Jean-Paul Sartre – Inventing Oneself at Every Instant

Jean-Paul Sartre – Inventing Oneself at Every Instant

Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.That is the first principle of existentialism. — Jean-Paul Sartre

The Life and Work of Jean-Paul SartreJean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century and the most prominent figure of the French existentialist movement. His most important philosophical text, Being and Nothingness (1943), is a monstrous work of over 800 pages that takes on most of the main themes of Sartre’s existentialism including the nature of consciousness, perception, the existence of “nothingness,” free will, self-deception, authenticity, morality, and responsibility. Sartre was a prolific writer, and in addition to his non-fiction philosophical works, he wrote numerous plays, short-stories, and novels, as well as political commentary and literary criticism. In 1964 Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Swedish Academy noted that “his work which, rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age.” Sartre, however, chose to decline the prize citing that he always declined official honors and that “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”

Sartre had a nearly lifelong friendship and love affair with the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, whose book The Second Sex, brought together the ideas of feminism and existentialism. They first met at the Sorbonne in 1929 and were largely inseparable (though never monogamous) thereafter. Each had tremendous impact upon the thought of the other. World War II also profoundly shaped Sartre’s life. He was drafted in 1939 and served as a meteorologist for the French Army. He was captured by the German troops and was held for nine months as a prisoner of war. This period was influential to Sartre’s later thoughts on freedom of the will and personal responsibility, and it was during this detainment that Sartre first read Martin Heidegger’s Being in Time, which was also extremely influential in shaping Sartre’s own existentialist views. After World War II both Sartre and de Beauvoir were politically active, and eventually became two of France’s most famous public intellectuals. Sartre’s political philosophy was largely shaped by Marxism, and geared toward economic transformation to increase the freedom and dignity of the worker. Sartre also published influential works opposing racism and the inequitable and oppressive treatment of Blacks and Jews.

The excerpt below is from Existentialism is a Humanism, which was originally a lecture, given by Sartre without the use of notes, in Paris in 1945. While Being and Nothingness remains the quintessential expression of Sartre’s existentialism, Existentialism is a Humanism provides a more accessible entry-point for new students of Sartre’s philosophy.

In Sartre’s Words: What is Existentialism?

Most of those who are making use of this word would be highly confused if required to explain its meaning. For since it has become fashionable, people cheerfully declare that this musician or that painter is “existentialist.” A columnist in Clartes signs himself “The Existentialist,” and, indeed, the word is now so loosely applied to so many things that it no longer means anything at all…

All the same, it can easily be defined. The question is only complicated because there are two kinds of existentialists. There are, on the one hand, the Christians, amongst whom I shall name Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, both professed Catholics; and on the other the existential atheists, amongst whom we must place Heidegger as well as the French existentialists and myself. What they have in common is simply the fact that they believe that existence comes before essence — or, if you will, that we must begin from the subjective.

What exactly do we mean by that? If one considers an article of manufacture as, for example, a book or a paper-knife — one sees that it has been made by an artisan who had a conception of it; and he has paid attention, equally, to the conception of a paper-knife and to the pre-existent technique of production which is a part of that conception and is, at bottom, a formula. Thus the paper-knife is at the same time an article producible in a certain manner and one which, on the other hand, serves a definite purpose, for one cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper-knife without knowing what it was for. Let us say, then, of the paper-knife that its essence — that is to say the sum of the formulae and the qualities which made its production and its definition possible — precedes its existence. The presence of such-and-such a paper-knife or book is thus determined before my eyes. Here, then, we are viewing the world from a technical standpoint, and we can say that production precedes existence.

When we think of God as the creator, we are thinking of him, most of the time, as a supernal artisan… so that when God creates he knows precisely what he is creating. Thus, the conception of man in the mind of God is comparable to that of the paper-knife in the mind of the artisan: God makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife, following a definition and a formula. Thus each individual man is the realization of a certain conception which dwells in the divine understanding…

Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing — as he wills to be after that leap towards existence.

Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. And this is what people call its “subjectivity,” using the word as a reproach against us. But what do we mean to say by this, but that man is of a greater dignity than a stone or a table? For we mean to say that man primarily exists — that man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards b a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before that projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be. Not, however, what he may wish to be. For what we usually understand by wishing or willing is a conscious decision taken — much more often than not — after we have made ourselves what we are. I may wish to join a party, to write a book or to marry — but in such a case what is usually called my will is probably a manifestation of a prior and more spontaneous decision. If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders…


And when we speak of “abandonment” – a favorite word of Heidegger – we only mean to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to draw the consequences of his absence right to the end… There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that “the good” exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse.

For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism — man is free, man is freedom. Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimize our behavior. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. — We are left alone, without excuse.

That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does. The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never regard a grand passion as a destructive torrent upon which a man is swept into certain actions as by fate, and which, therefore, is an excuse for them. He thinks that man is responsible for his passion. Neither will an existentialist think that a man can find help through some sign being vouchsafed upon earth for his orientation: for he thinks that the man himself interprets the sign as he chooses. He thinks that every man, without any support or help whatever, is condemned at every instant to invent man…

The Creation of Values

As an example by which you may the better understand this state of abandonment, I will refer to the case of a pupil of mine, who sought me out in the following circumstances. His father was quarreling with his mother and was also inclined to be a “collaborator”; his elder brother had been killed in the German offensive of 1940 and this young man, with a sentiment somewhat primitive but generous, burned to avenge him. His mother was living alone with him, deeply afflicted by the semi-treason of his father and by the death of her eldest son, and her one consolation was in this young man. But he, at this moment, had the choice between going to England to join the Free French Forces or of staying near his mother and helping her to live. He fully realized that this woman lived only for him and that his disappearance — or perhaps his death — would plunge her into despair. He also realized that, concretely and in fact, every action he performed on his mother’s behalf would be sure of effect in the sense of aiding her to live, whereas anything he did in order to go and fight would be an ambiguous action which might vanish like water into sand and serve no purpose. For instance, to set out for England he would have to wait indefinitely in a Spanish camp on the way through Spain; or, on arriving in England or in Algiers he might be put into an office to fill up forms.

Consequently, he found himself confronted by two very different modes of action; the one concrete, immediate, but directed towards only one individual; and the other an action addressed to an end infinitely greater, a national collectivity, but for that very reason ambiguous — and it might be frustrated on the way. At the same time, he was hesitating between two kinds of morality; on the one side the morality of sympathy, of personal devotion and, on the other side, a morality of wider scope but of more debatable validity. He had to choose between those two.

What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbor, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother? Which is the more useful aim, the general one of fighting in and for the whole community, or the precise aim of helping one particular person to live? Who can give an answer to that a priori? No one. Nor is it given in any ethical scripture. The Kantian ethic says, Never regard another as a means, but always as an end. Very well; if I remain with my mother, I shall be regarding her as the end and not as a means: but by the same token I am in danger of treating as means those who are fighting on my behalf; and the converse is also true, that if I go to the aid of the combatants I shall be treating them as the end at the risk of treating my mother as a means.

If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts. That is what this young man tried to do; and when I saw him he said, “In the end, it is feeling that counts; the direction in which it is really pushing me is the one I ought to choose. If I feel that I love my mother enough to sacrifice everything else for her — my will to be avenged, all my longings for action and adventure then I stay with her. If, on the contrary, I feel that my love for her is not enough, I go.”

But how does one estimate the strength of a feeling? The value of his feeling for his mother was determined precisely by the fact that he was standing by her. I may say that I love a certain friend enough to sacrifice such or such a sum of money for him, but I cannot prove that unless I have done it. I may say, “I love my mother enough to remain with her,” if actually I have remained with her. I can only estimate the strength of this affection if I have performed an action by which it is defined and ratified. But if I then appeal to this affection to justify my action, I find myself drawn into a vicious circle…

In other words, feeling is formed by the deeds that one does; therefore I cannot consult it as a guide to action. And that is to say that I can neither seek within myself for an authentic impulse to action, nor can I expect, from some ethic, formulae that will enable me to act. You may say that the youth did, at least, go to a professor to ask for advice. But if you seek counsel — from a priest, for example — you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise. In other words, to choose an adviser is nevertheless to commit oneself by that choice. If you are a Christian, you will say, Consult a priest; but there are collaborationists, priests who are resisters and priests who wait for the tide to turn: which will you choose? Had this young man chosen a priest of the resistance, or one of the collaboration, he would have decided beforehand the kind of advice he was to receive. Similarly, in coming to me, he knew what advice I should give him, and I had but one reply to make. You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent…

Bad Faith and Authenticity

Since we have defined the situation of man as one of free choice, without excuse and without help, any man who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, or by inventing some deterministic doctrine, is operating in bad faith.ii One may object: “But why should he not choose bad faith?” I reply that it is not for me to judge him morally, but I call his bad faith an error. Here one cannot avoid pronouncing a judgment of truth. The self-deception is evidently a falsehood, because it is a dissimulation of man’s complete liberty of commitment. Upon this same level, I say that it is also acting in bad faith if I choose to declare that certain values are incumbent upon me; I am in contradiction with myself if I will these values and at the same time say that they impose themselves upon me. If anyone says to me, “And what if I wish to live in bad faith” I answer, “There is no reason why you should not, but I declare that you are doing so, and that the attitude of strict consistency alone is that of good faith.” Furthermore, I can pronounce a moral judgment. For I declare that freedom, in respect of concrete circumstances, can have no other end and aim but itself; and when once a man has seen that values depend upon himself, in that state of forsakenness he can will only one thing, and that is freedom as the foundation of all values. That does not mean that he wills it in the abstract: it simply means that the actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest of freedom itself as such. A man who belongs to some communist or revolutionary society wills certain concrete ends, which will imply the will to freedom, but that freedom is willed in community. We will freedom for freedom’s sake, in and through particular circumstances. And in thus willing freedom, we discover that tit depends entirely upon the freedom of others and that the freedom of others depends upon our own. Obviously, freedom as the definition of a man does not depend upon others, but as soon as there is a commitment, I am obliged to will the liberty of others at the same time as my own. I cannot make liberty my aim unless I make that of others equally my aim. Consequently, when I recognize, as entirely authentic, that man is a being whose existence precedes his essence, and that he is a free being who cannot, in any circumstances, but will his freedom, at the same time I realize that I cannot not will the freedom of others. Thus, in the name of that will to freedom which is implied in freedom itself, I can form judgments upon those who seek to hide from themselves the wholly voluntary nature of their existence and its complete freedom. Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary, when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth — I shall call scum. But neither cowards nor scum can be identified except upon the plane of strict authenticity…

Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose.

ANALYSIS: The Philosopher of Freedom and Responsibility

You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent…

Jean-Paul Sartre is often referred to as “the philosopher of freedom” because there is no concept more central to his understanding of what it means to be human. It is hard to find within philosophy, or outside it, anyone whose thoughts on freedom are so extensive and so radical. Many have defended a doctrine of “free will” in virtue of which we are free to choose between different courses of actions. But generally, such philosophers allow for various sorts of excusing conditions and limitations upon our free will, e.g., Joe didn’t choose to go to war – he got drafted; Maribel didn’t mean to yell, the stress of the situation just got the better of her, etc. But Sartre maintains that the peculiar character of human reality is that it is “without excuse.” Not only do we choose our actions, but, according to Sartre, we also choose our beliefs, our desires, our passions and emotions, and our very character, since our character is comprised of how we respond to the situations of life. If one is drawn into a war, he tells us, they are responsible for it. It is their war, since one’s response to the war is purely their own. One may hide, fight for a just cause, help others, betray one’s friends, etc. In short, all meaning in and about the world is conferred through our own free choices. This radical view of freedom and responsibility is at the center of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy.

Sartre’s Atheistic Existentialism

We only mean to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to draw the consequences of his absence right to the end.

Sartre defines himself as an atheistic existentialist. One need not be an atheist to be an existentialist. Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, and Gabriel Marcel were all important existentialists who were theists. Nevertheless, for Sartre, his existentialism is inexorably linked to his atheism and his analysis of the paper knife shows us why. An artifact, whether it be a book, a computer, a paper knife, etc., is something that has an essence that precedes its existence. Before the paper knife was made – before it was ever brought into existence – its essence had already been determined. Prior to its manufacture, someone had already decided: (i) this is going to be a paper knife, (ii) it is going to be this particular type of paper knife (iii) it is going to be created according to this particular design, and (iv) out of this particular material. In this manner, the very “essence” of the object (what it essentially is through all of its distinguishing and defining qualities) has been decided prior to its existence. Thus, its essence precedes its existence.

If God were to exist, Sartre thinks that people would be much like the paper knife, with God playing the role of the supreme artisan:

God makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife, following a definition and a formula. Thus each individual man is the realisation of a certain conception which dwells in the divine understanding.

In the case of a divine creation, one’s essence would precede their existence. Before you were ever born, God would have already decided what makes you “you.” God will have created you with a specific purpose or plan in mind. At minimum, He will have already decided how your soul is to be unique and different from everyone else’s, and perhaps He will have even decided how the events of your life are going to fit into a larger overall plan. But as an atheist, Sartre thinks that there is no creator or designer to determine our essence. For human beings, our existence precedes essence. We are born first and must define ourselves according to our own conception.

Facticity and Transcendence

Man is not what he is, and is what he is not.

Sartre tells us that “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” But we must be careful not take him too literally here. Certainly, he would admit that at birth you have some distinguishing features. You might be 7.6 lbs., black-haired, male, a natural born citizen, born into bondage, or with a birth defect, etc. What Sartre means is that your essence – the crucial qualities that make you “you” are undefined and indeterminate at birth. This hits upon a duality that comprises the human reality: facticity and transcendence. Facticity refers to that which simply “is.” Your facticity is all of the facts about you; your age, your place of birth, your height, and how you have lived your life up to this point, that you are currently reading this book, etc. Transcendence, in contrast, is the human ability to constantly negate our facticity. It is our ability to take the facticity of the situation, and make it no longer true by changing it through acts of imagination, choice, and action. Our freedom enables various modes of transcendence within any set of circumstances. If you have been a mediocre student throughout your life, you can change course today by studying harder. If you have been a conformist to the norms of family or society, you can rebel at any moment. Even if we contemplate the most unfree situations, there is always room for transcendence. Imagine the prisoner of war, hands tied, alone, in a deep pit dug into the ground. Certainly, the prisoner’s options have been severely reduced. There are some aspects of their facticity that they cannot transcend. They cannot see their family and friends, they cannot play tennis, they cannot choose what they will have for dinner – or if they will eat at all. But there is still the opportunity for transcendence in an unlimited number of ways. In such a situation, one can, hate their captors with every fiber of their being; or, they can try to forgive their captors, seeing them as innocent pawns of their government. Or, one can meditate, pray, develop their existentialist philosophy in their head, or eat dirt until they die. Every situation limits our possibilities – some more, others less — but we always have options. It is upon the specific situation that our free will operates. We always have the ability to transcend and to change some aspect of the situation or our role within it.

Abandonment and the Creation of Values

If God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself.

Since, from Sartre’s atheistic perspective, we were not put on earth for some profound purpose within a grand master plan, but instead are thrown into the world by cosmic chance, we find ourselves with no supreme authority to guide us. In this sense we are alone, and this may leave us with a feeling of abandonment. What are we to do? How should we live our lives with no blueprint to follow, and no imbedded purpose? What should we value? What is to give meaning to our lives? Sartre’s answer is that we must invent. We must create our own values and in so doing, we choose the sort of person we become.

Sartre illustrates this point through the story of the student who came to him in search of advice during World War II. The student was faced with a hard choice. On the one hand, he was eager to join the war effort. By joining the military he could support his countrymen, resist Nazi domination, and avenge his brother’s death. But on the other hand, there was his mother. She had already lost one son to the war. He was her only consolation, and his absence or death would surely plunge her into despair. The student longed for an answer, but who could help him choose? Sartre writes:

Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbor, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother? Which is the more useful aim, the general one of fighting in and for the whole community, or the precise aim of helping one particular person to live?

Sartre contends that ethical doctrines or theories of morality cannot adjudicate such competing values. And even if they did, one must first choose to commit themselves to that particular doctrine. We can seek the advice of other people, but whose advice will we seek? That of the collaborationist priest, or the priest of the resistance? The existentialist professor or the military commander? To make this choice is to decide beforehand, the kind of advice one wishes to receive.

The student ultimately decides to go with his gut, saying:

“In the end, it is feeling that counts; the direction in which it is really pushing me is the one I ought to choose. If I feel that I love my mother enough to sacrifice everything else for her — my will to be avenged, all my longings for action and adventure then I stay with her. If, on the contrary, I feel that my love for her is not enough, I go.”

But Sartre thinks that this too is impossible. How does one know what feeling is the strongest, or what they value more? Talk is cheap and fantasies are easy. One can say “I love my mother more than anything.” But this is just pretense if one chooses the military. How do we know what we care about most? Sartre thinks that there is only one answer: through our actions. He writes, “I can only estimate the strength of this affection if I have performed an action by which it is defined and ratified.” Hence, only by staying home with his mother can the student truly say that he cared about her most or that his feelings for her were the strongest. It is his action that makes this true. And only by going to war does he make it true that he cares for freedom and country above all else. Our actions are what define us.

You are Your Actions

In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait.

At birth you are neither a hero nor a coward; not generous or stingy, a conformist or a rebel, funny or serious. Such qualities will only come to be true of you as the result of how you live your life – through the choices you make and the actions you take. Sartre illustrates this point with the example of cowardice:

The existentialist, when he portrays a coward, shows him as responsible for his cowardice. He is not like that on account of a cowardly heart or lungs or cerebrum, he has not become like that through his physiological organism; he is like that because he has made himself into a coward by his actions. There is no such thing as a cowardly temperament. There are nervous temperaments; there is what is called impoverished blood, and there are also rich temperaments. But the man whose blood is poor is not a coward for all that, for what produces cowardice is the act of giving up or giving way; and a temperament is not an action. A coward is defined by the deed that he has done.

Clearly Sartre is correct. So long as one never shies away from danger they cannot be rightly called a coward. The only thing that can truly make a person a coward is cowardly actions. Similarly, the only thing that can make you a “good friend” or a “generous person” is caring and generous actions.

Existentialism puts so much weight on action that we might wonder, what about our intentions, our thoughts, our hopes and dreams? Don’t they also constitute who we are? But Sartre dismisses them:

In reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art… In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait.

Sartre’s thinking here, again seems to be that mere thoughts, and corresponding talk about our expectations, hopes, and dreams is “cheap.” These carries very little meaning if they are not put into action. We’ve put nothing on the line for them, and hence easily fall prey to self-deception. Instead of defining us positively (telling us who we are), he contends that all hopes and dreams can do is define us negatively (telling us who we are not). If never put into action, they are nothing but deceptive dreams, false hopes, and unfulfilled expectations. He tells us that, for the existentialist, “reality alone is reliable.” Nothing inscribes upon the world who you are except the actions you have chosen.

Some find this to be a harsh and rather pessimistic doctrine. It removes the solace that we might take in telling ourselves that we would have behaved differently if only the circumstances were different. But Sartre thinks existentialism maintains a “stern optimism.” While the reality of action is a tough standard, what ultimately makes this an optimistic doctrine is the boundless freedom behind it. Unlike deterministic philosophies, no one is born as, or is destined to be a coward, or a hero, or an artist, or philosopher. You are who you choose to be through your acts. What’s most encouraging is that you have the ability to change the direction of your life and your character at any moment. Only you can do this for yourself. Others may influence you, but you are the one who chooses which influences to follow, avoid, or to rebel against.

Condemned to be Free

Every man, without any support or help whatever, is condemned at every instant to invent man.

One might suppose that the boundless possibilities of freedom and transcendence would be exhilarating. But Sartre contends that for most people the dominant reaction is one of anguish. He famously states that we are “condemned to be free.” Like the death row prisoner, we are condemned to this state of freedom. He makes it sound like a terrible thing. And, indeed, we are like the prisoner in several respects:

  1. We didn’t choose our freedom.
  2. We cannot escape from our freedom.
  3. We really wish we could.

Like the prisoner who did not choose their sentence, we did not choose our freedom. We had no say about it one way or another – we were simply born free beings who must decide, at each and every moment, what to do with our lives. And, like the prisoner, who cannot escape their sentence, we cannot escape from our freedom. One might attempt to get out of their freedom by giving it to another, say, by selling themselves into slavery, joining the military, or getting sent to prison. But as we’ve seen, even the most deprived prisoner still has options. They must still decide how to relate to their situation, and how to spend their days. And while the soldier or the slave may constantly be commanded what to do, they have, at every moment, the choice to defy that command. The consequences of defiance might be severe, and could even mean death, but that too is an option. There is always a choice to be made. The third parallel is that, like the prisoner who wishes to escape from their sentence, most people wish to escape their freedom. As odd as it may seem, people quite often despise their freedom and try to run or hide from it. This is evident in their constant lies and self-deception with regards to their freedom – the phenomenon Sartre refers to as “bad faith.”

Bad Faith

Bad faith’s most basic act is to flee from something it is impossible to flee from: to flee from what one is.iv

Bad faith is the term Sartre uses for self-deception. People lie to themselves about a myriad of things, in a myriad of different ways. But for our purposes, what is most crucial is that people tend to lie to themselves about their freedom. We try to “escape” from our freedom by denying its existence to ourselves, and to others. Consider, for example, how common it is to use the expression “I have to.” By noon on any given day, most people have either thought to themselves, or said to another: “I have to do this or that.” They say: “I have to go to work today,” or “I have to go to class,” or “I have to get started on my taxes.” But notice that these statements aren’t really true. You don’t have to go to work. People skip out on work or call in sick every day. People quit their jobs every day. You don’t have to go in. You choose to go in. To say that you have to is to deny your freedom in the matter. It is to pretend that you have “no choice”, when in actuality it is completely a matter of your own free choice. So what do you really have to do? Pay your taxes? Lots of people don’t pay their taxes. You pay them because you choose to pay them. How about eating? Don’t you have to eat? Well, Gandhi didn’t eat. Caesar Chavez didn’t eat. Eating is a choice. Now, sure, if you don’t eat for a very long time you will die. That is the facticity of the human situation. But eating is a choice. You choose to eat, because you choose to live. You don’t have to eat and you don’t have to live. Similarly, avoiding your taxes has its own consequences. But all choices have consequences. Sartre’s point is that it is completely up to you what you will choose and which consequences you will set in motion. But we don’t like to admit this freedom. We’d rather cover it up with a barrage of “I have to’s”.

If we don’t really have to do any of these things, why do we think and say that we do? Why are we constantly lying about our freedom? Some might argue saying “I have to” is just a linguistic convention – just a way of talking that doesn’t really mean anything. But existentialism suggests that it indicates something deeper. People talk this way because they wish to flee from their freedom. People will tell you that they love freedom and want more of it, but look closely at their actions and you will see that they won’t even admit to the freedom that they have. Why? The answer can be summed up in one word: responsibility. If you do something because you have to, then you aren’t really responsible. “They” made you do it. Thus, if your life sucks because you have to go to work and you have to kiss up to your jerk of a boss, then you are an innocent victim of your situation. But if you own up to your freedom and admit that there were millions of things you could have done today, but you chose to go to work and then you chose to kiss up to your boss, then it becomes your own fault that your life sucks. “They” didn’t make you do it, you just made lousy choices. This way of seeing things is daunting, and brings on the feeling of anguish. There is no one to blame but ourselves.

So, is there anything that you really have to do? Existentialism entails that there is one thing: you have to choose. There is no escaping your freedom and no escaping your responsibility. There is no escaping your role as the one who decides how and what they shall be. There is only one way out of making choices, and that is suicide. But even that requires making a monumental choice.

Patterns of Bad Faith

Those who hide from this total freedom, in a guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards.

Bad faith is exhibited in a variety of ways. In each case it manifests the desire to flee from the anguish and complete responsibility that comes from our freedom. For that reason, Sartre regards such self-deception as cowardly. It is to hide from the reality of the human situation. It is therefore to hide from oneself. Sartre describes a number of “varieties” of bad faith. Some of the most prevalent forms are outlined below.

The Victim of Causality

One way to exhibit bad faith is to see yourself as a victim of causality. When Sartre refers to those who take refuge “by inventing some deterministic doctrine,” he has causal determinism in mind. This is the philosophical position that maintains that everything that occurs is necessitated by prior causes. In the case of human behavior, causal determinists tend to reduce the causes down to two categories: heredity and environment (or nature and nurture). These are considered to be the ultimate source of everything we do. The existentialist rejects this view and vehemently denies that our actions are the inevitable outcome of such causes. As we saw in his example of cowardice, Sartre argues that your genes cannot make you a coward. The coward only becomes a coward through cowardly actions. Similarly, a poor upbringing cannot make you a coward, a thief, or a slacker, etc. The transcendent nature of the human being prevents us from being mere pawns of causality. We are free to choose and to act upon the basis of our choices. And to hide behind a doctrine of determinism, and the excuse that “I could not help it, it was my heredity or my environment that made me do it,” is to lie to oneself. In Sartre’s view, it is an attempt to escape responsibility through bad faith.

The Victim of Passion

Similarly, Sartre denies that an uncontrollable passion can make you do something. In fact, he denies that there is such a thing as an “uncontrollable passion” that comes over us like a storm against our will. Instead, he argues that a person is responsible for their passion. It is the passion of their own making. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre explains the phenomenon through the example of sadness:

What is this sadness, other than the intentional unity that gathers together and animates my behavior in its entirety? It is the meaning of this lifeless way I look out at the world, of my hunched shoulders, my lowered head, the limpness of my whole body. But surely I realize, in the very moment I act in these ways, that I am able not to act like that? Let a stranger suddenly appear, and I will raise my head, resume my lively and dynamic appearance: What remains of my sadness, other than the fact that I indulgently plan to return to it soon, after the visitor’s departure?

In this way, Sartre sees sadness as an act or action, or better yet, an activity that one engages in. We create ourselves “in the mode of being-sad.” And if sadness is to persist, it must be continually generated and maintained. Sartre says that “I must make myself sad through the entire expanse of my sadness.” Moment by moment I must actively create it. And if I “make myself sad” it is only because sadness is something that I am not.

For the existentialist then, to maintain that you are “just sad” (or angry, or jealous, etc.) as if it is your facticity – just the way you are (just as you are five foot seven inches, or on planet earth), is to be in bad faith. It is to deny your responsibility for your emotional state, and to deny your active role in it. And hence it is an attempt to flee your responsibility for it.

The Victim of Meaning

Another pattern of bad faith involves taking meanings as “given” rather than self-created. One way this occurs is by taking “value” as an objective feature of the world. But if there is no God, Sartre contends:

There could no longer be any a priori good, since there would be no infinite and perfect consciousness to conceive of it. Nowhere is it written that good exists, that we must be honest or must not lie, since we are on a plane shared only by men… Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and man is consequently abandoned, for he cannot find anything to rely on—neither within nor without… [W]e will encounter no values or orders that can legitimize our conduct… We are left alone and without excuse.

The lack of objective values removes any recourse to saying: “I had to” because it was right. There is no “right” other than your own choosing it as right. And all responsibility for that choice lands on you. To hide behind a religious or secular doctrine that regards values as imposed from the outside, is for Sartre, to exhibit bad faith in an attempt to flee from freedom and responsibility.

But the issue extends well beyond values. It involves all meaning in the world. Sartre illustrates this through reference to the Biblical story of Abraham, which is the central focus of another great existentialist work, Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.

Sartre writes: This is the anguish Kierkegaard called the anguish of Abraham. You know the story: An angel commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son: and obedience was obligatory, if it really was an angel who had appeared and said, “Thou Abraham, shalt sacrifice they son.” But anyone in such a case would wonder, first, whether it was indeed an angel and secondly, whether I am really Abraham.

Most people who are raised with this story suppose that of course it was an angel, and of course the message was directed to Abraham, and of course it meant that he should sacrifice his son. But is this the simple facticity of the situation? Or is it Abraham’s freely chosen interpretation? Kierkegaard suggests that if we are really to take the story seriously, then we must try to put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes. When we do so, the story becomes much more troubling. Suppose you hear a voice that reports to be an angel or God Almighty. That voice tells you that you must sacrifice (i.e., kill) your child, or neighbor, or parent. What will you do? How can you be sure that the voice is truly divine? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to believe that you were going insane? (This is surely what you would believe of anyone else who told you that they were going to embark on such a murderous plan.) Or, given the nature of the command, why shouldn’t you suppose that it is not God, but Satan trying to impersonate God in order to tempt you into evil? And even if we assume that it was God, the problems of interpretation continue. For how are you to know what the meaning of the command is? Perhaps God is trying to test your moral character. To “pass” the test, might it be that you are expected to refuse to perform such an immoral act? At all of these junctures, the meaning of this voice in your head is up to you. This is your meaning and you alone are responsible for it. To take it as simply given that “this is a command from God and I must follow it” is to abscond from responsibility in bad faith.

In this way, Sartre maintains that any time that we take something as a “sign” that imposes on us a course of action from the outside, we are in bad faith. The meaning of all events is our own meaning. And we alone are responsible for the meanings we create.

Exploiting the Facticity/Transcendence Duality

One of the most common and significant patterns of bad faith involves exploiting the dual nature of human existence – that our lives are composed of both facticity and transcendence. In bad faith we often over-emphasize one aspect and diminish the other in an attempt to flee from responsibility.

Sartre illustrates the denial of facticity through the charcter of Garcin in his play No Exit. We find Garcin dead and in Hell, with little to do but to contemplate his life. As the dialogue unfolds, it becomes clear that he had lived a cowardly life. And while Garcin acknowledges the actions he took (which include running away rather than taking a stand for his pacifist beliefs), he denies that they amount to cowardice. In death, as in life, he identifies himself with his lofty aims and intentions rather than with the actions ultimately taken. In the last days of his life he had refused to admit his cowardice. While waiting for the day of his execution, Garcin concluded that the matter was still undecided: “My death will settle it. If I face death courageously, I’ll prove I am no coward,” he told himself. But now he is dead, and he knows that he did not face his death with courage. He admits to the others in Hell that he faced it “Miserably, rottenly.” Nevertheless, he still refuses to admit that he was a coward. Showing the full extent of his bad faith, he now resorts to the idea that “I died too soon. I wasn’t allowed time to – to do my deeds.” Garcin attempts to elude taking responsibility for his cowardly life by diminishing the facticity of his deeds and instead putting all emphasis on transcendence. Sartre’s own view is illustrated through the character, Inez, when she responds to Garcin saying: “One always dies too soon – or too late. And yet one’s whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are – your life, and nothing else.”

While Garcin’s flaw is to hide from his facticity by over-emphasizing transcendence, Sartre illustrates the opposite phenomenon in his biography of the French novelist Jean Genet. Genet spent much of his early life in and out of jail due to convictions of theft, fraud, and other offenses.viii According to Sartre’s analysis, the young Genet identified himself solely with this facticity and rejected the reality of transcendence. Sartre suggest that Genet’s identification began at a very young age when an adult accused him of stealing, saying: “you are thief.”

“He who was not yet anyone suddenly becomes Jean Genet…It is revealed to him that he is a thief and he pleads guilty, crushed by a fallacy which he is unable to refute; he stole, he is therefore a thief… What he wanted was to steal; what he did, a theft; what he was, a thief… Genet is a thief; that is his truth, his eternal essence. And if he is a thief, he must therefore always be one, everywhere, not only when he steals, but when he eats, when he sleeps, when he kisses his foster mother.

We see this kind of identification often. A person will identify completely with who they have been, and fail to recognize the possibilities before them. They feel trapped by their past. But this too is an escape from responsibility through bad faith. If one simply is as one is, then they are freed of the burden of choosing who they shall become.

Authenticity and Social Responsibility

The actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest of freedom itself as such.

In contrast to bad faith is authenticity. To live authentically (or in good faith) is to be honest with yourself in all matters, but especially with regard to your freedom. It is to live in full awareness of your freedom, and to take full responsibility for your choices. Sartre’s recommendation is to live our lives authentically and to take responsibility for the life we have lived and the person we have become. But this is only a recommendation.

He writes: If anyone says to me, “And what if I wish to live in bad faith?” I answer, “There is no reason why you should not, but I declare that you are doing so, and that the attitude of strict consistency alone is that of good faith.”

Since there is no “right” apart from deeming something to be right, it is really up to you. Sartre is merely saying that he prefers authenticity. It is what he values. But you are free to choose your own values. In fact, you must choose your own values, because that is what it is to be a human being. But if what you choose is to live your life as an existentialist in the vein of Jean-Paul Sartre, you will choose authenticity over self-deception; good faith over bad faith.

As we have seen, Sartre’s view of responsibility continually emphasizes individual responsibility. Hence the authentic person will take responsibility for their situation and role within that situation rather than regarding themselves as a victim of external material and social forces. This idea is put into one of its most extreme declarations in Being and Nothingness, where Sartre writes: there are no accidents in a life; an event in society that suddenly breaks out and drags me with it does not come from outside; if I am mobilized in a war, this war is my war, it is in my image and I deserve it. I deserve it in the first place because I could always avoid it, through suicide or desertion: these ultimate possibles are those which must always be present to us when we envisage a situation. Since I did not avoid it, I chose it; it might be through spinelessness, through cowardice in the face of public opinion, because I prefer certain values to that of actually refusing to make war (the esteem of those close to me, the honor of my family, etc.). In any case, it is a question of choice.

Here Sartre emphasizes the theme that we see throughout his work: you always have a choice – you always have an opportunity to define yourself – no matter what the circumstance. But the extreme language of passages like this can also lead to the misconception that Sartre finds external circumstances irrelevant to one’s freedom and authenticity. And in one sense this is true. You can lead a life of freedom and authenticity under any circumstances. In fact, Sartre even argued that the people of France were never freer than under Nazi occupation: We had lost our rights, and first of all our rights to speak. They insulted us everyday to our faces – and we had to hold our tongues. They deported us en masse – as workers, as Jews, as political prisoners. Everywhere, — upon the walls, in the press, on the screen, — we found that filthy and insipid image of ourselves which the oppressor wished to present us. And because of all this, we were free. The more the Nazi venom crept into our thoughts, the more each precise thought became a conquest. The more the omnipotent police tried to enforce our silence, the more each of our words became a precious declaration of principle.

But there is another side to Sartre’s conception of freedom and authenticity. To understand Sartre more fully, we must remember that he dedicated much of his life to political activism and the fight against oppression. First, he was active in the French Resistance during World War II. Later he became interested in Marxism and upending the economic oppression that capitalism had piled onto the backs of the poor. He also wrote groundbreaking essays on racial oppression with Anti-Semite and Jew, and “Black Orpheus,” as he was the editor of a number of leftist political magazines. He regarded his political activism as a direct consequence of his existentialism. In particular, it was a consequence of striving to live authentically. He tells us: Men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest of freedom itself as such… We will freedom for freedom’s sake, in and through particular circumstances. And in thus willing freedom, we discover that it depends entirely upon the freedom of others and that the freedom of others depends upon our own.

To live like an existentialist, in Sartre’s view, is therefore to uphold freedom as the highest value, and to align yourself with the goal of freedom for all. And while human freedom can never be completely taken away, the oppression of others, whether through military conquest, economic conditions, or racist ideologies, etc., is always an attempt to restrict the freedom of the other. As such, persons of good faith will resist it through personal choice and collective action.

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