Sartre on freedom and evil

Hooshmand asked:

Could you please tell me what is the meaning of Sartre saying:”freedom alone can account for a person in his totality”?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I had to do a search in Google for your Sartre quote which apparently is in a work by Jean Paul Sartre that I have not read: his biography of Jean Genet, Saint Genet. (David Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ according to Wikipedia.)

Now, I could borrow or buy the book and read it and then give you an answer, but you might be waiting rather a long time. As I have read other books by Sartre, including Being and Nothingness that will have to do.

It seems to me that I understand what Sartre meant and I think I agree with it. Let’s take a topic that might have interested Sartre: Adolf Hitler. The accepted view is that Hitler was an evil man. He hated the Jews and wanted the Jewish people to be gone, permanently, and was willing to resort to mass murder to achieve his objective.

Biographies of Hitler try to explain the particular circumstances in which Hitler formed his beliefs and attitudes — the circumstances that ‘made’ him the monster that he was, et cetera. What would Sartre say about that? Impossible. It cannot be true that Hitler was ‘made’ because each person — as a ‘totality’ — makes him or herself.

It’s true that we can take a partial view, where we view an individual person as merely an example of a ‘type’. Statistics don’t always lie. Like who was most likely to vote for Brexit, who was most likely to vote against. But it is also a truism that individuals don’t always conform to type, and each person is uniquely different.

An individual can either act ‘authentically’ or in ‘bad faith’. Either way, that is something that person has freely (but not always with fully self-conscious knowledge) chosen to do.

But how can someone who is not intrinsically evil or mentally deformed in some way choose evil? Surely, there is something intrinsically wrong with you if you prefer evil, if you find it attractive as an option. What is good about evil, is the question one has to ask. Feeding Christians to the lions is good for entertainment (if you happen to not like Christians), reduces the number of Christians and also takes care of the lions.

Anyone, and I mean absolutely anyone, can knowingly commit an evil act. Pick your favourite hero or saint, it makes no difference. Take Mahatma Gandhi at the age of 18. He still has most of his life choices ahead of him, choices that will make it more and more difficult (but still not impossible) to choose evil over good. But, at 18, he is still half-formed, there is a wide range of alternative possible lives. I don’t think it would be too difficult to write a novel in which Mahatma Gandhi took the place of Hitler as a dictator intent on world conquest.

Gandhi notoriously argued that the British should not attempt to oppose Hitler because the way of violence can never be right. With the passage of time, evil dictators and empires pass. Some would argue that that view — the doctrine of passive resistance — is evil because it permits evil to flourish. I wouldn’t say that. The point is that Gandhi knew perfectly well what would happen as a result of allowing Hitler to triumph and made the mental calculation that the cost was acceptable, in order to uphold a principle.

Make of that what you will.

2 thoughts on “Sartre on freedom and evil

  1. Very dear Mr.Smith-Jones
    I impressed by your thoughtfully answer. You put it through an intersting subject – freedom and evil – so, I learnt a lot and it was very helpful. In fact, I could n’t understand meaning of the sentence. And I still am not sure what does “account for” mean in this case. May be it means “to make”. I would grateful if you help me know it exactly.
    Whit warmest greeting,

    1. ‘Account for’ means explain, although in certain contexts it can also mean ‘make’ or ’cause’. Sartre means something like ‘make intelligible’ or ‘philosophically explain’.

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