|"CONDEMNED TO BE FREE"
Rob Harle (c) 1999
Philosophers have discussed the concept of human freedom for many centuries. In the West the theistic religious paradigm deeply influenced the process of this discourse. Eastern thinkers, in most cases free from the West's monotheistic dominance, developed complex explanations of `the self' and its freedom in society and the natural world. `Ways of knowing' such as Confucianism, Zen and Madhyamika Buddhism are some examples. It was not until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that a `way of knowing' investigated the problem of radical freedom in an intense manner. This `way' labelled Existentialism is not a formal systematic philosophy as such. As Kaufmann remarks:
The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the
repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems,
and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and
remote from life - that is the heart of existentialism
Of the many writers and philosophers whose work expounds
existential ideas, only Kierkegaard and Sartre actually used the term existentialism in
relation to their own work. In this paper I discuss the concept of human freedom as
developed by Jean Paul Sartre.
In the view of Leibniz, "God determined each man's essence and then left him to act freely in accordance with the demands of his essence". Sartre rejects this as freedom and argues that if Leibniz is correct then humans are determined in "one original gesture" (BN xxix). May describes Sartre's statement as: "...man is a being of whom no essence can be affirmed, for such an essence would introduce a permanent element, contradictory to man's power of transforming himself indefinitely". He then points out however, that man does have an essence, which is his, "power to create himself " (May 1969, p.13). May then hints at ways of discovering how this power is possible. I believe this criticism 'qualifies' Sartre's statement not contradicts it. For Sartre however, since there is no pre-established pattern for human nature, "each man makes his essence as he lives" (BN 630). Sartre's classification of existence and essence gives rise to his categorization of all things into a duality. Firstly, Being-in-itself. This group of 'things' such as rocks, trees and paper- knives have the following characteristics: they are not free, not responsible, have a determined essence (therefore are caused) and are fixed and complete. In contrast to these non-conscious 'objects' is the second category, Being-for-itself. These conscious 'subjects' are characterised by: being free, responsible for themselves, have no determined essence and therefore are not caused, are not fixed and can never be complete (Images (a) 1986 p.17).
I think it is important to note that Sartre's use of consciousness does not simply mean awareness but self-reflective awareness. (Warnock 1967 pp.18-23) also mentions this minor, though important point. Sartre's duality of non-conscious 'objects' and (self) conscious 'subjects' is the basis of his assertion that only self conscious subjects, 'human beings', can be free.
Sartre not only insists that humans are free, free at every instant to choose their course of action, but that we are "condemned to be free". It is an inescapable fact of being human, (being-for-itself) that we are free, it is impossible to be otherwise.
Sartre defines freedom as:
Sartre believes we are condemned to be free because we had no choice in the matter of being free. He allows humans only one instance of non-freedom (the ultimate paradox?), that is when we a thrown into this chance world by chance. After this we are responsible, in an absolute sense, for everything we do. To have no choice in whether you will be free to choose and to then be responsible for all your future actions is surely 'condemnation'. Further, to make things worse, and this is the real irony in Sartre's philosophy, we cannot blame anybody or anything for our situation.
Sartre in one gesture removes God as a deterministic father-figure and as such as a crutch; insists we cannot blame our parents, our teachers or our governments for our predicaments. He leaves us standing utterly alone and naked in a hostile world.
Very few people, Sartre believes, are willing to accept and embrace their freedom and consequently be responsible for themselves. This responsibility for self determination causes most people "anguish" and "despair", people would much rather be able to project blame for their situation onto someone or something else. The realization that "our destiny is in our own hands" means we experience a feeling of "abandonment" (Images (a) 1986. p.18).
Sartre sees "anguish" as an experience rather than
an emotional state caused by: the realization of total freedom and responsibility, and
when I choose, I choose for myself and others. Most people would rather not carry this
burden so they experience "anguish" (Images (b) 1986. p.32).
Regardless of the burden of freedom and the ensuing "anguish", "abandonment" and "despair" Sartre insists we must embrace our freedom. He defines the act of not facing up to freedom and responsibility as "bad-faith" or self-deception. "Bad-faith" is not just a tendency to 'fall' back into the routines of everyday life, but is nothing less than a betrayal of one's self, a lie in which one deceives oneself about oneself" (Solomon 1988 p.183).
For Sartre there are 'no excuses' for evading one's freedom.
To act in bad faith is to try to behave like an 'object' or 'thing'. In doing this a
person pretends they have a fixed or determined nature and in so doing avoid acting
responsibly and "authentically"
Sartre explores this idea of self-deception in many of his literary works, 'In Camera' and 'Portrait of an Antisemite' are two excellent examples. Sartre insists that to act "authentically" that is freely and responsibly with full consciousness, is the only absolute and unconditional moral value (Images (a) p.23). I find a close parallel on a practical level in The Bhagavadgita when Khrisna tells Arjuna: "It is more salutary to carry out your own Law poorly than another's Law well; it is better to die in your own Law than to prosper in another's" (van Buitenen 1981,p.85).
For Sartre it is only possible to judge another by the rule, are they acting "authentically". Superficially this seems to condone antisemitism, rape and so on; however I believe Sartre would argue that in all cases of abuse it could be shown that a person was not acting "authentically", for to rape another would in a sense be to rape oneself and to not allow the other their freedom.
Even though we are essentially alone, Sartre recognizes we are inescapably connected with other people. Theoretically "authentic" relationships are possible, however because most people will not accept their own freedom they consequently cannot allow others their freedom. We try to control or possess others as we possess a thing or object (ibid .26). This dichotomy results in relationships degenerating into sadistic-masochistic manipulations. Paglia explores this concept in depth in "Sexual Personae". "There is no selflessness or self-sacrifice, only refinement of domination" (Paglia, 1990. p.274). Both these types of "self-deception" show how humans are loath to embrace the freedom to which they are condemned.
Much has been written about the pessimistic, nihilistic
implications of the existentialists generally, Sartre and Nietzsche particularly.
For Sartre, as for practical Zen philosophy, life has no purpose other than for living.
The world of objects (being-in-itself) exists, "for-it-self by-it-self human beings
are incidental to it. There is no God who created us and determined our
The freedom that comes with being human is not something that we choose, it is our humanness. Sartre maintains the responsibility of acknowledging freedom is too much for most people to bear so they try not to be free and act in a mode of "self-deception" in all they do. Relationships are maintained through "bad faith" as others always try to treat the other as an object to own or control them. If people persist in living an unfree life in "bad faith" then perhaps the accusation of pessimism is correct.
I believe Sartre's whole purpose is to wake people from the
dream of self-deception. Sartre gives people their freedom, releases them from the
invisible strings that the theistic religions would have us believe connect us to an
omnipotent puppeteer in the heavens. Nothing could be a more optimistic, practical
philosophy of existence than showing people they are free at all times. That they no
longer have 'unseen', 'unknown' forces controlling their lives; forces which no matter how
much the person tries, they have no control over. Surely it is better to be
"condemned to be free", than "condemned to be a slave or mere puppet".
Sartre more than many other philosophers, practiced what he preached.
Cooper, D.E. 1990, Existentialism. A Reconstruction. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.
Cranston, M. 1962, Sartre. Oliver and Byod, Edinburgh.
Howells, C. (ed.) 1991, The Cambridge Companion To Sartre. Cambridge University
Images of Human Existence. (a) 1986. Deakin University, Victoria.
Images of Human Existence. (b) 1986. Reader. Deakin University, Victoria.
Kaufmann, W. 1975, Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre. Penguin, Meridian
Kirsner, D. 1976, The Schizoid World of Jean-Paul Sartre and R.D. Laing.
May, R. (ed.) 1969, Existential Psychology. Random House, New York.
McBride, W.L. Man, Freedom and Praxis. Existential Philosophers: Kierkegaard To
Paglia, C. Sexual Personae. 1990. Penguin, England.
Sartre, J.P. Being and Nothingness. (tr.) Barnes, H.E. Philosophical Library, New York.
Sartre, J.P. 1982, Three Plays. Penguin Books, Middlesex.
Sekida, K. 1975, Zen Training. Weatherhill, New York.
Solomon, R.C. 1988, Continental Philosophy Since 1750. Oxford University Press.
van Buitenen, J.A.B. (trans. ed) 1981 The Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata