You are on page 1of 4

A literary cross-analysis of the existential themes in "Rick and

Morty" with the works of Jean-Paul Sartre

by Ian Gabriel C. Ernacio

I. Introduction
This paper is a literary cross-analysis of the existential themes present within the animated
science-fiction series "Rick and Morty" with the works of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre The
scope of this analysis will mainly focus on Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness but is also not
limited by it. Being and Nothingness was chosen as the primary work for analysis due it being his most
expansive and intricate study on the nature of being— building upon and criticizing the already
established existential phenomenology, referencing Husserl and Heidegger to name a few. Though, this
paper is also open to include references to his other works such as his plays and essays since they act as
extensions and/or further interpretations to his greater existential philosophy. As for Rick and Morty, the
analysis will focus on the aspects of the show’s elements that relate or contrast to Sartre’s philosophy;
such elements are to include characters, character interactions and conflict, setting, and theme. Whole
episodes are only to be analyzed if their entirety presents an existential philosophy or idea given that
some episodes can only be considered existential insofar as their minor individual elements. To some,
this may be considered a flaw— and in informal terms, ‘cherry-picking’-- but the researcher is then to
defend the selective nature of his analysis by acknowledging that in most cases, television shows are
subtle in their greater narratives when presented with the luxury of spreading out their stories. And in
those cases, the main themes can be presented through minor developments in their elements across
multiple episodes. Examples may include a permanent change in feature to the environment or the change
of heart and philosophy in a character. Very rarely then is the appearance of an episode that is overtly and
explicitly philosophical. In time of writing, Rick and Morty is contained into 3 seasons and currently has
32 episodes including the pilot.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a notable French philosopher and playwright known primarily for his
contributions to the field of existentialism. His magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, acts as one of the
primary supplementary works of Existential philosophy due to the aforementioned nuanced approach to
ontological phenomenology. In this he focuses on distinguish the phenomenological aspects of being and
its implications. He emphasizes that there is a binary distinction when it comes to being: the unconscious
being (en-soi/in-itself) and the conscious being (pour-soi/for-itself). The being-in-itself is defined by the
objectivity of its existence. It is concrete in nature. As the unconscious being, it lacks awareness and most
significantly, it does not possess the ability to change its very being—it just simply is. From this however,
Sartre concludes that the being-in-itself is complete in essence and the lack of consciousness, freedom,
and possibility is what cements his conclusion. The being-for-itself however, possesses self-awareness,
it is sentient— it is able to perceive its own existence. Unlike the in-itself, the being-for-itself is
incomplete and this is due to its lack of a predetermined essence. Sartre explains in his essay
Existentialism is a Humanism the importance of essence and existence as being critical to ones being.
He defines essence as the purpose behind existence. In the essay, he presents the example of a paper-
The paper-knife exists as an artifact. It was created by an artisan who had the image of what a
paper-knife ought to be and the purpose it should serve: it should be able to cut paper. To achieve this
purpose, a design was created from the idea, its formula was made. Such then was the nature of its
existence: modeled and manufactured to serve a definitive purpose. Its essence—the total qualities of its
conceptualization and manufacturing— is said to precedes its existence. To extend the analogy, we may
consider God as the artisan and human existence as the paper-knife. When we consider God as the creator
and us as the creation, we also consider that in this case that our essence should precede our existence.
Each and every individual then becomes the actualization of a divine purpose. A purpose in which, to
relate back to the analogy of the paper-knife, is going to be the foundations that his existence will revolve
around. However, Sartre argues against this philosophy of theistic existentialism.

“Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God
does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists
before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human
reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all
exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the
existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything
until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there
is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to
be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after
that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first
principle of existentialism. And this is what people call its “subjectivity,” using the word as a reproach
against us. But what do we mean to say by this, but that man is of a greater dignity than a stone or a
table? For we mean to say that man primarily exists – that man is, before all else, something which
propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed, a project which possesses
a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before that projection of
the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is
what he purposes to be. Not, however, what he may wish to be. For what we usually understand by
wishing or willing is a conscious decision taken – much more often than not – after we have made
ourselves what we are. I may wish to join a party, to write a book or to marry – but in such a case what
is usually called my will is probably a manifestation of a prior and more spontaneous decision. If,
however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first
effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire
responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.”
(Sartre. Existentialism as a Humanism. 1946)

In this essay, he elaborates on his ideas of essence and existence. But these ideas also relate back to
those mentioned in Being and Nothingness; particularly, those ideas which concern the relation of the
meaning to the entirety of being. Thus we return to Sartre’s idea that the being-for-itself as a being
defined by its nothingness; the nothingness stemming from its awareness of what it ultimately isn’t: a
being-in-itself. In contrast to the objectivity of the being-in-itself, the being-for-itself’s subjectivity puts
it in a position which is abstract and lacks the grounding that an in-itself does to maintain a certain
purpose or essence. The example stated above refers to man’s subjective life as being opposed to the
objective existence of in-itselfs such as moss or fungi. Furthermore, before a man chooses to project
what he wills himself to be, there is an inevitable return to that void of meaning. Sartre however, does
not reprimand the state of unmeaning, quite the opposite. To Sartre, this leaves open the possibility for
the for-itself to actualize its own meaning from nothingness—fulfilling the idea that for man, his
existence precedes his essence. Hence, the being-for-itself is a being radically free. This notion of
radical freedom goes to the very heart of Sartre’s greater philosophy and consequently, to the whole of
Though Sartre does not give a definitive and conclusive argument against the existence of God, he instead
tries to argue for the antithesis and its consequences. This antithesis is then to be the main feature of the
rest of the work, his philosophy, and by the extension of his influence and already established arguments,
the theme of existentialism as a whole. This theme is freedom—specifically, radical freedom. His main
argument that relates the idea of God to radical freedom is as follows: If God exists, then man

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a notable French Existentialist philosopher and playwright.
While many are of the opinion that Jean-Paul Sartre was the most influential 20th century philosopher,
none can deny that he has made major contributions to the field of existentialism. In, his magnum opus
Being and Nothingness -- also being the work to grant him the Nobel Prize for literature of which he
denied as being representative of the bourgeoise. Being and Nothingness centers around the topic of one's
existence in relation to the universe. It poses the age-old question of how one can be sure of their
existence. Furthermore, it goes beyond that question and asks what it means to exist altogether. Jean-
Paul Sartre was of the view that God does not exist; and as such, his philosophy primarily centers on
man's being free from the notion of a divine being. Upon establishing one's existence, Sartre would now
give his opinions on matters concerning that someone's meaning and purpose-- moreover, how one can
achieve such a goal or if such a goal is even achievable. According to Sartre: a major aspect in someone's
existence is the idea of freedom; humans are ultimately free and everybody possesses an infinite amount
of choices within a given situation-- radical freedom. This serves as one of the reasons for Sartre's
disbelief in a god as he argues that the existence of one infringes on human freedom. In his essay
"Existentialism is a Humanism", Sartre provides an analogy of his idea.
There exists a letter-opener and the letter-opener is an artifact. The letter-opener was created by
someone with a specific use in mind. In other words, it was made from a design. This design is what
effectively sets the boundaries of what the letter-opener can and can't do. A letter-opener is made to open
letters or anything of a similar nature. It is not made to hammer nails nor is it made for somebody to cook
their dinner on. This design is what effectively gives the object its essence-- or its purpose. Since the
purpose of the object was made with a specific design in mind, we can say that the object's essence
preceded its existence. And the same holds true for every other artifact created with a plan or design in
mind, the essence of all artifacts will precede their existence. Thus if God exists, as he is traditionally
understood, he is then a kind of divine artisan for all of creation. His thought of what creation is preceded
the Being of it; everything is a product of his design. In other words, the purpose of one's existence is
already set and as such, heavily limits the extent of the being's freedom. He provides further argument in
regards to the freedom-infringing existence of God-- touching on matters such as the inconsistency
between his omniscience and human free will. But ultimately, Sartre poses the idea that if God exists,
humans are not free; as well as its inverse: if God does not exist, then humans are free.
In respects to Being and Nothingness, within a godless universe, all humans possess the radical
freedom to perform an infinite set of actions-- of course, the only limit being his/her physicality. To deny
one's existence would be to live in what Sartre terms 'Bad Faith'. Bad Faith is essentially self-deception
in the sense that we are lying to ourselves that we only have limited actions when in reality, we are
actually far less limited than what we believe to be-- or at least, want to believe to be. According to Sartre,
people choose to live in Bad Faith. Why is that so? Because man feels an anxiety when faced with his
freedom. To be radically free also means that man is also personally responsible for his actions or lack
thereof. That somebody may be more willing to perform an action if he were to believe that the action
weren't his accord but somebody else's. He does not want to believe in the reality that the action was
ultimately his to follow or not; so instead, he chooses to deceive himself by justifying that he was simply
following an order. Sartre's explanation of Bad Faith is extensive and covers a wide variety of situations
and descriptions for if and when one was to live in Bad Faith.
Further explanation of Sartre's concepts will be elaborated throughout this paper and will be done
in relation to Rick and Morty. This is done to introduce the topics with relevancy to the show and is
beneficial to the overall clarity of this paper.

The researcher has chosen Rick and Morty under the merit that the show exemplifies and explores
aspects of Sartre's philosophy. Sartre's philosophy on freedom very much involves the relationship
between the finitude of one's Being and the infinite scale of the world around him. Rick and Morty is
suitable for exploring such concepts due to its heavy use of science-fiction elements and the scale in
which the stories occur. The stories typically take place within a universe beyond most of the character's
understanding and reason-- frequently jumping between places and dimensions of reality. At several
points within the show, the characters are constantly exposed to existential truths and ideas such as the
nature of their Being, Freedom, and Meaning. The aim of this paper is to examine the existential elements
of Rick and Morty through the show's varying settings, plots, and characters. Method-wise, the analysis
will be done in order of episodes-- though jumping to-and-fro between episodes may occur, the overall
order of analysis will be chronological to the show's release of episodes.

The Panpsycast Philosophy Podcast. Episode 16, Jean-Paul Sartre (Part I). The Panpsycast. 2017.
The Panpsycast Philosophy Podcast. Episode 16, Jean-Paul Sartre (Part II). The Panpsycast. 2017.
Wisecrack. Pickle Rick- Why does Rick become a pickle?. The Squanch. Wisecrack, Inc.. 2017. MP3.
Spade, Paul Vincent. "Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness". Class Lecture Notes. 1995. PDF.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel Barnes. New York: Editions Gallimard, 1943.