Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialist philosopher, prolific from 1938 to 1980, is not often linked with Leo XIII, Pope of the Roman Catholic Church from 1878 to 1903. Yet both men paid a great deal of attention to the concept of freedom and their ideas, as we shall see, have remarkable and important synergy.

Let’s begin with Leo. His pontificate occurred in the early days of the modern era of unbridled permissiveness. The cult of ‘freedom’ was rapidly replacing the practice of ‘morality’ as the foundation of Western civilization.

To young people in particular, morality was associated with rules laid down by parents, teachers, politicians and priests – rules that were enforced selectively…and often brutally.

To many, freedom meant finally being able to do whatever you wanted to do without fear of consequences. In the 1960s, for example, we were fond of saying, “If it feels good, do it.” And many of us did just that; and many of us became sick, maimed, addicted or dead. Turns out, there were consequences after all.

Nor were all the implications of our actions merely personal. Our behavior had consequences (good as well as bad) for folks around us, for folks who loved us, and for society as a whole. Even if social laws are relaxed or suspended entirely, natural law is harder to repeal.

Leo understood that what was passing for freedom in his day was often just a form of selfish indulgence. Consider, again, the 1960s in the U.S. Under the banner of ‘freedom’, folks worked for civil rights, international peace and economic justice; under the very same banner, folks (sometimes the same folks) eschewed work, abused drugs and alcohol, and engaged in uncommitted sex for its own sake.

Freedom is not just ‘freedom from’ (constraint); true freedom is also ‘freedom to’ (create). Nor is free behavior to be confused with random behavior. Consider the Brownian motion of molecules: it is totally ‘unconstrained’…but it is certainly not ‘free’. In fact, randomness is the antithesis of freedom; it undermines free will just as surely as does determinism. In fact, it has been argued that it is impossible to distinguish, phenomenologically, a random world from a rigidly determined one.

(This insight gives us a glimpse into the unique ontological character of freedom. We’ll talk more about this when we get to M. Sartre. Suffice for now to note that indeterminism is the opposite of determinism but BOTH are opposites of freedom. In this case at least the enemy of my enemy is not my friend.)

Freedom is a function of ‘will’ and will is always a will to create. That’s what will is. It is will that empowers human beings (and perhaps other entities) to formulate projects and carry them out. Will requires the freedom to execute a project once conceived; but it also requires the capacity and inclination to formulate the project itself.

The essential element of ‘will’ that allows us to formulate projects is a set of ideal values, freely chosen, that we use…

  1. To evaluate the current state of our world.

  2. To conceive and evaluate potential projects to bring that current state into closer harmony with those values.

To whatever extent our ‘ideal values’ are imposed on us or our ‘choice of projects’ is dictated to us, our subsequent actions are not a function of will. By the same token, if either our values or our projects are selected randomly, then our actions are not a function of will either.

Will requires freedom; in fact freedom is the essence of will. The famous phrase ‘free will’ contains a redundancy. Freedom is only operative in the context of will and will only exists in the context of freedom. They are the same thing seen from different angles.

When will, motivated by our ideal values, commits to some project, we implicitly designate that project as ‘good’. (‘Good’ is synonymous with ‘our set of ideal values’.)

In doing so, we identify something outside ourselves as ‘good’ and when we designate something outside ourselves as ‘good’, we affirm the reality of an objective, transcendent Good that qualifies our project as ‘good’. In turn, of course, we affirm that our values are both objective and transcendent.

A value is objective when it applies always and everywhere in every relevant situation. It is objective when its validity is not subject to personal opinion or cultural variation. Of course, the interpretation and application of a value will vary widely from person to person, culture to culture and situation to situation. But the value itself never varies.

Example: every work of art aims to be beautiful. Beauty is a core value involved in the creation and appreciation of art. However, different artists and different cultures understand beauty in radically different ways. Furthermore, what is beautiful in one context might be much less so in another. But the value itself, beauty, never varies and never waivers! Without the value known as ‘beauty’ there is no art.

Likewise, a value is transcendent when it is not derived from anything in this world…or in any possible world. A value has its status a priori. In that sense, a value exists (logically at least) before the world exists. Even if there were no world(s), justice would still be justice.

Stated differently, it is impossible to imagine a world where ‘justice’ is not a value. It may be ignored, perverted or even rejected but the value itself never goes away. A society that ignores or rejects justice is simply…’wrong’.

Let’s let Leo weigh in on the subject:

“Liberty is a power perfecting man, and hence should have truth and goodness for its object.” Immortale Dei (ID)

For Leo, ‘truth and goodness’ (in the person of God) is the summum bonum.

“…The supreme end to which human liberty must aspire is God.”  Human Liberty (HL)

Freedom “…is to be regarded as legitimate in so far only as it affords greater facility for doing good…” (HL)

This controversial and counter-intuitive proposition should be understood as a tautology. The fact that it is not read that way is grand testimony to the crisis of intellectual life in contemporary Western society.

Freedom is the opposite of slavery. When we choose a project that is ‘sub-optimal’, we are giving in to some compulsion (biological, psychological or social).

“…To exchange the unchangeable good for evil…is not liberty but its degradation, and the abject submission of the soul to sin.” (HL)

“…The possibility of sinning is not freedom, but slavery…Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin. (John 8:34)” (HL)

So here we are, like little boys, imagining that when we are the naughtiest we are the most free. In fact, the reverse is true. How incredibly distorted our view of reality has become!

As Immanuel Kant wrote earlier, “…A free will and a will subject to moral laws are one and the same.”

Earlier still, the Psalmist began the Book of Psalms: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers. Rather the law of the Lord is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night.”

Jean-Paul Sartre approaches the question of ‘freedom’ from a diametrically opposed point on the ideological spectrum. He denies the existence of God and, perhaps ‘worse’, states (like Lucretius) that even if God did exist, he wouldn’t be relevant. Like Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ayer and Wittgenstein before him, Sartre rejects outright even the possibility of objective, transcendent values.

Without God, “there could no longer be any a priori good, since there would be no infinite and perfect consciousness to conceive it… (If) God does not exist, we will encounter no values…that can legitimize our conduct.” Existentialism is a Humanism (EH)

Even so, Sartre recognizes that life without values is impossible. In so doing, he accepts a major part of the Leonine thesis (summarized above). According to Sartre, if there is no God to source our values, then it is incumbent on us to invent them.

This view offers us an important glimpse into Sartre’s ontology. As we shall see later, for Sartre human beings take on many of the functions reserved for God in other philosophies. But let’s return to the subject of values:

“…If I have eliminated God the Father, there has to be someone to invent values…To say that we invent values means neither more nor less than this: life has no meaning a priori. Life is nothing until it is lived, it is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning we give it.” (EH)

Brave talk! But this is little more than what young boys (and now girls) do when they play Cowboys and Indians (sorry, Cowboys and Native Americans) or Pirates. They invent rules and establish values and act accordingly; at the time they are felt in earnest but all is erased when mom calls, “Dinner!”

Their rules have no objective validity and their values have no transcendent worth. They are ‘made up’ and they remain operative only so long as their ‘play’ continues. (How long will our ‘play’ continue?) One is reminded of Shakespeare’s Tempest:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air; and—like the baseless fabric of this vision— the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

However, to his great credit Sartre avoids the trap of moral nihilism that doomed Nietzsche, Camus, Ayer, and others. He finds a very clever way out. Sartre discovers another sort of value in ‘freedom’ itself.

Earlier we noticed that ‘freedom’ has a unique property: it is the antithesis both of determinism and of indeterminism, even though they are antitheses of each other. How is this possible?

In Sartre’s ontology, freedom is closely related to le neant, negation. Freedom negates both determinism and randomness (both entre en soi). In doing so, it demonstrates that the determined and the random are fundamentally identical. They both characterize a world devoid of purpose, choice, etc… Morally, it makes no difference whether events are determined or random; either way they are meaningless.

According to Sartre, unique among the categories of existence, the concept of freedom entails its own value. This is eerily reminiscent of the ontological argument for the existence of God, according to which the concept of God entails the existence of God.

But Sartre’s view raises questions:

If freedom is a value in itself, from whence does it derive that value? After all, freedom per se (and by definition) has no content; it is merely ‘freedom’.

Not so, says Sartre: “Freedom, under any concrete circumstance, can have no other aim but itself…(man) can will but one thing: freedom as the foundation of all values…The ultimate significance of the actions of men of good faith is the quest for freedom itself.” (EH)

Let’s unpack this: Is freedom “the foundation of all values”? Yes…and no. Values would have no relevance in our world if we lacked the freedom to adopt those values and to formulate and execute (to the best of our abilities) projects that embody those values.

On the other hand, freedom cannot be “the foundation of all values” per se. Those values must have a reality beyond freedom itself. Freedom wouldn’t be freedom if values were hard-wired into it or if it merely empowered us to adopt values randomly. (As we saw above, pre-determined values and randomly selected values are morally and functionally the same.)

Earlier we observed that freedom empowers ‘will’ and is its essence. Now it is time to turn the tables: without will, freedom is meaningless. But will must be directed at something outside itself. A will that merely wills itself (freedom) is circular and vacuous.

That ‘something outside itself’ must possess intrinsic worth if it is to stimulate the will to act. (Why else would will undertake action?) That worth must be a function of values embodied in a freely chosen end, values that are objective and transcendent.

Let’s restate: Will operates only in the context of purpose (end). To will some ‘end’ is to endow that end with value. It is the values embodied in that end that give it worth; and it is those values and that end that give worth to will itself and therefore to freedom, which is its essence.

The sum of all projects freely chosen by the will because of their intrinsic value constitutes the worth of ‘will’ per se and therefore the value of freedom that empowers will.

“Man is free. Man is freedom……Man is nothing other than his own projects.” (EH)

Wow! Humanity is not only ‘free’, humanity IS freedom; and yet that freedom is simply the sum of the freely chosen projects will empowers us to undertake. But as we saw earlier, projects imply choice and choice implies value.

Traditionally, God is understood to be supremely free and, in some formulations at least, freedom itself. Sartre preserves this ontological structure but puts humanity in the place of Godhead. But he doesn’t stop there:

“There is no difference between free being – being as project, being as existence choosing its own essence – and absolute being.” (EH)

Again, God is traditionally understood to be ‘absolute being’, sometimes referred to as ‘the ground of all being’. Again, man plays the role of God in Sartre’s ontology and man plays it qua freedom.

Finally, Sartre defines God as the entity whose essence precedes its essence; he defines humanity as the entity whose existence precedes its essence. Nicely said! But Sartre misses two key points:

First, in God essence and existence are one.

As Leo XIII wrote, “…The infinitely perfect God, although supremely free…nevertheless cannot choose evil.” (HL)

God gets it…always and perfectly! God’s perfection does not compromise God’s freedom. Sartre misses this. For him, God is hard wired. He is not a free being who chooses good unfailingly; he is a being whose essence defines him as good and robs him of the freedom to choose. If that were true, perhaps God would indeed be irrelevant…but it is not!

What makes God good, supremely good, is that God freely chooses to embody the objective and transcendent values from which all worth is derived.

Second, “God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. (Genesis: 1:26)

God and human beings do not form a template as Sartre beautifully imagined. Rather human beings and God share a common ontological nature: freedom. We are co-creators.

Of course, there is a difference; but it is a difference of degree, not of kind. Remember Kant: “…A free will and a will subject to moral laws are one and the same,” and Leo: “…The supreme end to which human liberty must aspire is God.” (HL)

Freedom is the ever new, infinitely active power to choose the eternal and unchangeable ‘good’.

In popular consciousness, Leo is viewed as the arch-enemy of freedom (as it is commonly conceived); Sartre, on the other hand, is viewed as its champion. Yet Sartre’s ideology of ‘freedom’ leads away from the moral nihilism of Nietzsche, Ayer and Camus and back to objective, transcendent values a la Leo. Two great men whose views are diametrically opposed? Or not!


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