Sartre vs. Kierkegaard on the Topic of Human Freedom
A recent essay of mine compares and contrasts these two great men’s conceptions of human freedom:
Existence, at least in its derived etymological sense, does not mean “to be” or “to have being.” Rather, it denotes “standing out” or “being outstanding.” Not everyone has the privilege of ex-isting: only those who choose to exist are in a state of real existence. It is not enough to will. One must will to will. This insight is one of the foundational principles of existentialist philosophy, and it informs the thoughts of two of the movement’s most influential men, Soren Kierkegaard and Jean Paul Sartre. As the scholar John Killinger writes, “Existentialism tries to return man to himself as freedom, as possibility and openness to the future, as indeterminate potentiality” (Killinger 304). The return of man to himself necessitates an original exit from himself, a stepping-out of sheer being, a standing-out from the hum-drum of determinism, whether social or material. The initial self-exodus—the primordial entrance into the free realm of possibility, even the possibility of failure or death—does not paralyze these two philosophers; actually, it provokes a striving for selfhood that culminates in self-actualization. Although Kierkegaard and Sartre share the concept that freedom, in its highest sense, is the ability to choose selfhood in an act of commitment to a selected end in spite of dread over nothingness, Kierkegaard’s philosophy “stands out” from Sartre’s atheistic existentialism by contending that the only true way to alleviate despair is through the decision to have unconditional faith in and to be faithful to the God of the absolute paradox, the God of absurdity.
For Kierkegaard the relationship between freedom and dread (or between possibility and nothingness) finds its expression in the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden. The Dane claims that this tale is an allegory, so it really refers to and has meaning for all of humanity. Adam’s situation is indistinguishable from the situation of everyone. His possibility is our possibility. Timothy P. Jackson correctly notes, “All fall freely, as did Adam; we are radically individually responsible” (Jackson 244). Adam’s mistake does not fatalistically determine the destiny of every person, for every person engages in Adam-like rebellion at some moment in his or her life. The exact circumstance of Adam is as follows: confronted with freedom, with radical possibility, Adam grasps that he could fail to obey God and therefore “die,” and this potentiality produces dreadful anxiety. It is for this reason that Kierkegaard writes, “Dread is freedom’s reality as possibility for possibility” (38). Kierkegaard utilizes the word possibility twice because the possibility of Adam’s failure to comply entails the possibility of death, of nothingness. This set of double possibilities is the epitome of death, as it covers both levels of death—spiritual death in Adam’s lack of accordance with the will of God and physical death in Adam’s despair over nothingness. In the end Adam selects to disobey God, and this selection reflects the Kierkegaardian fact that all men and women sin and stand guilty before God. In his book about Kierkegaard and Freedom, Professor Gregory R. Beabout states, “The concrete situation is that human selves have misused freedom” (Beabout 145). The possibility of guilt is made actual in the occasion of rebellion. Overwhelmed by failure, the initial dread transforms into despair.
Jean Paul Sartre treats the topic of despair and nothingness with equal attention, but his analysis differs in method. Following David Hume, Sartre takes a strict phenomenological approach to nothingness. In Of Human Freedom he writes, “For the for-itself, to be is to nihilate the in-itself which it is. Under these conditions freedom can be nothing other than this nihilation” (Sartre 36). The in-itself is the substance of the self’s consciousness, yet phenomenology reveals that substance is nothing more than a collection of appearances that depend upon circumstance and perspective. There is no “thing” behind any object’s traits. This idea is not only true for outer objects like houses, tables, and chairs but also for consciousness itself. There is no human being behind the phenomenon of brain states. Thus, the for-itself’s being is the nihilation of the in-itself’s being which it is. The freedom of self-consciousness, expressed through the for-itself, comes to see that it negates itself, and this negation unmasks its own nothingness. Despair ensues. Nonetheless, Sartre does not succumb to despair through suicide or psychological paralysis. He offers a cure. Killinger explains, “Sartre…proposes to cure man of his ontological sickness by confronting him with nothingness” (Killinger 309). Confrontation with nothingness ferments into the remedy of freedom. Since human people are nothing, they are free to make their own reality. Their lack of grounded-ness leads to the possibility of authentic freedom. The scholar W.T. Jones writes, “It is only nothingness that is free to be anything and everything” (Jones 426). The self has no creative restrictions. Both Sartre’s and Kierkegaard’s ideal persons face the possibility of nothingness, yet they choose to overcome this initial state—though never fully eliminating it—in their pursuit of authentic actualization.
Despite the fact that both of these philosophers envision a world in which humanity has the opportunity to be free, they equally acknowledge that most people fail to appropriate their personal liberty. Kierkegaard observes that dread, the possibility of possibility, is intrinsic to the uniquely human mode of being, yet some avoid confrontation with this reality by hiding themselves from it. For example, speculators like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel pursue systematic philosophy and so retreat from ex-istence by turning to the abstract realm of thought. Kierkegaard notes, “For [the speculator] has no fear of being under a delusion, if only he can get the system completed—by means of delusion” (Kierkegaard 346). From the Dane’s perspective, Hegel would rather pursue the illusion of pure, necessary, absolute idealism than choose self-actualizing, ethico-religious selfhood. Whereas Kierkegaard prefers the individual who makes an infinite move to God only to return to finite action, Hegel’s individual loses himself in the infinite never to return to finitude. Apart from the case of the speculator, a person can fail to face the facticity of the possibility of nothingness by losing himself in the crowd. This sort of person spends time chasing the latest popular novelties. He never makes a single choice because the crowd makes choices for him. He is lost in “group-think.” Additionally, a person may avoid the reality of choice by falling prey to idealistic romanticism of the adolescent sort. This individual claims that “everything is possible” without realizing that “in the world of the finite there is much which is not possible” (123). The young idealist does not comprehend the possibility of physical impossibility (such as death, sickness, etc.), so he never really experiences the full weight of freedom’s dread.
Sartre shares several insights with Kierkegaard on the theme of the avoidance of freedom. Like his philosophical predecessor, Sartre asserts that freedom is an inherent condition of human-ness, yet some decide to put off the will to choose. He writes, “We are not free to cease being free” (Sartre 37). Regardless, the vast majority of people live in a state of quiet, unconscious desperation. They “have dragged out their life in stupor, and semisleep, they have married hastily, out of impatience, they have made children at random. They have met other men in cafés, at weddings and funerals” (Sartre 94). Similar to the members of the crowd (I=We) in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, Sartre’s “many” go through the motions of the herd in order to put off any responsible, committed decision making.
As an alternative to the avoidance of the majority, Kierkegaard proposes a solution via the dictum acting over thinking. Once again, the Dane positions himself against the speculative philosophy of Hegel. Killinger states, “Kierkegaard turned on Hegel with a fine passion. Man is not primarily a thinker! he cried. He is a volitional actor, a being who makes choices and lives by them” (Killinger 306). Kierkegaard was to Hegel as Socrates was to Plato. “Socrates essentially emphasizes existing, whereas Plato, forgetting this, loses himself in speculative thought” (Kierkegaard 205). Hegel’s speculation especially misses the mark in its refusal to deal with dread and death in a consistent way. For Kierkegaard the possibility of nothingness is a constant threat, but for Hegel the master-slave moment negates death’s dreadful sting. The actuality of the possibility of nothingness does not play a major role in the development of Hegel’s thought, yet it is crucial to Kierkegaard’s form of existentialism. The latter goes so far as to say, “For the subject it is an act to think his death” (Kierkegaard 165). He elevates the willful thought of death to the state of action because confrontation with death always constitutes a real possibility. Death reminds humanity of its radical insufficiency to attain eternal happiness in and of itself. The action of thinking death leads people to the realization that they need help from a higher Power so that they can fulfill their deepest longing. God’s agape satisfies man’s eros.
For Sartre the dictum acting over thinking takes a slightly different form. (After all, Hegel was not in the mind of Sartre to the same extent that Hegel was in the mind of Kierkegaard). Instead, Sartre chooses the refrain acting over being or existence before essence. Jones summarizes this decision as follows: “Authenticity is not a category of being; it is a category of acting, of becoming” (Jones 426). The concept of being has plagued Western philosophy since the classical period, and its presence severely compromises man’s realization of his far-reaching freedom. According to Sartre, until being leaves the Western mindset, humanity will never nihilate the in-itself, the type of being that stands in the way of the freedom of nothingness. Without nothingness, there can be no autonomy of choice, and in Sartre’s thought free choice is “identical with acting.” World-creation involves an autonomous choice actualized in the “commencement of realization” (Sartre 59). Instead of conceiving a world given by God or by nature, Sartre strives to develop a world made by himself. He makes something from nothing, sui generis et ex nihilo.
Stated in negative terms, Kierkegaard seeks to surpass the rational necessity of Hegel’s absolute philosophy; stated in positive terms, Kierkegaard aims to encourage people to achieve self-actualization by giving themselves over to God, by becoming what they have always been: created in the image and likeness of the Lord. This movement, which is paradoxically both movement towards self and towards God, is not the product of human initiative alone. God’s grace helps each individual to make the leap of faith. Kierkegaard claims, “By relating itself to its own self, and by willing to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the Power which constituted it” (Kierkegaard 351). Informed by the witness of the apostolic tradition to the God-man, the existing human comes to place faith in Jesus’ triumph over death. He hopes against hope, regardless of any objective uncertainty about God’s existence and regardless of the absurdity of theological mysteries such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. Only by trusting in God, for whom there are no limits, is man able to do all things through Christ, including the actualization of the absurd possibility of personal eternal happiness. In this sense Kierkegaard affirms the following biblical passage: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Man’s freedom is goodness, so he does not experience the fullness of freedom until he experiences the fullness of God’s goodness (c.f. Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety, pg. 111). As Paul states that the Christian must stand firm, Kierkegaard states that the Christian’s commitment to God must be total, unconditional. The Christian appropriates God’s salvation in constant acts of re-commitment. Since the well of God’s freedom is infinitely deep, He never shies away from offering Christians the grace to persevere in their ultimate, yet absurd, choice. Beabout says concisely, “Christ is our freedom in the sense that He restores the self to right relation, making the freedom of self-actualization possible by divine grace” (Beabout 141). Only Christ is capable of elevating humanity to the completeness of eternal fulfillment. Individuals’ and society’s attempts do not suffice.
It is at this point that Sartre and Kierkegaard diverge irreconcilably. While the two might agree that action is the “free adoption of a project” of infinite scope, Sartre—in refusing to accept Kierkegaard’s assertion that God’s adoption of humanity via the grace-filled leap constitutes that very project—relies on himself alone for self-act-ualization (Jones 440). Since man is free to self-create out of nothingness, he has no limits. As long as a choice’s realization begins (in contrast to a mere dream or wish), it is unconditionally free (Sartre 59). Whereas Kierkegaard understands self-actualization in terms of self-striving as a redeemed creature, Sartre contends that man’s project is to become God Himself (Caponigri 290). Sartre creates himself in the image of God, while Kierkegaard’s God creates man in the image of Himself. Sartre’s self is self-sufficient.
Irrespective of the specific end that each philosopher selects for the purpose of self-actualization, the two thinkers agree that superior men will take responsibility for their choice to pursue a goal. For Kierkegaard, the ideal person binds himself “voluntarily to an integrated identity (libertas) such that there is no longer a question of raw choice (mere liberum arbitrium)” (Jackson 250). The leap of faith towards the absurd possibility of God—as Forgiver, Redeemer, and Life—involves a responsible commitment of the entire person. Though the step from the Knight of Infinite Resignation to the Knight of Faith may not take an entirely new form from the perspective of outward appearances, it is clear that the latter now lives with an inward joy. He becomes different because he acts differently and lives differently by virtue of his interiority. He qualifies the possibility of possibilities in his decision to dedicate himself wholly to The Possibility. Far from a simple turn of the intellect, his choice is characterized by the re-orientation of passions and desires (eros). Thought only takes man so far, but his infinite aspect resting within-yet-beyond his finite aspect carries him to the End.
Sartre proposes a similarly strong connection between responsibility and freedom. The historian of philosophy A. Robert Caponigri summarizes Sartre’s conception rather well: “Man is what he makes of himself in his fundamental project. He is free, but he also bears the full responsibility in this project” (Caponigri 291). As Sartre’s ideal person has no excuses for a lack of complete dedication to his created end, falling away from the plan is Sartre’s only type of “vice” or moral failure. Thus, when Zeus asks Orestes in The Flies if he feels guilty for committing murder, Orestes, in true Sartrian fashion, responds, “The most cowardly of murderers is he who feels remorse” (Sartre 116). Orestes cannot feel sorry for a crime that his being-for-itself personally created in an act of sheer willpower. He accepts responsibility for his action’s consequences without a stutter or a second thought. In line with Nietzsche’s philosophy of the strong, Sartre’s Orestes ex-ists only through his will to power. He conquers the pitiful weakness around him by acting decisively for liberty, for the ability to choose from nothingness.
Stepping back from the intricacies of these two philosophers’ statements about freedom, it would be helpful to make some observations about a more generalizable ideal that they undoubtedly share: anti-determinism. In Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers he criticizes certain Calvinistic and rationalistic doctrines of fatalism. He writes, “Subjectivity cannot be excluded, unless we want to have fatalism” (JP IV 352). Elsewhere, he claims, “The greatest good…which can be done for a being…is to make it free. In order to do just that, omnipotence is required” (JP II 62). One would be correct describe Kierkegaard’s Christianity as a philosophy of freedom. God, in all His power, makes His creatures free. Man’s freedom does not limit divine omnipotence; rather, it reinforces it, as only an absurd, yet potent Godhead could retain lordship over the universe while simultaneously allowing humans to choose ultimate Freedom for themselves. To some men this idea sounds like a scandalous paradox, but from the divine perspective it transcends all possible human quibbles.
Albeit from a set of more atheistic presuppositions, Sartre stands with Kierkegaard on the topic of freedom against determinism. His character Orestes declares, “I am my freedom. No sooner had you [God] created me than I ceased to be yours” (Sartre 117). Sartre abhors the fatalistic idea that God would have absolutely obliged every individual to serve Him. He values human freedom too much to limit man to a needy, jealous God. Likewise, Sartre shuns atheistic determinism by defining it as such: “The ultimate meaning of determinism is to establish within us an unbroken continuity of existence in itself” (Sartre 37). The person who never exits himself in order to return to himself—the person of the in-itself alone—lives a life of determinism in the form of an endless series of fluid events. However, the self-created man is no determinist: he seizes the possibility that finds its root in nothingness, and he commits himself to this free possibility.
It has become evident that both Sartre and Kierkegaard hold human freedom in high regard despite the differences in the methods by which they aspire to attain it. The Frenchman maintains that individuals become free by creating themselves: “Freedom is precisely the nothingness which is made-to-be at the heart of man and which forces human-reality to make itself instead of to be” (Sartre 38). The Dane holds that ultimate freedom resides in man’s choice to let “God be able to help him” (JP I 22). When stripped down to its bare necessities, Sartre’s Hume-like phenomenology and his ardent atheism prevent him from fully assenting to Kierkegaard’s philosophy of freedom. For Sartre God’s existence (whether subjectively certain or objectively uncertain) is irreconcilable with total possibility, yet for Kierkegaard the appropriation of God’s infinite power constitutes the very definition of free existence.
— David J.W. Inczauskis, n.S.J.
Works Cited Apart from the Course Materials
Beabout, Gregory R.. Freedom and Its Misuses: Kierkegaard on Anxiety and Despair.
Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1996. Print.
Caponigri, Aloysius Robert. A History of Western Philosophy. Vol. V. Notre Dame, Ind. [etc.:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1971. Print.
Jackson, Timothy P.. “Arminian Edification”. The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.
Jones, W. T.. Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
Inc., 1969. Print.
Kierkegaard, S. A Kierkegaard Anthology. New York: Modern Library, 1959. Print.
Killinger, John. “Existentialism and Human Freedom.” The English Journal 50: 303-13. JSTOR.
Web. 1 Apr. 2014.
Sartre, Jean, and Lloyd Alexander. Nausea. New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1964.
Sartre, Jean Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays. Vintage International ed. New York: Vintage
International, 1989. Print.
Sartre, Jean Paul, and Wade Baskin. Of Human Freedom. New York: Philosophical Library,