HUMAN infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.
Freedom can be understood as freedom from constraint. If you had one leg chained to a tree you would definitely be constrained in your movement. Removing the chain would then permit freedom of movement. The same applies to our minds, and Spinoza majored on the notion of inner freedom in exactly the same sense. He saw emotional bondage as a chain around our ankles, since when under the influence of a strong emotion we are compelled to act as it dictates. A person who is depressed will probably not want to sing and dance, and a person who is full of rage will not appreciate fine philosophical ideas.
We should not confuse inner freedom with free will. There is no such thing as free will. Everything we do is the effect of a causal nexus, most of which we are blissfully unaware (see Sam Harris for what neuroscience says about this). Inner freedom, on the other hand, is not the result of free will, but the result of acquiring a skill – that of understanding and managing our emotional states. It’s just like any other skill – riding a bike or speaking another language. The mastery of emotional skills reduces the degree to which emotions constrain us in action, and so we are freer.
Spinoza’s Ethics lays out in great detail how we might achieve such inner freedom. The key to this is understanding and a small number of practices. He calls such a state of freedom ‘blessedness’, which he equates with contentment.