Jean-Paul Sartre on Freedom and Responsibility

“I exist, that is all, and I find it nauseating.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

I have been interested in Sartre for a long time, but I haven’t yet gotten around to reading his most famous book Being and Nothingness. From what I have read about him, though, his philosophy sounds like something I could definitely get behind.

Sartre was an existentialist. He followed and endorsed a philosophy that faces the weirder and more painful aspects of the human condition, and attempted to shed light on the truth of the human condition. At the center is the fact that humans are alone, and we are wholly responsible for what we do in life. There are no single sets of rules and no single meaning for any of us and to believe in such things is to believe in an illusion.

The philosophy sounds depressing, but when you study it, think about it, and come out of the other side gives us a better sense of freedom and optimism.

I may not have read him, but I have collected a few of his quotes. Taken out of context I can’t be sure what he means, but some speak to me nonetheless. My favorites have to do with humans accepting the fact that God does not exist. I don’t want to debate this because the point isn’t whether God is or isn’t real the point is that for people who know he doesn’t exist the realization, despite appearances, can be jarring and upsetting.

“That God does not exist, I cannot deny, That my whole being cries out for God I cannot forget.”

 Jean-Paul Sartre

As most religious people assume, letting go of God does leave quite a void. The trick, and for some nonbelievers, the entire crux of it all, is to face the hard truth. You have to accept that the emptiness inside you is a reality. To deny it is to lie to yourself and to waste your life in lies. Existentialism begins with seeing that humans are untethered and free. As Sartre would see, our existence comes before our essence. We are here before we have a purpose. If there is a God, things are the other way around.

Now, facing these facts are hard. So, of course, most humans spend their whole lives running from it all. We would rather believe we have to do this or that, that we have rules and have to follow social constructs. We would rather give up our freedom of choice and say that our purpose and plan was laid out before we got here, and further give it up by believing that we must do this or that once we are here than deal with the uncomfortable fact that at any time we can do anything we like.

“We are left alone, without excuse.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

Whenever you think you can’t leave your job, you can’t leave your spouse, you can’t pick up and move to Austrailia, you are lying. You can, you always can. To say you cannot is to lie to yourself, and remember, lying to yourself only limits the quality of the life you will have.

It isn’t easy for us to do those things, but it isn’t impossible. The biggest hurdle is capitalism, and from what I understand,  Satre had some things to say about that too. Capitalism makes us feel trapped.

The point is you should never let yourself get stuck. Never forget you have more freedom than ever feels possible. And as we all know, with great power, comes great responsibility. You are free and with that freedom, the option of blaming anyone else for who you are and what you do is no longer available.

The loneliness, the freedom, and the responsibility are all scary things but to turn from them is to turn away from seeing the world for what it is and enjoying all that life has to offer. You have only one life, don’t waste it on illusions. I don’t mean God entirely, I mean the illusion that whatever you have is all there is and that all there is is what other people say you can have.

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Jean-Paul Sartre

Just like any philosophy the entire truth of being is not contained in any one but a little bit of wisdom can be found in each. There are things I don’t agree with Sartre on exactly.

For example, I agree that for humans, existence proceeds essence. There is no implicit purpose in our design. I also agree that there is no designer. I don’t agree that there is no design. DNA  gives us our design and to some extent determines some of our nature. The way Sartre has explained things, I think he means to say that each human being starts as a blank slate, and that isn’t true.

I believe there may be some limits on what we can and can’t do; I just believe there aren’t as many as we think there are. We have much, much more freedom than we can ever imagine. The sad part is we act in ways that limit our own freedom, both as individuals and a society.

I hope to read Sartre’s work soon, and I hope to pull as much wisdom as I can from him. I will treat him as I would any other great mind. I will take what makes sense, what can work for me, and what I think will improve this world and use it. The rest I will toss. From what I have heard of the man I expect to keep more than I throw away.

“Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”

 Jean-Paul Sartre

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Written in honor of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 111th birthday.

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Lisa

Hello! My name is Lisa. I find the human condition fascinating and I often write stuff about that. I blog at zenandpi.com but you can also find me on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, and if you like what I do, consider signing up for my newsletter. Thanks :)

5 thoughts on “Jean-Paul Sartre on Freedom and Responsibility”

  1. Well once I thought I was free and I ran to the other side of the earth. Then I was not free but terrible tormented and ,y actions had severe consequences; the full magnitude unknown. It might arrogant too to imagine we can separate ourselves from the reality that this universe although chaotic is some natural balance.

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    1. We are a part of the universe but the universe is indifferent to us. We are freer than we believe we are. I don’t mean that we can break the laws of physics, I mean there is no one way for a human to live and we can change things if we wanted to. I mean that there is no single destiny for any of us, and things are not this way “just because”. Thank you for reading :)

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  2. The only thing I’ve read by Sartre is No Exit – his play with the theme that “hell is other people” and I loved it.

    I do not agree with his philosophy wholly, primarily because I know that God does exist, just as you know He does not. However, I do agree that we are responsible for our actions and we have freedom that many reject. I’ve had the same conversation several times that runs along the lines of, “You do not have to stay in your dead-end job. You choose to. Decide if the comfort of that paycheck is more or less valuable than the vagaries of chasing your art.”
    http://doesntspeakklingon.blogspot.com

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