Issue #5: 'self'

Who are we behind closed doors?

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by André Dao on December 3, 2014

In the midst of a nuclear war, an evacuation plane from England crash lands on a deserted, paradisiacal island in the remote Pacific. The only survivors are a group of young boys who must find a way to govern themselves without adult supervision. They begin well enough, mimicking the forms of authority with which they were raised: they convene a forum at which they elect leaders, appoint a group to hunt and forage for food and set up a signal fire to alert passing ships.

But almost as soon as they arrive cracks begin appearing in their veneer of civilisation: “Roger gathered a handful of stones and began to throw them. Yet there was a space round Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter, into which he dare not throw. Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law.”

Soon enough that vestige of society’s protections wears off, and the boys’ true nature shows through. They take savage pleasure in the hunt – first of a wild boar and eventually of each other – fall victim to primitive, bestial fear and finally become howling murderers.

That grim vision of human nature comes from William Golding’s classic novel The Lord of the Flies. It accords with Thomas Hobbes’ assessment of humanity in the state of nature – that is, before the formation of society – as “naturally wicked”. It is our nature to seek self-gain, which inevitably leads us into conflict with each other and ultimately leads to the “war of all against all”. It is only society – and the fear of punishment – that prevents life from being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Understandably, a lot of people have taken umbrage over the years at the idea that deep down, we’re nothing more than fearful, murderous wretches. Jean-Jacques Rousseau turned Hobbes’ state of nature on its head – it was precisely before the formation of society, not after it, when humankind was at its best. Though Rousseau didn’t deny that an element of human nature is our drive for self-preservation, he also posited an intrinsic aversion to the suffering of others. We are, in other words, fundamentally compassionate and empathic beings, who are corrupted – rather than bettered – by decadent civilisation.

But what if human nature is neither good nor bad? What if, as Jean-Paul Sartre argued, there is no such thing as human nature? For that is the meaning of Sartre’s famous aphorism, “existence comes before essence”. It is the key tenet of existentialism. Whereas a hammer has a blueprint and purpose (essence) which pre-exists the actual thing (existence) – that is, the idea of a tool with which to knock in nails precedes the fabrication of the hammer as an object – human beings, at least according to Sartre, have no preestablished purpose or nature. We were not created with a specific purpose or essence; we simply exist.

The immediate implication of this thought is a kind of radical individual freedom: as Sartre wrote, “man is free, man is freedom!” Whatever I am, I have chosen to become so. A further implication – and the one for which existentialists like Sartre were most often criticised – is that without a Creator, or a fundamental essence to human existence, this radical freedom is unencumbered by any traditional moral framework. “You are free,” wrote Sartre, “therefore choose – that is to say invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.”

Paradoxically, this total freedom to invent our own morality is the source of our imprisonment. We are, in Sartre’s words, “condemned to be free”. That is, we have total responsibility for our actions. Without being able to justify ourselves by relying on a higher authority, spiritual or otherwise, we are “left alone without excuse”. In Sartre’s terms, we are “abandoned”. In that sense, we are like the boys on William Golding’s deserted island, left to fend for ourselves without the comfort of adult authority to tell us how to behave. And like those boys, we are trapped by that freedom, doomed to choose – and to make each choice for and by ourselves.

This burden of choice leaves us full of anguish. Whilst Sartre vehemently denied any restrictions on our freedom to choose, he did acknowledge the painful restriction of having to choose. Our infinite minds are constrained by the finite nature of our actions; every choice to step through one door closes off countless others. Sartre drew on the real-life dilemma of one of his students to illustrate the concept of existential anguish. France was then occupied by Germany, and the student hoped to join the Free French Forces in England to help in the fight to liberate his country. But the student’s mother was seriously ill, and as a devoted son, he wished to stay at her side and nurse her to better health.

Traditional moral frameworks, such as Christianity or Kantian ethics, were of no use to the student. “Love thy neighbour” and “treat every person as an end and not a means” are of little aid when choosing between two equally legitimate aims. Abandoned by authority to make this choice on his own, the student faced the anguish of knowing that to choose to do one would make it impossible to do the other.

Faced with such anguish, many of us seek a way to mitigate our freedom. We find ways to say, “this is not my fault.” Sartre called this abdication of responsibility “bad faith”. Bad faith, or insincerity, is a form of magical thinking – Sartre wrote that “man is always a sorcerer for man” – which tries to mask truth and reason (which tell us that we are free) in favour of rules and traditions (thereby constraining our terrible freedom). It is, to put it bluntly, a way of lying to ourselves.

Any thinking that puts essence before existence is a form of bad faith. In our attempts to escape existential anguish, we define ourselves by political and spiritual beliefs, occupation, race, gender, or sexuality. Sartre’s hardline position is that none of these identifiers can absolve us of our personal, individual responsibility for every choice we make. These roles: socialist, Christian, feminist, waiter, plumber, Australian – or indeed, devoted son or patriotic Frenchman – are simply that, mere roles that we play; masks we put on and take off that cover up the nothingness (a positive nothingness, which makes our freedom possible) that is human existence. For Sartre, it is never sufficient to simply say that “because I am X, therefore I did Y ”.

Likewise, a fixation on the past, or on inherent qualities of human nature, are forms of bad faith. Both attitudes mask what Sartre called the spontaneity of consciousness – that is, that the ‘I’ of the self is constantly reconstructed from moment to moment. It is magical thinking to say that “because of event X in my life, I did Y”, a way of softening the sharp edge of choice.

Sartre’s philosophy has been roundly criticised as a kind of dressed-up nihilism in which everything is permitted. Certainly, it seems possible for a mass-murderer to act in good faith in the Sartrean sense, as long as he or she didn’t try to explain away their actions by relying on external factors. Despite this, what remains useful in Sartre’s thinking is his insistence that we have more control over our lives than we commonly believe. We are not fated – by human nature, our own past, or the roles we play – to be or do anything. As Sartre put it: “I am never any one of my attitudes, any one of my actions.”

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