A Useless Passion, Condemned to be Free – Sartre’s Definition of Man

Jean Paul Sartre has said a lot. So much so that I do not know if I will ever be able to read him enough. However, in bits and piees every now and then, his words have enough power to attract you, defying gravity. Under those laws of attraction, there are two sentenes of his whih have stuck to me and I have had a tough time figuring out their meaning for myself. This post is an attempt to share those two of his most qouted statements and my perception of them.

The first one is “Man is condemned to be free“. Reading without context, these words are open to a thousand interpretations. I have never read it in the exat ontext as Sartre used it. However, in light of Sartre’s philosophy in general, I have come to understand it as this – It is human nature that man desires transcendence. Transendence, even if not rejected as a fiction, is not an achievable goal in this form of human existene. That’s why he is condemned to immanence. However, within immanent reality (meaning to remain within the boundaries of possible experience), man has endless possibilities, unlimited choices – complete freedom. Combining the two – Man is condemned to be free.

The second one is “Man is a useless passion“. This is a phrase that Sartre uses in a very difficult passage in Being and Nothingness (which I have not yet been able to read completely). This also emanates from man’s passion with transcendental goals and the impossibility of the fulfillment of that passion. To conclude, in Sartre’s own words:

It is as if the world, man, and man-in-the-world express an abortive attempt to become God. It is as if the in-itself and the for-itself reveal themselves in a state of disintegration with respect to an ideal synthesis. Not that the integration has ever taken place, but precisely on the contrary because it is permanently suggested and permanently impossible. … the idea of God is contradictory and we lose ourselves in vain: man is a useless passion.

17 responses to “A Useless Passion, Condemned to be Free – Sartre’s Definition of Man

  1. Concerning “Man is condemned to be free”.

    I recently read Nausea, The Words, No Exit, Existentialism and Human Emotions and an excerpt from Transcendence of the Ego. He addresses the idea that Man is Condemned to be Free in all of his works and it is specifically addressed in Existentialism and Human Emotions – which is part lecture (Existentialism is a Humanism) and part excerpts from Being and Nothingness. I think your assessment is correct and why I think he, like Camus, is in bad faith.

    If we are radically free Beings as Sartre says, then it does not require a leap of faith to recognize that we likewise have the potential, as human beings, not to be enslaved by the ego especially since there are increasing numbers of people out there to claim to have experienced this freedom!

    Augustine started the idea that there is no exit in this world except through salvation. Camus and Sartre fall into the exact same trap but withou the God part. It is bad faith (according to Sartre’s definition) to say you are both radically free and destined to be enslaved forever by the ego. That’s yet another egoic self-deception which is what characterizes bad faith.

  2. Just a quick clarification: It is accurate to say the ego is condemned to freedom. But the only way to conclude that humanity is likewise condemned to freedom is if humanity is condemned to the ego. Is it not a leap of faith to conclude that we are our ego?

  3. Sorry, me again. I just looked it up in my notes: Sartre says we can transcend the ego (but not in the Kierkegaardian sense). Transcendence, according to Sartre, is the ability to reach beyond any factual situation in which we find ourselves (our facticity – the family we are born into, our health, etc.) There are facts that are true about us (our facticity), and there is our ability to chose – to transcend “ourselves”. Bad faith is the denial of either one’s facticity or one’s transcendence.

  4. Why did I know that you will interpret Sartre’s own definition of bad faith to enclose him as well? Anyways, your comments are so thoughtful, I really require a lot of contemplation before replying.

    First, let me talk about ‘ego’. ‘Ego’ in hindu philosophy is ‘ahankar’. The English connotation is a little different from the exact meaning of the term, though ‘ego’ may as well define it. But, in the Hindu philosophy ‘ego’ denotes the arrogance of the ‘subject of existence’. That part of us which is the source of inertia against ‘the supreme’, our realisation of the spiritual self etc. is the ego. However, I do not understand. Using these terms and drawing conclusions out of their pre-defined meaning is all I see in most spiritual texts. If I say there is no transcendence beyond the limits of existence within the existing human condition, I do not think ego becomes a problem. And if ‘ego’ is defined the other way round as ‘that thing which prevents me from transcending’, then it is a part of human condition for me. The attempt to overcome it would be what Sartre says “a useless passion”

  5. Couldn’t transcendence be compared to suicide?

  6. Jenavie,
    That’s a very interesting question. Transcendence in itself, at worst should be limited, I guess to an impossibility. However, I think an unrelenting dogmatic attempt to achieve transcendence may compare to suicide at some levels.

    I think you must visit this post by Arulba: Camus Koan Solved and the discussion below that. It should be interesting to you.

  7. What makes vanity so insufferable to us, is that it hurts our own.

  8. when we learn “everything,” we loose our minds

    we ignore the ones who adore us,

    we adore the ones who hurt us

    the fury rages all for vanity

  9. I still ponder on the meaning of the phrase “Man is a useless passion”. I however understand what he means by saying that the idea of God is contradictory – for us, because we can not achieve that.

    De Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity seems to be an attempt to help human beings avoid being a “useless passion”. Her ethics enjoins us to accept that we can never become God, and learn how to live as persons that are neither fully spirit or matter.

    In reading De Beauvoir though, I find her ethics a little bit impractical; though awesome.

  10. Pingback: What tool is available to break the hold of apathy? - Interfaith forums

  11. I think it is ridicoulous that when ever people,experience difficulty in their lives they are so quick to turn on the christian faith, philosophers such as Sarte were so quick to feed people the crap that God doesnt exist, the truth of the matter is that no matter how hard one may try to convince themselves that there is no higher power, it is but a means of bluffing yourself because you dont want to take responsibility for all your wrong doings and sins. God=FREEDOM.

  12. Why did you decide to dissect quotes that you have never read in context/ haven’t read the entire work from which they originate?

  13. Albert Langford

    There is a very simple answer to the statement that “man is a useless passion”. Sartre was an atheist bud. It’s very clear to see that without God, we have all of these passions, all of these desires, all of these wants, but at the end of the day there is nothing there to ultimately unite them. What is man’s ultimate passion bud? That his life, and his loved ones lives have ultimate meaning. You can’t have ultimate meaning in this world if there is no God bud. If there is no God we are grown up germs. That is what Sartre is talking about.

  14. Albert Langford

    Amen to the person who said God=Freedom. People don’t understand what true joy is. True joy is the assurance of God in your heart and true freedom is the release from the bonds of death. People just don’t see it that way. Sartre, in his book Nausea you will remember spoke how he was sitting in that diner one afternoon and how he could feel the gaze of that person’s eyes on him and how at that moment he felt like an animal at the zoo having been reduced to an object. He’s right though, in that sense, it would be dehumanizing!! But, the scrutiny of God is not the same as the scrutiny that occurs from man!!! The idea that those two are some how connected is absurd in and of itself. We are talking of two different types of beings, one being man and one being your Creator!!! The thought that God takes away mans subjectivity comes more from a human imagination and will to not be accountable for their actions!!! God is good. We are not. Remember that folks whenever it is that you do come into an understanding with the only true God. But trust me, it will save you tons of hardship to ponder these things now, you don’t want to be like the one atheistic existential philosopher(can’t remember his name off the top of my head) who was found on his death bed reading the Bible. When asked, “what are you doing?”, the man replied, “looking for loopholes.”

  15. Man is a useless passion, indeed. Our ideas, themselves, are neutral but our beliefs are the passionate attachments to those ideas.

    Cioran says “in itself every idea is neutral, or should be; but man animates ideas, projects his flames and flaws into them; impure, transformed into beliefs, ideas take their place in time, take shape as events: the trajectory is complete, from logic to epilepsy… whence the birth of ideologies, doctrines, deadly games.”

    But we are idolaters by instinct, and our goal for an ideas-rich, belief-absent discourse is a useless passion….

  16. I think Sartre was describing the human condition as “useless passion” in reference to the impossibility of complete satisfaction. As pour-soi, a person is constituted as a “lack of being.” Each of us constantly strive to overcome this “lack of being” that we are, but given that we are and must be a lack of being, we can never do so. Each of us strive to be a pour-soi that has become an en-soi, in which Sartre calls a l’etre pour-soi-en-soi, a perfect being like God, in which existence and essence are one.

    I can never achieve this unity, since I am only ever the negation of en-soi & must be so in order to exist as a person, as a consciousness. The lack of being that pour-soi has to be is revealed by desire & the fact that desire in itself can never be truly satisfied. A certain desire can surely be satisfied, but the satisfaction, the removal of any certain desire is always immediately replaced with a new desire. I am a passion that aims at complete fulfillment, but in so far as complete fulfillment & the overcoming of all lack & desire is impossible, I am a useless passion.

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