Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre is one of the most important philosophers of all time. Despite his work garnering considerable flak over the years, his theories on existentialism and freedom cement his place among the most influential Western philosophers of the 20th-century and beyond.
Jean-Paul Sartre believed that human beings live in constant anguish, not solely because life is miserable, but because we are ‘condemned to be free’. While the circumstances of our birth and upbringing are beyond our control, he reasons that once we become self-aware (and we all do eventually), we have to make choices — choices that define our very ‘essence’. Sartre’s theory of existentialism states that “existence precedes essence”, that is only by existing and acting a certain way do we give meaning to our lives. According to him, there is no fixed design for how a human being should be and no God to give us a purpose. Therefore, the onus for defining ourselves, and by extension humanity, falls squarely on our shoulders. This lack of pre-defined purpose along with an ‘absurd’ existence that presents to us infinite choices is what Sartre attributes to the “anguish of freedom”.
According to Sartre, each choice we make defines us while at the same time revealing to us what we think a human being should be. And this incredible burden of responsibility that the free man has to bear is what relegates him to constant anguish.
Jean-Paul Sartre decried the idea of living without pursuing freedom. The phenomenon of people accepting that things have to be a certain way, and subsequently refusing to acknowledge or pursue alternate options, was what he termed as “living in bad faith”. According to Sartre, people who convince themselves that they have to do one particular kind of work or live in one particular city are living in bad faith.
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