An Essay: Freedom



It can be hard to comprehend how a middle-class society is at odds with its freedom. The perks of cars, computers and credit cards enables us to do whatever we want – whenever we want – regardless of the fixed, twenty-five year repayment plan. Of course it is important to note that the term freedom can be used very loosely, and ultimately; subjectively. The French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre chose to define freedom from a philosophical angle. Sartre believed that human beings are unable to attain ultimate freedom due to bourgeois codes and cultural norms that dictate their everyday lives. Society influences human beings to the point of inhabiting social roles, whereby they are unable to become anything more than these functions. This essay will begin by exploring Sartre’s idea of freedom and it will also illustrate the metaphysical relationship between human beings and objects. Finally, the essay will use Sartre’s framework to explore freedom in modernity with a focus on middle-class Australia. In doing so, this essay will show that the bourgeois ideal of freedom is still prominent in the twenty-first century. This essay will argue that human beings wrongfully neglect their innate freedom.

In order to consider Sartre’s claim, we must understand a few things. First, this analysis of freedom is conducted on a philosophical stage – existentialism. And second, to understand what existentialism is; a first-person perspective of the world. But, as Sartre described it, existentialism is a representation of a being whereby existence precedes essence. This famous twentieth-century preposition can easily be misunderstood by its puzzling rhetoric. However, it is crucial to grasp this position in order to comprehend Sartre’s critique of the human condition which negates its freedom. To look at this phrase closely, existence is the act of being, whereas essence can broadly be defined as purpose. B.R. Tilghman suggests that the essence of a thing is described in the definition of a thing. To put it succinctly, Sartre said, “man first exists: he materialises in the world, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself.”

Sartre’s central argument is that human beings exist before they become anything. As Philip Thody puts it, “we are, and we are free, before we are anything else.” From an early age, children are confronted with the idea that they should grow up to become something. By ‘something’, this does not yet mean a mere object, however, Sartre does draw on this concept further. In this preliminary context, ‘something’ really means an occupation. Although, as we get older, social norms and bourgeois codes dominate our daily lives to the point where they influence the human being to inhabit a role in society. And the very act of inhabiting a role is what Sartre calls, acting in bad faith – An existential condition whereby a human being denies their ultimate freedom. In other words, bad faith is the process of telling ourselves that this something is what we are, and that we are nothing more than this. Joseph Catalano further illustrates this by saying “most of us play roles assigned to us by society, and society expects us to stay within the limits of that role.” Therefore, if society has dictated our roles, it is also society which has revoked our ultimate freedom. Catalano continues, “The good teacher, student, and father are those whose actions say to the world, I am a student, teacher, or father.” Catalano refers to these roles as ‘good’ because these are the actions that society expects from its community. Perhaps an example of bad faith will further illustrate how these roles are a denial of freedom.

Sartre provides a series of examples of ordinary people who are victim’s of self deception; A man undecided about joining the French resistance, a flirting woman, a homosexual, but perhaps the most well known is the café waiter. Sartre paints the picture of an exuberant waiter who is “a little too precise.” The waiter pretends that he has to get up at five o’clock in the morning and that he must sweep the floor before customers arrive. Mary Warnock (Edmunds/Warburton) describes Sartre’s waiter as having to complete these duties in order to fulfil the role of the waiter properly. Sartre continues to illustrate the waiter acting in a mechanical fashion, all to the extent of a metaphysical relationship. A brief analysis will further highlight this odd relationship: A chair is wooden, it has legs and it was built with a purpose for sitting. It has an essence because it was conceived of prior to its production. This is the essence of a chair. However, human beings are not born with one particular way of being – there is no human essence. The waiter is acting as if he is bound by duty and obligation to the patterns of – as Sebastian Gardner put it – waiterhood. It could be said that the waiter is acting in this role to the extent of becoming a mere thing. It is here where we face the fundamental problem of our ultimate freedom. Human beings are innately free and by choosing to fulfil the role of a police officer, a sociology professor, or a waiter, we often deceive ourselves in an attempt to create purpose that is not defined in humanism. Sartre argues that human beings are thrown into existence with no essence, and the very attempt to define oneself – by pressure from society or an individual’s desire to become something – is an existential paradox.

It is true that Sartre’s idea of freedom is a type of radical freedom, but perhaps the purpose of his philosophy is grounded in awareness. Sartre articulated the idea of bad faith in such a way that would prompt his reader to recognise all types of people acting out the part of a particular member of society. A glimpse at modernity brings out all sorts of people who believe they must catch their tram in the morning, or a conscientious mother who prioritises all of her tasks around motherhood. Warnock elaborates on roles in modernity by saying that human beings are dominated by these false necessities and the part they decide to play in society. The very idea that human beings are faced with the task of defining one’s self is something that has not evolved since Sartre eloquently presented it seventy years ago. A glance at middle-class Australia in the twenty-first-century will also reveal the absurdities and obligations Australians face in the name of freedom.

The word freedom is commonly employed in the context of one’s financial state. It can be said that individuals had more freedom after the invention of the Automatic Teller Machine. And it is true that an ATM cash withdrawal will save an individual time and hassle from entering a bank. Although, on a larger financial scale, mortgages can paint a different picture of financial freedom. The Australian Bureau of Statistics highlighted that the total household debt stood at $1.84 trillion in 2013. And within a more recent report, Australia’s largest mortgage broker, Australian Finance Group confirmed that the number of home loans being processed is at a record high. Household debt is ludicrous and whilst Australians continue to lend money from borrowers, perhaps an enslaving thirty-year mortgage might be what middle-class Australians are looking for. Although, when we face our deep six-figure mortgage and a half warn credit card, we must remember that Sartre has never been more relevant. To tell ourselves that we must have that white picket fence home, or that we must own the latest iPhone, is not only bourgeois consumerism, but it is a depiction of Sartre’s bad faith. Furthermore, living in this condition is possibly the quintessential stereotype of Sartre’s humanism. Or, perhaps the in debt consumer is best off as they are unable to consider freedom in this context, regardless of their financial suppression. And this then maps on to the next question of hardship. Is the bourgeois consumer at all related to the aussie battler? Perhaps there are further existential consequences that will come to fruition as we dig deeper.

Whilst the consumer may neglect the very real financial situation around them, the study of the aussie battler is a major concern within Australian media and political debates. In 2007, Clive Hamilton, Christian Downie and Yi-hua Lu published a report for The Australia Institute (TAI) which reviewed the state of the Australian middle-class. As they have argued, middle-class Australians are not struggling from financial stress, despite the image of the average Australian doing it tough. And whilst overall mortgages are increasing, a closer look at the October 2014 AFG national report shows that first-home buyers are at a record low, whilst investors are at a record high. It is not the purpose of this essay to define the middle-class, however, it is a reasonable judgement that a majority portion of investors lie at the top end of income earners, whilst first-home buyers sit in the middle-class bracket. Hamilton, Downie and Lu continue, “very few middle-class households can be suffering mortgage stress because very few middle-class households have large mortgages.” In order to capture the real truth about the hardship that everyday Australians face, we may need to look beyond their financial situations. The TAI report continues, “Australians may be displacing anxieties about non-economic issues onto their financial circumstances.” The report concludes that if Australians are struggling, it is likely that they are at the costs of overworking and family pressures.

Using Sartre’s framework, it is obvious that the bourgeois consumer and the aussie battler are the same person. The former is living an ignorant state of their ultimate denial of freedom, whereas the latter is suffering from a demanding society and workplace, which dictates their denial of freedom. The existentialists have long associated work and pressure from society with inauthentic actions. In 1843, the father of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard said, “of all ridiculous things, it seems to me the most ridiculous is to be a busy man of affairs, prompt to meals, and prompt to work.” Perhaps the Danish Golden Age was not so different from a modern middle-class Australia. Kierkegaard attempted to shake his reader from their very foundation which sees them living in a world of bourgeois values – one-hundred-years on, Sartre called this inauthentic relationship bad faith. Regardless of a societies influential ability to trap its masses, a core principal to existentialism is innate freedom.

Sartre famously said, “man is condemned to be free.” He described human freedom as a condemnation because the very essence of a human being is essentially nothing and this conflicts with our desire or obligation of becoming something. This paradoxical expression is at the heart of Sartre’s philosophy and whilst it sounds like a call to nothingness, Sartre’s existentialism is a call to humanism. It is the very attempt to shake the ignorant consumer and the struggling, obliged Australian from their complacency. There is more to life than filling our consciousness with bourgeois ideals from a society that dictates our being. If it sounds like nothingness is synonymous with freedom, that is because it is. Although, until we detach the bleak connotation attached to an existential nothingness, we cannot attain a life of possibilities; a life of freedom.