Monthly Archives: March 2013

Theology On Film – The Matrix

In 1999, the Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry, both wrote and directed what would eventually become one of the widely regarded, greatest films of all time. That film was “The Matrix”.

In “The Matrix”, we are presented to the character of Thomas A Anderson, played, with his usual stunned facial expression, by Keanu Reaves. During his day, Anderson is an everyday guy who works in an office in a suit and tie. During the nighttime however, Thomas is a computer wiz by the name of Neo, who spends a lot of his time researching a character known only as “Morpheus” (Laurence Fishburne in a suitably mysterious performance). Eventually Neo is told to “follow the white rabbit” to the truth behind something known as “The Matrix”. This blatant tribute to the great works of Lewis Carroll is not the only tribute in this film, but it is one of the first.

Eventually after following the white rabbit, the rabbit being a tattoo on a ladies arm, Neo ends up firstly at a nightclub, then being arrested by “Agents” at his office, and finally meeting the great Morpheus. Morpheus sits in a sombre mood and tells Neo that he can take one of two pills, “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” (The Matrix, Wachowski Bros. 1999) This is another obvious link to Lewis Carroll & is used well.

At this point, it becomes increasingly obvious that this film is both cleverly written and even cleverer in it’s design and feels. Increasingly dark, the film has an almost film-noir type feel to it, with a shot of a man stood in the rain under a street lamp being the only missing element. This dark feeling continues throughout the film, past Neo’s realisation of what the Matrix is, through betrayal, loss and eventually through to the conclusion in which Neo realises he is the mythological ideal known as “The One”.

The Matrix, as Neo is shown, is in fact everything we see and hear. It is this world in which we occupy, and it is artificial. After a war of man versus machine, similar in concept to Judgement Day in the “Terminator” movies, the machines imprisoned men in huge fields and used us, in essence, as batteries. As Morpheus himself puts it, “Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.” (The Matrix, Wachowski Bros. 1999) To keep the human minds active, whilst the machines used our body warmth as energy, the machines create “The Matrix”. A computer created world set in the 1990’s, in which we carry out our lives, unaware of the truth. This world is realistic, it has hurt, it has pain, it has agony. Later in the film, Morpheus is captured and whilst being spoken to by an Agent, the imaginatively titled “Agent Smith”, we learn that originally the computers created a perfect world, but vast numbers of people reject it, Smith’s theory being that ultimately “as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.” (The Matrix, Wachowski Bros. 1999) This non-perfect, more realistic world, is the outcome of that discovery.

With the vast majority of the film mentioned, it is worth mentioning the religious context to a lot of this movie. The Wachowski brothers never really stated whether there was intended religious relevance or not to “The Matrix”, although what seems apparent is that whether intended or not, the brothers took this on board and made almost a joke of this link in the final of the three movies to eventually have been made. In the final film, Neo is laid down flat in the shape of a cross and is carried off into a city of light after sacrificing himself to others. If this is not meant as a stab at the religious observations regarding the first film, then it must be asked what the brothers were thinking as the second and third films are, to put it simply, horrendous.

Switching back to the first film, just how much religious reference is there? Well straight away there is the Christian link towards the Father, the Son & the Holy Ghost, with Morpheus as a father figure, Neo as the Son, and Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss performing the simple role as the love interest) as the reference to the Holy Trinity. Other than this, there are also biblical references, like the Human City of Zion, Morpheus’s ship being called the “Nebucaneza” and others. The religious point really worth focusing on however, is the idea of Neo as “The One”.

In this film, Neo is basically told that he will be the person to save humanity and bring them into the light. During the film, at one point he actually dies, before being resurrected with supernatural abilities. It is these two points that ultimately link him towards being a sort of Jesus/Buddha hybrid. Both Jesus and Buddha were leaders of men who taught us all truths and educated people to reach a form of enlightenment. Whilst Buddha taught mankind to reject materialism and attempt to reach Nirvana through purity of mind and soul, Jesus taught mankind through stories and claimed that through living a good life, we would be rewarded with an afterlife in Heaven. Neo was similar in respect to Buddha with his methods. The reason behind this is that when approaching enlightenment and absolutely immaterial being, Buddha stopped and took a step back to attempt to aid others in their quest. Neo by comparison, reached his immaterial enlightenment, this being the real world, and took a step back into the Matrix in an attempt to free others. This almost divine leader approach is one of the key cornerstones of most religions, and Neo fills the role perfectly.

Finally, the religious link in this film, which is personally the most intriguing, is the idea of the Judas type character called Cypher. When Neo arrives in “The Real World”, he is introduced to a long cast of characters who have mostly also been freed from the Matrix. One of these characters is Cypher, played to perfection by Joe Pantoliano. Cypher has over the years grown increasingly tired of this immaterial world full of limited clothing, food which is described as tasting either as runny eggs or snot, and a life of difficulty. Add to these and the fact that for many years Cypher felt he was in love with Trinity, and you begin to understand partly why he is upset. Up until his revelation as a traitor in which he brilliantly remarks about Morpheus “If you’d told us the truth, we would’ve told you to shove that red pill right up your ass!” (The Matrix, Wachowski Bros. 1999). Cypher is angry with Morpheus and this immaterial world, and betrays the “heroes” with the claim that he’d rather live in the Matrix and eat steak because ultimately “Ignorance is bliss!” (The Matrix, Wachowski Bros. 1999) This betrayal for a better, if artificial, life is similar to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, when Judas pretending to be Jesus’ friend, sacrifices him to the Romans for money. The only problem with this analogy is that whilst betrayal is never good, there is a certain degree of understanding with regard to Cypher’s condition. Confronted with a choice between evangelical suffering and devilish comfort, should someone really be criticised for the comfort, especially when they would remain no memory of it. Perhaps ultimately, unlike the Judas figure who sold his friend for relatively little money and a life of hatred and abuse from others, perhaps Cypher is a man whom we should relate to, but ultimately pity.

To conclude, “The Matrix” was never designed to win awards for plot or acting, but for it’s religious referencing, it deserves some small praise. Ultimately though, should it not be considered for what it is? An action film for the future.



Word Count: – 1,340


Theology On Film – Robocop

In 1987, a director by the name of Paul Verhoeven, a now well known Dutch director, but who at the time was a relatively new face in American cinema, directed a film featuring a robotic policeman who would bring justice to a failing system. This film was “Robocop”.

In “Robocop” we are introduced to Peter Weller’s Alex J Murphy. Murphy is a new transfer to possibly the worst police station in Detroit. In this near future where everything looks advanced, despite still being scarily 1980s, humanity has become even more capitalistic and crime is at an all-time high. Murphy goes out on patrol with his new partner Officer Anne Lewis, played with a grating irritation by Nancy Allen, and on their first outing is butchered by a group of men lead by the evil Clarence Boddicker. Out of pure coincidence however, at this time the corporate company who runs the police force is experimenting with cyborg policemen and using Murphy’s body, they create the future of Law Enforcement, the title character, the Robocop. Murphy’s resurrected being goes out into the world to fight crime, stop his murderers, and rediscover himself.

When this film was first released, Verhoeven is well publicised as revealing his intentions to create this film as a form of modern reinterpretation of the story of Jesus Christ. Despite criticism, it is not too confusing to understand Verhoeven’s actions in achieving this.

The story of Jesus Christ is one of the most known stories in the world today, and as a result; it is often replicated in the world of fiction. Verhoeven’s personal attempt is nothing different.

Verhoeven’s cyborg creation is the resurrected hero who travels around the area saving the general public from the evils of the world and in effect saving humanity from itself. In the capitalist world in which Robocop exists, people are more obsessed with wealth and material goods than with anything else. This is shown precisely by the fact that during the regular news broadcasts, despite the tragic news going on elsewhere in the world, the broadcasters remain smiling and pause for commercial breaks. The breaks for extreme goods include a car which is promoted because “Big is back, because bigger is better than ever! 6000 SUX: An American Tradition” (Robocop, Verhoeven, 1987). This unworthy society is in effect, rescued by the mechanical cop who is forced to sacrifice his human form to achieve this. In effect, Verhoeven’s character of Murphy sacrifices himself for our sins, reminiscent of the Jesus character he was meant to be representing.

The death of the Murphy character is not just a replication of Jesus dying for humanity’s sins, but it is also a copy in the ways it is achieved. Firstly Murphy is the 33rd cop to be killed in the recent killing spree, a possible link to the fact that Jesus was supposedly 33 when the Romans executed him. Also crucial is the way the bad guys of the film, reminiscent of the Romans themselves, torture Murphy firstly by shooting his hand off, a copy of Jesus’ hand being nailed to the cross, and then by shooting him in the head representing the crown of thorns the Romans forced Jesus to wear. The final link between the two deaths is the way that when Murphy is “executed”, he is blown backwards in a way that his left arm and the remnants of his right arm are forced outwards at his side in a sort of crucifix shape.

Other than the resurrection of the hero and the way he saves humanity, are there any other links between Verhoeven’s classic movie and the story of the Son of God? Two links perhaps appear in the form of the bad guy and the misinterpretation of the hero.

The first of these two points is the real enemy of the movie, Dick Jones, the vice president of the security company who create Robocop. Jones presents himself for the first half of the movie as a man with an agenda, but who is ultimately in favour of Robocop. It is only upon the death of the hero’s creator, Bob Morton, played with style by a young Miguel Ferrer, that Jones himself describes Robocop as an “unholy monster” (Robocop, Verhoeven, 1987). It is at this point it becomes clear that Robocop is not only misunderstood, but that Jones does not help matters by playing the role of Judas, especially in the way that his motives for destroying Robocop are for the simple matter of money, again a replication of Judas. The misunderstanding of the lead mechanic character is compounded by Jones’s order to his security forces to destroy the machine. This attempts by the naïve troops to assassinate their eventual saviour is reminiscent of the way the Jewish people chose to have Jesus crucified rather than saved.

It is upon this point that major links between “Robocop” and the story of Christ begin to dry up. One major Internet website called “Holywood Jesus” discusses the links between Jesus and major Holywood movies. As well as the film under discussion, other films are considered, including “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” & “Superman”. On this website, as well as all previously mentioned considerations, one point considered is the relevance of Murphy’s first name, that being Alex. According to a site visitor called “Can Nakkas”, Alex is Greek for “no law” (BRUCE, D. 1997. Robocop. Holywood Jesus [Online], Available: [Accessed 15 March 2004].) Nakkas then points out that this is a link to Jesus since Christ himself was sent to liberate humanity from the law. This link is tenacious to say the least and its accuracy can be questioned.

One final point worth mentioning about “Robocop” is that in it Paul Verhoeven created a film about a saviour who was resurrected so that he could save the dystopian world from itself and rescue humanity. This idea is not an original concept, but Verhoeven cleverly plays it out. However, some links between the two stories of the mechanical hero and the Son of God are slightly extreme to say the least and to see too much out of particular coincidences is perhaps a little ridiculous.

Despite criticisms and however “Robocop” might be seen, in it the director Paul Verhoeven has created a modern classic that he has failed to really improve on since. Since this movie, his list of movies has included films about Mars, “Total Recall”, films retelling the story of the Invisible Man, “Hollow Man”, and most obscure of all, a film about humanity’s fight against enormous bug creatures in “Starship Troopers”. Unlike these other attempts, in “Robocop” there is a movie for Verhoeven to be proud of and which is a film worthy of watching, Christian link or not.


Word Count: – 1,133

Theology On Film

Consider three examples of films of different genres (other than explicitly religious films such as biblical epics), which have been identified as containing religious allusions. What functions do these allusions serve? (Consider issues both of directorial and audience reception.)

Ever since the development of the creation of the Daedalum by William George Horner in 1834 (later to be renamed the Zoetrope in 1867 by William Lincoln), the world of moving pictures has gradually gathered steam and one hundred and fifty years later it had reached such a stage that humans and extra-terrestrials had been seen hand in hand on huge picture screens.[1] In the history of cinema there have been millions of different stories on millions of different topics. At UGC Cinema’s in the United Kingdom alone, on 19th April 2004 there is a guess about 35 or so films shown throughout the entire country at any one time. Added to this the demand for film channels on satellite television and the thousands of films available on Digital Video Disc (DVD) and Video Home System (VHS) tape, and the film industry in the last fifty years has been overly productive. How many of these new ideas are actually that new and how many more are based on stories as old as two thousand years ago.


In Hollywood nowadays there are specific definitions of particular types of production. On the Internet Movie Database[2] in a section entitled “Genre Browser”[3] there is a list of these different “genres”. As a way of differentiating between specific films and allowing people to choose films to suit their mood, Holywood created the notion of the genre and according to the Database, these different types of film number twenty, although often a film might be labelled under more than one category (“Donnie Darko” from 2001 for example is categorised as Fantasy, Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller AND Mystery[4]). The one flaw with this categorisation on the Movie Database is that one classification missing is that of Biblical picture.


Since the start of Hollywood, one thing has been consistent and that is an almost religious element to everything that takes place. It can be argued, and it occasionally is, that every story ever created is based on one of five key plot descriptions. Using the example of the Spaghetti Western, all the films tend to revolve around the stranger who one day appears in the town. This man teaches everyone to appreciate and value life as he fights off the evil bad men of the town and he cleanses the surrounding area. Added to this a section of the film where the man often appears to be near death, only to be in essence “Reborn” and instantly the film’s plot becomes reminiscent of the story of Jesus.


The link between Hollywood and religion is so great that websites such as “Hollywood Jesus”[5] appear which seem to find religious meaning in practically every piece of cinema around today. In one section of this website in fact there are three years worth of discussion amongst the public about which films mean the most religiously to them. The list of films mentioned here is long and winding but as well as including distinctly religious films such as “The Last Temptation Of Christ”[6] and “The Greatest Story Ever Told”[7], the list also includes more obscure suggests such as “Gremlins”[8], “Chocolat”[9] and even “Speed”[10]. This website appears to imply that any film which might include a story of morality, happiness and looking after each other is a religious piece.


The notion that every film that is produced has some form of religious significance is absurd, since I doubt very much that the producers and scriptwriters of most films have any real intention of religious linkage. The creator of “Speed” never intended for a religious website to see any sort of religious meaning to his film. The creator of “Speed” planned to create a roller coaster ride staring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in which a bus is sabotaged and a policeman is forced to fight an evil bomb expert to prevent any civilians being harmed. The person who places “Speed” on the website is potentially ridiculing the website but it is hard to tell. The suggestion however is that “Speed” is religious because the bomber is led by greed and God sends Reeve’s officer of the law to defeat him[11]. This suggestion is farcical, but it proves the point that ultimately every film created can be suggested as having a religious motive. With this in mind, it’s worth considering three distinctly different films and discussing the suggestions of religious significance to them. By doing this it is possible to demonstrate that any links between religion and many films is purely coincidental and completely irrelevant.


In “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”[12], we are introduced to the young character of the title name. Ferris is fast approaching High School Graduation and decides that since it is approaching the end, he is going to take his ninth sick day of the year and go out into the wide world and experience life. Ferris sets events into motion where his friend Cameron Frye, a boy with parent problems who believes himself to be constantly ill, and Ferris’s girlfriend Sloane Peterson both are able to join him as he travels in Cameron’s father’s Ferrari into Chicago. During the day Ferris arranges a top class meal in a fashionable restaurant, he dances on a float during a parade and he teaches Cameron the truth about life and in effect saves his friend and delivers him from evil.


When viewing “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, it is perhaps worth considering just how much religious linkage there is possible to this film. When Ferris is first getting away with his escape from home and from having to head into school he sets up a detailed network of tools in his home which will make it appear that he is constantly asleep and ill. Ferris in effect performs a miracle in being able to deceive everyone of his health. Then when he convinces his friends to go for a meal in the rich restaurant, he performs a trick that convinces the restaurant’s front desk clerk that he is in fact a rich wealthy gentleman who is easily able to sue the restaurant.


As well as performing particular miracles in allowing him and his friends to enjoy themselves, Ferris talks to Cameron and teaches Cameron to stand up to his father, a man who is more concerned about his beloved Ferrari than he is about his own son. Cameron in fact accidentally ends up destroying this car, but when asked if he needs help, Cameron states that he is “not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand. I’m going to defend it. Right or wrong, I’m going to defend it.”[13] When we last see Cameron, it appears that he has recovered from his depression and thanks to his friend Ferris; he has achieved a sense of focus and salvation.


The other members of the cast in the film also provide a form of religious linkage. In the main enemy, Ferris has Ed Rooney. Rooney is Ferris’s school Principle and has the ironically correct idea in his mind that Ferris is not in fact ill. Rooney spends the entire film attempting to catch Ferris out and it is his hatred of Ferris and his attempts to see him destroyed, not to mention his position of power which is threatened throughout the school by Ferris’s popularity, which places him on a par with the Jewish Leaders who eventually got their wish in having Jesus executed.


The key difference between Rooney and the Jewish Leaders (aside two thousand or so years) is that Rooney fails to catch Ferris. The reasoning behind this is that unlike the Judas in Biblical times, Ferris’s own Judas, his jealous sister Jeanie eventually relents and in fact supports him, despite her knowledge of his guilty. Jeanie is in fact taught to support Ferris and not to question him by Charlie Sheen’s cameo character in the police station who never acquires a name, but who could be argued as being Jeanie’s Guardian Angel who teaches her the error of her ways.


As has been shown, there are countless similarities between “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and the story of Jesus Christ. Ultimately however, how much of this is intentional and how much is coincidental. When we begin to start looking for links, they appear to become all too clear, when they might not actually exist. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is an amazing comedy masterpiece staring Matthew Broderick (Ferris), Alan Ruck (Cameron) and Jeffrey Jones (Rooney) from 1986 that feels as fresh in 2004 as it did when it was first created. Simply put though, it is just a comedy about friendship that is all. Any religious linkage is unintentional.


Again another film, which could be implied as religious in certain constructs, is the 1993 movie “Tombstone”[14]. In this piece we are introduced to the Arizona town of Tombstone. An outlaw gang known as “The Cowboys” dominates the whole surrounding territory, when one day the legendary Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil and Morgan appear on the train with the aim of settling down. The Earp family are unable to avoid danger however and after Wyatt’s brothers accept the badge of Sheriff of Tombstone, it is not long before Wyatt & his dying friend Doc Holliday join them in the legendary fight at the OK Corral.


From the offset it becomes painfully obvious just how little religious significance there is in “Tombstone”. As suggested though, it’s possible to find religious meaning in practically every film around. In this piece therefore it is possible to suggest a slightly rearranged version of events in reference to the story of Jesus. For starters, if we assume that the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp is dead to begin with, then it is only after the death of his brother Morgan and Virgil’s departure, that he is in fact reborn as he attempts to gain revenge. In fact it might have made more sense to look at the religious significance of Earp in relationship to Kevin Costner’s inferior “Wyatt Earp”[15] of the following year. The reasoning behind this is that Costner’s film begins at an earlier point to “Tombstone” and as a result contains his retirement and the death of the lawman inside him. In “Tombstone” however, the film begins after the death. The point remains however that yet again it is possible, albeit not as obviously as in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to find a religious link in this film. Especially if it is viewed that Virgil’s acceptance of the Sheriff post, despite an agreement with Wyatt, could be considered an act of betrayal and could be linked to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.


In “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Tombstone” there are two films, which have never been implied as having any major religious significance but when examined, could be seen to perhaps contain a link to the story of Jesus. With these two films, one comedy and one western, is the reminder that if you wish to see religious significance in something then it is often possible, even if only coincidental. One film that shows this more than anything is “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”[16].


In 1982 Steven Spielberg released “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and even twenty two years later it is still incredibly popular. Spielberg had previously dealt with religious material in the first Indiana Jones film (“Raiders Of The Lost Ark”[17]) and with this seems to have appeared an assumption that perhaps “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is a modern retelling of the story of Christ. As with the previous two cases, the argument is a strong one.


In this film we are introduced to young Elliot, a boy who feels isolated since his brother is too old to spend time with and his daughter is far too young. One day Elliot is outside his house playing when an alien confronts him. This alien, E.T., is marooned on Earth when his mother ship disappears without him. E.T. who is implied as being of a similar alien age bracket as Elliot, becomes his friend and the two grow more attached as their minds begin to connect telepathically as well as their friendship.


On the Hollywood Jesus website, an article about E.T. refers to the appearance of E.T. on Earth as being similar to the birth of Christ. E.T. who is chased almost from the offset by Scientists (hence the mother ship leaving early) is helped by three children to hide. As the website suggests, the Scientists are designed as representing King Herod and the children are meant to represent the Three Wise Men who attended Christ’s birth and were meant to report to Herod.[18]


The film progresses as the children teach E.T. about the Earth and life, but it is with Elliot where the main link is. With the previous telepathic link comes one of the best scenes from the film. Whilst Elliot is at school, E.T. hovers around the empty house looking around. After drinking a few beers, E.T. ends up drunk, and this is passed onto Elliot. After this, E.T. is viewing the television and witnesses a key scene from “The Quiet Man”[19] staring John Wayne. Elliot in the classroom ends up repeating this scene with a girl he likes. The relevance of the scene in the classroom however is pointed at by the Hollywood Jesus website in that Elliot releases the frogs his biology class is due to dissect. The reasoning behind this is potentially due to his fear of scientists dissecting E.T., Hollywood Jesus however points to this scene as being reminiscent of “the plague of frogs from the book of Exodus”[20].


One of the most obvious links to religion in “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and something which if wasn’t planned as looking religious, turned out to look more implied than anything else, was E.T. healing Elliot. As well as a particular link between the two beings, at one point Elliot accidentally cuts his finger. At this point E.T. outstretches his own finger and touches Elliot’s, causing the cut to heal. This incident points directly at Michaelangelo’s picture of God and Man as the two’s fingers touch, implying a sort of unity.


Eventually the scientists catch E.T. and the scientists who have taken over the family’s home are caring for both himself and Elliot. It is at this point where E.T. dies. Elliot himself refers to the scientists as killing E.T. when they produce heart resuscitators, and perhaps this again is a reference to the Scientists as those who would execute Jesus on the cross. As with Jesus again, E.T. is in effect reborn and with the aid of the three Children (and the elder brother’s friends) escapes. E.T. contacts his home ship who return to the planet and as E.T. walks aboard the ship and it takes off, it feels in effect like this being who appeared, taught everyone about life, died and then was reborn has ascended to the heavens.


In “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” people create a definitive link between the story and with the story of Jesus Christ. In contrast however, the presence of a religious link between Jesus and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Tombstone” is present, although has never been commented upon. For a film to have a religious relevance is ultimately not that difficult. The problem however is that often these relevance’s are not intentional and purely coincidental. One respondent on the Hollywood Jesus website claims that the reason for this religious linkage to appear in every film is that Jesus is inside us[21]. Without raising independent religious viewpoints, it feels more possible that by simply hearing the story of Jesus so often, sometimes that story implants itself into “new” stories without any intention.


All three main films mentioned are entertaining films from different genres with an amazing line up of actors including Matthew Broderick, Kurt Russell and Drew Barrymore (albeit as a child), but to look for any sort of link to Jesus in these pieces is to look for the purely coincidental and to assume religious motivation in everything.



Word Count:- 2,729

[1] “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

[6] “The Last Temptation Of Christ” (1988)

[7] “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965)

[8] “Gremlins” (1984)

[9] “Chocolat” (2000)

[10] “Speed” (1994)

[12] “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986)

[14] “Tombstone” (1993)

[15] “Wyatt Earp” (1994)

[16] “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982)

[17] “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” (1981)

[19] “The Quiet Man” (1952)

Chapter 8. Bibliography



  • BARNES, HE. 1992. Sartre’s ontology: The revealing and making of being. In: Howells, C., ed. The Cambridge Companion To Sartre. The United States of America: Cambridge University Press.
  • CRANSTON, M. 1962. Sartre. Great Britain: Oliver And Boyd Ltd.
  • DANTO, AC. 1991. Sartre. 2nd ed. Great Britain: Fontana Press.
  • HUXLEY, A. 1994. Brave New World. Great Britain: Flamingo.
  • LEVY, N. 2002. Sartre. Oxford England: Oneworld Publications.
  • MCCULLOCH, G. 1994. Using Sartre: An Analytical Introduction To Early Sartrean Themes. London England: Routledge.
  • MURDOCH, I. 1987. Sartre: Romantic Rationalist. London England: Vintage.
  • NATANSON, M. 1973. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Ontology. Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • ORWELL, G. 1940. Down And Out In Paris And London. England: Clays Ltd
  • ORWELL, G. 1989. Nineteen Eighty-Four. London England: Penguin
  • SARTRE, JP. 1948. Existentialism And Humanism. London England: Methuen Publishing Limited.
  • SARTRE, JP. 1967. Words. London, England: Penguin Books.
  • SARTRE, JP. 2002. Sketch For A Theory Of The Emotions. London England: Routledge.
  • SARTRE, JP. 2002. Being And Nothingness, trans. Barnes, HE. London England: Routledge.
  • STRATHERN, P. 2002. The Essential Sartre. London England: Virgin Books Ltd.
  • WARNOCK, M. 1970. Existentialism. Oxford England: Oxford University Press.



Chapter 7. Conclusion

7. Conclusion

In his “Being and Nothingness” and “Existentialism and Humanism”, Sartre paints a picture of a world where there are two types of thing, the for-itself and the in-itself. Whilst the in-itself is your every day object that exists for a purpose and contains no choices since it possesses no consciousness, the for-itself is a conscious entity, humanity, which is able to choose what to do with it’s existence.

The for-itself is able to choose options in its life because it is able to exploit the nothingness that surrounds it. This nothingness, which features in the title of Sartre’s first book, exists as every potential option for the for-itself. By negating this nothingness, the for-itself chooses whatever option it desires.

This choice of the for-itself is however more contained than Sartre gives it credit for. It is true that by denying responsibility for particular choices due to job specifications, events in your past and other scenarios, you are living in bad faith. Ultimately though, as Sartre would later realise, someone’s facticity and their social climate has a greater impact on their choices than he originally gave it credit.

In his notion of the Fundamental Project, Sartre puts forward the notion that all our choices are dependent upon one original project that we desire to achieve. With this project comes the problem that changing a project that controls everything in our world is the only true way of achieving freedom. It is with this in mind which Sartre eventually abandons the individual freedom and focuses upon a form of socially controlled freedom. Each man possesses unlimited freedoms as long as it is acceptable within his chosen social realm.

Ultimately Sartre realises that through our social interactions with the Other, we develop as an individual and possess our choices. It is through the limitations of our experiences with other for-itself that we gain our choices. The influence of the Other helps mould us as a person and as a result, man is not quite “nothing else but that which he makes of himself” (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P28).


Chapter 6. The Other

6. The Other

In the final section of this work comes perhaps the most important part of it, the notion of the Other. In “Being and Nothingness”, Sartre suggests that there are two types of being. There is the unconscious in-itself and the conscious for-itself. In the third section of his book however, he suggests that there is another, which he calls For-Others.

In Sartre’s concept of Freedom, it is claimed that the for-itself is free. It is also claimed that the for-itself desires to be more than it is. In “Being and Nothingness”, Sartre claims that for-itself desires to become an in-itself-for-itself, a complete being, a God (SARTRE, JP. 2002. P566). As a result of the other, the for-itself is given not just the opportunity to become an object, an in-itself, but it is also given an outside influence that affects its identity and choices.

In “Being and Nothingness”, Sartre talks of performing an offensive gesture. This gesture has no affect on him; it is simply an action he has performed. After doing this action however, upon raising his head, Sartre is aware of someone watching. Instantly a sense of shame overcomes him. He does not feel shame because of the action itself, but more he is “ashamed of myself as I appear to the Other” (SARTRE, JP. 2002. P222). The appearance of another being has in effect turned Sartre into an object. He is being perceived by another for-itself and he is being perceived not as a for-itself, but as an in-itself.

In the world of politics, when a member of the British parliament performs a function on television, countless people are watching him and he is aware of this. This M.P. stands up in the House of Commons, and he performs. He portrays himself as being loyal and trusting and worthy of your vote. In his own time away from other people, he could do whatever he likes, but in the front of other people, he puts on an act.

At the same time as putting on a performance for another for-itself, we learn about ourselves through this. Assuming the politician views himself as an honest man, to prove this it is required that other people view him that way. Without the input of other people into who we are, our personal identity remains limited. The level of how we might be considered attractive can be measured on a form of social scale; the way we dress is the same. Ultimately, without other people it is very difficult to be fully aware of oneself.

When two people are communicating, Sartre feels that the two are in conflict. When others view us, we are automatically made into an in-itself. According to Sartre in every relationship there is an element of a master and a slave. When the politician is talking to one of his voters, he performs an act; he becomes an in-itself and in effect becomes a slave. In contrast to this, the voter has all the power. The voter has the power to remove the politician from office, and he can dominate the conversation and fast becomes the master. At this same moment however, whilst to the voter he is the master, the politician might look at the voter as someone who relies upon him. At this point it is the politician who becomes the for-itself and the master.

This conflict of for-itself is reflected perhaps at it’s best in the notion of love. When one for-itself categorises another, they limit the freedoms of the other and turn them into an in-itself. In love, Sartre showed where this conflict “is fierce and hopeless” (WARNOCK, M. 1970. P117). In love, it is the positioning of labels that defines us and presents us with our freedom. By being classified as someone’s lover, we are simultaneously turned into an in-itself whilst remaining a for-itself in that we are in control of the situation. In our love we find ourselves at war with our own choices. We are faced with the possibility of submitting fully to being an in-itself (a masochist) or fighting our fight and dominating our lover (a sadist). Whilst the second of the two options appears infinitely more appealing, by controlling our lover fully, we turn them into an object and as such alienate their love for us. In effect, by turning our lover into an object, we are destroying their love for us and we are once again alone. As Warnock states, “the lovers embark upon a hopeless struggle, each wanting wholly to limit the freedom of the other and yet to be loved by someone who is still free” (WARNOCK, M. 1970. P118).

The reasoning behind the idea of limiting another’s freedom is based upon the human obsession with predictability. When the politician sits on his bench in Parliament, he doesn’t expect the bench to miraculously change shape or to move, he will expect it to predictably remain how it is. In the case of the Other however, this predictability has disappeared. When the politician knocks on the door of the voter, he has no idea whether the voter will listen attentively or will shut the door on him. Not just the politician feels this lack of predictability however, but also so does the voter. When the voter answers the door, if he is going to listen, he is unsure whether the politician will talk about European policy or crime, or any other topic for that matter. As a result of this unpredictability both the politician and the voter desire to be able to control the other. They wish to be able to predict each other’s movements and to turn the other one into an object. Ultimately when two for-itselves meet, the only way they can communicate without conflict is by one being revealed to the other “both as subject and as object … which is in principle impossible” (CRANSTON, M. 1962. Sartre. P61).

In an attempt to escape the other therefore and remain a for-itself, we are presented with one basic option. The for-itself can only escape the other by not being aware of its presence. If a for-itself was to live on a deserted island there would be no other for-itselves to witness it, or even more simply, by watching a movie on television and thus being so absorbed by the screen that it is unaware of the other for-itself which has entered the room.

When considering this notion of being controlled by other for-itselves, Sartre talks about their influence upon us. Where he goes wrong however is that he fails to fully consider just how much the other affects our choices. In the fundamental project that was mentioned earlier, it was pointed out that each person possesses an original choice. This choice, whilst limiting in our later choices, was designed by Sartre to explain how it was that particular aspects of our lives could affect us without appearing to be our choice. By challenging this original choice, it was apparent that we would be destroying our entire view on life. What Sartre failed to mention though was how much the Other influenced this original project. In making our original choice, we are going to be heavily influenced by perhaps the two most important for-itselves of our lives, in other words, our parents. By choosing our names, our parents are instantaneously labelling us as a person and as an object. In the way they act around us as we grow up, they influence all our decisions and in effect make us who we are. Added to this the impact our friends, other family members, and other acquaintances have upon us, and other for-itselves play a crucial part in developing as whom we are.

Sartre realised this to a degree in later years as he developed more in favour of Marxism. According to Sartre, in every age there is a dominant philosophy and countless ideologies that develop under its wing. According to Sartre, Marxism was the philosophy of the twentieth century and “existentialism is an ideology conceived within its framework. The Existentialist view of the world may… have some contributions to make to philosophy, but only in so far as it succeeds in illuminating some aspect of Marxist theory (WARNOCK, M. 1970. P127). Sartre slowly developed the notion that whilst the individual possessed some freedoms, it was as a social grouping where change was most likely. In effect, it is through our involvement with the Other that we experience ultimate freedom. Whilst in some respect we possess some element of choice in our lives, buying a particular type of beer from an Off-license for example, it is through our involvement with other for-itselves in our society where the greater changes come about. The politician from before is allowed to make his minor choices, but without the voting power of the voter and his friends, the politician will not be able to help to change the social grouping of Great Britain for the better.

In our challenge against other for-itselves, we seek to limit their unpredictability and regain control. Throughout our lives however, so many for-itselves influence us, both in our first original choice and in all other choices after it, that ultimately our freedom is dependent upon the Other considerably more than Sartre will give it credit for.

Chapter 5. The Original/Fundamental Project

5. The Original/Fundamental Project

If man is indeed born without any sort of essence, then it stands to reason that at some point we will develop those values which we base our lives upon. The desire to reproduce, the desire to survive, all the primary values which might be defined as a form of human nature, these values must appear from somewhere. Sartre referred to this one original choice as a person’s Fundamental (or Original) Project.

In Sartre’s quest for freedom, the Fundamental Project appears to be his way of answering those physical boundaries that seem to limit our choices. Hazel Barnes in her essay “Sartre’s Ontology” in The Cambridge Companion To Sartre describes the Project itself as “the for-itself’s chosen orientation toward being, its way of making itself be, its nonreflective creation and pursuit of values, the process whereby it chooses to make itself” (BARNES, H. 1992. P32). By this she seems to imply that by adding original meaning and value to things in its life, the for-itself creates who it is.

Perhaps the best way of describing the Project itself is through an example. Sartre himself suggests the idea of a backpacking expedition with friends (SARTRE, JP. 1943. P453). During the walk, Sartre suddenly finds himself exhausted and unable to go on. Putting his knapsack on the ground, Sartre gives in to this sense of fatigue and rests. His friends continue on without him and he asks himself why it is that they are able to continue to progress whilst he has been forced to give up. Sartre eventually talks to one of these companions and the friend inform him that whilst he is also fatigued, he “loves his fatigue; he gives himself up to it as to a bath; it appears to him in some way as the privileged instrument for discovering the world which surrounds him, for adapting himself to the rocky roughness of the paths, for discovering the “mountainous” quality of the slopes” (SARTRE, JP. 2002. P455). In effect, by experiencing the same pain to which Sartre has surrendered himself, the friend is experiencing the world on another level. Sartre’s friend in effect experiences pain as a part of a larger picture and if something hurts, then it teaches him something new about the world. By experiencing this pain, Sartre’s friend is obeying his fundamental project of experience.

Every action that we choose, we are basing it on a larger picture. If two friends play together for a Sunday League Rugby Union team, how much they involve themselves in the game will depend upon how much it fits into their wider scheme of life. If one of the friends desires to one day marry and produce offspring and is only in effect playing to remain fit and to have a laugh, then whilst he will place himself in harms way occasionally, he won’t constantly put himself into positions where he is likely to get hurt. Other issues take priority over his performance on the field of play. In contrast however, if his friend is primarily devoted to experiencing the pain of an event, to play well and has no desire to reproduce, then he will gamble more. He might play without a jockstrap because he feels he can move faster without one, he might leap into the incredibly dangerous tackles and risk everything, he will push his body to the limits because the game and the experience it brings is everything to him. It is his desire, his will, and his project.

If every man has an original project, therefore, is there a sort of universal desire by which these separate projects might be linked? According to Sartre, one desire that all men wish is to basically become an in-itself-for-itself, or put another way, to become an ideal being or God. Therefore according to Sartre “man is the being whose project is to be God” (SARTRE, JP. 2002. P566). In effect, by becoming a god, man desires to become a contradictory being, a being by which has the substance of an in-itself and is complete, whilst simultaneously remaining a for-itself and possessing the ability of choice. If God is a non-linear being, then whilst possessing a choice, he is already aware of the outcome and the correct way to choose. God appears to have both choice and no choice at the same time. It is this idea of having a substance and an element of completion and yet remaining an individual with a choice and an identity which every for-itself desires, and which every for-itself may never possess.

If therefore every individual possesses this desire to become an in-itself-for-itself, this explains why it is that particular choices appear to be external. In the case of Sartre’s backpacking expedition, whilst experiencing his fatigue when Sartre’s friend keeps going, the fatigue appears not as a choice but as a force imposed upon him. By imposing the original choice upon itself by making it appear like an external force, the for-itself is turning a part of itself into an object and thus becoming partly an in-itself.

In our attempts to become for-itself-in-itself, the fundamental project allows us to attempt to fulfil this aim by giving us a direction in our life. In reference to the rugby playing friends again, it could be suggested that by desiring children, it is the case that when one of the friends dies and becomes an in-itself, an object, his decisions will be passed onto his children and in effect he is achieving part of this desire to become a for-itself-in-itself by remaining immortal in memory. In contrast with this player, his friend is keener to be remembered by his friends as an amazing player who placed himself into dangerous situations in an attempt to understand the world. In both men’s cases, through the involvement of the other, his desire to become an in-itself-for-itself takes a step closer to reality. Sartre refers to the persona we place upon ourselves in front of others as being for-others, and it is worth discussing later on.

The Fundamental, or Original, Project is one of Sartre’s biggest problems in regard to his work on freedom. If what Sartre put forward is true and the for-itself attempts to become a god by fulfilling this original project (SARTRE, JP. 2002. P566), then at what point does our project begin to exist, what influences our choice, and if it cannot be changed without in effect changing our entire life view, then can freedom technically exist?

When considering the Rugby playing friends, their projects are inherently different. If we possess in our lives this project which our lives abide by and which influences all our decisions, then aside from our freedom being limited, this project’s entire existence must have been influenced at an early stage. Basically, if the family orientated rugby player from earlier had grown up in an environment where his parents were the most important thing in his life, he’d be inclined on their input to try to copy their lifestyle. In contrast, his experience driven friend might have experienced a more negative view of parenting with a father who was nasty to him. Whatever happened to these men in their childhood is likely to affect their decision to raise children of their own. In the same respect, if one of the men feels an overwhelming urge to have a greater income and never be short of money, it could be down to the economic effects on his family as a child, or it could be down to what his parents generally told him. The point to be made here is that whilst Sartre points towards the fact that we are in possession of this project which influences our decisions and which makes us experience life a particular way, this project’s primary mission, on route to becoming God obviously, is going to be based on countless social conditions which the person experienced as a child. This suggests that whilst we might be free in our choices, as long as they run along with the project, these choices are originally going to have been affected by our facticity and by our history.

The Fundamental Project, irrelevant of where it came from and who influenced it’s creation, is also faced with the problem that it contravenes our freedoms. As Neil Levy states in his book “Sartre”, the for-itself cannot choose an option which counter-acts it’s project because if we were to choose an option outside of the project we would be “at the same time modifying my entire project” (LEVY, N. 2002. P103). If a person’s project imprints upon them a pain barrier for the reason of denying them harm, then by breaking that barrier, that person is cancelling out his entire project since he will then be able to experience life completely differently. If our rugby playing father-to-be for example was to one day decide, despite it being handily sat next to him, to not wear a jockstrap, he would be opening himself up to the risk that his project would be changed through outside interference. In effect, the project denies us certain choices in an attempt to protect our goal. Basically, “our life is already made [and]…. [Its] development is nothing but a pale repetition of the primordial choice” (DREYFUS, HL. & HOFFMAN, P. 1981. Sartre’s Changed Conception Of Consciousness: From Lucidity To Opacity. In. SCHILPP, PA. The Philosophy Of Jean-Paul Sartre. P237).

If, as appears to be the case, the Fundamental Project is in fact incapable of allowing ground for movement, then there must be an alternative way in which Sartre’s freedom can be restored. One way of doing this is perhaps to suggest that the fundamental project does control elements of our lives, but at the same time, different elements can be changed. This would allow a middle ground as it were to be formed in which our fundamental choices can be changed in favour of an alternative, but particular effects that appear as physical would remain the same.

In the works of Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900 – Present), Gadamer talks of an idea of historicity. According to Gadamer, during our lifetimes, we slowly change in our views as we experience new events. So in the case of our rugby playing friends for example, the man who does not want children might fall in love with a girl who convinces him that they are a good idea. In this respect, his fundamental project would change slightly since he would no longer take risks on the rugby field because he would be attempting to conceive. His way of thinking, his horizon, will have changed and part of his project will be changed, albeit the physical aspects of pain would remain the same.

Another suggestion for the alteration of the Fundamental Project as well is that rather than man’s freedom and choice being based on the project; it is replaced by a social structure or system. The reasoning is that, as Sartre changed his way of thinking to towards the end of his life, by creating a sort of social grouping, a man’s choices become free within the confines of a society. We are “born into a world that is already conferred with meaning, in which hodological paths have been carved out, in which certain enterprises count as meaningful and others as trivial, all independently of our choices” (LEVY, N. 2002. P113-114). This Marxist style view, adopted by Sartre later in life allowed for flexibility in our every day life, but simultaneously limited our choices in terms of the physical and the social sides. In the example of our rugby playing two friends, it would allow for their changes in heart depending upon feeling, but it would simultaneously not allow them to live outside the framework of their society and thus limit their options.

In the notion of the Fundamental Project, Sartre created an explanation for all those aspects of our lives that appear to limit our choices. He suggested that all those pains that limit the individual, the fatigue of his backpacking expedition for example, could be put down to our very first choice in our lives. Ultimately though, by suggesting this, Sartre not only considered where this choice would originally come from, but he also managed to limit the human freedom to an almost non-entity. Later in his life he changed his views to a more social standpoint, and this suggestion of a social framework and the role of the other, is perhaps the best analysis of human freedom.

Chapter 4. Essence, Existence, Freedom and Bad Faith

4. Essence, Existence, Freedom and Bad Faith

So far the key aspects of Sartre’s two concepts of Being and Nothingness have been explained. This does not however cover his most famous notion of what it is to be free. In this section therefore it is worthwhile to analyse what Sartre feels it is to be free and how by denying that our existence precedes our essence and how all our choices are ultimately our own, we are living in what he would refer to as Bad Faith.

As mentioned before, according to Sartre at the beginning of “Existentialism and Humanism”, man is responsible for his own actions and is who he is through his own choices (SARTRE, JP.1948. P28 – 29). To take a modern example however, Sartre’s views can be questioned when in relation to the current trends of abuse directed to certain Arab members of the British and American populations.

Imagine if in August 2001, on the main street of one of England’s main towns, for example Birmingham, a family of Arab immigrants opens a shop. This family has been forced to flee their country for their own safety and have abandoned everything they owned so that they could move to Great Britain and start afresh.  The locals of this area, whilst slightly critical about new people and especially new immigrants, are generally very friendly and warm and the family slots into their new life with minimal problems. One month later however and two planes are hijacked by terrorists and flown into the World Trade Towers in New York. From this moment on, and through no fault of their own, the family’s lifestyle is forever to be changed. Instantly the family begins to sense an air of hostility towards them from certain locals. Maybe one of the children is bullied at school, the shop might be vandalised, all number of events could happen, but the key point is that none of them are this family’s fault. The father could appear on the news and condemn the atrocities, he could tell everyone around him that he disagrees with the terrorists’ aims, and he could do any number of options. The point is that whilst it is his choice how to react to events that have unfolded, it is not his choice that these events happened in the first place. To what degree does this family’s, but in particular the father’s, current situation rely on what Sartre termed his essence. It is this essence and our facticity that gives us our identity and our available choices. In the next chapter it will be necessary to question how much our original choices are reliant upon other people and our surroundings, at this point however, it is more important to examine what Sartre meant by essence.

In both “Existentialism and Humanism” and “Being and Nothingness”, Sartre refers to the topics of essence and existence. As stated in the key to special terminology at the end of “Being & Nothingness”, Essence is “what has been” or “man’s past”. Ultimately “since there is no pre-established pattern for human nature, each man makes his essence as he lives”. (SARTRE, JP. 2002. Being and Nothingness. P631) Basically Sartre felt that our essence was who we are as a result of those aforementioned choices. Put simply, by possessing existence before any sort of essence, man becomes responsible for his own life and his own personality. It is this form of unlimited freedom and responsibility that Sartre feels certain critics are opposed to. In “Existentialism and Humanism”, Sartre claims “ugliness is being identified with existentialism” (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P24) and that existentialism is attacked from all sides for seeming subjective and for denying the unity of man and leaving the individual isolated and alone. The flaw with existentialism is implied as being that because of this unlimited choice, without specific set rules, all humanity would conduct themselves in a negative manner since “experience has shown men to be invariably inclined to evil” (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P25). Sartre felt that this criticism was down to frustration at existentialism’s optimism rather than it’s pessimism. In effect he felt that these people were alarmed more at the fact that it gave man choice than by its lack of rules and structure (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P25).

In contrast to the flexibility of Essence, Sartre defined Existence as “Concrete, individual being here and now” (SARTRE, JP. 2002. Being and Nothingness. P631). So whilst we have the variable of our Essence and how we can affect who we are, the contrasting nature of our Existence, which is simply “there”, is a firm point in our lives.

Assuming Sartre is right and that each person exists before they develop their essence, it is strange that so many things might influence us before we are even born. Imagine all the people who might chastise our immigrant family’s father along his street and accuse him of being a terrorist, these people will no doubt act this way, not necessarily because he is an immigrant but because of his skin tone. Whilst it is a fact that skin colour should make no difference to anyone in this world, there is little doubt that to certain groups of people it makes a huge difference. In places like Bradford where racism and racial tension are at a high, the colour of a man’s skin is often taken to be enough reason to attack him. In this respect therefore, for Sartre to claim that we have no essence before we are born is not quite correct. By being born to the parents he was born to, and in the area he was born in, the father possessed influences to develop who he would become even before he was even born.

If as just suggested, an element of us is with us at birth, the question then arises about its creation. Our immigrant father might sit in his shop one day and look at the sky and wonder why it is that he was born as he was and why the local population in Birmingham might treat him differently. If this man is religious he could even suggest that it is God’s will that he has developed as he has. Whilst Sartre would chastise this for being bad faith, there are existentialists who are not atheist and do indeed believe in a God.

The traditional Christian existentialist, such as Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) and Gabriel Marcel (1889 – 1973), believe, like all Christians who believe firmly in the Bible, that God created man. Sartre stated that the religious element of existentialism felt that man could have a purpose and in effect be compared to a paper knife (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P26). Sartre’s example talks of the creation of the paper-knife and how the object is created, using a formula, “in a certain manner and one which, on the other hand, serves a definite purpose, for one cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper-knife without knowing what it was for.” (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P26). This example appears to imply that in contradiction to Sartre’s entire view, man is created with an essence and if this is the case, then man suddenly develops less responsibility for his actions.

Sartre never really deals with the notion of God as a provider of essence, rather he allows the religious existentialists their beliefs and places them to the side. In reference to his own religious beliefs, Sartre refers to a day in La Rochelle in 1917 when waiting for some school friends and he began to think about God. The second Sartre considered any notion of an all powerful being, “He at once tumbled down into the blue sky and vanished without explanation” (SARTRE, JP. 1967. Words. P155). Sartre’s complete conviction in an absence of God allows in part for his views since without a God there could be nobody to conceive of a human nature and in effect “Man simply is” (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P28).

If we are to follow Sartre’s lead and place God to one side that still does not mean we cannot feel there are alternative factors. Scientists for example have found evidence to suggest that mothers who smoke marijuana during pregnancy have babies that are born “smaller than those born to mothers who did not use the drug” and “In general, smaller babies are more likely to develop health problems ( Even being named differently might affect our development as an individual. A boy named John Smith will no doubt have a simple life in respect to insults directed at his name at school, whilst if the boy’s parents name him Waldark or something equally random, then the boys schooldays will probably be merciless and harsh.

Despite countless potential examples of how someone could be influenced by experiences which predate their lives, Sartre would claim that by denying our own freedom we would be experiencing bad faith.

Earlier on when discussing nothingness, the idea of negating a thirst by walking to the fridge and drinking was mentioned (Levy, N. Sartre. 2002. P90). According to Sartre our freedom is the option to be able to do this and to look at our options and make a decision. This ability to think of an alternative to our current state of affairs and then take it is part and parcel of being a for-itself and it allows us to choose.

When a person claims they have no choice in a situation, Sartre suggests that they are living in bad faith and in effect in a state of denial. If the father of the immigrant family from earlier chooses to just sit and do nothing and hope that any sort of racial anger will disappear, he is making a choice. He is choosing to do nothing. If however he states that he has no choice because he cannot do anything other than ignore the abuse, then he is demonstrating bad faith.

One suggestion against freedom is that in particular countries, these freedoms might not exist. In fictional stories like George Orwell’s “1984” (first published 1948) or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (first published 1932), people are controlled by the Government and taught to act a certain way. In “Brave New World” for example, particular social classes are formed and brainwashed into thinking that their own class has the best jobs. In the first chapter, the director of a plant which engineers people actually states that “All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny” (HUXLEY, A. 1994. P13). The way the society in the book has been developed, it appears to imply that freedoms cease to exist, but ultimately this isn’t true. As Gregory McCulloch states in his book “Using Sartre”, “even the subjects of repressive regimes in barren conditions can still make a choice between raw potato and the squashed tomato” (MCCULLOCH, G. 1994. P38). Even in scenarios where we appear to have absolutely no freedoms, we still have a particular choice.

Huxley’s book implies as well that whilst we have certain freedoms, ultimately we are limited to what we can imagine as an alternative. What can be suggested is that when one of Huxley’s characters, Bernard, meets a man from a different society called John, he introduces Bernard to a different viewpoint on life that he has never experienced before. At one point John’s mother is given a powerful narcotic drug known as Soma, John raises objections claiming it to be unacceptable as the drug would eventually kill her (HUXLEY, A. 1994. P139). John’s shock option surprises everyone because it demonstrates to them an alternative way of thinking. Before his questioning of the process, the Dr (Dr Shaw) and Bernard would never have even considered preserving life by denying someone this drug. By imagining an alternative, it becomes an option on our list of choices. As Neil Levy states, “So long as the Russian peasants, for example, live their situation under the Tsar as natural, their hunger is something to be endured. But once they are able to conceive of a different state of affairs, it becomes a motive for action” (LEVY, N. 2002. Sartre. P91).

When reviewing someone’s choices, one critical analysis might suggest that ultimately whilst they have a choice, the limitations of this choice are placed upon the person outside of their control and in effect their choice is narrowed down. Ultimately however, whilst it is true that there might be one or two limitations imposed without their choice, the opportunity for a male to give birth for example, most of our choices are imposed upon us in our past. Referring back to our immigrant family, it could be argued that if one riotous youth believing to be acting with the best intentions was to attack the father of the family, the father would face the choice of fighting back and being further chastised by the local population, or to take any sort of action directed towards him in submission. The father is placed in a situation where his choices are limited by his current surroundings and people’s opinions as a result of September 11th, but at the same time, he is in this situation through his own choosing. If the father was offered a choice when he arrived in Great Britain about where to live, he could have chosen London or Manchester or anywhere else, but it was his choice to move to Birmingham. Even if the immigration authorities told him he must go to Birmingham, it was still within his power to attempt to challenge the law and move elsewhere. The state or situation in which a person might find his or herself in therefore appears to be a result of events which they may or not have been involved in, but which they reacted to a specific way.

One of the best examples Sartre gives of bad faith is that of a waiter (SARTRE, JP. 2002. P59). The waiter, well dressed, graceful, eloquent, almost acrobatic in his manner of carrying plates, the waiter was a character Sartre seemed to have a strong dislike for. What it was to be a waiter according to Sartre was to basically play a part. Being-a-waiter would become an in-itself because the waiter would adopt a style and put on a show. Sartre himself wasn’t the only one to notice this in the 1920s. In George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” (published originally in 1933), Orwell noted that it was an “instructive sight to see a waiter going into a hotel dining-room. As he passes the door a sudden change comes over him. The set of his shoulders alters; all the dirt and hurry and irritation have dropped off in an instant. He glides over the carpet, with a solemn priest-like air” (ORWELL, G. 1940. P67 – 68). This image, this play, Sartre claimed was bad faith. The waiter’s actions become almost automatic as he floats around the room performing his services. He absorbs his role fully and tries fully to become nothing except for that job which he currently occupies. He abandons the notion of choice as he fulfils his role superbly and he does this both because he desires it and because the public demand it. As Mary Warnock states, “They do not want to have to think of him as a free human agent, but prefer that he should be nothing but the character demanded by his job” (WARNOCK, M. 1970. Existentialism. P103). The waiter therefore fulfils this role, as does any other tradesman who deals with the public. The shopkeeper who is expected to sell you items and perhaps engage in a little light humoured conversation whilst remaining in character. The barman who serves drinks and is expected to hear other people’s problems and not have any of his own. Even the Premiership footballer that is expected to play football is fulfilling this obligation. When these performers move out of their respective roles in which the public views them, the public often takes offence, most especially in the case of the Premiership footballer that is criticised the second that he steps foot inside of a nightclub. Sartre feels that whilst people request these members of social services to act their parts, that it is the feeling of necessity about particular actions that is the act of bad faith. As Warnock points out, “the waiter could choose not to get up in the morning, not to make the coffee, not to be polite to the customers and so on. If he did not fulfil his duty, he would doubtless be sacked. But he could perfectly well choose to be sacked” (WARNOCK, M. 1970. Existentialism. P104).

In a way, our previous choices also seem to act upon us in a sense of bad faith. In reference once more to our immigrants in Birmingham, if the local population were to continue to torment him over other people’s actions, the father would be left with a selection of options, some of which would be to move. Sacrificing his possessions once more, the family could potentially move to countless locations, but one place, which would probably not be on their list, would be to return to their original home country which they retreated from. The flaw with this is that by using the past as a basis for our actions, we are in effect again living in bad faith. Whilst the father might have painful experiences from his time in his home country, it is entirely possible that since then the area has changed and improved. Ultimately by using our past to influence our decisions constantly we severely limit our future.

            In the example of the waiter, Sartre talks of a man in a state of bad faith that in effect lives a job. The waiter performs his part because of a desire from himself and from his patrons to do a job and be nothing more. In contrast, the immigrant family’s father is placed in a negative position almost because of a form of bad faith from other people being imposed upon him. Whilst both men will have been born with a certain degree of facticity placed upon them, it is through their choices in which these facts seem to develop. Sartre appears to suggest that through our own choices in life, we develop who we are. To deny this is possibly to be in bad faith, but at the same time, an element of who we are must be determined by events that occur without our influence. Our immigrant family in Birmingham are changed as people, not just through their choices, but also because of how people view them as a result of external events of which they have no say about.

Chapter 3. The in-itself, the for-itself and the notion of being

3. The in-itself, the for-itself and the notion of being

An understanding of Sartre’s theory of the in-itself and the for-itself is crucial to any form of analysis or criticism of his work. In the in-itself Sartre categorises all unconscious objects, whilst in the for-itself he places humanity and the notion of the mind. The differences between the two are relatively easy to define and yet are enormously intricate in implications. It is worth comparing and then criticising them however. Sartre’s classifications, whilst a logical step, do contain one or two flaws which are worthy of mention. Ultimately however, the key element is that by understanding the for-itself, it allows for an explanation of Sartre’s idea that “existence comes before essence (SARTRE, JP. Existentialism & Humanism.1948. P26). Therefore, the for-itself’s involvement in a discussion on choice is as much a stepping-stone towards the wider picture of essence and existence, as a point in itself.

Sartre’s notion of the in-itself is that the in-itself is simply there. The table you sit at, the pen you write with, even the window you stare out of as you look for ways to avoid working, all these things are part of this world and exist irrelevant of whether we question metaphysics. They are simply what they are however. The pen just sits there and waits to be used. It doesn’t stare up at the sky and ponder its existence it simply exists as itself. It would be interesting to attempt to understand what it is to actually be that object, but impossible because ultimately, even if we were to remove our senses in regard to the world, as conscious beings we retain our personal identity, something a pen or any other in-itself doesn’t have.

Sartre claimed in relation to these objects or “in-itselves”, that they could also be divided a second way. Sartre claimed that whilst objects are complete in themselves without human involvement, what was interesting is how humans as the “for-itself” viewed these objects. If a man passes you an object which looks remarkably like a lighter, obviously, that’s what you will assume it to be. If however it is a novelty water-spraying toy, then your original view of it is different. The same is true of all objects. To a prehistoric caveman for example, he might not be able to identify the use of a Parker Fountain pen. When the object has no usage as a tool to a person, Sartre stated that it was simply Present at Hand. The pen would still have been created with a definitive purpose and would have an essence, but to the caveman it would simply be an unknown object. If you were, however, to get a piece of paper and explain to the aborigine that you could write with the pen, he would not know how it worked, and probably he would have no use for it, but he would be adding a role to the pen and giving it a job. At this point the pen might become Ready to Hand.

The for-itself in contrast to the in-itself is a conscious being that is forced to choose his own direction and make his own choices. The for-itself relates to negation and nothingness as it experiences the negation of its actions and is surrounded by nothingness, separating it from the real world and all the in-itself. The for-itself is not just separated from the in-itself by nothingness, but also from itself. The for-itself, if imagined as being the consciousness of an individual, has the ability to step back from it’s own image and analyse itself. It can question its appearance; it’s goals, aims, most of its life. The for-itself is also different to the in-itself in that whilst an in-itself can never become a for-itself, a for-itself becomes an in-itself upon death.

When he was placing humanity as the “For-itself” and objects as “In-itself”, Sartre relies on the straight split between us in that one has consciousness and the other doesn’t. The flaw however is that with other living creatures, Sartre seems to be almost ignoring whether they can be classified as an in-itself or a for-itself. The lion in the prairie lies in the sun and sleeps. When he is hungry he sends his mate out to find food. Sartre claimed that this was simply animal nature taking effect and that the lion just did things automatically.

The problem with Sartre’s views on nature’s involvement is that he did not really take account of the more intellectual members of the animal kingdom. The dolphin is an example that is normally regarded as the most important member of the animal kingdom. Also, birds have been shown to produce problem-solving abilities. On the PBS Internet homepage, there is a page regarding to “The Life Of Birds”. This page talks about crows in Japan which place nuts on a road at a red light and when the light turns green. The cars drive over the nuts cracking them open ( On an even more simple level, there is the parrot that constantly copies its owner’s words. The point here is that at what point does an animal cease being an in-itself and show the intelligence required for a for-itself. If Sartre is to place this direct split between in-itself and for-itself, then it must be questioned whether animals could be listed as a form of instinctual middle ground.

            When discussing the notion of being, Sartre suggests a definitive split between the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious being, or the for-itself, he classifies as humanity. In contrast the unconscious object is referred to as an in-itself. When considering how much of a person’s identity is based on his or her own choices rather than their facticity, Sartre seems to lack the interest, desire and perhaps the ability to find a place in his structure for the animal kingdom.

Chapter 2. Nothingness and Negation

2. Nothingness and Negation

To fully understand what Sartre meant by choice, it makes sense to explain where these choices come from. Sartre talked of the notion of nothingness in terms of its role involving the for-itself and therefore before being able to properly compare the in-itself and the for-itself it is necessary to explain nothingness first.

When describing nothingness, it is often easier to describe it as non-being, since that is basically what it is. This non-being is formed by the for-itself and as Sartre states “Non-being exists only on the surface of being” (SARTRE, JP. Being & Nothingness.2002. P16). What this means is that without a conscious being, nothingness cannot exist.

Despite the fact that Sartre often tends to use the term nothingness to include negation (Cranston, M. Sartre. 1962. P48), his aim is basically to “name that void, or emptiness by which a being for-itself is encompassed, and divided from objects in-themselves” (Cranston, M. 1962. P48). This runs along the idea that all for-itselves are able to imagine the world differently to how it really is and as a result when they are shown a scenario different to their expectations, they experience a sense of absence. Using the example of his friend and a café, Sartre considers how he would enter the café expecting to witness his friend Pierre sat in his usual seat with a coffee (SARTRE, JP. Being & Nothingness.2002. P9-10). When entering and noticing that Pierre was not there, there is this sense of absence and nothingness about the place as a result. Comparing the absence of his friend with the absence of the Duke Of Wellington, Sartre demonstrates the variance in nothingness and expectation. The reasoning behind this is that whilst, as previously mentioned, it’s not surprising to witness Pierre in the café, it would be incredibly unusual to expect a dead military leader to walk into this random French café.

As mentioned by Cranston earlier, there is an element of difference between nothingness and the idea of negation. The notion of negation is that it is a “refusal of existence” (SARTRE, JP. Being & Nothingness.2002 P11). The idea is that whilst nothingness is that space encircling all for-itselves which allows them to imagine the alternatives of the world, it is negation which nihilates the alternative choice to create the future. As Sartre states again “By means of it a being (or a way of being) is posited, then thrown back to nothingness” (SARTRE, JP. Being & Nothingness.2002 P11).

The link between nihilation and the individual’s choice runs along the lines that when we fulfil a choice, it is based on an external choice or “cause” and an internal choice or “motive” (Levy, N. Sartre. 2002. P90). Using the example of a man in a chair, upon becoming thirsty, it is through a realisation of an alternative that he can choose between remaining thirsty or by negating this thirst. This internal desire (motive) then will then be solved by the external decision to get a drink from the fridge.

With the ideas of nothingness and negation comes the start of the building blocks of Sartre’s theory. By being able to imagine an alternative choice, the for-itself is able to act upon its many options and make a choice. The option of choice however is not available to the in-itself and with this in mind it is worth analysing and comparing both the in-itself and the for-itself.

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