Jean-Paul Sartre

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

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What Sartre understands by freedom is the unique ability of human beings to rise above their given condition. Plants, rocks, and animals don't have this ability, only humans. Contrary to what determinists believe, man has the freedom to be something other than he is. Unlike animals, for example, he will always be more than just the sum of his biological parts.

As an avowed atheist, Sartre doesn't believe in the existence of the soul; but he does believe that we as humans have something special that distinguishes us from animals. This is the capacity to transcend ourselves, to project ourselves into the future by way of projects and plans. Animals cannot do this; they live in a perpetual present. But human beings live their lives forward, and they can only do this because they possess freedom.

All too often, however, we choose to pretend that we're unable to exercise our capacity for freedom. Instead, we live lives of mind-numbing inauthenticity, kidding ourselves that we have no choice but to live the way we do.

But to Sartre, this is simply bad faith, which represents a running away from the freedom that constitutes human existence. And this is what he's driving at when he says that we're forced to be free. Try as we might, we can never truly escape our freedom; it is a fundamental part of our birth right as human beings.

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Sartre recognized that what attends the human condition is free will. Sartre was outspoken about his own atheism, and his philosophy was that in the absence of a divine plan for a person's life, one can do nothing except to make his or her own choices. And for every choice that is made, there are consequences. This mode of thinking may feel like a "condemnation," particularly if one regrets the choices or finds the consequence of those choices hard to live with.

The word "condemned" indicates that Sartre perhaps found that the condition of being entirely responsible for one's choices a terrible burden. To follow this line of thinking: if the consequences of the choices that not made with ill intentions are an outcome that is injurious to others, it could make freedom feel like a sentence rather than a gift.

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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...

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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."

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