In a nutshell: There is no essential nature at the heart of our being. We are free to invent a self and create a life as we wish.
Central to Sartre’s thinking is the view that people have no essential “essence.” In fact, when humans analyze their own being, what they find at the heart of it is nothing. Yet this nothingness is a great thing, since it means we are totally free to create the self or the life we want.
Being and Nothingness (1943) caught the mood of post-war France in which all the old certainties had crumbled away. If France’s existing value system had got it into such a mess in the War, was it worth anything? Sartre represented a new way of seeing and being. People could choose their future, and it was this apparently new philosophy that excited a generation.
We are “abandoned” in the universe, Sartre points out: “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” The person who realizes that they choose the meaning of their life, even if it is a frightening thought, is absolutely free. They can live without excuses, regrets, or remorse and take absolute responsibility for their actions. As Sartre puts it, “Success is not important to freedom.” You don’t have to attain what you have wished to be free, you just have to be free to make a choice.
We can’t escape our “facticity”—the concrete facts of our existence, like our sex, nationality, class, and race. And yet, neither are we simply the sum of our facticity. Each of us can have a “project” for our life. The problem is that we shrink back from doing totally new things, things out of character, because we value consistency. Consistency, or character, is both a form of security and the lens through which we view and make sense of our world but is largely an illusion. Despite all the limiting factors of our existence, we are freer than we imagine.
Freedom and Relationships
Why are humans obsessed with relationships? Sartre’s answer is that, although we are each individually conscious beings, we also need others to see us and “make us real.” The problem in relationships is that we try to turn other free consciousnesses (people) into objects, which is never possible. Our best chances for happiness or success in relationships is to recognize and allow another’s freedom. We can try to make others dependent on us emotionally or materially, but we can never possess the consciousness of another. “If Tristan and Isolde [the mythical love pair] fall madly in love because of a love potion,” Sartre writes, “they are less interesting”—because a potion would cut out their consciousness.
Romantic relationships are so potent, Sartre says, because they join together one person’s state of Nothingness to another’s Being. In plain terms, when we fall in love with someone, they seem to fill a hole. We rely on the Other to make us exist (otherwise, we are the state of Nothing). Yet we are perpetually insecure in love because at any moment, we can become, instead of the center of the lover’s world, merely one thing among many. Relationships are a perpetual dance between lovers wanting to perceive each other’s freedom and wanting to see each other as an object.
Sartre lived out his own philosophy of freedom. The death of his father when he was quite young meant there was no pressure to model himself on him, and he felt free to invent a self. Consistent with their refutation of all bourgeois or middle-class values, Sartre and fellow philosopher Simone de Beauvoir never married or had children, but their union of minds made them one of the great couples of the 20th century. For most of their lives, they lived in apartments within a stone’s throw of each other and would spend several hours a day together. Their thoughts on being, love, and relationships remain some of the most penetrating ever written.
Tomorrow…Wittgenstein and the nature of language and meaning.
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