“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.”1
One of the critical issues for Sartre in his philosophy is whether each of us can actually stay with the anguish that appears in the face of freedom or, instead, we find ourselves fleeing and ducking behind the sofa trying to pretend it isn’t there.
Flights from anguish, for Sartre, amount to what he called acts of ‘bad faith’. So, if a student, using Gregory McCulloch’s favoured example of a typical British university scholar, decides to view their life as being psychologically determined because their parents have instilled in them certain values that prioritise education, then according to Sartre they are acting in bad faith. This is because they do not accept their freedom and they try to hide from it in the manner of one who is guilty. By endeavouring to flee from the anguish induced by their freedom, the student, according to Sartre, attempts to fill the void of nothingness, which is present within each of us. Following the logic through, any such attempt to fill the void of nothingness in such a manner denies our very capacity for being human and effectively renders the individual in question as mere being-in-itself. The student following their parents’ directive consequently becomes a puppet or, to be more precise, hides from freedom by adopting the role of puppet.
Essentially Sartre, in structuring his philosophical system in the way that he had, was shoring it up and protecting freedom from attack. By presenting those who wished to ignore his findings as somehow deficient, by categorising them as being-in-itself, he armed himself with a quite offensive and antagonistic form of philosophy. A by-product, or perhaps strategically designed outcome, was that he ensured his philosophy had to be listened to and engaged with. So, it could be argued, a theme of quite aggressive manoeuvring began to be developed as Sartre built-up his confidence at the same time as effectively identifying his enemies.
One, of course, has to remember the situation in which Sartre was writing and developing his ideas for Being and Nothingness, in that France was under fascist occupation with World War II providing the very visceral backdrop to Sartre’s daily life and thoughts. Great things regarding humanity and its choices were at stake. Sartre himself served in the French army as a meteorologist and was captured by German troops and imprisoned for nine months in 1940-41. Upon his release in April 1941, due to poor health (his eye-sight, he argued, affected his balance), Sartre co-founded Socialisme et Liberté, an underground group with Simone de Beauvoir and other like-minded and active philosophers who want to resist the German occupation of France and the Vichy regime. The group disbanded shortly after emerging due to Sartre becoming disillusioned with those such as André Malraux and André Gide who, for whatever reason, couldn’t commit to joining Socialisme et Liberté. It was at this juncture that Sartre turned from direct action to focus ardently upon writing – possibly a much better use of his talents.
Maybe the disappointment of the two Andrés indecisiveness spurred Sartre’s mind regarding the philosophy contained within Being and Nothingness, because one cannot help thinking that his argumentation concerning freedom and anguish seems to relate to direct personal experience on his part, so strong is his insistence. Whether this is the case though is beyond our scope. What isn’t is Sartre’s very clear upholding of freedom which comes through in spades when one takes even of a cursory look at his more journalistic output towards the end of World War II. The belief in freedom in the midst of oppression positively shouts and declares its intent. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, in December 1944, Sartre asserts the following:
“Never were we freer than under German occupation… The more the Nazi venom crept into our thoughts the more each precise thought became a conquest… Indeed the cruelty of the enemy pushed us to the extremes… all those of us (and what Frenchman was not at one time or another in this position?) who, knowing something important to the Resistance, have asked ourselves in anguish, ‘If they torture me, can I hold on?’ Thus indeed was the question of liberty brought to the very edge of the profoundest comprehension that man can have of himself.”2
Clearly, the role that Sartre saw played out in the heart of every “Frenchman” during the occupation was one that was guided by the power of personal freedom for each to play their part in the Resistance. And, not as a puppet but as an active citizen knowing full well the possible perils of such action. The psychological determinism of fascist occupation in its brainwashing and very real physical threats were intended to crush the spirit and create obedience. When the threat of torture is present, against a backdrop of brainwashing, psychological determinism should be in full swing. So thought the Nazis. But as Sartre and history tells, this ‘ain’t necessarily so’. The choice to withhold information from the German occupiers goes against their deterministic setup but occurred time and time again, as Frenchmen and Frenchwomen asserted their freedom and resisted.
This is Sartre’s point and also why he felt so strongly in regard to freedom and why he continually made the case for us to be aware of its presence. For him, freedom was the ultimate means of knowing and distinguishing that we are human: we always have freedom. To deny freedom, of course, is to set against Sartre and he will place all deniers in the realm of non-human as Beings-in-themselves as opposed to Beings-for-themselves. To, perhaps, make such a distinction easier for those who might not have drunk at the fountain of knowledge that is Being and Nothingness, Sartre made things a littler simpler by announcing that those who tried to deny freedom were acting with ‘bad faith’.
Quite early on in Being and Nothingness, when his thoughts revolved around notions of consciousness, Sartre outlined bad faith as follows: “one who practices bad faith is hiding a displeasing truth or presenting as truth a pleasing untruth.”3 The issue being that such “hiding” or “presenting” is done to oneself, within one’s own consciousness: “Bad faith… implies in essence the unity of a single consciousness.”4 This was a point of clarification that Sartre wanted to make within a discussion regarding the presence of others. Because from this point he could then get to a summary position, with the correct groundwork in place, to effectively make the claim that it is within one’s consciousness that ownership lies and the responsibility for choosing to act in bad faith. Or, as Sartre stated, “one does not undergo his bad faith; one is not infected with it; it is not a state. But consciousness affects itself with bad faith.”5
Such an issue of ownership becomes particularly important within our thinking over the next few pages, because Sartre, almost from this point on, makes his ethical play and starts to frame his thinking around responsibility and decisions as a matter of personal choices within a framework of seeing oneself as a project. Consequently, regarding the decision to act in bad faith, Sartre states “there must be an original intention and project of bad faith,”6 which for him, as well as taking place within the closed and isolated environment of one’s consciousness and not being predicated upon any external influence or condition, leads to the conclusion that “a person can live in bad faith,.. which implies a constant and particular style of life.”7 Such a decision to act in bad faith becomes, therefore, both an internal conscious event, with no primary external cause, and also a behaviour pattern that one accepts and conditions one’s life by. To give an example of leading one’s life in bad faith, Sartre probed what happens, from his point of view, when someone undergoes psychoanalysis.
Immersed within his thoughts concerning the internal conscious process of bad faith, Sartre provided an illustration of what takes place when a lie is told. A lie requires a liar and also a victim of the lie in order to take place. Such positioning, as we can infer from the proceeding section, maps for Sartre quite neatly within the unity of one consciousness when that person acts in bad faith: The lie is both initiated by and concealed from the same person. Within the context of psychoanalysis though, a disruption to this neatness takes places. This disruption occurs because the unity of the individual’s consciousness is broken and split into two making it unclear that the person acting in bad faith is both instigator and victim. In fact for Sartre, psychoanalysis is guiltier of more than merely mudding the waters of clarity, because it provides in his eyes what amounts to an excuse for a person’s actions, which, as we are beginning to comprehend, is the central pivot upon which bad faith revolves.
Psychoanalysis, therefore for Sartre or, more correctly, entering into a belief system whereby one understands there to be an unconscious that is separate from one’s consciousness, is in itself an example of bad faith because one renounces ownership for oneself and abdicates responsibility for one’s actions by accepting the fundamental premise that there is a force motivating us that one cannot necessarily exert control over. To Sartre this fundamental premise is a lie. Thus, across five pages of tense, but ultimately unsatisfactory argument, we see Sartre state “Freud has cut the psychic whole into two. I am the ego but I am not the id,”8 and then declare that “the explanation by means of the unconsciousness, due to the fact that it breaks the psychic unity, cannot account for the facts which at first sight it appeared to explain.”9 Consequently, by working through his criticism of psychoanalysis Sartre came to confirm his position that if anyone adopts psychoanalysis in this manner then, absolutely, they could be accused of acting in bad faith.
A critical difficulty arises in accepting Sartre’s conclusion, however, because Sartre, all the way through his argument, unfortunately presented Freudian psychoanalysis in a two-dimensional way that simplified Freud’s work. Indeed, the simplification actually determines that bad faith will be the end result if the ‘psyche’ is seen to be cleaved in two in the manner that Sartre represented the psychoanalytic division of consciousness from the unconscious. Clearly, with such a ‘straw-man’ argument one feels obliged to take issue with Sartre even as one understands his concept of bad faith perhaps more fully courtesy of this mis-representation of psychoanalysis. However, even though criticism can be levied at his argument our interest, as it always must, lies in the potential ethical insight that Sartre offers and not in criticising his faux approximate understanding of psychoanalysis. The over-arching ethical point that Sartre quite clearly laid out, although it is implicit due to his insistence on engaging in an almost self-righteous but ultimately redundant critique of psychoanalysis, is that there is an issue of conscious responsibility to be considered for us as humans engaging with, and performing actions in, the world. Precisely what Sartre means by responsibility will be covered in a future post.
For the moment, let us return to Sartre’s passion: freedom. In his 29 October 1945 lecture, Existentialism is a Humanism, as his opening remarks suggest, “to offer a defence of existentialism against several reproaches that have been laid against it,”10 reworks his ideas on freedom. However, within the twenty-three page guided tour of his philosophy, given within two months of World War II finally being over, “existence precedes essence”11 initially takes centre stage. A phrase which means, as we know from post 41, that we have no preordained purpose and it is up to us to create our own essence. Such staging, in his lecture, then allows Sartre to position freedom:
“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.”12
If we can accept that Sartre, being of his time, chose the signifier “man” to represent “human”, it becomes apparent that for Sartre one of the consequences of his neatly set out philosophy is that even “human nature”, that commonly used justification for personal and social mores and ills, is given no truck and kicked off the playing field of acceptability.
Sartrean freedom allows no ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ or ‘maybes’; it is resolute, uncompromising and completely pure in its conception. Indicative, as his positioning of freedom is, in terms of his passion and sense of rightness, Sartre turns his attention to his other passion: resistance. Throughout the text of Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre refers time and again, with examples, to the situation that he and his fellow French citizens found themselves under German occupation.
In a possibly politically over-reaching section regarding the hopes he has for “the Russian revolution,”13 Sartre shows a deep understanding of how freedom runs deeper than political cause:
“Nor can I be sure that comrades-in-arms will take up my work after my death and carry it to the maximum perfection, seeing that those men are free agents and will freely decide, tomorrow, what man is then to be.”14
The acknowledgment that individual freedom of others means that his voice per se might well be ignored is testament to his understanding that the idea he had of freedom is stronger than his own voice that gave birth to it. Swiftly, following this understanding, Sartre starts to sharpen his claws and shows with extra-ordinary philosophic power precisely what he thinks of those who don’t accept their personal freedom. Starting relatively mildly he sharpens his blades and sets out his stall:
“Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and others may be so cowardly or slack as to let them do so… Does that mean that I should abandon myself to quietism? No. First I ought to commit myself and then [en]act my commitment… Quietism is the attitude of people who say, ‘let others do what I cannot do.’ The doctrine I am presenting before you is precisely the opposite of this, since it declares that there is no reality except in action.”15
Sartre’s philosophy is, therefore, one of action and not acting simply won’t do. That, he makes clear, is “cowardly.”16 Obviously, the recent history in France focused his mind and one cannot help thinking that the indecisiveness of the two Andrés was possibly what he had in mind. Sartre didn’t stop sharpening his knives at this point, though, he had more to say, enact and attack.
Referring back to freedom and essentially the avoidance of it through acts of bad faith, Sartre outlined, alongside his thoughts regarding the adoption of quietism, two extremely cutting encapsulations:
“In the name of that will to freedom which is implied in freedom itself, I can form judgements 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.”17
When studying philosophy one doesn’t readily come across such forthright judgements. However, as I hope to have possibly made clear in the discussion so far, Sartre was incredibly committed to his philosophy and that it should be a philosophy of action. Standing by quietly, denying responsibility, giving up due to excuses, or proclaiming one’s presence as necessary (as if put on earth by God to do his/her will) are positions to be fought against. For him, each of these positions came under the bracket of ‘bad faith’ and as such they run completely counter to how he thought life should be lead. And, he obviously was not going to be accused of being hypocritical due to being shy of letting everyone know just that. In Existence is a Humanism, Sartre made it very clear just what he thought of those in ‘bad faith’, even if paradoxically he never actually used the term itself in that text.
- Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007 52.
- Sartre, J-P. ‘Paris Alive: The Republic of Silence’, The Atlantic Monthly, December 1944, vol. 174, no. 6, 39.
- Sartre, J-P. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Routledge, 1995,, 49.
- Ibid., 50.
- Ibid., 54.
- Sartre, J-P. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen, 2007, 23.
- Ibid., 28.
- Ibid., 34.
- Ibid., 40.
- Ibid., 40-41.
- Ibid., 43.
- Ibid., 52.