I’ve just been watching a documentary about Jean Paul Sartre, produced by the BBC in 1999. The BBC being the BBC and he being a radical iconoclast, I half expected it to turn into a hatchet-job. I was pleasantly surprised, though. It does portray the man ‘warts and all’ but one is left with the impression that his warts were, on the whole, the kind that might well be found on any thinking person who lived through the middle of the twentieth century, were they to be this closely examined. It comes round to a positive, affirming conclusion, I think. ‘He gave our generation a sense of freedom that directed our lives’, says one of those interviewed. ‘We made choices which I think we can still identify with. I’m just aware that at the present time, the message of freedom that Sartre is delivering is not accepted as if this burden of freedom that he’s putting on everyone’s shoulders is too weighty . Maybe we are in a time when people don’t want to hear about freedom.’
That was 17 years ago. These days, I would argue, people seem to me to want to hear about it even less. To be clear, Sartre was taking about the freedom that we exercise from moment to moment to choose what we do next and, by so doing, to shape the individual we become – a freedom which, as he said, carries with it inevitable anxiety. Exercising freedom, for Sartre, is a risky business – it’s easier to conform. He famously said that people were condemned to freedom. He also said that the French were most “free” when under German occupation: there were no easy ways out, no comfortable fall-back positions. One had to make frightening choices. Similarly, were he alive today, he might say that the refugees who make terrifying sea-journeys to reach Europe are more “free” than the Europeans they’ll have to live among. The pursuit of freedom is the assigned lot of those who are driven to make difficult decisions or feel empowered enough to stand up for themselves (and, for that matter, for others). For my money, Jean Paul Sartre still has the power to empower.