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...WAS SARTRE WRONG?..

 

(see also youtube 'Bad Faith' and my Memoir: 'Existentialism')

Anyone regularly following my scribblings over the past few years, will probably have noticed (among other things) that I've scarcely mentioned Sartre. How come, you might ask, that such a renowned, brilliant, prolific writer and philosopher has escaped notice? Well, he hasn't. Nor do I dislike his work.

Although Sartre analysed a range of observations on the human condition, he is most famous for his quote: "Man is condemned to be free." - a statement that has ambiguous implications.

Since most establishments or governments seek to absolve themselves from the obligation to protect the most vulnerable in society, they will invariably grasp at such notions as evidence that an individual's circumstances are predominately (or usually) of their own making - hence undeserving of help.

Moreover, these same establishments have never been slow to indoctrinate the masses with this same propaganda, so that confused victims of a corrupt political system will often blame themselves for conditions resulting from corrupt practices.

Let's examine this from the beginning. For man, said Sartre, existence precedes essence ('I AM therefore I THINK' - the opposite of Descartes). So far, fine. Nothing wrong with that - after all, one has to exist before one can think or 'be what one is'. But Sartre interprets this further to mean: "…that the very 'nothingness' [blank-slate] of our essence in a world without meaning allows each of us infinite potentialities in shaping our life - limited only by the facts of the external world…" (from 'Readers Encyclopaedia' 1965).

Facts of the external world must include, surely, indoctrination and other strong early influences. These can determine the power we have over whether or not to refuse this potentiality for shaping our life. By opting for religion or some other distraction from reality we are, says Sartre, choosing to refuse - since as much as it being a liberation, 'responsibility-for-oneself' can be seen as a burden from which some of us will attempt to escape. Sartre used the term 'inauthentic' to describe a choice made under delusion, such as opting for religion, a choice Camus regarded as (philosophical) suicide as described in his 'The Myth of Sisyphus'.

So the idea of infinite potentiality (free-choice) appears all very fine in theory. In practice, though, it fails because our essence is not 'nothingness' - it has, in addition to worldly constraints, to contend with culture, indoctrination, propaganda, etc. Yet it led to that famous quote: "Man is condemned to be free."

Way back around 1760 Rousseau had said, after contemplating humankind in its earlier natural pre-'civilisation' state of freedom: "...but nevertheless is everywhere in chains."

The fact is, Rousseau was right. Most of our lives are spent essentially as for a traveller: tracing a narrow path. We can wander a little to one side or the other, but essentially we are stuck - as in the old days when your bike-wheel caught in a tramline and like it or not you were forced to follow its route. From our moment of birth, we are in a rut - channelled according to the circumstances of our immediate situation.

For one thing we are rooted to the human condition, as a cat or a bird is rooted to its condition. A cat behaves, generally speaking, as one might expect a cat to behave. Likewise, within individual variations, we too are stuck with our genetic make-up. Uniquely, though - ignoring borderline cases like bonobos and dolphins - we humans with our bicarmel mind have the freedom to choose whether or not to stray from these limitations. My argument here is that this freedom is largely dependent on circumstances, above all the circumstances of our birth.

I've quoted Shaw's maxim so often that I'm almost sick of it: 'Do what you like or you'll end up liking what you do.' That's the crux of the predicament - and is what forms part of those chains we are everywhere in. What we like or what we choose, is - and can only be - from what we know, what we're used to and familiar with, what is within our experience to assess and evaluate and make sense of. It's also a survival ploy: ie, 'the devil you know'.

True, 'the grass is always greener', and 'a change is as good as a rest' and several other tired old maxims, but any alteration we make to our situation will be entirely within the limits set by our past - it takes a damn HARD knock to get us up and out of our rut, and ready to exercise some minuscule degree of genuine freedom, to diverge beyond the mere narrow zigzagging around - back and forth across but always within the confines of that set path we started out on.

There are always exceptions - someone has to win the lottery. But generally, apart from accident (as, for instance, in Twain's fiction: 'The Prince and the Pauper'), there's no way can we leave our set path and go leaping into an unknown hell or paradise that lurks awaiting our discovery in some formerly unperceived boondocks or other. To do that requires transformation, real initiative, a daring so rare and profound that whoever achieves it will at first be met with surprise, then vilification, and perhaps eventually (if they're really lucky) popular-approval and celebration. Shocked or envious to begin with, we come to admire such audacity, foresight, genius - for seeing what we didn't, for doing what we failed to.

I'm not talking about entrepreneurs, inventors, those who suddenly chuck their job and go travelling or start living 'in-the-raw', or those who throw everything they have into some mad quest that's been bugging them. No, what I'm taking about here is: moving into an entirely different realm.

Literature is solid with such conversions. They are the lifeblood of escapist novels - and for that matter the so-called non-fiction of 'self-help' in the form of wishful thinking, which is also a means of escape. And perhaps there are a few real-life ones too - but for which the seed, the 'software', must first exist from which might bloom some seemingly astonishing or incongruous revolution. Like Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's 'Les Misérables': honest peasant to hardened convict to reformed humanitarian, etc - though as we readers follow the tale, each transition is seen as almost reasonable, given the circumstances and the liberal, yielding nature of the protagonist.

It's true that our lives involve making decisions almost every minute of the day, usually very minor ones: should I buy this hat, or that one? Should I holiday in Alicante or relax at home? Should I follow the fashion and keep in lockstep with the masses, or should I do what I'd do if I had no knowledge of what others were doing? This, should I be authentic? And if so, then how far am I prepared to take my authenticity?

As Sartre developed it, fundamental meaninglessness is a precondition for Existentialism. The apparent pessimism of what he called 'Nausea' (and clarifies in his novel of that name: a kind of sickness as with the boredom of a life void of any prescribed meaning) does not lead to nihilism but to the active assumption of (or aspiration towards) moral responsibility - of being actively engaged in the shaping of one's life - ie, of creating one's own meaning.

Camus, on the other hand, posed the idea that the only real philosophical problem to confront man was suicide - whether to terminate the 'nausea' or come to terms with it - and went on to stress the plight of man's need for clarity and rationality in confrontation with the unreasonable silence of the universe. The suicide Camus refers to is philosophical: the ditching of responsibility to accept an underlying objective meaninglessness. The emphasis here is on religion as a cop-out, an escape from reality, but could include becoming a workaholic or otherwise immersing oneself in some activity. Camus voiced the tragedy of man's failure to assume proper consciousness of his condition, or, if he does assume that consciousness, the failure to find the human values by which he can shape his life. (I feel obliged to append that last statement with the observation that most people - do they really live lives of quiet despair? - would probably find all this rather bemusing and academic, conducting their lives for the most part with reasonable satisfaction and contentment - blissfully oblivious of the proverbial abyss).

Those two paragraphs (not including my parenthetic endnote) show how Sartre and Camus concurred. But to say we are free is like saying a computer (even if all computers have the same fundamental operating system) can do anything - subject to inherent limitations: like the cat, remember? Yet it is obvious that a computer can only work according to what software it has. If it contains 'Auto-route' then it will know it's way around Europe. Otherwise it won't have a clue. And so on. How, then, I ask, can man be said to be free?

In my case, I don't even have any choice of whether I believe in an afterlife. My brain refuses to acknowledge such a possibility. Is this connected with upbringing? I don't think so, since I was brought-up as a Christian. I wish afterlife was true. I have no wish for ceasing to exist. I know some people do: who say how they would like to die before they reach 100. Well, I think, you'll be a long time dead - so why wish it sooner than later? But that's another issue.

Sartre invested several decades in the academic study and analysis of his hypotheses. And, as I've said, his key hypothesis (quite apart from Sartre) has been widely assumed for a long time. So the consequences of what Sartre said probably has nothing to do with the immense harm the notion has caused through its popular acceptance (which for all I know - I'm far too lazy to research this - may have existed, despite all the evidence that contradicts it, before Sartre was even born): That is, the wild misconception that each of us has total free choice in shaping our life - which tragically has often led to the notion that ignorance and squalor are deliberate and self-induced and therefore undeserving of rescue.

I suppose, though, the diehards will insist that we do have free choice - like the computers: one computer will be free to travel (albeit vicariously) around Europe, while the other will be free to stay put. This equates to a poignant line from the socialist alphabet which to clarify the true meaning of the word 'freedom' Tony Benn has frequently quoted: 'F is for freedom that the Tories brag about, free to buy your dinner or free to go without.' In other words freedom in this sense is a myth - a Hobson's choice, a con for the gullible masses to digest. And so is it too regarding our actual range of freedom in how we can shape our lives.

The person who declares a keen interest in writing, but who had no real access to books as a child or received only discouragement - the person who never heard a violin as a child, then loved the sound as a teenager but was discouraged or prevented from having a violin - or whatever equivalent example - how much choice do they have?

No, you might say, they can still learn. But they can't. They will always be at a disadvantage. All this speaks for itself. We know.

Returning to Sartre: he did acknowledge the observations I outline above, as well as many others, objections and so on. And he was always flexible and reasonable - an aspect of his character that greatly appeals to me. And despite the severe limitations touched-on above, we nevertheless have vastly more freedom than we are inclined to imagine, and in many senses too. If I'm really determined, I can emigrate, totally change my lifestyle... etc., but would it be the real authentic me? Am I living the real me now? Any philosophy that evokes questions like these is, in my mind, crucial to making our lives more worthwhile.

"The existentialist...thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be a priori of God, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is that we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoyevsky said, If God didn't exist, everything would be possible. That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to."

-- Jean Paul Sartre


Here, in conclusion, are the words of a famous Existentialist song for Sartre's famous trilogy 'The Roads to Freedom' (1945) (from memory!):

I asked a stranger: Where will I find,
Doors ever open, men who are kind?
Don't look to heaven, answered he me,
You are the jailer, you turn the key.

The road to freedom lies at your feet,
The road to freedom runs down your street,
Take it and follow, then you will see,
Hearts ever open, men living free.

Hear where the city shuts out the sun,
Once we knew pity, now there is none,
Where is the new day after the night?
Is there a true way back to the light?

The road to freedom lies at your feet,
The road to freedom runs down your street,
What are we here for, when will we see,
Life is a prison; love is the key.

 

(All this is deeply fascinating, I find, but still this fascination remains on an intellectual level - since from before reaching my own 'age of reason' I have not believed in any god, so the issues that arose for Sartre could never have presented themselves to me on any level other than intellectual. See 'Existentialism' Memoir. PC)

 

The accompanying piece was called, I think:‘The Wheatfield

There is a wheatfield where sun will shine no more,
Once children ran there playing at games of war,
Boys played as heroes till every war was won,
Then flushed and weary, slept beneath the sun.

Gunfire called them to another game,
Millions of wheatfields die beneath the flame,
Dead is the harvest where every tree stands bare,
Cross the weatfield softly, men are sleeping there.

 

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