He was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this death weight about with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he thought them into being.
In one of my many fits of daydreaming, someone asked what I do if money were no longer a concern. After rattling through the usual response of fancy new toys and extravagant travel, I came to a realization. If I didn’t have to worry about money at all, I’d want to be a philosopher. You’ll notice that the logo for Beyond the Rhetoric is Rodin’s Thinker.
In this way, as much as I would like to shut off my brain now and then, I’m drawn to entertainment that makes me think. That’s a big part of the reason why I enjoy The Good Place so much. On the surface, it’s another network sitcom. But it’s really about moral philosophy (with some well-placed immaturity too, you ding-dongs).
And it was The Good Place that introduced me to French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre.
More specifically, and without nerding out too much, Jean-Paul Sartre is one of the most prominent figures in the philosophy of existentialism. Put simply, existentialism states you must create your own meaning. Its two primary tenets are freedom and authenticity. That’s what the quote above is all about. And while most of us regard “freedom” as a good thing, in reality, it’s a double-edged sword.
Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.
We don’t normally associate “free” with being “condemned.” Think about that for a moment. You are free to do whatever you want. Before you is a world of limitless possibility. But this also means you are wholly responsible for everything you choose to do. There is no greater authority figure who can guide your way, because they’re all figuring it out as they go along too. They’re all creating their own meaning as they go.
It is because of this overwhelming freedom that we suffer from crippling existential angst. We want our lives to mean something, to be important or significant in some way. It is a terrifying realization that our lives can be completely and utterly meaningless. Like, what’s the point of it all? The freedom to choose, in this way, is a burden.
On a much smaller and more specific context, I experience this every day in my life as a freelance writer. From the outside looking in, the lack of set structure has its appeal. I can work “whenever I want.” However, that freedom of freelancing comes with the burden of responsibility to make it work. No one is forcing me to start and end work at such-and-such a time. I’ve condemned myself to be free.
Freedom is what we do with what is done to us.
You, too, are free. While you may not be able to control the circumstances surrounding you, you are free to choose how to act given these circumstances. And should that responsibility fill you with existential dread, know that you’re not alone. Jean-Paul Sartre was in the exact same place. And he’s the one who said, “Hell is other people.”
Or maybe you’d prefer a simpler, even more freeing perspective? As Alan Watts once put it, “The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
If you’re interested in learning more about existentialism, some of its most notable proponents include Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzche, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. There’s no shortage of content out there for your hungry mind to consume… and from which to derive meaning.