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How to be an Existentialist

How to be an Existentialist

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Published by Andrei Vlad
How to be an Existentialist
How to be an Existentialist

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Published by: Andrei Vlad on Jan 14, 2013
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09/27/2013

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A person’s awareness of his unlimited or nearly unlimited freedom can

be a source of anxiety or anguish. It can make a person anxious to

know there is nothing that he is in the manner of being it, that what-

ever he does is his free choice, that there is nothing to stop him from

pulling whatever crazy stunt he thinks of pulling other than his choice

not to pull it. A friend of mine once stuck his foot in the front spokes

of a bicycle he was riding. Later on at the hospital when I asked him

why on earth he had done it he replied that it was simply because the

spokes were there in front of him and because he wanted to. To his

existentialist credit he didn’t make excuses and say, ‘I had this over-

whelming urge that “made me” do it.’

Our freedom makes us anxious because there is nothing but our free-

dom itself to stop us from performing destructive, dangerous, embarrass-

ing or disreputable acts at any moment. You could choose right now to tell

your boss, if you have one, to eat shit, or you could destroy your respecta-

ble reputation in an instant by choosing to expose your private parts in the

street. Obviously I don’t recommend it, but like an infinity of other possible

actions we don’t perform each moment, it’s always an option. Rather than

write the next paragraph I could leap out of my window. . . .

What is Existentialism?

55

Obviously I didn’t leap because here is the next paragraph. But you

could leap out of your window rather than read on. Obviously, for fear

of litigation at the hands of our excuse culture (our ‘blame anyone but

yourself’ culture) I must stress that I’m not recommending it. Still, exis-

tentially speaking, the choice is yours.

Sartre distinguishes what can be called freedom-anxiety from fear.

He takes the example of a man picking his way carefully along a narrow

precipice (Being and Nothingness, pp. 53–56). The man fears he might

fall but he also suffers anxiety, which manifests itself as vertigo, because

he is free to jump. Sartre says: ‘Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I

am afraid not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over’

(Being and Nothingness, p. 53).

In order to avoid freedom-anxiety people often adopt strategies to

convince themselves and others that they are not free, that they need

not or cannot choose, or have not chosen when in fact they have.

In the case of the precipice walker, he quite understandably strives to

ignore the freedom to jump that menaces him by absorbing himself in

the task of picking his way cautiously along the path as though his

movements were physically determined by the demands of the situa-

tion rather than by himself. He imagines himself compelled to act as he

does by survival instincts and so on.

To deny the reality of freedom and choice, perhaps as a means of

avoiding anxiety, perhaps as a coping strategy, perhaps with the aim of

relinquishing responsibility, is what existentialist philosophers call bad

faith. Bad faith is not the opposite of freedom, it is freedom that gives

rise directly to the possibility of bad faith in so far as bad faith is a

project of freedom where freedom aims at its own suppression and

denial. Joke: A student goes to see his Existentialism lecturer. ‘Are you

free?’ the student asks, poking his head around the door. ‘Yes,’ replies

the lecturer, ‘but I don’t want to be’. If you want to be a true existen-

tialist then you have to strive to want to be free, to assert your freedom

and avoid bad faith at every turn. The next chapter is all about bad

faith.

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