Being and Nothingness


Existentialism often attracts the ‘life is meaningless’ caricature, but in fact its greatest exponent, Jean-Paul Sartre, was actually one of the greatest philosophers of human freedom. It is not easy to arrive at this realisation, however, because of the sheer difficulty and weightiness of his greatest work, Being and Nothingness. In the Introduction, for instance, Sartre defines consciousness as “a being such that in its being, its being is in question in so far as this being implies a being other than itself”. Heidegger’s influence is apparent in such impenetrability; what could it actually mean? To understand, we should start with Sartre’s basic division of the world into two: things which have consciousness of self (beings ‘for themselves’); and things which do not (things ‘in themselves’, the objects around us which make up the world). Consciousness exists ‘for itself’ because it can comprehend itself. Most of the book is devoted to this kind of consciousness, and what it means to those who truly have it: human beings.

The three most powerful points I took from the book were;

  1. Although we did not choose to be born, once here we must take responsibility for it. We must see everything in the world as an opportunity (whether used, not used or lacking in the first place).

  2. The person who realises that they choose the meaning of their own being, even if it is a frightening thought, is absolutely free. They can live without excuses, regrets or remorse, and take absolute responsibility for their actions.

  3. The human goal is to realise and appreciate our own being and our freedom. Other goals which we create as substitutes for this indicate a ‘spirit of seriousness’ which mistakenly suggests that what I am doing is all important. Who we are is always a project of our own making.

Central to Sartre’s thinking is the view that people have no essential ‘essence’. In fact, when humans analyse their own being, what they find at the heart of it is nothing. Yet this nothingness is a great thing, since it means we are totally free to create the self or the life we want. We are free in a negative way, because there is nothing to stop us being free. Sartre remarks that, “...man being condemned to be free carries the whole weight of the world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being.” Being and Nothingness caught the mood of post-war France in which all the old certainties had crumbled away. If France’s existing value system had got it into such a mess in the War, was it worth anything? Sartre represented a new way of seeing and being. People could choose their future, and it was this apparently new philosophy which excited a generation.

Freedom and responsibility Not simply are we responsible for what we do, Sartre says, we are responsible for our world. We are each living out a certain project with our lives, so whatever seems to happen to us must be accepted as part of the project. Sartre goes so far as to say that “there are no accidents in life”. He gives the example of being called up to fight in a war. It is wrong to think of the war as an external thing that comes from outside and suddenly takes over ‘our’ life. In fact, the war must become my war. I could always get out of it by killing myself or deserting, but for one reason or another (cowardice, inertia, or not wanting to let down a family or a community), I stay in the war – and, “For lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it.” A war depends on its soldiers for its existence, and I have “decided that it does exist”. There is no point seeing it as a block of time taken out of my life, taking me away from what I ‘really want to do’ (pursue a career, have a family etc); by being in the war I must take full responsibility for it and for my time in it. “I choose myself from day to day”, as Sartre puts it. The state of being of man is a constant choosing of one’s self. People may wish they lived in another time to avoid being in the war, but the fact is they are part of the epoch which led to war, and to be in any other time would contradict that. “Thus, I am this war...” – my life is an expression of the era I live in, so to wish for some other life is a meaningless, illogical fantasy. We are ‘abandoned’ in the universe, Sartre points out. Anguish comes from the realisation that we are not ‘the foundation of our own being’ (i.e. we did not invent ourselves, or create our own birth), and neither can we be the foundation of being for other people. All we can do is choose the meaning of our being. Although we did not choose to be born, once here we must take responsibility for it. We must see everything in the world as an opportunity (whether used, not used or lacking in the first place). The person who realises that they choose the meaning of their own being, even if it is a frightening thought, is absolutely free. They can live without excuses, regrets or remorse, and take absolute responsibility for their actions. The human goal is to realise and appreciate our own being and our freedom. Other goals which we create as substitutes for this indicate a ‘spirit of seriousness’ which mistakenly suggests that what I am doing is all important. As Sartre puts it, “Success is not important to freedom”. You don’t have to attain what you have wished to be free, you just have to be free to make a choice. Living as if our actions are all-important, or spending our life trying to live up to some kind of universal moral value system, is a kind of bad faith. Only by truly choosing for ourselves what we will be every minute, by creating our life like it is a work of art arising from this total freedom, do we realise our potential as human beings. Sartre’s statement, “Man is what he is not and is not what he is” means that we can’t escape our ‘facticity’ – the concrete facts of our existence like our sex, nationality, class, race. All of these provide a ‘coefficient of adversity’ which makes any kind of achievement in life an uphill battle. And yet, neither are we simply the sum of our facticity. Each of us can have a ‘project’ for our life. The problem is that we shrink back from doing totally new things, things out of character, because we value consistency in ourselves. Consistency, or character, is both a form of security and the lens through which we view and make sense of our world, but is largely an illusion. Despite all the limiting factors of our existence, we are freer than we imagine.

Bad faith Sartre’s famous concept of ‘bad faith’ (mauvaise foi) rests on a distinction between two types of lying: the regular lie, which implies “that the liar actually is in complete possession of the truth which he is hiding”, and whose lie relates to something in the world of objects, expressing the view that I and others are separate; and the lie to one’s self, a lie of consciousness that does not involve a separation between deceiver and deceived. This second lie is less black-and-white, but more serious, since it involves a flight from our freedom.

As he puts it; “bad faith then has in appearance the structure of lying. Only what changes everything is the fact that in bad faith it is from myself that I am hiding the truth.” Bad faith requires a person to accept things on face value, and rests on a resistance to the idea of uncovering things completely to find the truth. If not an outright lie, it is persuading oneself to not look too closely, in case something is found one does not like. Sartre spends several pages rebutting Freud. Freud believed that people’s choices and actions are constantly hijacked by their unconscious minds, but when Sartre sat down to read Freud’s cases for himself, he found that the people on the Viennese doctor’s couch were simply examples of pathological bad faith. Another Viennese psychiatrist, Stekel, agreed with him, and wrote “Every time that I have been able to carry my investigations far enough, I have established that the crux of the psychosis was conscious.” Indeed, Sartre would have welcomed the revolution in cognitive therapy of the last 40 years, which dismisses the idea that we are sabotaged by subterranean urges, and can in fact condition our thinking. Nevertheless, freedom is a burden, which is why so many escape into bad faith. Sartre notes that bad faith may be the normal way of life for many people, with only occasional, brief awakenings to good faith. The person of bad faith can see quite clearly what he or she is doing, but chooses to deceive themselves as to its meaning.

He gives the example of a woman who has agreed to go on a first date with a man. Though she does not try to prevent his acts of flirtation and pronouncements of love or affection for her, at the same time she doesn’t wish to make any kind of decision about the relationship. So what does she do? To keep enjoying the charm of the evening, she reduces the man’s statements to their literal meaning only. When he says to her ‘I find you so attractive!’, she takes this only for what it is, being careful not to accept any other meaning (such as, I want to sleep with you, or I want to get serious with the relationship).

When he takes her hand, she doesn’t want to destroy the evening by withdrawing it, so pretends to herself that she hasn’t noticed her hand is in his. Seeing her own body as a mere object has the effect of preserving her freedom. She has made no commitment her self – or at least this is how she chooses to see it. But in separating her body, or the ‘facts’ of the situation, from her transcendent self (her true ‘I’ if you like) she is creating a lie for herself to serve a particular purpose: maintaining a sense of freedom or non-commitment. Everyone operates between bad faith and good faith all the time, but Sartre says that it is possible through ‘self-recovery’ to achieve authenticity, which simply means a person ‘being what they are’. For such a person, candour “ceases to be his ideal and becomes instead his being”. But this does not happen naturally; a person becomes sincere, or what they are, only as a conscious act.

Freedom and relationships It may seem an obvious question; why are human beings obsessed with relationships? Sartre’s answer is that, although we are each individually conscious beings, we also need others to see us and ‘make us real’. The problem in relationships is that we try to turn other free consciousnesses (people) into objects, which is never possible. The implication of Sartre’s views is that our best chances for happiness or success in relationships is to recognise and allow another’s freedom, despite our natural wish to ‘own’ them. We need to see people as a free being, and not simply the sum of their facticity. We can try to make others dependent on us emotionally, or materially, but we can never possess the consciousness of another. “If Tristan and Isolde [the mythical love pair] fall madly in love because of a love potion”, Sartre writes, “they are less interesting” – because a potion would cut out their consciousness. It is not just a person we want to possess, as an object, but their conscious freedom to want us. Not even a pledge or a vow measures up to this; in fact these are nothing compared to the full giving of a person to another in spirit. As Sartre puts it, “the Lover wants to be ‘the whole World’ for the beloved.” To the other person, “I must be the one whose function is to make the trees and water exist”. We must represent to them the final limit of their freedom, where they voluntarily choose to see no further. For ourselves, we want to be seen by the other not as an object, but as something limitlessness: “I must no longer be seen on the ground of the world as a ‘this’ among other ‘thises’, but the world must be revealed in terms of me.” Romantic relationships are so potent, Sartre says, because they join together one person’s state of Nothingness to another’s Being. In plain terms, when we fall in love with someone they seem to fill a hole. We rely on the other to make us exist (otherwise, we are the state of nothing). Yet we are perpetually insecure in love because at any moment we can become, instead of the centre of the lover’s world, merely one thing among many. Thus, for Sartre it is this push and pull between objectivity and subjectivity that is the heart of all conflicts and unresolved issues in love.

Relationships are a perpetual dance between lovers wanting to perceive each other’s freedom, and wanting to see each other as an object. Without the other being free, they are not attractive, yet if they are in not some way an object, we cannot have them. It is only in recognising the other’s total freedom that we can ever be said to possess them in any way. Perhaps, reducing ourselves to an object to be used by the other, but in a voluntary way, is in a strange way the height of being human, since it is a kind of giving that goes against the very nature of man to be free - a gift like no other.

Sex and desire Sartre sees sexual desire as having much less to do with the sexual organs than with states of being. We are sexual beings from birth to death, yet the sex organs do not explain our feelings of desire. Desire of what, Sartre asks? We don’t desire someone just for pleasure, or just because they are a vessel for the pleasurable act of ejaculation – as noted above, we desire a consciousness. There is a big gap between normal desires and sexual desire, he points out. We can desire to drink a glass of water, and once we have drunk we are satisfied. It’s that simple.

But sexual desire compromises me, Sartre notes. Consciousness becomes ‘clogged’ by desire, or to put it another way, it invades us. We can let this happen, or try to prevent it, but either way the sexual appetite is not the same as others, since it involves the mind, not just the body. We say that desire ‘takes hold of us’, or ‘overwhelms us’, phrases we don’t use in relation to hunger or thirst, for instance. Sartre likens sexual desire to being overcome by sleep, which is why we seem to have little power over it. Consciousness gives way to just being a body, or in his words, “The being which desires is making itself body.” At the same time, during sex we wish to make the other person only flesh (thus revealing ourselves as just flesh). Not only do we want the other person rid of all clothes and adornments, we want that body to be an object, no longer moving. “Nothing is less ‘in the flesh’ than a dancer even though she is nude. Desire is an attempt to strip the body of its movements as of its clothing and to make it exist as pure flesh; it is an attempt to incarnate the Other’s body.” The caress, Sartre says, “causes the Other’s flesh to be born”, to awaken desire in them, and at the same time makes us realise ourselves as a body, and a body that belongs to the world. The interplay between mind and body he describes in this way: “...consciousness is engulfed in a body which is engulfed in the world”. Though we are conscious beings, in love-making we wish to reduce the other to physicality, and reduce ourselves to being a mere body – if only for a time.

What I took from it For a person who said that appreciating one’s freedom and state of being was more important than ‘bourgeois’ achievements (he refused the Nobel prize, for instance), Sartre achieved a lot. Notwithstanding his remark that “Success is not important to freedom”, could it be said that he left us with a recipe for success? Clearly, yes. Apart from the broader ethic of individual freedom, the recipe is to “insert my action into the network of determinism”. By this he means we must accept the milieu into which we have been born, yet be willing to transcend it. We must see the grain of our particular universe, and yet be creative in our pursuit of a meaningful life. The whole book is a warning not to let the apparent facts of our existence dictate its style or nature. Who we are is always a project of our own making. Sartre himself lived out this philosophy. The death of his father when he was quite young meant there was no pressure to model himself on him, and he felt free to invent himself as whatever person he wished. Consistent with their refutation of all bourgeois or middle class values, he and fellow philosopher Simone de Beauvoir never married or had children, but their union of minds made them one of the great couples of the 20th century. For most of their lives they lived in apartments within a stone’s throw of each other, and would spend several hours a day together; they admitted it was difficult to know which ideas in their writing originated with one or the other. Their thoughts on being, love, and relationships remain some of the most penetrating ever written.

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