Sartre’s notions of freedom and choice are worthwhile to consider during these times of lockdown and loss of social connection. All quotes taken from Existentialism is a Humanism, 1946, Being and Nothingness, 1943.
The aristocratic rebel might have been founded by Rousseau and Byron, but it was lived most fully through the figure of Jean-Paul Sartre. Born in 1905, Sartre was the son of an educated naval officer. His father died soon after he was born and Sartre grew up in Meudon with his mother and grandfather. He studied in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure, where he earned his doctorate in philosophy. But of course, Sartre would go on to take on the role of the public intellectual — perhaps the greatest of his century.
As an author and playwright he obtained renown across the continent. As a critic, he was highly innovative. As a writer of theoretical works, he gained a wide readership in postwar France. As a lover, highly suspicious of what others thought — though deep thinking.
His most important work is Being and Nothingness (1943), for which he earned a Nobel prize (though he turned it down in protest). His work is highly technical, and at times requires a glossary for it’s terminology. He takes part in the tradition of philosophical systems, following much of the influence that remained of Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger, but also more recent thinkers such as Husserl and Bergson. He grounded what we know as the Existentialist school of thought, though he is generally not considered to have founded it. In political life, he was a communist, but often struggled to convince others his philosophy was thoroughly Marxist.
He wrote voraciously, and supported his efforts on cigarettes and an intense drug use. Sartre’s most respected biographer Amy Cohen-Solal explains that by the 1950’s, Sartre’s daily intake of substances included “two packs of cigarettes, several tobacco pipes, over a quart of alcohol (wine, beer, vodka, whiskey), two hundred milligrams of amphetamines, fifteen grams of aspirin, a boat load of barbiturates, some coffee, tea, and a few ‘heavy meals’.”
Although he wrote important essays on a wide-range of topics — from literature to ontology to antisemitism — it is his understanding of human freedom and choice, at least in his earlier thinking that speak to us today, especially considering the pandemic
Sartre considered human beings to be, as the famous axiom goes, being whose existence precedes essence. That is, a person, unlike a ballpoint pen or a table, exists without a sum of formulae to define it — what you are as a person is not predetermined by anterior concept.
What you become comes, as it were, after you exist and encounter yourself, after you “surge up in the world” and define yourself thereafter. This defining-of-oneself occurs through decision making and choices. For Sartre, choice is inescapable — even abstaining from choice is a choice itself. Through this constant contact with choice we are left with the unavoidable responsibility of self-defining. We are “condemned” to choose and our life projects are grounded in these spontaneous original choices .
Sartre takes this inescapable freedom of choice to be an unlimited endowment of freedom itself. Of course, one might rightly wonder where we can find this unlimited freedom, considering the obvious social, legal and physical limitations we all experience.
However, for Sartre, freedom is not synonymous with the ability to act. Instead, much like the Stoical interpretations of human freedom, it is a consciousness that transcends your material circumstances through choice.
Consider an example. Sartre describes in his Being and Nothingness a prisoner who is behind bars. This prisoner, Sartre claims, is as free as anyone else is. While there may be material walls and metal bars limiting the prisoner’s physical movement, there are no such material limitations regarding the will. The prisoner is free insofar as he can choose to manifest the will to escape or not; he can accept his material circumstances or want in vain against them. Therefore the choice remains and, for Sartre, then, so too does the prisoner’s freedom.
This is perhaps the thought that motivated his famous claim that the French people were as free under the Vichy regime and Nazis as before their rise and after their fall.
Likewise any obstacle, whether that be a prison cell, a mountain, or a state-enforced quarantine, is only an obstacle insofar as you want to escape, you want to climb over it, or you want to be social. You can choose how to respond to your circumstances.
You can see clearly, then, how Sartre might speak to our current moment and the pandemic.
The pandemic has enforced serious limitations on all facets of our lives, including our ability to operate our businesses, engage in civic life, and maintain social connection. It might justifiably feel as if we have lost agency, lost our personal freedom.
Sartre reminds us that throughout all of the obstacles we face in life, it is through our own conscious attitudes that we retain the ability to choose. If for Sartre what it is to be human is in large part defined by our ability to make conscious choices, and adjust to our material surroundings, then it falls upon us to make those choices and make them well — perhaps especially in times of uncertainty.