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Man Is Condemned To Be Free

Updated on March 30, 2011

Because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.



The quote must be attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre, the popular French philosopher well-known for his contributions to existentialist philosophy. But why did Sartre use such terrible words, say such depressing things - why are we condemned? What will follow, is my own, bittersweet-ly macabre interpretation of his sentence.

Mind you before you read on. This article is in no way advocating suicide - please treat it as best a thought experiment to comprehend Sartre's thesis. Morbid writing is just one of the easiest methods to prove a point, in my opinion, without having to resort to all sorts of jargon and technicalities instead, for death is one of those things closest to the human psyche; so vulnerably close that we sometimes shut it out and ignore it entirely. This is for the blackest coffee drinkers, or those who want to pick up, and therefore by consequence, stomach a stronger defense to "If God exists not, there is no meaning in life.". I may sound very radical, but this is how I best like to explain it.

Why are we free, first of all? There is a deeply logical answer behind. You may not immediately realize it, but it was there all along. Sartre was a godless person, just as many of us would be. Suppose, or rather think, of how you were born into this world. That is all very well. However, why not, and it may seem a very disturbing thing for me to write, for us to just snuff it?

You see, if you believed in a God, or more specifically one who concerned Himself/Herself/Itself/Themselves with your life, and demanded from you obedience to certain strict rules laid forth by the religion or belief, one of which was perhaps the abhorrence of suicide, with maybe the consequences of eternal hellfire in an afterlife if any, you might immediately thrust that forth as your defense against a suicide. In fact, you might even go on to state, that being your defense against a senseless suicide.

Should you be godless, would you believe suicide to be senseless? Instinctively, your evolutionary response denounces the idea of suicide. You might point to other non-religious arguments - the raising of a family; the sorrow of those left behind; your success in life with millions in assets; the utter silliness of just ending it for no reason; the vanity protesting against the horror and ugliness of your death. Yet suppose if you were to be dead right now, and death for you not having any afterlife or consciousness to bear witness to anything that would happen within this realm or the next, a complete period, what would you see? What would you think? What would you make of all these arguments you threw up?

Nothing. That is the stark reality of all. You are no longer here. You are no longer you. There is nothing that remains save for some ashes and bones that you are no longer here to notice. If you look at your continual existence on the other hand, sure, you might still find joy in life and all, living to a ripe old age, enjoying millions in wealth and carrying on the family name, but when you reach the end, memento mori, nothing of this matters. Just as you will not be here to witness your failure, or your vain suicide of absurd non-reasons, you must also critically, logically accept that you will not be here to witness your success in death.

For what journey through a happy life, when death is the destination where nothing matters? Now you may say, for your kids, for your family, for those who survive you - but for what care about them? You will not be anymore to witness their sorrow or successes - so what if they are wrecked by your death; so what if you will never see your child succeed and so what if you are not present for the birth of your great-grand children, and that is the main point - you do not exist upon death. Nothing is permanent for you. Nothing stays. I want to say that nothing you do is validated, but even that is to concede that you exist. The truth of the matter, is that there will be nothing.

Since you do not exist, consequentially you do not bear essence. Existence precedes essence. Before you came, there was nothing of you. After you go, there is nothing of you. In between these states when you were present, you exist, then, and only during then, these short human years, that you have meaning, you watch and witness, and you have essence. There is no pre-planned divine meaning in your life because you believe not in God; there is no path which you were supposed to walk inherently; there was simply put, nothing. Only when you came alive, then came the need, or even just the very idea, of meaning.

Let us sum up the argument again. Since I do not believe that some form of Greater Agency exists, I do not believe, then, as argued, that there is anything I should be forced, or should do, for before me, before the very existence of me, there was nothing. I am born, I am me. I am. I am me. I can do anything, for before me, nothing exists. In fact, society and all, did not exist for me, until I became. It is sounding very self-centered, anarchistic and fun now, but it will only be... until later when I explain why not. But I am not done with this point yet.

Let me expand more on the whole existence thing still. If there is no fixed meaning in life thus, for me becoming was the spark of creation, the Big Bang of my own life, my perception of the Universe, my world, the world, I am my own God. Does it therefore mean, as long as I exist, I am free in a very, very profound sense?

You are free! You can do anything you want, and despite the unavoidable hour of death to come, despite the obliteration of all meaning which you could always commit yourself into, you as long as you live, you are your God. You are free. This is a strangely liberating interpretation of the same statement, carried from my earlier morbid elaborations. The very reason why when you die nothing matters is also why while you live nothing matters! In the broadest interpretation, this truth is liberating, it should send you skipping. It should make you suddenly want to do the things you always wanted to do but never did, things you would never do and never did, break into song and not care about how off-tune you are going; quit your job and go to Venice; commit some kind of horrible crime or commit social suicide. Nothing is going to matter, from the most deepest interpretation.

Okay. Now you are done. Suppose that you are. What's next?

Your Condemnation

Just... Nothingness.

Our momentous joy was but a distraction, a reprieve. We still come back to the truly disturbing conclusion of our radical, existential freedom - that is the futility of all things. You cannot just be free "halfway", you must accept the consequences of freedom completely in its impartiality and coldness. You have no choice. You must accept the logical consequences of your freedom without fail. You have no choice - the sentence of your radical freedom must be dealt to you. You are henceforth condemned to be free.


Yet Sartre was no nihilist. Not at all, he rather lived well till the gold age of 74, so it seems with great moral and philosophical conviction that despite the above, he somehow had decided not to just snuff it. In the process, he took many lovers, and his lifelong love story with the feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir is well-known too.

And it was from this seemingly nihilistic statement, this final conclusion that would suffice for Sartre to develop and popularize the continental philosophy of existentialism, which served as a defense of sorts against the nihilism it inspired. For philosophers and historians, the truth of the matter is that Sartre did not actually base his philosophy upon such a single statement alone, the full metaphysical constructs of his ideals were laid down in the heavy Being and Nothingness (1943), amidst the other writings of Sartre. For us though, just this single quote from him, and its analysis, is enough to inspire the greatest existential despair in us all, the dread that nothing matters, memento vanitas, perhaps, just as much as memento mori, and it is the one I remember easily when speaking of the dread that consumes us all.

Perhaps I will write more on existentialism if I have the time and mind to, expanding its scope out of just covering Sartre even. I know it's not nice to leave essays at such cliffhanger, dark endings, especially after all that talk of death and meaninglessness. But I assure you, the conclusion of "Man is condemned to be free." is not nihilism or suicide.

If you are interested to know more, the Wikipedia page on existentialism is rather nice without being too heavy. Otherwise, do look at some books I have read before and found useful for comprehending the subject matter. Links are to Amazon via my affiliate link:

Sartre For Beginners
Sartre For Beginners

A monochrome illustrated telling of the life and thought of Sartre. In my opinion, to start with understanding any system of philosophy, any one of these cartoon and caricature-based books that many different publishers produce is a great thing to have. It so happens that I have actually read this specifically before, and found it a fantastic introductory reading that covers the key concepts well enough.



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