What is the meaning of Sartre's statement that "man is condemned to be free"?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the most fundamental of ways, Sartre's statement indicates that the only element that exists with human beings is the ability to possess freedom.  This creates a situation of agonizing choice because human beings cannot look to another transcendental force to escape the pain of freedom and choice.  For Sartre, the critical element that defines human consciousness is the ability to choose.  Sartre's brand of existentialism is trademarked with the idea that "existence precedes essence," which is a way of suggesting that human beings enter the world without any force other than freedom to guide them.  There is no transcendence, no higher power, no overarching point that eliminates the condition of agonizing freedom that defines human beings and their place in the world.  In the Sartrean conception of freedom, one can only think of the student that Sartre teaches who is "condemned to be free."  This student has a difficult choice, to say the least.  Either he stays with his sick and dying mother, while his nation is overrun by the Nazis, or he joins the resistance to save his country, but his mother will die alone.  In this condition, the student is poised between equally desirable, but ultimately incompatible courses of action.  For Sartre, this is the epitome of the pain of choice.  It is this very being that allows him to say that "man is condemned to be free."