Sartre and Camus in Contrast: Divergent Conceptions of Freedom in Existentialist and Absurdist Literature

The twentieth century was a time of philosophical upheaval, as certain philosophers strayed away from the conventions of philosophical thought and increased the ideological divide between the “analytic” and “continental” philosophical traditions.  Two men that spearheaded this intellectual revolt were Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, philosophers who were renowned for their devotion to philosophical questions pertaining to human existence.  The intellectual labor of these men culminated in the formulation of two distinct schools of thought: in the case of Camus, absurdism, and in the case of Sartre, existentialism.  Sartre and Camus explored similar topics within their philosophical essays and novels, but they reached distinct conclusions in regard to the ideal manner in which human beings should approach existence; unfortunately, their apparent similarity lead both men to be erroneously categorized as members of the same philosophical school.  In order to better understand the important distinctions that exist between these philosophers, it is helpful to turn to literature; within the absurdist novel The Stranger and the existentialist novel Nausea, Camus and Sartre appropriate the structure of the traditional novel in order to present literary representations of their respective philosophies.  Camus’ novel The Stranger relates the story of Meursault, an apathetic man who commits an inexplicable murder and faces the wrath of the Algerian legal system as a result of his utter indifference to the conventions of refined human societies, while Sartre’s Nausea presents the reflections of Antoine Roquentin, a historian who is afflicted by a mysterious illness that seems to be derived from a series of unsettling revelations regarding the nature of his existence.  Within The Stranger, Camus depicts freedom as the culmination of a particular relationship with life, while Sartre uses Nausea in order to contend that freedom is inherent to mankind; this intrinsic disparity between existentialist freedom and absurdist freedom can be gleaned from the manner in which the existential journeys of Meursault and Roquentin are portrayed.

Within his novel The Stranger, Albert Camus constructs a literary representation of the philosophical views espoused in his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus: his nebulous depiction of Meursault’s crime and his poignant portrayal of Meursault’s existential epiphanies are evidence of his disregard for metaphysical freedom and his espousal of a freedom that is contingent upon confrontation with the absurdity of life.  The first part of The Stranger deals with Meursault’s life before his homicidal actions; in this section of the novel, Meursault is presented as an embodiment of indifference, a man who is suspended in a state of existence that is bereft of reflection.  Meursault moves through life in a dreamlike state, unable to muster the conviction to engage in human society in a manner that exceeds superficial interactions.  At the outset of the novel, Meursault is show to be remarkably unaffected by the demise of his mother, and after lethargically completing his societally mandated duties at her funeral, he returns to his home.  As the novel progresses, Meursault begins to develop a friendship with Raymond, a man of dubious character and profession, and Raymond proceeds to invite Meursault to accompany him to spend a day at the beach home of a friend.  During the duration of this stay, a conflict arises between Raymond and a group of Arab men, and this conflict culminates with Meursault using a gun to kill one of the Arabs. The pertinence of this occurrence to the idea of freedom is rooted in the manner in which it is portrayed: the concept of free will, of individual autonomy in the face of external circumstances, is rendered impotent by the obscurity of Meursault’s motivations.  The language Camus uses is indicative of an attitude of skepticism in regards to human freedom; as he walks along the beach towards the distant Arab, Meursault claims that it “occurred” to him “that all [he] had to do was turn around, … [but] the whole beach, throbbing in the sun, was pressing on [his] back” (58).  Meursault expounds upon the intensity of the sun’s glare and the intense effect it has upon his mind, stating that “[it] was” the adverse physical effects of the light “that made [him] move forward” (59).  Meursault does not provide any indication that a conscious decision catalyzed the physical action of firing his gun; in fact, he does not explicitly state that he, as a conscious agent, fired the first bullet, blithely articulating that “the trigger gave” (59).  In totality, Meursault’s actions in this section of the novel become understandable when viewed in the context of the following quote from Camus’ philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus:

I have nothing to do with the problem of metaphysical liberty.  Knowing whether or not man is free doesn’t interest me.  I can experience only my own freedom … The problem of ‘freedom as such’ has no meaning.  For it is linked … with the problem of God.  Knowing whether or not man is free involves knowing whether or not he can have a master. (41)

Meursault is not portrayed as the conscious author of his decision to slay the Arab, but he also is not portrayed as the product of deterministic forces that transcend the spatial and temporal constraints of the physical world.  This ambiguity facilitates a heightened taste of the absurdist philosophy that Camus presents, as the reader is presented with no justification for this tragic occurrence.  In essence, Meursault is depicted as an individual who is suspended within human society and largely complacent with his existential station, although he is shown to be incapable of emotionally involving himself in the conventional practices of his society; he avoids material deprivation by dutifully maintaining employment in a position of apparent mediocrity, but he does not perpetuate a public persona that extends beyond the bare minimum of social acceptability.  At this stage in his existence, he is incapable of achieving the form of freedom contained in absurdism, as he has not yet confronted and comprehended the inherent absurdity of his life.

Camus’ depiction of Meursault’s imprisonment and his concluding epiphanies constitute a poignant illustration of Camus’ conception of freedom as a reward bequeathed upon those who recognize and confront the Absurd.  In the case of Camus, the Absurd is defined as the tension that exists between the human desire to derive meaning from the physical world and the inherent inability of human beings to complete such a task.  In second part of The Stranger, Meursault is imprisoned and sentenced to death.  The reason for the implementation of the death penalty is shown to be unrelated to the crime itself: Meursault is condemned because of his complete indifference towards the conventions and ideals of human society, an indifference that is materialized in his apparent callousness in the wake of his mother’s demise.  As Meursault awaits his execution, he is visited by a chaplain, and during the visit, Meursault unleashes his pent up dissatisfaction with the chaplain’s certitude in accepting universal truths, alleging that the chaplain is “living like a dead man” (120).  After hearing Meursault rant, the chaplain leaves in a visibly shaken state, and Meursault reflects upon his life, stating that “for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world” (122).  Paradoxically, Meursault is shown to achieve consciousness of existence, and therefore true freedom, when he is in an imprisoned state.  Although Meursault’s existence in the first part of the novel was nominally free, insofar as his actions and thoughts were not dictated by anyone other than himself, he was not in possession of absurdist freedom, as he allowed the structure of the world and the wishes of his companions to constitute a constructed meaning for his existence, a meaning that confined him.  In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus expands upon the themes introduced in The Stranger, describing the absurd man as one who realizes that to “the extent to which he imagined a purpose to his life, he adapted himself to the demands of a purpose to be achieved and became a slave of liberty,” and that regardless of how “far one may remain from any presumption, … one adapts one’s life to them” (43).  In the case of Meursault, we observe a man who blandly complied with the structure of human society, and this compliance supports the claim that Meursault was not truly free until he accepted the absurdity of his existence.  As Camus states, “the return to consciousness, the escape from everyday sleep represent the first steps of absurd freedom” (44).  Meursault was the embodiment of “everyday sleep,” as he flowed through his life without consciously evaluating the nature of his actions; Meursault is operating at a “level of existence” that is “prereflective, namely, an existence exhausted by pure, unconscious experience” (Sagi 93).  It follows that Camus intended to utilize Meursault in order to argue that freedom is not an intrinsic component of the human psyche, but instead is a particular state of mind that can only be achieved when man realizes the superfluity of his own life and refrains from blindly constructing meaning within its bounds.

Having presented the conception of freedom as it appears in absurdist literature, I will now offer a critical perspective upon this perception of freedom.  Thus far, I have argued that absurdism does not seek to render judgement upon the existence of metaphysical freedom in the human individual, as it considers this judgement to be a philosophical impossibility.  In my opinion, this position is not wholly tenable; if an individual is considered to be in possession of a limited measure of freedom upon the sole condition that he confront the absurdity of his existence and the subjectivity of societal norms, it follows that he must be in possession of a measure of freedom while “unconscious” in order to possess the capacity for a transcendence of the moral confines of human society.  Insofar as the unconscious man possesses the intellectual capacity for a realization of the absurd, he also retains a capacity for the realization of freedom; however, I would contend that a “capacity for freedom” is equivalent to “freedom”, as it implies that man has the ability to affirm or deny his freedom out of his own volition.  Furthermore, I find Camus’ illustration of man’s transition from unconsciousness to sentience as a singular, pivotal event to be troubling; in contrast, I would contend that this theoretical dichotomy is not applicable to the complex mental processes of the human individual, as the nature of human existence can be generally described as an oscillation between consciousness and unconsciousness, a process of unconsciously submerging into life, regaining consciousness, retracting into a more jaded perspective, unconsciously submerging into life again, and continuing ad infinitum.  Consequently, I find the depiction of freedom found in the work of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to be more compelling than that of Camus, as it presupposes the existence of human freedom while simultaneously recognizing the ability of human beings to dissemble their freedom from themselves.

In contrast to the teachings of absurdism, Jean-Paul Sartre emphasized that freedom is an a priori condition of human existence, and that human beings are utterly responsible for the construction of subjective meaning within their lives; within literature, this existentialist portrayal of freedom can be observed within Sartre’s novel Nausea, as the narrator, Roquentin, is consumed by a physical and psychological manifestation of existential anguish.  Sartre structured Nausea in the form of a series of journal entries discovered from the journal of a reclusive historian, Antoine Roquentin.  Roquentin resides in the fictitious French city of Bouville, where he is struggling to complete an accurate historical account of the life of a man of apparent historical importance, the Marquis de Rollebon, but he is plagued by a mysterious illness which pervades nearly every facet of his life.  Midway through the novel, Roquentin abruptly decides to abort his historical account of Rollebon’s life, and immediately comprehends that this work constituted the effective meaning for the continuation of his existence; in Roquentin’s words, “[Rollebon] needed me in order to exist and I needed him so as not to feel my existence” (98).  When Roquentin divorces himself from his conception of Rollebon, he becomes painfully aware of the overwhelming truth of his existence and is bereft of any means of dissembling his existence from his consciousness.  As an addendum to his realization of existence, Roquentin realizes that he is “the one who pulls [himself] from the nothingness to which [he aspires];” in other words, Roquentin perceives his lack of innocence in the continuation of his existence (100).  A few days later, Roqentin finds himself within a park and begins to contemplate existence further.  Roquentin ceases to view physical objects through the lens of human interpretation; for example, Roquentin focuses upon a particular tree root of blackish color, noting that he could not comprehend this particular root by understanding the abstractions that are the general function of a tree root or the color black, instead realizing that the existence of the tree root was a fragile contingency, and that “in speaking about” about manifestations of physical reality, human beings “impose yet more order on them”, thereby concealing from themselves the fact that future existence is not guaranteed or predetermined (Royle 28).  These realizations lead Roquentin to to his conclusion that “all is free,” as he realizes that nothing exists out of necessity (131).  Roquentin wistfully articulates his freedom thus: “I am free: there is absolutely no more reason for living, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can’t imagine any more of them … My past is dead.  I am alone …  and free.  But this freedom is rather like death” (156-157).  Roquentin conceives his existence as a singularity of being, existing in the present and separated from the past and future by nothingness, and subsequently realizes his intrinsic freedom in the determination of his essence.

When viewed in the context of his philosophical essays, it becomes apparent that Sartre’s conception of freedom is that of an innate characteristic that exists within man.  In his book Being and Nothingness, Sartre explores themes that are similar to those contained in Nausea.  In particular, Sartre’s concept of anguish, or the “mode of consciousness” through which “man gets the consciousness of his freedom,” is quite similar to the sickness that plagues Roquentin (65).  For Sartre, anguish arises as a result of the fact that man is separated from his past and his future by a nothingness, and that regardless of the convictions he has espoused in the past, he still retains the ability to alter his behavior: for a man who has previously decided to cease gambling, “anguish is precisely the total inefficacy of the past resolution”, as the man must continually reaffirm his prior convictions in order to prevent himself from gambling (70).  In Roquentin’s case, he finds that his past desires to complete his book about Rollebon are meaningless unless he has the fortitude to continuously sustain them.  Sartre argues that “man is always separated by a nothingness from his essence” (72), and Roquentin realizes this when he abandons his research on Rollebon and decides to move to Paris in order to begin working upon a novel.  As Sartre articulates in Existentialism is a Humanism, “man is condemned to be free” (29).  Roquentin becomes aware of the burden that accompanies his possession of utter freedom: that his every action is imbued with a crushing measure of responsibility.

When viewed superficially, The Stranger and Nausea appear to be works of a kindred intellectual spirit, as both are presented as first person perspectives on the existential conditions of two individuals.  At their hearts, however, these novels are representative of two divergent perspectives on the nature of human freedom, and understanding this divergence is integral to understanding the structural differences that exist between the philosophies of absurdism and existentialism.  One one hand, Albert Camus utilizes The Stranger in order to express his view that freedom cannot be quantified in a metaphysical sense as “free will”, as such this freedom is contingent upon knowledge of other metaphysical truths, such as the existence of God; instead, Meursault, the embodiment of the concept of the absurd man, can only achieve a measure of freedom through a recognition and acceptance of the absurdity of existence, and the subsequent rejection of the overarching tablets of morality that confine the behavior of human beings.  In contrast, Sartre’s existentialism is deeply rooted in the notion that freedom, or free will, is an intrinsic component of the human being-for-itself that cannot be eradicated; in Nausea, this view is manifested in the Antoine Roquentin’s realization that his existence is submerged in nothingness, isolated from past or future.  In light of this, it is understandable that Camus took offense to pervasive view that The Stranger was the archetypal existentialist novel, as he rejected the most basic tenet of existentialist thought and categorized the existentialist attempt to project subjective meaning onto life as “philosophical suicide”.  This conflict emphasizes how important freedom is in philosophical thought, as a perception of the nature and existence of human freedom is necessary in order to advise human beings on how to approach the condition of their existence.  


Works Cited

Camus, Albert.  The Myth of Sisyphus.  Trans. Justin O’Brien.  New York: Vintage, 1955.  Print.

Camus, Albert.  The Stranger.  Trans. Matthew Ward.  New York: Vintage, 1989.  Print.

Royle, Peter.  The Sartre-Camus Controversy: A Literary and Philosophical Critique.  Ottawa: University of Ottawa, 1982.  Print.

Sagi, Avi.  Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd.  Trans. Batya Stein.  New York, Rodopi, 2002.  Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul.  Being and Nothingness.  Trans. Hazel E. Barnes.  New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.  Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul.  Existentialism Is a Humanism.  Trans. Carol Macomber.  New Haven: Yale University, 2007.  Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul.  Nausea.  Trans. Lloyd Alexander.  New York, New Directions, 1964.  Print.