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 (http://www.personalhealthzone.com/marijuanasideeffects.html). 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.

About T.Bonney

Northerner with a penchant for optimism and self-deprecating humour. London based for 14+ years now and still love it most of the time. Philosophical, film fan with tastes for beer, rugby, reading and more.

Posted on 22/03/2013, in Dissertation. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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