Wars have been fought over it, countries overthrown in the name of it, debates had over it, philosophy and religion in argument about it, and science is not even sure of it—freedom. Ah freedom, that wonderful, cherished value! What would we be, where would we be, without it? While some are not even sure whether it even exists, some have shed blood in order to attain, toppling tyrants, stopping servitude, and limiting laws, all so that we humans can be free. But what does being free mean? There are two types of freedom: Negative and positive. The former is freedom from, which is freedom in the fundamental sense, the former freedom to, which is, arguably, a newer sense of the word, and the sense in which we commonly portray it now. We are always seeking freedom from the government and therefore freedom to make our own lives. Freedom is easily one of the most valued ideas to humanity, as evidenced by history. However, for the sake of thought experiment, should we all accept freedom as a given—absolute freedom, that is—would it be a blessing, as we all think it is, or would it be a curse? Ought we be careful about what we wish for?
Nowadays, we must be independent and make our own decisions. You go the shoe store and we see dozens upon dozens of different shoes, all similar in essence, but unique in design, color, and size; you go to the grocery store for cereal only to discover that there are twenty kinds, in both brand and flavor; you want to pick out some new bedsheets, but—alas!—there are colors across the spectrum, and some have your favorite characters or TV shows on them, while others have nice designs—what do you do? According to some writers and marketers, we are experiencing “overchoice,” a phenomenon where we are bombarded with so many choices, that it is overwhelming, making it harder to make decisions. Today’s generation, it is feared, is more anxious than previous generations, yet we are expected to make major life decisions that will impact us forever, such as where we want to be educated, what job we want to get, whether we want a family or not! To some philosophers, called libertarians, we have radical freedom—illimitable, boundless, unconstrained freedom, to the extent that to be, is to be free. In looking at Jean-Paul Sartre and a bit at Søren Kierkegaard, two Existentialists, we shall look at the human condition as defined by freedom.
Existence, said Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), precedes essence. By this, he meant that humans have no blueprint when they are made, no inner nature. He denied there was any universal image of “man,” out of which we were fashioned. An atheist, he denied God, and thereby any a priori good; because there is no omnipotent or omniscient being, there is nothing that is deemed good or bad in itself, rather everything is left undetermined. There is no “path” for us to follow, nor any moral code to which to adhere. “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself,” he said. Building on the previous statement, Sartre is saying man is born as nothing, a tabula rasa, a blank slate, indeterminate, like everyone else—then he must create himself through his choices. As an empty cup into which anything can be poured and it then becomes that substance, man can “project” himself into the future; he, through his willed actions, motivated by choice, literally throws himself forth into a new time, leaving the past, entering the future, a new person. By thinking about his future, man can change himself, by seeing what he is not, and therethrough, what he could be. Describing choice, Sartre wrote, “The end, illuminating the world, is a state of the world to be attained and not yet existing.” Every decision we make affects how life will turn out for us. If we want something to happen, if we act upon it, then it will become a reality. Projecting ourselves into the future, we actualize possibilities. But once a possibility is actualized, it cannot be revoked, it cannot be taken back; it is irrevocable, it is permanent, and it defines our character. One silly mistake one night when we are acting out of character, and our whole future is affected. We are always in a situation when we make choices, situations that influence how we interact with the world. Sartre defined situation as “the contingency of freedom… already illuminated by the end which freedom chooses.” Our intentions reveal the world in relation to that intention so that how we act is in accordance with our freedom; or, simply put, depending on our choice, we will see the world differently as it relates to our choice. For instance, Sartre uses the example of a mountain climber and a lawyer. A mountain climber surveys a mountain with the intent of climbing it, so he evaluates the mountain as either “climbable” or “non-climbable,” an evaluation that will either encourage or discourage him to climb it. However, a lawyer, looking at the same mountain, passing by it, sees it through his choices as either “attractive” or “unattractive.” When you go to work, you have the absolute freedom, the ultimate choice, to change how you perceive your work in light of your choices. Things will appear differently for us based on our goals, for the better or worse.
Weighed down by these seemingly innumerable choices, especially the life-changing ones, we experience what Sartre calls anguish. Anguish is the realization of our essence—freedom. Deciding whether or not to move to the city you have always wanted to move to and get a new job, but unsure of whether it will actually work, you feel anguish. You examine all the choices before you, and, projecting yourself into the future, look at all the ways these choices could play out. You are frozen in anguish, because this choice will permanently affect you: What if you do move and do get your dream job, but it ends up failing, and you have no Plan B—then what? Anguish, Sartre contended, does not actually hinder choice, but is an essential part of it. Yes, you are paralyzed by anguish, yet it is through anguish that you get a better look at your life and all your choices, motivating you to think each possibility through carefully. Anguish is tied to the future, and its existence is usually marked by the question What will I do? We also experience forlornness, which is outlined by the acknowledgement that there are no guidelines for us to follow. Without God, there is no morality. “Everything is permissible if God does not exist,” Sartre wrote. This controversial proclamation says that if there is no higher morality, if there is nothing on which to base our morals, nothing to act as an enforcer to our values, then we can do anything. There are no Commandments that prohibit us from taking the life of another. What is to stop us from, right now, going outside and doing the first thing that pops into our mind? Nothing, said Sartre. Our morals come about through our choices. “The only way to determine the value of [an] affection is, precisely, to perform an act which confirms and defines it.” My biology teacher, describing the difference between values and morals in bioethics, stated that values are things that matter to us while morals are what we actually act on. What Sartre was communicating, then, was that we must show what we care about, instead of saying what we care about. If you say you value your family yet do not spend time with them, then your morals show the contrary. Values are made valuable if and only if we act on them. Our choices define our values. There is no moral standard for everyone. Each of our values is unique to us. Despair is defined as relying on the self because nothing is reliable. Not nature, not the future, not our friends, nothing. We act on possibility alone. There is always the possibility that things will not turn out the way we want them, so we despair. And dread, similar to anguish, is designated by Kierkegaard (1813-55) as “the dizziness of freedom.” With so many choices, we feel dizzy just contemplating all our possibilities. Think of today’s consumer culture, as described in the second paragraph! “In dread,” Kierkegaard argued, “there is the egoistic infinity of possibilities, which does not tempt like a definite choice, but alarms and fascinates with sweet anxiety.” Honestly, think of every single possibility there is. It is impossible. Occupation, home, family, furniture, education, companions, pets, books, phones, colors, foods—a plurality of categories within which are a plurality of particulars! Focus in on the major life moments, and you will feel dizzy, like looking into an abyss. Everything that I can dream of doing. Distant, but close. Countless. Finite. Our choices tempt us and push us away simultaneously through anxiety.
So what about quietism? What if we find our infinity of possibilities too overwhelming, so we retreat into solitude and let others make the decisions for us? As freedom and doing are our essence, said Sartre, we must do rather than think. Retreat is itself an act, but it is not enough. He advised us not to resign ourselves and leave it to others, but to do what we want to do. Create what you have always wanted to see, hear, or read. Make your ideality a reality. Quoting a popular phrase, my friend likes to say, “Don’t wait for the perfect moment, make the moment perfect.” This is the attitude Sartre wants us to adopt. Carpe diem. Unfortunately, the excitement of making our own choices brings with it a little caveat. In being responsible for yourself, you are responsible for mankind. Like Kant’s Categorical Imperative, your choices influence how others choose. Each choice we make reveals our ideal image of how man should choose. If you decide to buy Honey Nut Cheerios, then you are saying that all shoppers should buy Honey Nut Cheerios. Everytime you make a choice, ask yourself, What if everyone acted as I do? To further brighten the mood, Sartre said, “I am abandoned in the world… in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, involved in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.” Comforting. Very cheerful. Sartre pointed out that some want to eschew their awesome responsibility, complaining that they did not choose to be born, for as soon as we are born we are immediately responsible for ourselves and without guidance. On the contrary, Sartre countered that by taking an attitude toward our birth, be it positive or negative, we make it “ours,” and we possess it thereby. Birth, for Sartre, is not a part of our facticity, our simple fact of existence, but is rather reconstructed by our consciousnesses, whereby we transcend our birth, detaching our being from our beginning, thus meaning that we, in a sense, choose our birth by complaining about it.
Sartre’s most famous quote is, “Man is condemned to be free.” How paradoxical! “Condemned” brings with it negative connotations, whereas “free” brings with it positive connotations—how can the two be in the same sentence? He said we are condemned to be free because as soon as we are born, we have no way of throwing off the burden of responsibility, but must trudge our way through life, defining ourselves through our choices, without reliance on any external power, on any people outside of ourselves, always independent, alone, isolated, the future of our lives, of humanity, in our heart, and one choice, considered out of an infinitude of possibilities, can make all the difference, all the while we know there is no guarantee that the future will work out, such that with great freedom comes great responsibility. Personally, when I came across Existentialism, and when I read about Sartre, I flushed with awe and excitement: How cool it is that I get to create myself and my morals! Now, when I read Existentialism, I get scared, I get nervous, I am full of anguish. How terrifying it is, to be alone, to know that every choice I make, conscious or unconscious, defines me. This goes to show that Existentialism is for the courageous, the brave. Not everyone can be an Existentialist, but those who are up for the challenge can accept it. I admire Existentialists. Am I one? Yes and no. In the end, though, whether freedom is a blessing or a curse depends on one’s attitude towards the human condition. When you hear the Existentialist motto, “You are your choices,” you have two choices, choices you have to make on your own; you can either say, “Yes, I am my choices!” or “Oh god, I am my choices?”
So what do you think: Is freedom a blessing or a curse?
 Kessler, Voices of Wisdom, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” p. 408
 Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 584
 Id., p. 596
 Kessler, op. cit., p. 410
 Id., p. 412
 Kierkegaard, The Concept of Dread, p. 54
 Id., p. 56
 Sartre, op. cit., p. 680
For further reading: Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre (1966)
Voices of Wisdom by Gary E. Kessler (2007)