Futility and Freedom
In the text Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, the main character, Antoine Roquentin, experiences both struggles and triumphs when it comes to understanding existential philosophy. The author has been famously quoted regarding his own existential views, and his novel serves as evidence for his claims. Unlike Camus, Sartre does not express support for life being a great adventure as much as he expresses that life has no final meaning. He uses Roq’s experience to prove this truth as well as demonstrate the difficulty Roq has when only understanding some existential principles rather than all of them. Since existentialism is a complicated philosophy, the struggle of not fully understanding it can be detrimental. Sisyphus is regarded as an existential hero because he is led to freedom by understanding futility and hopelessness. Roq struggles to embrace freedom amongst his hopelessness. He also is faced with the difference between essence and existence which leaves him in a state of absurdity. Rationalizing the irrational is just one existential principle among a myriad of paradoxes that challenges Roq. Sartre stated a truth that “Man is condemned to be free” which is necessary to understand because the burdening awareness of the impact of Roq’s choices has led him to acknowledge the consequences of all of his actions and inactions. Roq’s character also shows the truth and necessity in Sartre’s statement “Man is a futile passion” by demonstrating that the attempt to rationalize the meaninglessness of life and existence is pointless and damaging. Sartre’s quote that “Man is condemned to be free” has within itself its own paradox that suggests that freedom is burdening.
Sartre’s quote that “Man is condemned to be free” has within itself its own paradox that suggests that freedom is burdening. Roq is used to exemplify that when one is completely aware of their endless freedom, the pressure that comes with that awareness is the condemning burden. This concept is beyond just the simple recognition of existence since it includes the facets of choice and freedom that can potentially add meaning to the bareness of existence itself. Salah Bakewell writes: “I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment… I am free — an anxiety inseparable from human existence itself’ (Bakewell 34). Bakewell is suggesting that the freedom that causes so much anxiety is the freedom of not just choice, but the freedom to define oneself with every single decision one makes. Every choice will have a consequence, that no matter how small or large will a play a part in defining the essence attached to an individual’s existence. Sartre uses this truth to show its crippling effects on Roq: “I am free: there is absolutely no more reason for living… Alone and free. But this freedom is rather like death” (Sartre 156,157). While his total freedom makes his life meaningless since there is nothing larger than him to make the world have meaning, he also realizes that he must no longer rely on the past to define his life. Since he cannot use the past as a distraction from his absurd existence, he must learn how to live in the freedom of the present. Previously in the novel, he did not understand that all of his choices in the present have consequences. The truth that freedom is a burdening constant in life is necessary to understand for individuals to make choices in good faith. Prior to Roq’s realization, he saw a strange man flash a young girl. He reflected: “I wanted to stop it. It would have been good enough to cough or open the gate” (Sartre 79). Although he claims that he wanted to stop the flasher, he did not. His inaction resulted in the sexaul harrassment of a young girl. If he had truly understood that what happened was a consequence of his choice, he could have prevented something awful. Although his anxiety that comes with the awareness of freedom is a crippling burden, it is also necessary in his ability to make impactful decision that he can take responsibility for. Allowing his intention to justify his inaction is living in bad faith when put into an existentialist context since action is incredibly important. This event in the book exemplifies the challenge Roq faces of trying to be fully present when there really is no present. Life is just happening, so Roq has no choice but to live confronting the absurdity of life. Instead, he lives inside his own mind making justifications in bad faith and not realizing the impact of his actions. Part of his struggle to care about the consequences of his choices comes from the truth that everything he impacts has no greater meaning. Sartre’s claim that “Man is a futile passion” is a truth since just as man is condemned by freedom, man is condemned by his futile passion to find meaning in a meaningless world. Sartre’s observation carries the two truths that one day everything
Sartre’s claim that “Man is a futile passion” is a truth since just as man is condemned by freedom, man is condemned by his futile passion to find meaning in a meaningless world. Sartre’s observation carries the two truths that one day everything Roq does quite literally will not matter and that trying to understand the meaninglessness of existence is a damaging and trivial pursuit. When Roq is considering cities, he reflects: “Vegetation has crawled for miles towards cities. It is waiting. Once the city is dead, the vegetation will cover it…” (Sartre 156). This reflection shows that Roq is questioning how there can be any meaning if one day everything humans build will be gone. Sartre is suggesting that it is futile to make meaning when there is an inevitability of destruction. Man’s attempt to make an impact does not matter at all given the perspective of the vastness of the universe. With Roq’s awareness of this truth and his eventual knowledge of the consequences of every single one of his actions, he is broken by the paradoxical nature of existentialism.
If only one of Sartre’s statements were true or necessary, then existentialism would be missing the paradox that holds it in place. The metaphor of the city demonstrates Roq’s understanding of time; since eventually the future becomes the present, the present is the future. Consequently, since in the future everything man built has been covered with vegetation and destroyed, Roq will join the city in its erosion into a forgotten meaningless landmark. As existence overcomes Roq, Sartre uses him to show the futility of trying to make meaning out of existence: “I would so like to let myself go, forget myself, sleep. But I can’t, I’m suffocating: existence penetrates me everywhere… (Sartre 126). His suffocation by existence is the summation of his understanding of his nausea. Once he is burdened by his awareness of the necessity and responsibility give life meaning, he begins to acknowledge the impossibleness of making meaning. As he is driven mad by meaninglessness as a concept, he struggles to separate and realize the difference between essence and existence. It panics him that things without their essence have no meaning, and if essence is just a fabrication by man to give irrational things meaning, then all meaning is fabricated. This supports that it is futile to give existence meaning since essence is meaningless because things could have been given any meaning or essence. Sartre is showing through Roq that attempting to live by the truth of this paradox may be a passion, but it will never amount to anything. This is because whether Roq decides there is or is not authentic meaning in life, he is still burdened by the awareness that every single decision he makes has an impact.
Sartre brings up awareness as ever-present which suggests that trying to escape the paradoxical burdens of existentialism would be a futile effort. Out of the two truths Sartre presented, the futility of humans’ passion to make meaning and rationalize things is a more important existential mantra to understand. It is the reason Sisyphus is considered such a hero. While it is his actions that show he is accepting responsibility, he also rejects the prospect of a successful ending to his burden. He is not looking for any final meaning. By understanding the futility of making meaning out of life, he has found a freedom that is not burdening to his being. Roq unfortunately struggles with the ability to find freedom in accepting meaninglessness because he is dangerously aware of both his potential for impact and overall insignificance. If Roq could embrace existence in the way Sisyphus does, Sartre likely would have portrayed his character in a different light.
‘Existence Precedes Essence’
The phrase ‘existence precedes essence’ is often used in order to summarize existential thinking. However, what it means in the context of its originating work Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre is often forgotten. At face value Nausea is a story of a man named Antoine Roquentin, who is writing a history novel in the small town of Bouville. Antoine is primarily solitary, and spends a lot of time reflecting about the many facets of life. Through his diary, or technically through the first person narration in diary format, Antoine constantly explores the ‘existence precedes essence’ idea. Antione uses both implication and straight-forward language in order to develop the concepts of existence and essence, allowing for a clear image of Sartre’s philosophy on a literal level. Implications made by the claim ‘existence precedes essence’ are conferred in a similar format. Sartre allows for idea’s in regards to reasoning, freedom, human nature and the traditional Christian God to be explored throughout this work. He also makes mention as to why people commonly attempt to hide from the manner in which existence precedes essence, behavior which he terms as bad faith. The most prominent points pertaining to Sartre’s statement ‘existence precedes essence’ should be explained and understood since they are allotted so much importance.Sartre explores the idea of existence in a number of ways.The most basic facet of Sartre’s existence is that it is simply to be. Sartre does not go into complicated descriptions and definitions of ‘existence,’ but rather states that “if you exist… you [have] to exist all the way” (172). According to Sartre it is as simple as you either exist, or you do not. This makes it rather easy for a person to tell whether or not they exist, leading to another well-known phrase of Sartre’s, “I am. I exist, I think, therefore I am” (150). A person cannot deliberate about whether or not they exist unless they already exist, and hence there can be no discrepancy about it.Sartre explains existence as something that only exists in the present, or rather at a single instance all that existed in the last instance has ceased to exist. This is set out very clearly in the passage, “existence… falls from one present to the other, without a past, without a future” (235). This point is also implicated after a night where heightened consciousness is experienced by Antoine. During the night he spent long moments contemplating the existence of the things around him, for example he noted that “the heart beats, it’s a holiday, the heart exists, the legs exist, the breath exists, they exist running, breathing, beating” (139). After such elated discoveries Antoine almost invariably finds himself feeling dejected. After this specific episode he writes simply “Nothing. Existed” in his journal the next day (140). Antoine’s reveling in the existence around him is followed by the realization that the moment afterwords all of that which he had just connected with and been inspired by no longer exists.Sartre proceeds to claim that nothing exists but base existence itself, that is, there is nothing but existence and everything else is a momentary creation of that existence. Take the example of consciousness. Consciousness is considered to be a person’s perception and identity, the individual characteristic held by beings with a superior mental power often held as the most important part of being human. At one point in the novel Antoine claims that to “say ‘I’… seems hollow” and that “the only thing real left in me is existence which feels it exists… consciousness forgotten, forsaken” (227). Sartre is pointing out how nothing can define a person, as the only thing there is to a person is existence, which is not a defining characteristic.Consciousness is very similar to essence. Like consciousness, a person’s essence is considered to be a defining and limiting characteristic, though essence more strongly connotes a basic trait, or set of traits, that are necessary to define one’s personal identity. It is something that is depended on in order to allow a person to be what he is. As noted above Sartre believes that a person is not defined in any way other than that they exist, which is inconsistent with the notion of a constricting essence. Rather, Sartre holds that essence is created by human perception and language, which changes as existence does with every moment and hence has no restrictive force. For example, objects are unable to create their own essence. They do not have the mental capability to define themselves and as such the only definition they have is imposed upon them by an outside force, though surely another’s perception of the object does not limit it in anyway. It is such that Sartre separates objects and things in terms of how they exist, as an essence is only an imposed characteristic. The idea of something’s essence is created by something that must already exist, and therefore existence must precede the essence.Nothing existing other than existence itself means that essence must be created by this existence. Furthermore, the idea that existence is only momentary, and thus so are its creations, means that an essence cannot last and cannot constrict as it is traditionally implicated to do. Existence, then, is necessary for essence but an essence is something that can or cannot exist, depending upon the moment. ‘Existence precedes essence’ manages to paraphrase all of this, which undoubtedly led to its popularity.While the actual meaning of the phrase is somewhat simple, it comes attached with numerous implications of philosophical ideas. Sartre uses the ‘existence precedes essence’ concept to show that reason is inherently flawed, as is the concept of human nature, that man is free and in actuality forced to be so, and that there is no God.The concept of objective reasoning presupposes a causal link between events. Thinking of a thing or event logically involves looking at the properties of a thing, and often what attributed and caused those properties to occur, and then drawing a conclusion from it. For example, if in the past a man has always been of nasty temperament while it rained and it is raining, then it would logically follow that the man is in a nasty temperament. However, if existence precedes essence, then there can be no such logical conclusion drawn as the man’s past temperaments can have no bearing on the ones he may possess in the future. That is, if only the moment exists, in absence of both the past and the future, then the premises for this conclusion do not exist and whatever it is predicting does not exist. This means that neither have any tangible qualities and hence are unable to prove anything. This applies to all strings of logic. Since a single moment has no ties to the past or the future, meaning there can be neither premises nor conclusions, the entire institution of logic becomes irrelevant. A system cannot base non-existent conclusions on non-existent premises and claim to be logical, it is such that “the world of explanations and reasons is not the world of existence” (174).Now, the essence of a person is considered to be that which is planned for him, or his nature. It is generally agreed upon that ‘human nature’ governs how people act, and in effect controls them. The concept of human nature is something that is, again, similar to that of essence. It is considered an inherent and necessary component of being a human being, which automatically limits a person, and it is generally used in a somewhat general scientific sense. This controlling force is the basis behind the theory of causality, that every event or action is caused by the culmination of previous events. Human nature allows for humans to be controlled as a species, governed by their past and their present and future actions. Yet if the past does not exist and there is no essence, then there can be no nature ingrained in man that may bind him. That is, the absence of a casual link existing between past events and the present that could determine present and future events and the loss thereby of any defining essence or nature causes the restriction of human nature and that of causality to no longer be applicable.It is along this line of thought that Sartre explains freedom. He uses the idea pf certainties. With the absence of causality and human nature, the absence of any type of constricting necessity, everything then becomes uncertain. Or rather, the only thing that is certain is that there are no certainties. “No necessary being can explain existence” claims Antoine, “contingency is not a delusion, a probability, which can be dissipated [in the name of science or causality]; it is the absolute, consequently, the perfect free gift. All is free, this park, this city, and myself” (176). A lack of restrictive forces, such as human nature or essence, existing as inherent and necessary means that humanity is unfettered in its action. It is thus that Sartre is able to make the case that man possesses freewill.This philosophical point leads to the necessity of man’s freedom, or in the form of another famous Sartrean quote from his work Being and Nothingness, that man is “condemned to be free” (567). In Nausea “the true nature of the present revealed itself” to Antoine, “it was what exists, and all that was not present did not exist. The past did not exist. Not at all. Not in things, not even in [his] thought” (130). If the only thing that exists is this exact moment, and there is nothing that is determining its outcome or even existing to govern it, then there is no choice for the action within it but to be free. It would seem that a paradox is being posed: Man is necessarily free, to exist is to be free, however he cannot choose to be constrained, or not free.By extension, the phrase ‘existence precedes essence’ denies the existence of the traditional Christian God along with that of human nature. The primary concept of Christianity that is in opposition to Sartre is that of the soul. The soul is allegedly the defined essence of man, shaped by God in his own image. This is precisely the traditional ‘essence precedes existence’ claim that Sartre finds unfounded. The doctrine of a ‘divine plan’ that governs man’s actions, or at least their outcomes, is also in opposition to Sartre. The ‘divine plan’ concept contradicts both the idea of freedom and, by extension, the idea that man has the ability to define himself. It is such that Sartre’s claim of ‘existence precedes essence’ is not compatible with Christian theology.These are some of the numerous implications provided by the simple phrase ‘existence precedes essence.’Since Sartre’s concept is so opposed to traditional thinking, he offers several explanations as to why people tend to insist that essence comes before existence. He titles this tendency ‘bad faith,’ or ‘self-deception.’Relying on the idea of an essence constructed by one’s past appears as a comfort for those who no longer see themselves as adequate. Sartre raises the example of an elderly doctor who “would like to hide out the stark reality: that he alone, without a past, with an intelligence which is clouded, a body which is disintegrating… he says he is making progress” (96-97). If one were to realize that there is nothing that defines them, Sartre seems to be saying, then it would cause life to seem hollow and depressing. Certainly Antoine seems to think so, claiming that “existence is what [he is] afraid of” (214). It seems that the long standing idea of essence preceding existence is a product of people’s tendency to deliberately deceive themselves by explaining away fears, or creating explanations to make them feel better about the world.If people are completely free then they have complete control over their actions, making them wholly responsible for those actions. This means that the freedom necessitated by the absence of an inherent essence then necessitates heavy and complete responsibility. The idea ‘self-deception’ that persists throughout Nausea heavily exemplifies the relationship between the importance of man’s responsibility and his attempt to avoid it. For example, those who make an attempt to revisit the past are said to be reveling in self-deception, as they are attempting to hide in a place with no freedom that does not exist. That is, when man tries to live in the past he is attempting to live without choice, and thus deceive himself into a cheerful irresponsibility. It is such that Antoine claims that he “might succeed – in the past, nothing but the past – in accepting [himself]” (238). Antoine himself cannot come to terms with the responsibility wrought upon him by a fundamental freedom, and practices self-deception in order to accept his own humanity.Since the concept of ‘existence precedes essence’ is different from traditional conceptions, it involves new fears and responsibilities that are easily avoided by an appeal to past values.’Existence precedes essence.’ The phrase affirms that there is nothing but raw existence that truly exists at any given moment, and hence nothing to causally govern our actions, meaning that people have freewill. In fact, we are forced to have freewill. It furthermore denies the existence of the traditional Christian God and crumbles the institution of logic. All of these things are tied up in Sartre’s work Nausea, as well as in many other facets of existentialism. However, as one may note, these are only a few of the basics for the understanding of existentialism and does not involve the many topics and writings covered in existentialist philosophy. Perhaps it would work better as a phrase used to exemplify Sartre or this particular work.Works CitedSartre, Jean- Paul. Nausea. Trans. Lloyd Alexander. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1964.Sartre, Jean- Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Philosophical Library Inc. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.
Nausea: A Realization of Existence
Philosophers of all ages have had to come to terms with the existence of God. If God exists then ideas of philosophy such as determinism and a perfect ideal of existence are concepts which can be effectively discussed. However, if there is no God, then there is no higher moral power to strive for, no meaning to living than life itself. While many philosophers starting in the 18th century began to conceive of a world where God did not in fact exist, most were not willing to give up the idea that a code of being still existed in some perfect, objective form. What existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre did was to expose the falseness of any system of values in a world where God does not exist.In “Existentialism and Humanism,” Sartre writes that there is no possible concept of values existing a priori to what we make of them. He describes a French movement that attempted to posit that even without the ideal of God, values could still exist: “nothing will be changed if God does not exist” (“Existentialism and Humanism,” 40). However, as Sartre posits, the inexistence of God changes everything. If there is no God then there are no a priori notions of good or bad, no ideals of existence which men do not create for themselves. While many critics of Existentialism posit that this philosophy takes agency and power away from man, rendering all actions and thoughts arbitrary, Sartre sees this philosophy instead as empowering: while man does not determine his own existence, he has the power to use his own life in any way he chooses.Sartre’s first and most famous philosophical novel, Nausea, tells the story of a man coming to terms with this subjective reality of his life. Antoine Roquetin, the novel’s, hero (or anti-hero), must face the central claim of existentialism: that if there is no God, then man’s existence precedes his essence: “man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and only afterwards, defines himself….Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (36). Roquetin gets “the nausea” as he begins to realize the idea that in everything existence precedes essence, or that he, as a man, is capable of and responsible for defining everything he sees; that there is no essence, be it to objects, feelings or memories that is anything but what a subjective individual makes of them. The Nausea is a visceral, undigested realization that becomes less and less physical as Roquetin begins to accept this realization and live his life accordingly.Antoine first gets the Nausea, or realizes that existence precedes essence, through his connection with the color of objects. Color takes on a very important role in this novel because color is the essence of essence. When describing an object, its color is often the first thing we refer to, and yet, what is more subjective than color? How is one to know that his definition of red is the same as someone else’s? It is impossible to know that when I say something is red, and another person agrees with me, that he or she is not actually seeing what I call blue. Antoine writes of an experience in his favorite café. He is watching the bartender and notices his suspenders: “the suspenders can hardly be seen against the blue shirt…but it is false humility; in fact they will not let themselves be forgotten…as if, starting to become purple, they stopped somewhere along the way without giving up their pretensions….The Nausea is…in the suspenders” (Nausea, 19). Antoine’s nausea is a physical reminder that he is attempting to define the suspenders as purple, as though purple were an objective reality and the meaning of their existence. However, the purpleness of the suspenders is entirely subjective: they are purple because Roquetin makes them so.His statement that the Nausea exists within the suspenders exhibits his refusal to accept the responsibility that comes with admitting the control he has over the essence of these suspenders. However, we see his acceptance of this fact later in the novel. In the climax moment, when Antoine fully accepts that existence precedes essence and that color itself does not exist, he writes: “Adolphe’s suspenders….They were not purple” (130). To say that the suspenders were purple as he initially does, suggests that purple can be held up to some ideal of purple that exists for all men. To say that the were not purple does not mean that they were some other color, but that their existence has nothing to do with their being purple, the suspenders, like all objects exist without any defining values, those values are assigned by each man as he chooses.The nausea that Antoine feels outside himself when looking at the suspenders, becomes a nausea he feels within himself as he begins to consider his attempts to write a biography of an historical figure named Robellon. He has spent the better part of his life writing on this man, trying to figure out who he was. However, just as he realizes that the suspenders in the café simply exist, without any value that objectifies them, he also comes to the same conclusion on the subject of Robellon’s life. He comments early in the novel that in the ten years he has studied this man he still cannot objectively define him: “what is lacking in all the testimony [about Robellon] is firmness and consistency…they do not seem to be about the same person” (13). What Roquetin is realizing is that he will never find a higher truth about Robellon then what he decides to believe about him.In fact, he realizes that all historians define history; that there is no more objective truth to be found in the past than in the present. A biography of Robellon’s life would be no more truthful than a fictional account. This sickening realization that the past ten years of Roquetin’s life has been spent in attempting to find an ultimate truth from the past leads him to another important tenant of existentialism one which we might call presentism: “the true nature of the present revealed itself: it was what exists….The past did not exist…things are entirely what they appear to be and behind them…there is nothing” (96). Right after the acceptance of this realization Roquetin thinks he is getting the Nausea again, but instead he writes “it wasn’t that….M. Robellon had just died for the second time” (96). The past does not exist, it only lives on through subjective memory, thus Roquetin must accept the notion that he will never truly “know” Robellon, just as he will never truly know himself in the past. He thinks he feels the Nausea because it is his usual reaction to the realization of existence, but in this instance he has already accepted that the past is a void, thus he does not displace his conscious realization with a physical pain.The realization that the past is a void also leads Roquetin to the realization that the future to means nothing objectively. If we can determine nothing from the past, then looking towards the future is just as useless, for any action we take with an eye to the future will no longer exist once the future is present. The very idea of a future implies that the past remains alive, this becomes clear to Roquetin as it applies to his personal life. He receives a letter from a past lover, Anny, who wants to see him in a few weeks. As he thinks back upon his relationship with this woman, he attempts to regain the feeling of love he had for her in the past. He particularly harps upon her notion of “perfect moments,” or moments of objective perfection. He remarks that he was never able to understand this notion, a clue that he had always subconsciously realized that existence could never be justified objectively. However, he still holds on to this meeting with Anny, as though if she can explain the notion of perfect moments to him, it might relieve him of the nausea of existence.When he sees Anny, he is hit, full force, with the notion that his reliance on the past and his looking toward the future are as futile in the present as the notion of a perfect moment. The essence of Anny, the memories of her, represent Antoine’s attempts to place her in some spectrum of value in his life that no longer exists. In fact, since she is nothing but a memory for him, she barely exists: “I can hardly make out the pale spot of her face…Anny is sitting opposite to me, we haven’t seen each other for four years and we have nothing more to say” (153). There is no way for Antoine to relate to his old lover, nor any justification for his having looked forward to their meeting; his only notions of her are from the past, a past which no longer has any value in his life. Ironically, at this most startling realization, Antoine no longer feels the Nausea. In fact, a few pages later he remarks that: “the Nausea has given me a…breathing spell” (157). In fact, while he believes the Nausea will return, it does not, it has become a part of Antoine’s consciousness, existence in all of its rawness has shown itself to him and in accepting that there is nothing more than today, nothing more than what he perceives, Antoine has rid himself of the sickness that the abnegation of this realization brought on.At the end of the novel, there is more than just the recession of the Nausea to encourage Antoine to live though he has learned that there is no higher calling or truth to justify his existence. As he is sitting once again in his favorite café, on the day he is leaving his town for good, he listens to a jazz record that he loves. He begins to imagine the man who wrote the song and the woman singing it and sees that there is in fact a possibility for justification of existence even within existentialism: he realizes that he has the power to create, to make something in the world that can stop time and the pain of existence the way jazz does for him: “A novel. And there would be people who read this book…and they would think about my life as…something precious” (178). He could live on in the present minds of others and thereby justify his life.Sartre writes in “Existentialism as Humanism,” that art and values are very similar: “what art and ethics have in common is that we have creation and invention in both cases” (55). In Nausea he shows that art, as an admitted creation of man, something which never is held up to an objective truth, is a way for an individual to express his essence. This form of expression has the power to help others make something of their existence, and in that way justify the artist’s existence as well. This is the most powerful proof that existentialism is in fact a philosophy of optimism and action rather than pessimism and inaction. Existentialists do not believe that existence can be held up to and compared to some higher system of values, but they do believe that within our own creation of a subjective system of values we can and must invent meaning for ourselves and for others.