Wait, isn’t freedom good?
Kant famously wrote: “Enlightenment is mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity” (1). Essentially, enlightenment means growing up and most adults would say they enjoyed that process. A large majority, though, would have preferred to stay children: eternally existing in a world of blissful ignorance. Maturation is a necessary and beneficial process, but there are pains associated with the responsibility of adulthood. Likewise, the ascent to freedom is a wonderful thing that has downsides. Anyone who enjoys freedom must deal with the issues of anguish, abandonment, and the absurd. The famous philosopher Sartre explained the concept of anguish and the consequences of our freedom, while Camus elucidated the idea of the absurd hero who must confront and accept a meaningless and insignificant reality. If we are truly “condemned to be free” (Existentialism is a Humanism 34) as Sartre says, freedom must have some downsides. We are the sole authorities in our lives and we are directly responsible for the actions we take. The only way to rid ourselves of this terrible responsibility is through self deception and bad faith, which are even worse than freedom and a life lived in good faith.
What is “anguish”?
One downside to freedom is embodied by an idea Sartre uses the word “anguish” to describe. This word takes on three meanings: anguish at the results of our decision, anguish at having to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, and anguish at the need to create our own existence. This concept is truly a fear of ourselves and a fear of the freedom we possess. When a decision is made, the individual who makes the decision is not acting for purely himself, but as “a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind” (Existentialism is a Humanism 30). The individual must ask himself what would be the implications if everyone acted that way. A common response is: “but not everyone acts that way”. In Stern dining hall, it is common practice among students to walk past the meal swipe worker and pretend to have already swiped and paid for the meal. Many students believe this small decision will save them meal plan dollars in the long run, but are not considering the existential implications of their small theft. Taking action in itself is a prideful act. Sartre explains that, “every man ought to be asking himself, ‘Am I really a man who is entitled to act in such a way that the entire human race should be measuring itself by my actions?’ And if he does not ask himself that he masks his anguish” (Existentialism is a Humanism 27). There are numerous students masking their anguish at Stern dining, and when they deceive themselves they are acting in “bad faith”.
What do you mean by “bad faith”?
Bad faith is when an individual deceives himself and gives up his freedom by accepting false values. There are countless examples of bad faith, and one that Sartre uses is that of a woman on a first date. She ignores the sexual implications of compliments regarding her physical appearance and directs the words towards her human consciousness. She wants to believe that she is on the date solely because the man enjoys her company. She is freely and purposefully ignoring the implications of his words. Bad faith is paradoxical, because it uses freedom to deny freedom. To live in bad faith is to ignore anguish and essentially live a lie.
Why the repercussions of action matter
One of the easiest examples of anguish to understand is that of anguish at having to deal with the results and implications of our decisions. When a general sends his soldiers into battle, he almost certainly knows that some will die and feels responsible for their death. When he commands them, he does so with freedom of will. The choice is his, and he independently makes that decision. He feels anguish, but still continues onward. Here anguish does not prevent action. (Existentialism is a Humanism 27)
What exactly does “abandonment” entail?
Sartre and Camus believe that God doesn’t exist, and if this is true then we are “abandoned” in that there are “no values or order that can legitimize our conduct” (Existentialism is a Humanism 29). It is possible to understand abandonment by first approaching what Kierkegaard called the anguish of Abraham. In the traditional Bible story, an angel tells Abraham that he is to kill his son because God wills it. This is framed as a form of a test for him, because he values his son’s life and also values his relationship with God. The existential issue arises from verifying the angel’s existence and message. How can he be sure that the voice is not simply a voice in his head? How can we know the angel was intended for him? As he prepares to sacrifice his son “Abraham keeps silent–but he cannot speak. Therein lies the distress and anguish” (Kierkegaard 56). He realizes that individuals must act as if they are an example for all of humanity and it is ridiculous for to tell every person to follow every voice one thinks he hears in his head. If an individual does not explore the implications of his actions, he is simply masking his anguish. If he deceives himself about his motivation; he is acting in bad faith.
Does this still happen today?
Sartre uses one of his students to make an example for abandonment, and I will also anonymously use a student who lives in my dorm. He has enjoyed a very comfortable standard of living through his childhood and adolescence; as a result of the successful pharmacy his father has run for years. One day last year, his father didn’t come home from work, and he found out he had been arrested for fraud and money laundering. His pharmacy had been double charging customers for their medicine: once to Medicare or Medicaid and once to his own account. As a result of the investigation, their family’s accounts were frozen and he was unsure if college would still be a possibility. Due to generous financial aid, he was still allowed to matriculate to Stanford this year, but had to choose between leaving his unemployed mother and young brother at home while his father is in prison, or beginning work to support the family financially and emotionally. He values his love for family and could stay home, but also values the power of education. This decision caused and causes him a great deal of anguish, and no code of ethics, religious or otherwise, could give a definite answer as to what he should do. This kind of anguish is the second kind- agony as a result of having to make a difficult decision. To select an action, he had to closely study his values and decide which of his feelings were the strongest. Yet how can someone measure the dominance of a feeling or affection? Sartre says, “The only way I can measure the strength of this affection is precisely by performing an action that confirms and defines it. However, since I am depending on this affection to justify my action, I am caught in a vicious circle” (Existentialism is a Humanism 32). One can’t claim that they care enough about my friend to bail him out of jail for $10,000 unless they have done so, but they can’t partake in that action unless they truly do care that much about him. We are not defined by what we would have done if the situation were different, but instead by what we did with the scenario we were given. The existential and emotional anguish that arises from this concept and its paradoxical relationship is caused by our freedom.
Anguish in Sartre’s life
Fig 1&2. Edith Gombos Papers. M1175. Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, Calif.
These are examples of unpublished rough draft manuscripts by Jean-Paul Sartre (see fig. 1&2). It is of interest to note that this draft was written on unbound graph paper instead of traditional lined paper or a notebook. This reflects Sartre’s analytic way of removing emotion from his work and understanding human emotions objectively. He even says, “Existentialists do not believe in the power of passion” (Existentialism is a Humanism 29). Strangely, less than a third of each page is used for the majority of the manuscript. I believe this is because he broke each broad idea down into specific concepts like anguish, despair, and abandonment, but left room for each of these to be expanded upon. It is extremely interesting to get a glimpse into the mind of a man like Sartre, who was such a nonconformist that he was the first Nobel Laureate to decline the prize because he did not want to become “institutionalized”. One of his main reasons he decided to decline the prize was the large sum of money that accompanied the award. He said he was “tortured” by what he would do with the money, because he could either accept the award and donate the money to a needy cause or decline the award on principal, and deprive a cause of vital support. In the end he decided that it was not worth giving up his values, even for 250,000 crowns. This example is intriguing because it illustrates how Sartre, who literally wrote the book on anguish, dealt with its grasp when forced to make an uncertain and significant decision. This experience was similar to that of his pupil who had to leave his mother because there was no objective basis for him to make his decision and therefore he experienced anguish.
“Existence precedes essence” and nothingness
One of the reasons Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize was his first novel, Nausea, and he uses that word to describe the feeling humans get when they realize they are creating the world they live by experiencing it. In this book the main character, Roquentin, sees blue in the barber’s purple suspenders. He realizes that the idea of the word “purple” is just a construct in his mind that he uses to describe new unfamiliar experiences. The essence of things is a “facade” that obscures the true nature of existence. He realizes that there is nothing keeping us from deceiving ourselves and missing the underlying quality of everything. The resulting feeling he gets is fear of his power. In Being and Nothingness he explores a different example of the horrible freedom we have by depicting a man standing on a ledge who is safe where he stands. There’s no wind and almost no likelihood of falling off the edge, but still he feels dizzy. The reason for this is because he has nothing stopping him from jumping and also nothing to motivate him to. He is separated from the ledge by a short distance and he has complete freedom to jump. This freedom torments him as he realizes that he is afraid of himself, so he distances himself from the ledge metaphorically and possibly physically. This realization brings about the final type of anguish: agony over the fact the awful power we have to create our own essence. He says, “My thought is me: that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think… and I can’t stop myself from thinking. At this very moment – it’s frightful – if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire” (Nausea 100). He is the one who creates his own existence by thinking, even if he doesn’t want to, and in doing so pulls himself from nothingness. This means if you personally are thinking right now you are doomed to exist. You also have the privilege of existence, though. This realization can be either bleak or beautiful and what Sartre first does is acknowledge this chasm in perception. There is nothing that makes the suspenders “purple”, nothing that keeps the man from jumping off the ledge, and nothing to keep you from wasting your life. This anguish doesn’t render an individual helpless, but instead spurs him to action. His identity is not predefined, so he is free to create meaning for himself in the resulting void. Thus Sartre’s idea of the “existential hero” is one of action and meaning.
The “Absurd Hero”
Contrastingly, Albert Camus paints a picture of a very different hero in The Myth of Sisyphus.
Fig. 1 Absurd hero animation. Helton, Nick. “”Absurd Hero” an animation by Nick Helton” YouTube. YouTube, 8 June 2012. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.
Sisyphus, the ideal absurd hero, is eternally doomed to push a boulder up a mountain only for it to fall back down (see fig. 1). Although this may initially seem like a depressing and unfulfilling fate, Camus’s essay ends with: “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Myth of Sisyphus 123). Even though the struggle is “meaningless”, it provides fulfillment in its own way. It’s only when he looks for a better future that he sees the hopelessness of the situation. However, he has fully accepted the position he is in and can find joy in the toil. The acceptance of a hopeless future doesn’t immobilize him. Similarly in The Stranger, the protagonist Meursault goes through life hyper-aware of the insignificance of it all but does not completely resign himself. He doesn’t feel the urge to make the same kind of arbitrary judgments that most people do, but instead remains content with experiencing and extracting the joy from each moment of life as it happens. His perspective on life leads to a very different value system than the majority of society. His values are apparent when the story begins with the death of his mother, and the reader is shocked by the apathy that Meursault displays after the burial. He doesn’t cry for the deceased and he feels bad about having to take time off of work to go the funeral. Afterwards he says, “It occurred to me that anyway one more Sunday was over, that Mama was buried now, that I would go back to work and that, really, nothing had changed” (The Stranger 17). However, the next day at work his boss offers him a job in Paris that he responds to with indifference. When his boss comments on his lack of ambition he responds, “As a student I’d had plenty of ambition of the kind he meant. But, when I had to drop my studies, I very soon realized all that was pretty futile” (The Stranger 28). Characters throughout the book, along with the reader, continue to be stunned by the absurd way he views the world. He is happy to be a cog in the machine of society and at the end of the day realizes he adds nothing to the bigger picture. Sartre explains the reader’s feelings well when he says, “you were probably hoping, as you continued reading the book, that you uneasiness would fade, everything would gradually become clear, be made reasonable, and explained. Your hopes were dashed: The Stranger is not a book that explains anything” (Commentary on the Stranger 7). Camus achieved his goal. He shows throughout the story that life is irrational, hopeless, and empty. Meursault argues it must be dealt with as such. Even though death is inevitable and our lives will be forgotten we must find beauty in the struggle.
Rejection of God
As the story continues, Meursault takes a trip to the beach and his friend Raymond is attacked by his mistress’s father and two Arab men. Meursault takes Raymond’s gun with him and later sees one of the Arabs lying on the beach. He comes to the realization that it doesn’t matter if he shoots or not, and while baking in the sun he decides to fire his weapon. Meursault has realized the unimportance of his existence on this earth because death will erase any meaning he might have carried while alive. The bullets he fires kill the man and Meursault goes to prison to await trial. Throughout this process, he is very indifferent to the actions surrounding him and says that when a magistrate questions him “at first it all seemed like a game” (The Stranger 40). He doesn’t even hire a lawyer although he is on trial for his life. When talking with the magistrate, Meursault is religiously assaulted, and asked if he believes in God. Meursault replies no, and then rejects the magistrate’s attempt to convert him. Even later, when awaiting execution, a priest tries to scare Meursault into becoming a believer. The priest is shocked by his emotionless response to death when Meursault again rejects God. His status as an absurd hero is possible because of his rejection of religion and of a greater power, and leads to abandonment where there is no set of standards that can dictate morality.
What makes Meursault and the absurd hero unique is that he is aware of his own insignificance, but still rejects death. “There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” Camus says, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that” (Myth of Sisyphus 3). To Camus this is the paramount question because it would seem ridiculous to seek meaning in life if there is none. The way to overcome this is by finding an attitude towards life that makes it worth living despite the meaninglessness. Meursault has a passion for life and does not commit suicide because he wants to live, even without hope, resignation, illusion, or a future. Sartre explains, “Since God does not exist and we all must die, everything is permissible. One experience is as good as another, so what matters is to acquire as many of them as possible” (Commentary on the Stranger 6). Meursault goes through life living in the moment, without responsibility, and does not have to abide by our customary standards. Some, like Marie, enjoy his company because of his oddities, while others in the courtroom loathe his lack of compassion. Either way he is able to enjoy and experience life despite his awareness of the absurdity that arises from freedom.
Freedom is bad!
Absurdity, anguish, and all of the negative consequences of our reality are a result of freedom and its effect on humanity. There is some sort of freedom for mankind because without choice consciousness would be a movie. Anguish is a result of our own fear of freedom, and that in itself shows that freedom is something to be afraid of. Although freedom is a beautiful privilege of ours it is also a dangerous privilege. We cannot freely make decisions without confronting the profound ramifications of those decisions and their significance in our search for meaning. Since we have been endowed with the ability to create our own essence we understand the immense burden of this capability.
But not that bad!
The solution is truly to change yourself and not the world. Sartre argues this in Existentialism is a Humanism, when he says, “People would prefer to be born a hero or born a coward . . . in reality there is always the possibility that one day the coward may no longer be cowardly and the hero may cease to be a hero. What matters is the total commitment, but there is no one particular situation or action that fully commits you, one way or another” (39). As a result, it is imperative that an individual acts intentionally and from a positive perspective. Living life is like painting- each action or brush stroke is necessary for the greater picture, but a masterpiece cannot be created in a critical moment.
Like Meursault, most people feel like their lives are meaningless at some point. What both Sartre and Camus advocate for the struggle against the insignificance. They differ in that Sartre says that freedom is essentially good, but has limitations. Anguish should be recognized and bad faith should be avoided through self-awareness and honesty. Camus thinks that if people realized the absurdity of life they would feel untethered, suicidal, and anarchistic. Life could still have meaning, but only what you make it. I agree more with Sartre because freedom is still a blessing, and it is our duty to reject apathy and make ourselves into heroes instead of cowards. The grass isn’t greener on the other side. It’s green where you water it. Although a great deal of responsibility comes with this freedom, that’s what growing up is all about.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. New York: Knopf, 1967. Print.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Cambridge UP, 1988. Print.
Kant, Immanuel. What Is Enlightenment? Berkeley: U of California, 1996. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “A Commentary on The Stranger.” Existentialism Is a Humanism: 73-98. New
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Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York: Pocket, 1972. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965. Print.