Self-Imposed Slavery

April 2, 2008 — 8 Comments

Show me a man who isn’t a slave; one who is a slave to sex, another to money, another to ambition; all are slaves to hope or fear. I could show you a man who has been a Consul who is a slave to his ‘little old woman’, a millionaire who is the slave of a little girl in domestic service. And there is no state of slavery more disgraceful than one which is self-imposed. Seneca Letters from a Stoic

I disagree with Seneca, I don’t think that self-imposed slavery is the worst thing ever. What’s worse is not knowing what you’ve submitted to – not realizing that you’re chained to transactions or other people’s egos or fashion or whatever.

I’m disappointed in my enslavement to self-doubt, resentment towards those that I dislike, at the power that the favor and approval of certain people hold over me – that I haven’t let a call go to voicemail in months. I’m proud that when I set deadlines, commitments or quotas that I am utterly compelled to fulfill them. That whole daimon thing isn’t a horrible master.

Seneca ignores the distinction between ignorance and submitting to something bigger than yourself. The honest and practical reality: Figure out what you’re beholden to and decide consciously if you’re at peace with it. If you are, then by all means continue. If you’re not, you should at least end the delusion of your own agency.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

8 responses to Self-Imposed Slavery

  1. “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen!”- Martin Luther

  2. Do I even need to cite this one?

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face in marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

  3. But the real torture, and, ideally, evolution, comes from struggling towards emancipation.

    I have to think the pain of the self-aware slave is greater than the ignorant one.

    I have wished for blissful ignorance…

  4. “Here I stand; I can do no other…”

    Exactly. While yes you’re a slave in a sense, that’s the price we pay for harnessing the daimon. I’m using the term ‘slave’ loosely as it correlates negative emotions. Can Ryan really think it’s a bad thing that he always picks up his phone? Of course not.

    Here is where we stand; we can do no other – but somehow I don’t think we would, even if we could.

  5. You’re missing my point, I think. It is very much a bad thing that I can’t not answer my phone – that I’ll stop whatever I’m doing to pick it up. That is not something I’m OK with being a slave to, so I am going to stop.

  6. I think it is also important to point out that it remains up to the individual to decide to what he will “enslave” himself. That, in my opinion, is a wonderful thing.

    Of course man’s freedom to act is limited by a great number of factors: his environment and geographical area; the intellectual and cultural milieu he was born into; various natural (physical) laws. But it remains up to him to choose what best satisfies his personal desires given these limiting circumstances. If one must be a slave, the better it is to have a choice in the matter. And he does, indeed, have a choice. Any other interpretation is mere determinism in which we all may as well be mere automatons.

  7. Just saw this cool line from him and thought of your post: “For the mere fact of being the slave of philosophy is liberty.” – Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, #9

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