If you listen to most people discuss freedom it quickly becomes obvious that they conceptualize it in its negative sense, meaning the absence of restraints. They talk about the people and structures responsible for limiting freedom, about cutting ties, about breaking free from the bonds of oppression, about doing whatever they want to do without any outside influence. We can think of this mentality as freedom from, and it’s an essential step in the quest for existential freedom but actually only represents the halfway point.
All of those external controls might hinder freedom but they do provide direction and purpose. When they’re taken away what is left is a sort of free-floating aimlessness. It’s exactly at the point where negative freedom has been achieved that existential anxiety is most poignantly felt. If you were floating through outer space this would be the definition of freedom from external restraints, yet this state of affairs would be unbearable and even the thought of it is anxiety provoking for most of us. We need something to hold us down, to give us purpose.
Positive freedom, what we can call freedom for, takes us full circle in that we are once again subject to restraint in the form of whatever path it is we freely choose. The big difference is that it’s our willing Selves who yoke us to this life path rather than an external authority. In positive freedom, we are at once generals issuing a command and soldiers dutifully following it to completion, whereas before negative freedom is attained we are simply soldiers dutifully following someone else’s commands to completion and when negative freedom is attained we are anxiety ridden soldiers without a general, at a loss for what to do.