Jean-Paul Sartre's Absolute Freedom – Our Past Does not Define Our Future
Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the most important philosopher of the 20th century with a rich life as a philosopher, playwright, and social activist. He is the Existentialist of the 20th century having coined the word and forming its school of thought from its historic divergent sources including Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Today, Existentialism and Sartre's philosophy permeates the way we see the world and how we understand each other.
His masterpiece was Being and Nothingness , a monumental philosophical work. Its essence can be summarized in one statement. You are what you are not and are not what you are. A paradoxical statement indeed. So, what does he mean?
Through time, human beings have always wondered the relationship between their freedom and their fixed determination. Every adolescent grows up wondering what are the limits of his freedom? What is the relationship between one's being and past with one's freedom and future?
If you believe that the past determinates your future, that there's nothing you can possibly do then you're labeled as fatalist. You have no hope in being able to change your life.
If you believe that you can achieve anything then you will be labeled as a hopelessly, naive dreamer.
Sartre argued that all people have an absolute freedom to choose their lives. In any and every situation, there is always a choice on how one acts. Even if the choice is between succumbing to coercion or death. He is not arguing that all people have omnipotent power to do anything they wish or make anything they desire. Rather, Sartre argued that human beings are always held in a tension between their facticity and their freedom. Facticity defined as the facts of one's life that can never be changed such as one's birthplace, one's parents, or one's genes. Facticity is what constitutes our situation, it is the starting point from where we live our lives of freedom.
Facticity or the past does not determine our future though. Facticity does shape the opportunities we may be presented with. But the future is never set in stone. Even on the pain of death, we can still resist and assert our freedom. Imagine the last scene from Braveheart where William Wallace cries out, "FREEDOM!" while being tortured to death.
Each person plays an indispensable role for determining the meaning of his or her actions and situations. In-itself, no person is good or evil. No situation is absolutely good or wrong. Human beings are source of values.
However, this is not solipicism or relativism. Not at all. Sartre was an absolute moralist in so far as he believed there were absolute morals such as unjustified killing is wrong. These morals are intuitively understood and accepted by all human beings. I would argue that all of us share enough commonalities as human beings that these morals naturally developed in our genes and in our minds. Each of us understands the human right to life, food, and work.
When evils do occur, it is because people label another person as non-human or sub-human. They deprive another person of their human being and instead label them as animals or objects.
Ultimately, taking up the responsibility of one's freedom means being the author of one's own life at every moment. It means understanding that I am the sole judge of what this action or this event means to me. It means accepting that I always have a choice of what I do even if I do not get to choose the opportunities presented to me.
Does this sound familiar? I would say it's how we all think today but often forget in times of adversity.