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Sartre's paradox of freedom

THIS WEEK marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jean-Paul Sartre, the father of contemporary existentialism and one of the most prominent moral and political voices of the 20th century. Sartre came to this country via William Barrett, a philosopher at New York University, with the publication in 1958 of Barrett's ''Irrational Man." As Barrett's graduate assistant, I had the opportunity to witness the arrival of ''awful freedom" in the land of the free. We have not been the same since.

Awful freedom is exactly what it sounds like, an irony wrapped in a moral truth cloaked in the wonderfully unphilosophical guise of Sartre's novels and plays. Like Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper, Barrett's name became familiar to millions of people who had never read philosophy before. Terms like ''alienation," ''authenticity," and ''bad faith" became part of the American lexicon as did such names as Heidegger, Camus, Buber, and a long string of others.

Sartre appealed to the American people particularly when it came to his dramatic conception of freedom, light-years removed from the popular American version. Sartre often spoke of ''awful freedom," adding that we are ''condemned to be free." Strangely, Americans took to such language.

What he meant was that freedom is part of what it is to be human even if we are in bondage. For example, during the long, German occupation of France, one was still free to say ''no" to the occupiers of Paris and so many other French cities. The collaborators who didn't say ''no," who practiced a kind of moral arbitrage, playing one side against the other, he referred to as ''les salauds," or stinkers -- the smelly, self-righteous countrymen who favored the German occupiers of their land. Out of this experience, Sartre composed his first novel, ''Nausea," which describes the decaying moral essence wafting through the French air.

Nor is freedom lost in those numerous instances in which it appears that human beings lose control of themselves. In a famous example, he insisted that when a woman faints at the sight of blood, her consciousness is something she relinquishes, not something she loses by dint of circumstance. Briefly put, she is responsible for her faint.

Suddenly, philosophy was transformed from an academic discipline into an existential project in which ideas could no longer be dispensed like candy from a machine.

There is a paradoxical element to Sartre's notion of freedom. Freedom itself is not free. We are compelled to act freely; there is no way to avoid being free. In his view, much of human life is a struggle to avoid the burden of such awesome opportunity. When terrorists, sex offenders, or corporate heads testify that they were under a religious spell, compelled to act as they did or ignorant of the truth, they are guilty of what Sartre called ''bad faith." Always, Sartre reinforced the simple truth that freedom can never alienate itself from a person any more than his shadow can.

The corporate figures ''convinced" themselves that no harm would be done by their deceit, that they deserved the extra shares, the additional money, and the increased power such resources bring. At any point along the way, from the first glimmering sense of possible financial gain, to the silent deliberations, to the phone calls, signatures, and financial sleights of hand all the way to the public denials and vague testimonies, there was the opportunity to say ''no" to the impulse, to utter the truth, to be ''authentic."

Never for a second did freedom fall from the shoulder of a single principal in all the scandal that ensued. Their posturing was bad faith. Pretending innocence, denying what they were, and avoiding the responsible for their deeds is not just bad faith. It is monumental inauthenticity.

Sartre was moved to declare that ''man makes himself," another way of saying that freedom makes us creative, makes us build a future, much as a painter paints a picture. In this declaration, he perceived little difference between a woman deciding to pursue a career as a pianist and Picasso painting ''Three Musicians."

While Sartre's idea of freedom differs from what we find in America, he has also been compared to the American pragmatists, particularly when it comes to writing. Such an activity, according to philosopher Thomas Flynn, is the way one acts upon the world. Actions produce effects, and for these the writer must be held responsible, be he the author of ''Common Sense" or ''Mein Kampf."

Sartre introduced Americans to the creative, even the sublime dimensions of human thought. He taught that thinking is serious business. Ideas are important things for which we are responsible. They are manifestations of our freedom, that awful freedom that never lets us off the hook, a freedom to create ourselves each day. And it is this burden that makes us free.

Irwin Savodnik is a psychiatrist and philosopher who teaches at UCLA.

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