In the series of extracts from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 15, which looks at existentialism, and primarily the work of Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre. This extract is from the section that explores Sartre’s concept of freedom and his relationship to Marxism.
Imagine, Kierkegaard wrote in his pseudonymously published The Concept of Anxiety, a man standing at the edge of a cliff. When he glances over the edge, he is overcome with dread, not just because he is filled with fear at the thought of falling, but also because he is seized by a terrifying impulse deliberately to leap. ‘He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy’, Kierkegaard gnomically observed. That dizziness ‘is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss.’ For if ‘he had not looked down’, he would not have felt that dread. What grips that man, Kierkegaard suggests, is dread of the possibilities open to him; what he experiences ‘is the dizziness of freedom’.
Sartre, too, sees what he calls ‘anguish’ as the condition of human freedom. Since nothing can determine our choice of life for us, neither can anything explain or justify what we are. There is no inherent meaning in the universe. Only we can create meaning. Albert Camus, the French-Algerian novelist and fellow existentialist, called this sense of groundlessness the ‘absurdity’ of life. There is, Camus observes in The Myth of Sisyphus, a chasm between ‘the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world’. Religion is a means of bridging that chasm, but a dishonest one. ‘I don’t know if the world has any meaning that transcends it’, he writes. ‘But I know that I do not know this meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.’ Camus does not know that God does not exist. But he is determined to believe it, because that is the only way to make sense of being human. The only way to find meaning, the only way to bridge the chasm between the cold, silent world and the human need for moral warmth, is to create our own meaning, our own values. Sartre similarly sees the world as absurd in the sense that there is no meaning to be found beyond the meaning that humans create. The price of making meaning is anguish.
The recognition that humans have to bear responsibility for our lives and the values we create is the source of anguish. A wholly authentic or truly human life, Sartre suggests, is only possible for those who recognize the inescapability of freedom and its responsibility and are happy to live with anguish. But humankind, Sartre agrees with TS Eliot, mostly ‘cannot bear too much reality’. They fear, they dread, they feel enchained by, the responsibility of freedom.
Humans try to avoid the anguish that comes with looking over the cliff edge by hiding the truth from themselves, by pretending that there is no cliff, that something or someone has erased that edge. There are, Sartre suggests, many ways in which people do this. The most important, and the idea for which Sartre is probably most celebrated, is that of ‘bad faith’. People often try to evade the terrifying realities of the human condition by ordering their lives according to some preordained social role, in essence by turning themselves into objects, in an effort to deny the burden of subjectivity.