What is Absolute Freedom according to Sartre?

3 min read

The idea of absolute freedom - or radical freedom - goes back to the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who had a decisive influence on existential philosophy. Existential philosophy is generally concerned with the existence of man, that is, the conditions and possibilities of human activity and its (symbolic) meaning. One usually speaks of "existentialism" when referring to the French existential philosophy of the 20th century. The idea of radical freedom describes in its core the condition of human existence, that it is possible to act radically free at any time. Even if laws, morals, powers, and the like seem to prevent us from doing so, this possibility is still always there. We can break the rules, we just have to live with the consequences. This does not mean that a human being can fly, if he only feels free enough to do so, because this form of positive freedom (I am free to ...) only refers to the human existence (conditio humana), so it does not include things of impossibility.

An example would be to break the rules of a board game. This would be an act of radical freedom, even though probably the other players would not find this breaking of the consensus a very clever idea. According to Sartre, we are condemned to freedom, but what is meant by this? First and foremost, a heavy responsibility, because it means that we cannot rely on external circumstances to excuse us. We are always responsible for our own actions, because with radical freedom comes radical responsibility.

The word radical in this context comes etymologically from 'root', meaning going to the root - to the actual. We could usefully refer to this root of our freedom when we are confronted with rules, laws or moral boundaries that we should not actually observe on rational grounds. Thus, in the design shown below, the bird, as an immediate symbol of freedom, becomes a "lawbreaker" as it uses its freedom to break the rule that no birds are allowed. The bird breaks thereby a rationally not justifiable law, which is moreover man-made, thus does not concern this even in its own being. He uses instead his absolute freedom to be free and to correspond to his being as flying animal and to inhabit with it a boundless space. So, since radical freedom is not exactly applicable here, we decided to use the term "absolute freedom" when creating the design.

As an analogy we could understand this concerning the human being in such a way that the human being also has to care only about his own characteristics of being and divine laws and metaphysical justifications do not touch his root at all. Since we also do not find any rational ultimate justification for divinely sanctioned commandments, they are far from our human being. The possibility to make use of our radical freedom would therefore be given in such a case.

Also the choice of the suicide would be an act from radical freedom, since this breaks the social rules and also divine sanctions, but is entitled to the human being as a possibility. Murder, on the other hand, cannot be conceived as an act of radical freedom, since human freedom always ends where that of another human being begins. Murder would therefore be in contradiction with the concept of radical freedom, just as such contradicts the human condition as a community-forming being (zoon politikon).

Of course, the individual expression that people meet through fashion or even tattoos and piercings would be an act of radical freedom, and precisely in the case when these contradict the social convention.

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