Freedom and Responsibility in the Face of Absurdity
The modern individual's condition is repeatedly presented with such a tyranny of contradicting choices that the pressure to choose “right” can often feel overwhelming. The aisles of life seem to stretch forever into a fog-- infinite and absurd--every step revealing shelf on top of shelf overflowing with multitudes of mouthwatering politics and dessert options. People are challenged with important, large decisions constantly. Though there never appears to be any solid guide toward the right one. But, more important are the choices they are confronted with in the midst of their everyday life: Wine or workout? Ideas of right and wrong are so convoluted that one is often inclined to make no choice at all; or, latch their faith onto popular pre-written ethical doctrines--of which were formerly, and always, derived by other fleshy and flawed human beings--and risks becoming misguided, disillusioned. Not only do these ethics often fail people when they abide by them too strictly--not giving room for intuition, spontaneity, and subjectivity-- but, the larger risk is that of alienation from oneself. While being seduced and swayed by the ethics of the popular and public, people risk losing touch with themselves, their responsibility and their will. They seem to merge with something larger and greater; if it is not analysed and criticised with care, something groundless and fleeting. “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him…”, Friedrich Nietzsche writes in “The Gay Science” (Nietzsche 67). God is dead to the existentialist. He had died a long time ago-- the mourning period has long past as well--and it's about time individuals start taking responsibility for the freedom that God's tragic death has granted them. However, what entails one's total utilization of their own freedom? What responsibility does one have for their full and effective, or perhaps neglectful, use of freedom?
In the eyes of the existentialist individuals have the freedom to make themselves what they will, and they, unlike other beings, are not bound completely by any primordial, objective plan or purpose; nor the society and culture that surrounds them. Their existence precedes their essence (Sartre 206). “...there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it’’ Jean-Paul Sartre explains in “Existentialism is a Humanism, “Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing--as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothings else but that which he makes of himself ” (Sartre 207). Before “God's death”, humans perceived themselves to carry a human nature--a purpose--to abide by and to guide them. Just as an author writes a book for someone to be read, and to guide his reader through a story he thought he ought to tell, God had created humans with a preconception of their teleological destiny. Like an author, God guides individuals further into their story the way He thinks they should go--the right way. But, to the existentialist because there is no God to have written the fate of any person's life story, an individual has the freedom and responsibility to write their own stories--“The Story of So and So”. Still, one must recognize their facticity, and the things they cannot control. For one is born with a partially written story, an unfinished book. There's already a unique book cover blanketing a mysterious and complex introduction to one's genealogy and history . It may already have pages missing, some scratches and stains, and the book will inevitably wear with the natural aging of their bodies and minds. Regardless, there will always be more pages to to tell one's story. To transcend beyond one's past. At the very moment an individual finishes writing the tragedy of getting their heart broken, or the comedy of a late night conversation and a bottle of wine, or the epic of graduating college, they begin a new story. At every moment humans transcend their own facticity and create themselves how they wish their self to be. Simone De Beauvoir writes in “The Ethics of Ambiguity, “The characteristic feature of all ethics is to consider human life as a game that can be won or lost and to teach man the means of winning” (Beauvoir 23). Beauvoir explains that the choices that every individual makes all play a role in the trial and error style game of life. Because there is no God that has destined the ethical life of individuals that make up a society, the individual holds complete responsibility in their freedom to disclose the ethics required for a life well lived.
“It has been a long and stressful day”, a man may think. “Who would it bother if I were to dig into the ole’ Jägermeister, and numb just a wee bit of this pain I am affected by--help me get to sleep. This choice is not hurting anyone. Nowhere it says a man cannot drown his own sorrows”. Consequently, if this man does indulge in intoxication, and perhaps continue to do so in the face of all distresses and discomforts, he must not deny his responsibility for injecting into the world his drunken ethics. He must accept a potential world where everyone always quells their discomfort and distress with a shot of Jäger. Between who someone was and who they wills themselves to be always resides an anguishing choice. If one does not carefully inspect their choices through the lens of total responsibility, they in turn ignore the anguish necessary for authentic choice, and thus suppress their own freedom. Everyday choices carry so much power and importance because they not only declares to oneself and the world who this one is, but also proposes how he believes all people should be. Sartre writes, “And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but he is responsible for all men...of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be” (Sartre 208). Not only do an individual's choices wholly reflect who they are and their ethical lives, but they also propose and ethical guide for all humans. For the existentialist there is nowhere else but in individual freedom, the core of the human condition, to look for such a pure justification of what is right and wrong.
With so much responsibility to make choices and build the truths of the human condition, individuals are continually threatened by the intoxicating power to declare through their choices, to themselves and the world, that they are merely their own conception of themselves. They reduce themselves to the facticity of his life: their job, their status, their illness. Sartre brands this endeavor as “bad faith”. They make no projects for themselves, no goal to transcends what has already been written in their book. They view and reduce themselves to what their book already reads, and they neglect to write more--to write how they wish the human life to be. The pages continue to turn, but their title, their being, has changed from something abstract, unique, and infinite--“The Story of So and So”-- to something concrete and stagnant--“The Life of so and so The Waiter, or The Artist”. The title, or rather the identity, of one's given name holds no concrete concept. A surname in no way defines who someone is and who they will themselves to be. But, titling and identifying, and thus reducing, one's story to merely the story of one's vocation, or any other facticity which simplifies them, one is pressured to act precisely as their concept of that specific entity. They neglect to recognize their transcendence as the essential aspect of their being. For humans are always transcending. Even in the act of reducing themselves humans sadly utilize their own original transcendence to attempt to banish the absurdity of their condition. Beauvoir fights humans futile attempts to quell their anguish when she writes, “To attain his truth, man must not attempt to dispel the ambiguity of his being but, on the contrary, accept the task of realizing it. He rejoins himself only to the extent that he agrees to remain at a distance from himself” (Beauvoir 13).
Human lives are filled to the brim with facticity, and these very real entities can often appear as limitations. But, for most humans the most terrifying fact of all is time and mortality. From the very beginning individuals persist to become more confident in, and through, the inevitability of their death. This terrifies and feeds humans. For without death there would be no incentive to live, and death places even more responsibility for one’s lives, for one’s freedom. Whether an individual's choices reflect a drunk ethic or sober ethic, maybe a truthful ethic or a swindling ethic, at any point they could die and leave his story, his guide, for all humans. Every individual holds the responsibility to be aware that the choices they make in life reflect how they feel all humans should make choices, and should write their story through the anguishing filter of this responsibility. Moreover, individuals must use their freedom to disclose their facticity to understand their past and limitations, so as to allow themselves to continually transcend it towards another goal--to perpetuate freedom rather than block it. A project which will of course later become another facticity to disclose and transcend. “Man, Sartre tells us, is ‘a being who makes himself a lack of being in order that there might be being’” (Beauvoir 11).
Beauvoir, Simone . The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans.Bernard Frechtman. New York, N.Y Philosophical Library, 1948. Print.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “from Existentialism Is a Humanism.” Existentialism. Ed. Robert C. Solomon.
2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 206-214. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “from The Gay Science.” Existentialism. Ed. Robert C. Solomon.
2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 67-72. Print.