The non-existence, or non-importance, of the self has for millennia been an uncontroversial proposition in Eastern thought. But Western thinkers have tended to embrace the concept of the isolated self as, if not sufficient, at least necessary for a coherent account of human life. Yet there are many ways to describe what it means to have a self—an ego, an individual identity. Is the self a product of culture, history, and economy? Is it a collection of subjective experiences to which no one else has access? Is it constituted only in relation to other selves, or in relation to an ultimate, unchanging, all-powerful Self?
For the Existentialists, the self can be a prison, a trap, and a source of great anxiety. Heidegger called selfhood a condition of being “thrown into the world.” By the time we realize where and what we are, according to restrictive categories of historical thought and language, we are already there, inescapably bound to our conditions, forced to perform roles for which we never auditioned. Jean-Paul Sartre took this notion of “thrownness” and gave it his own neurotic stamp. We are indeed tossed into existences against our will, but the real condemnation, he thought, is that once we arrive, we have to make choices. We are doomed to the task of creating ourselves, no matter how limited the options, and there is no possibility of opting out. Even not making choices is a choice.
This extreme kind of free will, as Stephen Fry explains in the short, animated video above, stems from the problem of human nature—there isn’t any. “According to Sartre, there is no design for a human being,” says Fry, or in Sartre’s famous phrase, “existence precedes essence.” There is only the absurdity of arriving in a world with no plan, no God, no universal codes or fixed standards of value: just a dizzying array of decisions to make. And yet, rather than making life trivial, the absurd condition described by Sartre lends substantial weight to all of our choices, for in making them, he claimed, we are not only creating ourselves, but deciding what a human being should be.
Illusions of certainty and necessity obscure the contingent nature of existential choice, both the true inheritance and the unremitting burden of every individual. What we become in life is up to us, Sartre thought, a proposition that causes us a good deal of anguish, since we cannot know the outcome of our choices nor understand the world in which we make them beyond our limited capacity. And yet, we must act, Sartre thought, “as if everyone is watching me.” This is not a pleasing thought, even if, for many, the idea might actually lead to more careful, sober, and deliberative decision-making—that is, when it doesn’t lead to paralyzing dread.