Jean-Paul Sartre and Freedom

I didn’t expect for Sartre to be the kind of literary critique he is. I expected a typical philosopher, who bases their standards for literature on their world view. Four paragraphs into his essay Francois Mauriac and Freedom Sartre proved my suspicions wrong,

… Christian writers, by the very nature of their belief, have the kind of mentality best suited to the writing of novels. The religious man is free. The supreme forbearance of the Catholic may irritate us, because it is an acquired thing. If he is a novelist, it is a great advantage. The fictional and the Christian man, who are both centers of indeterminacy, do have characters, but only in order to escape from them. They are free, above and beyond their natures, here again, they do so freely/ They may get caught up in psychological machinery, but they are never themselves mechanical.

In this essay, Sartre explains that one of the failures of fiction is making the character subject to “mechanisms”. An example of this would be a writer making his character subject to basic theories of Freudian psychology. By imagining a person who acts purely out of direction by a mechanism, the character is not free. The reader is then deprived of an immersive story, whether it’s true that people are entirely mechanical or not. (The truth of the matter is unimportant. Quality of story-telling is the only concern.)
But the Christian’s belief in the supernatural pulls them and their characters away from mechanical behavior. Where one is faced with a, “fight or flight,” she who believes in a greater power decides to be martyred. This may be true of other faiths or belief systems, too.
This faith, which gives both protagonists and saints freedom, is not one that Sartre believed in. Considering Sartre’s pillar claim that existence precedes essence in a Godless world, the idea that woman is entirely controlled by mechanisms like neurochemistry is not just possible but expected.  Why, then, would a story with “free” characters be more enjoyable, when human condition is slavery to mechanisms?
This, I think, comes from how the consciousness understands itself. Consciousness is the word that Sartre uses to mean “the principle of human life.” For this I prefer the Aristotelian term rational soul, which means the same thing but carries the notion of faculties of the soul which necessitate an external experience. Consciousness is often thought of as isolated from the rest of existence, or at least that’s how Sartre uses the word in his philosophical essays.
So, then, the desire for free characters comes from how the rational soul understands itself. That is, that the rational soul understands itself as having the power to make decisions. Although Oedipus’ destiny was ultimately subject to fate, Oedipus was presented as a character that always had the power to make his own decisions. The tragedy isn’t that he had no choice, the tragedy is that his choice would only damn him if they were contrary to those of some divine will. Readers seem to enjoy this because it agrees with their experience. Even if somebody is threatening to kill you if you don’t do something against your will, you have the choice of death or submission. This is an important distinction – that between choice and will. The rational soul might not always be capable of carrying out its will, but it is capable of making a choice.

If the goal of a story is to relay the actions of the rational soul it must do so in the way that the rational soul understands itself. That seems to be the first element of freedom in a story. The second would be that material experiences mean something. It’s funny, because that’s not universally known by every rational soul the way that the power of choice is, but it weighs heavily on fiction.

For example, Camus believed that all existence was inherently meaningless. However, his novel The Stranger would have no power on readers if it didn’t mean something to the reader that Meursault smoked begun an affair on the day his mother died. Maybe the world is inherently meaningless. But the writer can’t let the reader know that, at least not for the sake of the story otherwise the story the story falls flat.

The elements of a free character, then, are two. The first is free choice. The second, the meaning of the world. For all your philosophical proofs against these elements, without them your writing wouldl be as meaningless as your world view.

- J. Hector Guardiola


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