Who Am I? Why Am I Here?: Admiral Stockdale on the Anxiety of Choice (Guest-Starring Victor Frankl)

It struck me this morning that Schwartz's problem of managing “too much” freedom is kind of the opposite of the problem of managing too little freedom implicit in Admiral Stockdale's Epictetian stoicism and Victor Frankl's existential therapy. Or is it the same!? (If you don't know, Stockdale was tortured for years by the North Vietnamese as a prisoner of war. Frankl was imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Nazis.)
Stockdale tells us [pdf]:

Epictetus was telling his students that there can be no such thing as being the “victim” of another. You can only be a “victim” of yourself. It's all in how you discipline your mind. Who is your master? “He who has authority over any of the things on which you have set your heart… What is the result at which all virtue aims? Serenity… Show me a man who though sick is happy, who though in danger is happy, who though in prison is happy, and I'll show you a Stoic.”

[If you haven't read Stockdale's amazing account of his torture and confinement, do it.]
Frankl writes:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

So here we have strategies for maintaining a sense of freedom — a psychological feeling of choice, control, agency, and self-efficacy — under conditions where the external menu of open alternatives is more or less blank. Both push us to consider what ultimately is and is not in our power. In the end, the only steadfast choices, the only ones that cannot be taken away, are choices about how to orient our minds, and about our attitude toward our situation. This implies that we can maintain a sense of freedom and openness, and the sense of responsibility and dignity that entails, even under conditions where we are not at liberty to act on most of our desires. The Stoic also implies that other freedoms, because they can be taken away, are not genuine freedoms, and so we should cultivate an attitude of indifference toward them. The only true freedom for the stoic is in virtue, and virtue is entirely a matter of what is genuinely up to us, and the only thing that is genuinely up to us is the maintenance of our composure.
Because the problem of two much choice is apparently the opposite of the problem of too little, I entertained the idea that what we need is to turn the stoic and/or existential attitude inside out. But now I'm not so sure. It seems to me that the problem of too much choice requires, in the first instance, a kind of withdrawal, detachment, and centering, and then a kind of selective re-engagement with the panoply of choices once we've achieved a firmer grasp of what one really cares about and is after in life.
It seems like a mistake to concentrate on the sheer quantity of choices rather than on the quality of the choices relative to the nature of the choosers. Chinese takeouts generally offer hamburgers, pizza, jalapeno poppers, etc., etc. The most celebrated restaurants often have tiny menus. If a friend offered to take me to either Lucky Dragon carryout or a Michelin 3 star, I would not regret my loss of the freedom to order curly fires with my wantons upon choosing the fancier joint. A single job you like is better than 1000 you don't want.
If we were homogeneous in our natures, interests, talents, projects, and preferences, then it might be possible to trim the set of choices to a subset that is more manageable, and yet with all the best choices intact. But we are not homogeneous. So, even if the set of choices that is ideal for each of us, given our unique constitution and aims, is small, the fact of our variety will require the availability of a huge set of choices overall. Almost any reduction of the most inclusive set of choices reduces the quality of choices for someone, i.e., it restricts their freedom to choose something that is best for them.
The difficulty is that the plenitude of consumer culture, which offers the tantalizing possibility of a different ideal pattern of consumption for each of us, tends to drown out the whisper of what is best for each of us in the cacophony of variety. We are left searching through a junkyard for a handful of gems (though one man's junk is another man's gem), often without knowing what's junk and what's gems. But the problem is not quite that we have too much choice. If I need to get to Minnesota and don't know how, the problem is not that there are just too many roads. The problem is that I don't know which ones to take. It wouldn't help me if there were fewer roads, none of which goes to my destination. But if I know the route, the number of other roads is irrelevant. Similarly, if I know what I am, know what I need, know what I like, and know what will make my unique life go uniquely well, then I can just tune out the stuff that is superfluous to me. Most of the choices will just psychologically fall away, fade into the background, because they are not for me.
So what we need is self-knowledge, and a procedure for identifying authenticity in desire, a kind of practical wisdom. It does not seem that public policy can do much about this for us. But a kind of Stoic indifference toward the hurly burly of market culture may be useful, helping us to stay disentangled from the lures of marketers, salespeople, and taste makers, and allow us to better focus and who we really are. A kind of existential therapy may also be useful, sensitizing us to reflexive modes of thought and action, our bad faith, our false consciousness, and our ability and responsibility to consciously define ourselves and make meaning in our lives.
So maybe the ways of thinking that make it possible to remain human in Nazi concentration camps and Hanoi prisons are also indispensable in carving authentic lives of customized meaning out of the otherwise disorienting surplus of alternatives. Maybe the way to maintain a sense of freedom when in chains is also a way to manage agoraphobic hyperventilation in the unbounded consumer paradise.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center