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The Quality of a Free Man

This is a reprint of an article I wrote back in the late 90s or early oughts. It’s part one of a four-part series, all of which are available to full members of The Living Freedom Forums.

Despite being some of my best writing and thinking, neither this piece nor the series, called Sustainable Freedom, ever received much circulation or comment. I’m resurrecting it because it matters to me and to some of the most important people in my life — and still matters more than ever in reality. Also because my friend “Tex” referred to it in his quotes in Friday’s article and I wanted to be able to link to it.


I sit at the Hilltop Hermitage, high in the pines. I’m here to ask, and hopefully answer, some of the Great Questions about freedom.

Two come immediately to mind and I’m going to deal with the first one in this column. That question is, “What are the qualities of a free man?”

I’m saying “man” unapologetically. That’s how the question poses itself to me. My every attempt to impose political correctness by writing “person” or “human being” falls flat.

I believe I know why. Freedom requires what might once have been called “manly virtues” –
though in reality it doesn’t matter what shape of body they come in.

Asking ourselves to live up to ideals is old-fashioned. Almost Victorian. This is an age of “anything goes” – which can be fine and fun. But it’s not enough. We need those “manly virtues” – plus a few extras.

So bear with me, sisters and brothers-in-freedom alike. The list I’m about to propose is inclusive.

I’m beginning the freedom quest here for a simple reason: Freedom comes from free individuals, not the other way around. Seek Libertopia without first seeking within and the horse stumbles over the cart in her path and breaks her leg. Every time.

So without further ado I propose:


THE FIVE OUTWARD-LOOKING VIRTUES: The free man within society

A free man:

Keeps his word. A good man’s word was once his bond. Now we expect our credit score to be our bond – but such data measures only one infinitesimal part of us. You cannot build freedom on a base of lies or habitual unreliability. Free men mean what they say and do what they promise.

Does unto others as he would have them do unto him. Helps those who help themselves. Commits random acts of decency. Aids those who are striving to be free. Does not meddle in the non-violent behavior of others, but is is a good neighbor and powerful ally when one is needed.

Shuns indebtedness. This means more than shunning debt (though that, too). A free man owns his own life and thinks carefully before giving any part of it away. He rejects false loyalties and guilt trips (unwarranted claims on his life energies). If he accepts a favor he pays it back or pays it forward so others benefit by the aid he received.

Rejects coercive power. He neither seeks power over others nor accepts the right of others to hold such coercive power. You will never hear him say, “There ought to be a law.” He sees humanity not as an ignorant mass to be managed or mothered, but as individuals capable of running their own lives.

Is independent and self-responsible. A free man prefers the risks and rewards of self-reliance to the temptations of “security” provided by others. He takes care of himself and his family. The ultimate corollary to this virtue is self-defense; a free man does not delegate responsibility for his own sustenance, and certainly not for his own survival.

THE FIVE INTERIOR VIRTUES: The free man within

A free man: Solves problems creatively. Thinks out of the box. Is fascinated by new ideas. Is perpetually self-educating. Anyone who spends a large chunk of his life sitting and whining about all the factors holding him back is by definition neither free nor ready to free himself.

Acts with daily courage and fortitude. While we await the jackboot in the door, tyranny arrives in daily demands for our collaboration. We require courage to say, “No, I won’t give that information”; “I have no interest in working for somebody who forces me to pee in a bottle”; “I won’t pay you to kill people in my name”; “My baby doesn’t need a government inventory number”; “That’s politically correct nonsense”; “Not without a warrant, you won’t”; or “It’s time for you to stand up and take care of yourself.” Free people own that kind of courage. It’s food for their souls. (Which is why I list it as an Interior Virtue rather than an Outward-Looking one.)

Lives by well-considered principles. A free man doesn’t just parrot “thou shalt not kill” or “thou shalt not steal.” He doesn’t behave just because he fears God or government may be watching. He has examined his morality. He knows why he acts or refrains from acting. Sound principles also provide the platform for standing up with courage and saying, “No” to intolerable acts.

Seeks balanced excellence. It may be a fine thing to make a million dollars or build a better mousetrap (or a more efficient solar cell or an innovative computer game). Free people do those things better than serfs. But our life is our #1 creation. Truly free people put as much energy into becoming good, wise human beings as they do into material accomplishments. To do otherwise is to remain off balance – and therefore very easy for “authorities” to push over.

Loves life. No, this does not mean a free man always goes around with a happy-face painted on his mug. It does mean that conscious, human life is the foundation of freedom. Despite its manifold flaws, human life is a miracle to be appreciated and defended against forces that waste or destroy it.

THE TWO FOUNDATION VIRTUES: What all the rest is built on

A free man:

Is self-aware. He knows who he is, what he loves, what he finds intolerable. Knows his own inner drivers, good or ill. Self-knowledge enables us to set satisfying goals and effective boundaries. It shows us our true path. Without self-understanding, we find ourselves constantly in bad relationships and bad jobs, living in conditions we hate – unable to say no and unable to articulate why we want to say no.

Has a spiritual center. A few years ago I’d never have put spirituality on any list of a free man’s traits. Now, I see it’s a foundation stone. Spirituality doesn’t necessarily mean religion. A person can be spiritual without even believing in God. Spirituality is simply the sense that an individual life has a deeper meaning than is evident on the surface. When daily temptations, disappointments, or demands for collaboration threaten to push us off course, transcendent purpose keeps us walking the path.

There it is. A free man is, in his own realm, an astonishingly civilized and moral being. To those who live by controlling others, however, he is a wild beast who can’t be tamed and who is too tough to make good prey.

A free man is also the cause of freedom. The sole cause of it.

When we have sufficient free individuals, political, social, and institutional freedoms will follow. They will arise not through revolution or politically driven reform, but from who we are and the choices we make every day.

We don’t require superhumans. We don’t even require a majority of free people. We do, however, require a larger minority of free individuals than we have today.

“Doing our own thing” is one part of being free. But lasting freedom is a consequence of that old fashioned and presently out-of-favor ideal: personal character. We require that to create what so many of us crave: freedom that lasts.

My question for next time: “Can we create Sustainable Freedom?”


© 2000, renewed 2020 Claire Wolfe – Permission to republish this article is granted so long as it is not edited, and the author is credited.


  1. Joel
    Joel December 21, 2020 9:39 am

    This is one of my all time favorites from everything you’ve ever done. Thanks for bringing it back.

  2. Val E. Forge
    Val E. Forge December 21, 2020 11:54 am

    Claire – I believe I may still have an original hard copy of that essay in a back issue of Backwoods Home. It is timeless. Thanks for bringing it back.

  3. kentmcmanigal
    kentmcmanigal December 21, 2020 5:17 pm

    The only part I feel I fall short on is this bit: “Without self-understanding, we find ourselves constantly in bad relationships and bad jobs, living in conditions we hate

    Yet, I do understand why I have these problems, and to a large extent it’s because I choose to put the needs of an innocent person above my own. That may not be good enough reason, but it’s what I’ve got.

    All the rest made me feel pretty good about myself. Other people’s opinions may vary.

  4. Robert Baird
    Robert Baird January 24, 2021 8:00 pm

    I want to male a serious comment, Claire … you are awesome.

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