Tao Te Ching

The Power of Goodness, the Wisdom Beyond Words
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Free Will

We often identify “free will” as making a conceptual decision disciplining ourselves into a course of action that corresponds to the concept. And then we do everything possible to impose that vision on reality. On the other hand, Lao Tzu’s description of Wu Wei describes action flowing out of awareness rather than from a defined idea. Similar to the idea of “journey without goal,” a more realistic understanding of "free will" includes an understanding of the immense influences of biology, culture, and environment influencing our decisions.

From another point of view, these external influences exert an almost complete control of our lives and our only real choice is to accept and become each experience or struggle and fight against it. Some believe and teach free will as only a myth, an illusion while others give it the power over every experience.

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Quotes (73)

“For if anyone follows Democritus' theory, saying that the atoms have no free motion, since they collide with one another, from which it appears that the motion of everything is necessitated, we shall say to him 'Do you not know, whoever you are, that the atoms have a free motion, which Democritus did not discover, but Epicurus revealed, namely the motion of the swerve, as he shows from the phenomena?”

Diogenes of Oenoanda Διογένης ὁ Οἰνοανδεύς 77 – 142 CE
Great Preserver of Epicureanism

from Wall Fragment 54

Themes: Free Will

“Be a lamp for yourself, your own refuge...Look not outside yourself—to anyone beside yourself—but hold fast to the Truth as your lamp, your refuge.”

Buddha गौतम बुद्ध 563 – 483 BCE
(Siddhartha Shakyamuni Gautama)
Awakened Truth
from Dhammapada धम्मपद

Themes: Free Will

“Circumstances rule men; men do not rule circumstances.”

Herodotus Ἡρόδοτος 1
“The Father of History”
from Histories

Themes: Free Will

“Mankind, tired out with a life of brute force, lay exhausted from its feuds; and therefore the more readily submitted its own free will to laws and stringent codes.”

Lucretius 99 – 55 BCE
(Titus Carus)

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”

Epictetus Ἐπίκτητος 55 – 135 CE
from Discourses of Epictetus, Ἐπικτήτου διατριβαί

“The life of wisdom—like anything else—demands its price... You can't be flying off in countless directions however appealing they are, and at the same time live an integrated, fruitful life... You can either put your skills toward internal work or lose yourself to externals, which is to say, be a person of wisdom or follow the common ways of the mediocre.”

Epictetus Ἐπίκτητος 55 – 135 CE via Sharon Labell

“do not wish to be a general or a senator or consul, but a free man, and there is only one way to do this, to care not for the things which are not in our power.”

Marcus Aurelius 121 – 219 CE

Themes: Free Will

“Being able to make your own decisions
Is more empowering than receiving a hundred golden letters from the imperial chieftain.”

Gesar of Ling གེ་སར་རྒྱལ་པོ། 1 via Robin Kornman
from Gesar of Ling Epic

Themes: Free Will

“And strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot
Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”

Omar Khayyám 1048 – 1131 CE
Persian Astronomer-Poet, prophet of the here and now

from Rubaiyat

“Buddhas bear the same relation to sentient beings as water does to ice. Ice, like stone or brick, cannot flow. But when it melts it flows freely in conformity with its surroundings. So long as one remains in a state of delusion he is like ice. Upon realization he becomes as exquisitely free as water.”

Bassui Tokushō 抜隊 得勝 1327 – 1387 CE
Meditation master without distraction

“Yet am I but a horse, and horse's law
I must obey, and with my fellows draw.”

Geoffrey Chaucer 1343 – 1400 CE
“Father of English literature”

Themes: Free Will

“Experience will be my mistress.”

Leonardo da Vinci 1452 – 1519 CE

“. . . it is presumptuous in me to wish to choose my path, because I cannot tell which path is best for me. I must leave it to the Lord, Who knows me, to lead me by the path which is best for me, so that in all things His will may be done.”

Teresa of Avila 1515 – 1582 CE
from Interior Castle

Themes: Free Will

“Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom, and no such thing as public liberty.”

Benjamin Franklin 1706 – 1790 CE
from Dogwood Papers (1722 when 16 years old)

Themes: Free Will

“Our lives, like the universe to which we belong, are mysteriously composed of freedom and necessity… We belong to the laws of nature, even when we rebel against them.”

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 1749 – 1832 CE

Themes: Free Will

“I am the very slave of circumstance
And impulse — borne away with every breath!”

Lord Byron 1788 – 1824 CE
(George Gordon Byron)
The first rock-star style celebrity

Themes: Free Will

“A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants.”

Arthur Schopenhauer 1788 – 1860 CE

Themes: Freedom Free Will

10. The Power of Goodness

“Every true thinker for himself is so far like a monarch… He takes as little notice of authority as a monarch does of a command; nothing is valid unless he has himself authorized it.”

Arthur Schopenhauer 1788 – 1860 CE

65. Simplicity: the Hidden Power of Goodness

“Don’t be pushed by your problems. Be led by your dreams.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803 – 1882 CE
Champion of individualism

“Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803 – 1882 CE
Champion of individualism
from Ode (1847)

Themes: Free Will

“I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

Abraham Lincoln 1809 – 1865 CE

Themes: Free Will

“A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives—approving of some and disapproving of others... I ought or I ought not, constitute the whole of morality.”

Charles Darwin 1809 – 1882 CE
from Descent of Man

“Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.”

George Eliot 1819 – 1880 CE
(Mary Anne Evans)
Pioneering literary outsider

Themes: Free Will

“free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions modified by free will, though thus proscribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events.”

Herman Melville 1819 – 1891 CE
from Moby Dick or The Whale

Themes: Free Will

“young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.”

George Eliot 1819 – 1880 CE
(Mary Anne Evans)
Pioneering literary outsider

from Middlemarch

“This is the age which, although proclaimed as one of physical and moral freedom, is in truth the age of the most ferocious moral and mental slavery, the like of which was never known before.”

Blavatsky, Helena Еле́на Петро́вна Блава́тская 1831 – 1891 CE
Co-founder of Theosophy
from The Key to Theosophy (1889)

“if you go into the world you will have free will; you will be obliged to have it; there is no escaping it; you will be fettered to it during your whole life, and put on every occasion do that which on the whole seems best to you at any given time, no matter whether you are right or wrong in choosing”

Samuel Butler 1835 – 1902 CE
Iconoclastic philosopher, artist, composer, author, and evolutionary theorist
from Erewhon

Themes: Free Will

“My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

William James 1842 – 1910 CE
"Father of American psychology”

Themes: Free Will

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

William James 1842 – 1910 CE
"Father of American psychology”

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”

George Bernard Shaw 1856 – 1950 CE
UK playwright second only to Shakespeare
from Maxims for Revolutionists

“Every choice is a sacrifice.”

Henri-Louis Bergson 1859 – 1941 CE

Themes: Free Will

“Freedom exists, and also the will exists; but freedom of the will does not exist.”

Thomas Mann 1875 – 1955 CE
Deep, psychologically insightful author
from Mario and the Magician (1929)

Themes: Free Will

“the individual is so unconscious that he altogether fails to see his own potentialities for decision making. Instead, he is constantly and anxiously looking around for external rules and regulations which can guide him in his perplexity.”

Carl Jung 1875 – 1961 CE
Insightful shamanistic scientist
from Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Themes: Free Will

“I had to obey an inner law which was imposed on me and left me no freedom of choice.”

Carl Jung 1875 – 1961 CE
Insightful shamanistic scientist
from Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Themes: Free Will

“Desire is when you do what you want, will is when you can do what you do not want.”

Ouspensky Пётр Демья́нович Успе́нский 1878 – 1947 CE
(Pyotr Demianovich Ouspenskii)

Themes: Desire Free Will

“Man does not realize that throughout his entire life he does things he believes. Precisely what to believe and how to believe comprises the solution of the problems of being. Man's free will or free choice molds his destiny.”

Helena Roerich Елéна Ивáновна Рéрих 1879 – 1955 CE

“Bulls and bears cannot smash the door of fate; the heart of a dove, however, smashes it.”

Nikos Kazantzakis 1883 – 1957 CE via P. A. Bien
from Report to Greco

Themes: Free Will

“But we did not allow women, even the dearest, to lead us astray. We did not follow their flower-strewn road, we took them with us. No, we did not take them, these dauntless companions followed our ascents of their own free will.”

Nikos Kazantzakis 1883 – 1957 CE via P. A. Bien
from Report to Greco

“What can one weak individual do when the species announces to him that his time has come?”

Will Durant 1885 – 1981 CE
Philosophy apostle and popularizer of history's lessons
from Transition

Themes: Free Will

“Culture is the one thing that we cannot deliberately aim at. It is the product of a variety of more or less harmonious activities, each pursued for its own sake.”

T. S. Eliot 1888 – 1965 CE
from Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, 1948

Themes: Culture Free Will

“You cannot make yourself feel something you do not feel, but you can make yourself do right in spite of your feelings.”

Pearl Buck 1892 – 1973 CE

Themes: Free Will

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”

Aldous Huxley 1894 – 1963 CE

Themes: Free Will

65. Simplicity: the Hidden Power of Goodness

“We are helpless without grace, but grace cannot help us unless we choose to cooperate with it.”

Aldous Huxley 1894 – 1963 CE
from Forward to "The Supreme Doctrine"

Themes: Free Will

“The minute you choose to do what you really want to do, it's a different kind of life.”

Buckminster Fuller 1895 – 1983 CE

65. Simplicity: the Hidden Power of Goodness

“The human soul is nine-tenths subliminal urges representing the animal heritage of millions of years and considerably less than one-tenth conscious reason, which has had great development only since ten thousand years ago,”

Lín Yǔtáng 林語堂 1895 – 1976 CE
from On the Wisdom of America, 1950

Themes: Free Will

“A liberal education frees a man from the prison-house of his class, race, time, place, background, family, and even his nation.”

Robert Hutchins 1899 – 1977 CE
(Robert Maynard Hutchins)

Themes: Free Will

“Man today is confronted with the most fundamental choice: not that between Capitalism and Communism, but that between robotism (of both the capitalist and communiste variety), of Humanistic Communitarian

Erich Fromm 1900 – 1980 CE
One of the most powerful voices of his era promoting the true personal freedom beyond social, political, religious, and national belief systems
from Marx's Concept of Man (1961)

Themes: Free Will

“Every decision is like a murder, and our march forward is over the stillborn bodies of all our possible selves that will never be.”

René Dubos 1901 – 1982 CE
Influential scientific environmentalist

Themes: Free Will

“As long as mankind is made up of independent individuals with free will, there cannot be any social status quo. Men will develop new urges, and these will give rise to new problems, which will require ever new solutions. Human life implies adventure, and there is no adventure without struggles and dangers.”

René Dubos 1901 – 1982 CE
Influential scientific environmentalist

“When human beings are governed by 'thou shalt not,' the individual can practice a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by 'love' or 'reason,' he is under continuous pressure to make him behave exactly the same way as everyone else.”

George Orwell 1903 – 1950 CE
English, poet, humanist, apostle of doubt, and powerful political influence
from Politics vs. Literature

Themes: Paradox Free Will

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage.”

Anais Nin 1903 – 1977 CE

44. Fame and Fortune

“Those who truly think for themselves are like monarchs, they recognize no one above them and no more accept authorities than a monarch does orders. They don’t acknowledge the validity of anything they have not themselves confirmed.”

E. F. Schumacher 1911 – 1977 CE
The “People's Economist”

“To the Russian, the exciting event in Pavlov's experiment was not the conditioning of the dogs but of the laboratories. But to the Westerner, the revelation that he was a preconditioned robot... was a most disagreeable discovery.”

Marshall McLuhan 1911 – 1980 CE
from War and Peace in the Global Village

Themes: Slavery Free Will

“if the individual temporarily abandons human will and so allows himself to be guided by nature, nature responds by providing everything.”

Masanobu Fukuoka 福岡 正信 1913 – 2008 CE
from One Straw Revolution

Themes: Free Will

“The whole dear notion of one's own Self—marvelous old free-willed, free-enterprising, autonomous, independent, isolated island of a Self—is a myth.”

Lewis Thomas 1913 – 1993 CE
Gestaltist of science and art
from Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher

Themes: Free Will

“Freedom is the name of the game. Freedom to be nothing... The longer we practice, the more we have a clue about how to slowly become free.”

Charlotte Joko Beck 1917 – 2011 CE
Authentic, pioneering Western Zen master

from Ordinary Wonder

Themes: Free Will

“The true poet has no choice of material. The material plainly chooses him, not he it.”

J. D. Salinger 1919 – 2010 CE

“The free soul is rare, but you know it when you see it - basically because you feel good, very good, when you are near or with them.”

Charles Bukowski 1920 – 1994 CE
"Laureate of American lowlife”
from Tales of Ordinary Madness

“guard yourself and your conscience — no one else will — and know that a bad decision at the right time can destroy you far more surely than any bullet!”

James Clavell 1921 – 1994 CE
Fictionalizing and fictional historian
from King Rat

Themes: Free Will

“We can only control the end by making a choice at each step—obscure admixtures, blends with no proper tool by which to untangle the components—… and we cannot do it all at once; it is a sequence, an unfolding process.”

Philip K. Dick 1928 – 1982 CE
Legendary consciousness provocateur
from Man in the High Castle,

“To know there is a choice is to have to make the choice.”

Ursula Le Guin 1929 – 2018 CE

“If anything appears to be a permanent feature of reality it is power — the constant impingement on us of superior forces both without and within. Everything from changes in the weather and acts of national governments to the irresistible push of instinct and the process of aging”

James P. Carse 1932 – 2020 CE
Thought-proving, influential, deep thinker
from Finite and Infinite Games

Themes: Power Free Will

“I would like you to think twice about what you see as your role in this country. It doesn't matter so much about your own particular development. But you should pay some kind of attention to a society which is slowly decaying and full of maggots and worms. We don't want to sit here idle discussing subtleties of philosophy only pleasing ourselves while the rest of the people are suffering immensely... spiritually they are suffering, economically, politically people are suffering.”

Chögyam Trungpa 1939 – 1987 CE
from Naropa Institute talk (1975)

Themes: Free Will

“A function beyond the will... without the intervention of that kind of independent organ—the kind that elevates us to new heights, thrusts us down to the depths, throws our minds into chaos, reveals beautiful illusions, and sometimes even drives us to death—our lives would indeed be indifferent and brusque.”

Haruki Murakami 1949 CE –
from Men Without Women (2017)

Themes: Free Will

“Maybe the chain of events will not flow so smoothly in reality… Just maybe, there are too many maybes. But there is no alternative. There is not the luxury of choice.”

Haruki Murakami 1949 CE –
from Killing Commendatore

Themes: Free Will

“Free will is an illusion, brought to us by evolution.”

Robert Wright 1957 CE –
from Moral Animal — Why we are the Way we Are

Themes: Free Will

“it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”

Roman Krznaric 1
Practical, popular, modern philosopher

Themes: Free Will

“The less we know about the chattering, muttering voice in our heads that tells us what to do, what to believe, what to buy, which people we should love, and so forth, the more power we give it to boss us around and convince us that whatever it says is true.”

Mingyur Rinpoche 1975 CE –
Modern-day Mahasiddha

from In Love with the World

Themes: Free Will

“For years I lived under the impression that I was the master of my life, and the CEO of my own personal brand. But a few hours of meditation were enough to show me that I hardly had any control of myself. I was not the CEO – I was barely the gatekeeper.”

Yuval Harari יובל נח הררי‎ 1976 CE –
Israeli historian, professor, and philosopher

Themes: Free Will

“Doubts about the existence of free will and individuals are nothing new, of course. More than 2,000 years ago thinkers in India, China and Greece argued that ‘the individual self is an illusion’. Yet such doubts don’t really change history much unless they have a practical impact on economics, politics and day-to-day life. Humans are masters of cognitive dissonance, and we allow ourselves to believe one thing in the laboratory and an altogether different thing in the courthouse or in parliament.”

Yuval Harari יובל נח הררי‎ 1976 CE –
Israeli historian, professor, and philosopher

Themes: Free Will

“Humans certainly have a will – but it isn’t free. You cannot decide what desires you have... Every choice depends on a lot of biological, social and personal conditions that you cannot determine for yourself. I can choose what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote for, but these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc – and I didn’t choose which genes or family to have.”

Yuval Harari יובל נח הררי‎ 1976 CE –
Israeli historian, professor, and philosopher

Themes: Free Will

“If governments and corporations succeed in hacking the human animal, the easiest people to manipulate will be those who believe in free will.”

Yuval Harari יובל נח הררי‎ 1976 CE –
Israeli historian, professor, and philosopher

Themes: Control Free Will

“Finding ourselves in situations that we did not choose but that have come about through our previous actions is simply another facet of living within webs of causality that we ignore at our own risk.”

Karmapa XVII ཨོ་རྒྱན་འཕྲིན་ལས་རྡོ་རྗ 1985 CE –
(Orgyen Thrinlay Dorje)
from Interconnected (2017)

Themes: Free Will

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