Jean-Paul Sartre’s Concepts of Freedom & “Existential Choice” Explained in an Animated Video Narrated by Stephen Fry

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Crash Course in Exis­ten­tial­ism: A Short Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Paul Sartre & Find­ing Mean­ing in a Mean­ing­less World

What Is an “Exis­ten­tial Cri­sis”?: An Ani­mat­ed Video Explains What the Expres­sion Real­ly Means

Exis­ten­tial Phi­los­o­phy of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus Explained with 8‑Bit Video Games

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Maxim Gurnemanz says:

    Life is a test. It is only a test. If this had been your actu­al life you would have been giv­en bet­ter instruc­tions.

  • Mick says:

    “…we are not only cre­at­ing our­selves, but decid­ing what a human being should be.”

    “…we must act, Sartre thought, “as if every­one is watch­ing me.”

    It would be good to see a short sum­ma­ry on why these two fea­tures of Sartre’s thought can’t sim­ply be ignored/dispensed with.

    But, to me, it looks like a re-fram­ing of the ben­e­fits that our social nature brings us. If we all act­ed with con­sid­er­a­tion only for our own needs, there would be no civ­i­liza­tion, most of us would­n’t sur­vive on our own, and those who did would be required to expend most of our ener­gy and time to do so. This is the basis of moral­i­ty: weigh­ing the needs of the one vs. the needs of the many. Thus, we are often try­ing to fig­ure out what the “right” thing is to do, and con­tin­u­al­ly pro­vid­ing a mod­el to oth­ers as to what that right thing is. If we look around us, and every­body is out to get rich, despite what that does to the envi­ron­ment that we all share, and to oth­ers we share the world with, then that’s what more of us will do.

    So, moral­i­ty helps the greater num­ber of us. We act as we think oth­ers should act because it ben­e­fits more peo­ple AND our sur­vival ulti­mate­ly depends on it.

  • Mirza says:

    If there is no human nature, and this is caus­ing us anguish, then where did that anguish come from?

  • Nasrin says:

    when eval­u­at­ing what exis­ten­tial­ism declares, it’s impor­tant to keep the time and place of the evo­lu­tion of this phi­los­o­phy in mind . After cen­turies of heavy belief that we are here on the order of the almighty, the advance­ment of sci­ence and the dec­la­ra­tion of Niet­zsche that “God is dead” both freed and bur­dened the human being to come up with an alter­na­tive for God and that’s when dif­fer­ent exis­ten­tial­ists offered slight­ly dif­fer­ent ideas based on this point of evo­lu­tion.
    At this point human beings, or at least the west­ern ones, felt both free and oblig­at­ed at the same time to give mean­ing to their own lives or anoth­er words to cre­ate them­selves in the absence of God.

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