Talking about Freedom

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.




8 thoughts on “Talking about Freedom

  1. Thank you for this link. We read and then staged No exit in year 10, a bunch of 15-16 yrs old with Genesis and Rolling Stones records smoking French cigarettes, and I remember the long nights of debating and sudden confrontation with what? Reality? Death? Reasons for living? It opened a magic door.

    1. A charismatic character, even decades after his death. I’m currently reading Nausea – I’ve yet to get into his plays.

      I used to smoke. I’d forgotten the old Disque Bleu and the Gitanes. However hard I tried as a teenager (they were cool, after all) I never managed to enjoy smoking them as much as the run-of-the -mill cigs. The packets were beautiful.

      I tried to like Genesis, too. I wish I’d spent the time I spent listening to them listening to David Bowie instead, looking back.

  2. “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.”

    My plan is to begin listening to this right now and then
    throughout the day, as time allows. Thank you!

  3. I’m not sure, though, that I would want freedom if I had to become a refugee to get a sense of it. (Oh dear, maybe this is why I always failed philosophy.) Anyway it’s obvious that being a refugee can break as well as empower, and so it surely depends on the individual rather than their physical circumstances. I would suggest that we could all achieve mental freedom if we decide to search for it, although comfort and a daily routine will push against it. I shall watch the programme and see if Sartre speaks to me any more than he did when I was younger.

  4. What you say about being a refugee is right. What I was trying to say was that not that suffering empowers us, but that either suffering *or* some sort of empowerment might lead us to make decisions we might not otherwise make. Suffering drives you down. Suffering aside, a small number of people who probably lead safe, relatively affluent lives, are convinced by ideas and empowered by them to act without thought of conformity.

    Where I might well be wrong in what I said is that once I’ve stopped running and found a community I can settle in I’d probably be desperate to conform, keep my head down and find some security – even if it means making what might be, for me, some “inauthentic” choices. Who could blame me for doing so?

    I know what you mean about philosophy. However, reading Sarah Bakewell’s new book on existentialism (about as readable, I suspect, as philosophy can get) has really fired my enthusiasm to find out more about Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus and Co.

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