“There is no justification for present existence other than its expansion into an indefinitely open future.” – Simone de Beauvoir.
Last time we looked at existential freedom in the thoughts of Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Today we will examine the utterly sweeping view of freedom advanced by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s argument is quite simple: historically man was imagined as created by God with an essence or nature; but for the atheist, man is “nothing else but what he makes of himself,”1 that is, essence does not precede existence, rather existence precedes essence. Man is complete subjectivity.
In this view, man hurls himself toward a future and imagines himself within it. Man is condemned to be free and carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. There are no excuses regarding the world, emotions, actions, or inaction. The response that “I did not ask to be born” is a naïve way of dealing with our facticity. In truth, the real facticity is “I am condemned to be wholly responsible for myself.”2. One is not distinct from one’s epoch, and no one is an innocent victim. To continue to exist is a choice not to desert one’s circumstances or to commit suicide.
As for emotions and passions, he disagrees with William James who claims emotions are a set of sensations caused by a physiologic disturbance in turn caused by a disturbed perception or image. Sartre feels emotions require intentionality or a direction towards the world and are thus not simple sensations. Emotions have a finality or purpose; they are a strategy for dealing with the world. He also rejects Sigmund Freud’s notion of the unconscious and psychic determinism; emotions are conscious tactics, knowingly and willingly undertaken.3
He refers to the individual as the for-itself choosing its own destiny. The absolute freedom of man implies responsibility, not by way of resignation, but as the consequence of our freedom. “My situation is mine…the free choice of myself.”4 There are no accidents. The end result for us is we are “compelled to decide the meaning of being.”5
Perhaps Sartre is exaggerating in his complete disavowal of worldly circumstances, biologically determined human nature, and uncontrollability of emotions, but it is a refreshing viewpoint, challenging us to live as if we are totally free to accomplish whatever we wish in life and to find the ultimate meaning of our existence, impervious to determinism, fate, and fortune. It certainly justifies extended reflection by the serious philosopher.
1 Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialistm and Human Emotions, The Philosophical Library, New York, 1957. Page 19.
2Ibid, page 65.
3Solomon, Robert C. No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life. The Great Courses. Lecture 19.
4 Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialistm and Human Emotions, The Philosophical Library, New York, 1957. Page 61.
5Ibid, page 66.