Updated: Mar 8
'We are creating our own barriers in life because we are scared of the freedom that we have been condemned to.'
Words: Fin Quinlan
In 1938 Jean-Paul Sartre wrote Nausea. A rare philosophical novel that proposes no true arguments but instead dramatizes them. Seven years later Sartre described existentialism in a lecture as ‘the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of constant atheism’ and Nausea shows Sartre’s early exploration into this philosophy.
There is a scene in Nausea in which the main character (Antoine Roquentin), traveling on a tram looks over and sees an empty chair that completely baffles him. He looks at the chair and experiences what it feels like for there to be no knowledge of the object conditioned into his brain. No knowledge of sitting in chairs, as if he were a child seeing a chair for the first time at that moment.
‘I murmur: "It's a seat," a little like an exorcism. But the word stays on my lips: it refuses to go and put itself on the thing. It stays what it is, with its red plush, thousands of little red paws in the air, all still, little dead paws. This enormous belly turned upward, bleeding, inflated—bloated with all its dead paws, this belly floating in this car, in this grey sky, is not a seat. It could just as well be a dead donkey tossed about in the water, floating with the current, belly in the air in a great grey river, a river of floods; and I could be sitting on the donkey's belly, my feet dangling in the clear water.’
Perhaps more famously is when Roquetin experiences a chestnut tree. He discovers he cannot describe the root and that it is simply there. The word existence no longer evokes an abstract category but an explainable nothingness with no reason to be there:
‘Superfluity was the only relationship I could establish between these trees, these hedges, these paths. Vainly I strove to compute the number of the chestnut trees, or their distance from the Velleda, or their height as compared with that of the plane trees; each of them escaped from the pattern I made for it, overflowed from it or withdrew. And I too among them, vile, languorous, obscene, chewing the cud of my thoughts, I too was superfluous.’
Imagine that this was how you saw the world. To Sartre, if you don’t believe in a God pre-ordaining a meaning then you must realise that this is true. There is nothing behind the meaning we give anything. Any word used to describe an object does not exist ‘existence preceded essence’.
For example, it is the essence of a house to keep the rain and the wind out. We give it walls and a roof for this purpose. This is completely unlike humans who are not built with any purpose; we are free to choose our own purpose and shape our essence. In this case, to be truly aware of our own existence we need to be aware of the chair as it is before we attach meaning to it. Once we realise that, we can be free.
There is a famous quote by Sartre: ‘Man is condemned to be free’. He means that we have no choice to exist, yet we are born to a world with infinite choices that we are wholly responsible for. In this sense, we are condemned by our freedom.
19th-century danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard would claim that through our birthright freedom we will find ourselves in one of two states of freedom, lost in the infinite or lost in the finite. We will either, be so free that we spend our lives camped on the outskirts, pondering the millions of things we can do with our freedoms yet never taking up action on a single idea because we are completely overwhelmed. Or, being so free that we decide to follow. Everyone else is doing it so why shouldn’t I? Both of these are coping mechanisms that we use to avoid ever being absolutely free.
Once we realise, we are in the driving seat of life and need to take control of our actions we are uncomfortable and begin to feel the existential nausea of our own existence. To escape nausea Sartre believes we succumb to ‘Bad Faith’. We accept something as truth (even if it is not very convincing) simply because it is convenient and easy to do so.
Imagine a waiter. This waiter is trying hard to do his job, yet it doesn’t come to him naturally. He works in his family’s restaurant and has done all of his life. The waiter moves around quickly yet he is rigid and far too easy to please. The waiter is miserable.
To Sartre, this waiter isn’t just unfulfilled but also not exercising his freedoms. The hypothetical waiter has accepted that he needs money to survive. He is decent at his job and it's consistent. Yet, the pay is not the best, but he has spent his whole life doing this, it’s too late to change career, and even so, he wouldn’t want to disappoint his family and leave the trade.
This waiter is exactly like most of us. He is using his freedom to deny his own freedom. There is a bad faith decision that has been made. The waiter has not made the most compelling decision but instead the most convenient.
We have all been in this situation (and most of us probably still are) but consider what we are doing by telling ourselves we cannot change. We are cutting our own legs out from under our ability to choose. We are creating our own barriers in life because we are scared of the freedom that we have been condemned to.
We do this with relationships, jobs, and many more because we convince ourselves we would rather avoid difficult life decisions and the temporary discomfort that it brings and instead live out in long-term agony to avoid short-term discomfort.