mind and being satisfied by simply experiencing life, whatever life is presented to us.
However, having constraints in our lives is important, and might actually be better for us than unlimited choice and possibility. A famous study on jam selection and satisfaction from 2000 suggests that people who had a limited selection of jams were more satisfied with their selection than people who picked a jam from a more broad and expansive selection of jams. With unlimited choice, options, and opportunities, we are unhappy. We can’t make a selection when we are not living under constraints, and we are constantly unsure if we truly made the best choice when our choices are unlimited. Constraints play a powerful role in helping us understand who we are, where we fit in society, and by creating bounds for our decisions, actions, and lives. Without constraints, we do not always flourish, sometimes we flounder.
What we see is that our lives are guided by and defined by constraints. Therefore, the second argument of the two stoics, that no man is constrained to live under constraints, is clearly wrong. We might not be actively constrained by another human being, but we are constrained by our governments, our home owners associations, or our bosses or customers. We are also constrained by nature and our physiology. There is a limit to how fast we can run, what forces our bodies can endure, and much we can eat. Our brains are incredible machines, but they too are limited in how long they can operate without sleep, how difficult of tasks they can work through, and how much they can remember. There is simply no way to escape constraints, and living in a complete freedom, as Seneca seems to be suggesting with the rest of his letter after the quote above, will not lead to unbridled happiness. It is constraint, and how we learn to live within constraints, which brings forth our creativity, our imagination, and makes life actually possible.