To be free is our existential identity

‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It’s up to you to give [life] a meaning.’ Jean-Paul Sartre’s most famous statement is pregnant with layers of meanings and shades. This is a logical extension of another French social-philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s, ‘Man is born free, and he’s everywhere in chains.’

Sartre’s existential exhortation to man that he’s condemned to be free is a reiteration of the phrase ‘man is the measure of all things’. In other words, humans are responsible for their own being-ness. Therefore, the non-existence of God gives life a greater significance, because without any metaphysical imperative, the human being has direct control of the circumstances of his life; for no longer will the eye of a loving or vengeful deity pass judgment upon his every whim.

It’s interesting to note that Sartre deliberately used the word ‘condemned’ and not ‘destined’ or ‘born’, because the word ‘condemned’ has a ring of sombre negativity to it. For example, we say, ‘a condemned prisoner’ for a convict to be executed or ‘condemned to be hanged’. By using the word ‘condemned’, Sartre meant that complete freedom is integral to an individual. It’s his existential identity to be totally emancipated and free of all that binds him. To quote Allama Iqbal, ‘Azad hoon, azadi meri fitrat hai’ – I’m free, for, freedom is my nature. In other words, freedom is not just in human consciousness. But, it’s consciousness itself. It’s embedded in the human psyche.

Mind you, this unfettered and untrammelled freedom, advocated by Sartre, is not bohemianism that leads to individualistic anarchy. It is conscientious freedom, not nihilistic radicalism. Sartre suggested that freedom is a state of mind. ‘To be free implies freedom from external forces and internal conflicts.’

As an existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre proclaimed the superiority of human beings, their positions and their values in this world. He proclaimed the freedom of man to be absolute and established that in man’s life, existence precedes essence. For him, freedom occupies an important place in the life of a human being in determining his course of action. But, freedom for Sartre is not a mere concept. Rather, it is something that comes along with the birth of an individual. The nature of consciousness, according to him, is to go beyond itself and to become what it is not and not to remain what it is. It is because the consciousness in an individual is always free. Human consciousness and freedom are always inseparable, and their freedom defines man’s very being.

The practicality of Sartre’s dictum, man is condemned to be free, lies in the realisation of hidden human potential. When every individual is innately free, why on earth does one yield to all the futile concepts of class, caste, colour, creed, culture, civilisation, continents, contours and countries? All these are intoxicants that cloud, nay opiate, the free human will. The state, god, religion and the soi-disant spirituality make inroads into an individual’s inbuilt freedom and scoff at his volition. Man needs to get rid of all that threatens to jeopardise his inalienable freedom. After all, freedom is a man’s ultimate fate. It’s his inexorable destiny.

June 21 is Jean-Paul Sartre’s birth anniversary



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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