What Does it Mean to be Free: Sartre’s Take On Human Freedom in the Face of the Nazi Regime

by Gina Koch, April 15, 2022

Jean-Paul Sartre is undeniably one of the most prominent philosophers of the twentieth century and the chief founder of existentialism. The works he published influenced various ideologies spanning philosophy, politics, literature, and cultural studies. Sartre, like most philosophers, had his moments of being subject to public disappointment and outrage. After living through World War II as a French prisoner of war, he sparked outrage when he published the essay, “The Republic of Silence,” which he started with the infamous line “Never were we freer than under the German Occupation” (Sartre, 1).

In  “The Republic of Silence,” Jean-Paul Sartre explores the concept of true freedom amid the Nazi German occupation of France. Extreme conditions often breed unique schools of thought for many thinkers, and Sartre was no different. Being a witness and victim of the brutal Nazi regime resulted in profound ideologies coming to light, especially regarding the concept of freedom as evidenced by his essay “The Republic of Silence.” Sartre explains that the essence of true freedom materialized during times of oppression. When people are condemned to extreme conditions of suffering, the sanctity of every thought and every right becomes apparent, and they are faced with the question of their freedom. There exists no force or authority that is capable of taking away one’s freedom because it is inherent and essential to the human condition. However, some forces can place physical limitations on one’s freedom, and it becomes a grave situation when these limitations go so far beyond as to attack one’s rights, beliefs, and principles. Under such an attack, people have the choice to exercise their freedom and resist such oppressive forces or partake in bad faith and give up on such beliefs and principles. This concept of freedom was different from other ideologies circulating at the time. For example, French philosopher Albert Camus, known for his contributions to the absurdist movement, maintained that human freedom is not inherent to humans but rather a state of mind achieved when people understand the absurdity and meaninglessness of life; thereby stopping themselves from constructing some greater meaning from it (Camus). Many differing ideologies regarding human freedom circulated during this war-torn era, but Sartre’s ideas managed to stand out among them. 

During the Nazi era in Germany, which lasted from 1933 to 1945,  particular groups of people such as the Jewish, gypsies, homosexuals, and any other groups not considered a part of the superior Aryan race were targeted as part of the ethnic cleansing scheme initiated by political leader Adolf Hitler. These groups faced oppression, suffering beyond imagination, and witnessed their inherent and basic rights being stripped away from them. They were stripped of their citizenship, denied interactions with those considered part of the Aryan race, and sent to concentration camps, often to be killed. Sartre, being a philosopher who means to seek meaning in everything that happens around him, found hope among the brutality that surrounded him. In his essay, he claims, “never were we freer than under the German Occupation” (Sartre, 1). It is quite a wonder that Sartre was able to find such freedom when the majority of people around him were arrested, sent to concentration camps, or killed. He is not talking about physical freedom, but inherent freedom; the freedom that governs the human condition and is an essential part of existence. He compares the manner people think in during peaceful times and during atrocious ones, similar to that of Nazi occupation. 

As Sartre says, “In this way, the very question of freedom was posed, and we were on the verge of the deepest knowledge human beings can have of themselves” (Sartre, 5). During times of oppression, people tend to question the limits of their freedom and their character questions that were neglected during peaceful times. Would they resist the torture and hold on to secrets and information about the resistance movement or would they give in to the pain and reveal secrets that can lead to numerous arrests and deaths? It is during moments like these that people question their freedom and existence because the choices they make can have profound effects, many times concerning life or death. Sartre also discussed “resistance was a true democracy” (Sartre, 6). There was solidarity in how they resisted the Nazi regime. During such difficult times, there is a sense of equality and responsibility among the people that is not palpable in society during peaceful times. Sartre claims he witnessed the strengthening of the Republic because everyone shared the same freedom regardless of their rank or position within the movement. The freedom they experienced while under the ironclad rule of the Nazi regime was one that was true, absolute, and equal. 

The freedom that Sartre discusses in his essay is distinct from the conventional idea of freedom that many may have. The freedom to do anything one wants is separate from the true and absolute freedom that Sartre refers to. True personal freedom is one’s ability to express their beliefs and principles regardless of the forces that govern them. It is the ability to make choices regardless of any rewards or material possessions one may obtain as a consequence of their choice. In an oppressive society, personal beliefs often start to take precedence over any material possessions and sometimes, over their own life. In other words, people are willing to die at the hands of their oppressors rather than give up on what they believe in. In his essay, Sartre explains that people often made the authentic choice in the presence of death, and it was through this act that they were able to exercise true freedom. Many of those who were tortured at the hands of the Nazis resisted revealing any information they had on the resistance movement because they stayed true to believing that their people should be freed from the oppressors. This choice may have cost them their lives but they did so as part of exercising their freedom. If they had instead chosen to spill information as a means to keep themselves alive, they would have continued living a limited life; one in which they sacrificed their freedom and lacked any meaning or purpose because they abandoned any beliefs they had. People are more than their situation so they should be able to transcend the situation and stay committed to their beliefs. 

The attitudes that Sartre shared in his essay forces us to think about the manner in which we live. Initially, society seems to be guilty of stripping freedom away from the people, and then forcing them to obey laws in order to keep their freedom. In fact, it may seem quite ironic how we are rewarded with freedom, which is something inherently ours, for giving up a certain level of our autonomy. However, this outlook on society in freedom is not accurate. Since freedom is something that is inherently ours and essential to our existence; it cannot be stripped away from us by external forces or authority. However, as members of society, we agree to accept some limitations placed on our freedom. For example, we agree to obey the laws of society as a means to maintain order in our lives and fulfill our potential as social creatures. However, we do not lose our freedom because everyone has the ability to break the law. The fact that we are still capable of committing terrible acts but choose not to proves that we still maintain our freedom. 

However, one would have to face the consequences of committing any terrible and unlawful acts. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between the consequences of an act and freedom. People have the freedom to commit any acts but they may not be successful or satisfied with the consequences, but this does not mean they do not have the freedom to commit an act. The German occupation placed limitations on people’s freedom that conflicted with their rights and beliefs. At this point, it becomes a clear case of oppression as opposed to society maintaining order. During peaceful times, it is not obvious if something is lacking in the manner they live their lives but during oppressive circumstances, it becomes very apparent. Once, it becomes apparent that their lives are not to be lived in the way that it is supposed to be, the urge to fight for their lives materializes and it results in a strength that ultimately empowers them to exercise their freedom. The absolute freedom that they experience under the regime is one that was born out of the shackles that they were bound to. 


Works Cited

Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien, Hamish Hamilton, 1955, pp. 3-119.  

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Republic of Silence.” Lettres françaises, 1944, pp. 1-7.

The Origins of Ancient Rome Reveal Incredibly Sexist Social Structures

by Namal Fiaz, March 29, 2022

The birth of the Roman Republic, which would soon transform into a vast empire with a monumental legacy, has brutal origins all beginning with a rape victim. It’s no secret the Romans were excellent storytellers; the proof is longevity. Roman myths, passed down for generations, outlived their society and continue to echo off the tongues of modern storytellers. 

The story of Lucretia is a mythological and historical tale that has survived since the early origins of Roman history, over two thousand years since its believed origins in 509 BCE. It was narrated and criticized in several different versions of works by prolific Roman writers such as Livy, Ovid, and Dionysius. Gaining popularity immediately after her death, Lucretia became a legendary symbol of beauty, virtue, and chastity. Subsequently, Roman society encouraged women, and especially young girls, to view her as a matron for model behavior. 

As the victim of the story, the glorification of Lucretia’s story after her death reveals deeper insight into the sexist roles women were expected to conform to in ancient Rome.

In Book 1 of Ab Urbe Condita, “From the Founding of the City,” Titus Livius, or Livy, a Roman historian whose works are largely viewed as reliable historical sources, recounts Lucretia’s story. Livy narrates the events leading up to the climax of her rape, as well as the aftermath and her impact on the founding of the republic. The story begins with Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, Lucretia’s husband, and his companions drinking at the house of Sextus Tarquinius, son of the king Tarquinius Superbus, one night. The men drunkenly argue on the subject of wives, each man praising his own, and Collatinus decides that the mere sight of his wife at such late hours would put an end to the debate altogether. They mount their horses and head to Collatia, a Roman town governed by Collatinus, and into the quarters where Lucretia resides. Upon entering, Lucretia is seen weaving wool by herself by the lamplight with only the company of slave girls, unlike the other wives who had spent their night mingling and drinking with each other. This alone is meant to portray her legacy as a woman of the utmost chastity and virtue. Lucretia wins “the prize of this contest in womanly virtues”1 for her devotion to her husband and home. Sextus, intrigued by her beauty, is “seized by wicked desire”2 to conquer her modesty. 

A few days later, he returns to Collatia again, this time without Collatinus. His motives unsuspected, Sextus is welcomed to dinner in their home and is provided guest chambers for his seemingly innocuous visit. Late into the night, he enters Lucretia’s room while she is asleep. A knife in one hand, Sextus holds her down while clasping onto her breast with the other, and threatens her to comply with his wishes, otherwise he would lay the dead naked body of a male slave next to her corpse and frame her for adulterous acts. Sextus then rapes her. 

Afterwards, Lucretia, frightened and upset, sends a message to her father and Collatinus to return home with trusted companions so that she can recount all of this. All of the men are enraged by Sextus’ actions. They reassure her that “it is the mind that sins, not the body.”3 This part of the story is particularly interesting as it challenges the norms in Roman society by unexpectedly diverting blame onto the perpetrator rather than the victim who was raped. In the end though, Lucretia deeply fears that her virtue has been “ruined” by Sextus and does not wish to be an “impure” example to Roman wives. She admits that although her heart does not hold any guilt, and that she absolves herself of blame from the rape, she still cannot free herself from punishment. Lucretia reveals a knife she hid under her dress and thrusts it into her chest out of shame as Collatinus, her father, and their companion named Junius Brutus bear witness. Just before committing suicide, she urged the men to decide Sextus’ fate. It is evident she herself prefers to die before being seen as a role model to unchaste women. 

Lucretia’s rape was also the impetus of political revolution in Rome. Collatinus and Brutus led the overthrow of Sextus’s father and exiled the Tarquins from Rome. A new form of government was established in 509 BCE, with Collatinus and Brutus serving as the first pair of consuls of the Roman Republic.

Lucretia’s suicide was socially viewed as honorable by Romans, and she was subsequently immortalized as a heroine. Given that her story serves as thematic for proper behavior for women in Rome, it further reveals incredibly sexist ideals present in Roman society. Lucretia’s position as the embodiment of pudicitia, a term used to describe virtuous women, would only grow after she died. Sexual ethics were deeply conceptualized in ancient Rome; there were several intricate terms to describe one’s social as well as physical position regarding male and female sexuality. Pudicitia was a distinctly feminine descriptor of one’s character, predominantly in relation to morality and sexual fidelity. 

It is important to recognize that the male equivalent of this quality did exist in the form of virtus, meaning virtue, although not nearly to the same extent women were judged. Pudicitia was not praised as a positive ideal in men, rather, it was viewed as a neutral trait for males, and could sometimes be simply reduced to whether they acted in the dominant role in sexual relations with other men.4 Much of the explanation as to why a woman’s chastity held so much value in ancient Rome was due to the fact that it ensured they were kept “pure” for men until marriage. Lucretia’s virtue and sexual modesty was promoted as a feminine ideal through “deeply conservative and patriarchal impulse.”5  It is important to address the emphasis on virginity as men were certainly not scrutinized to the same standards. Roman girls were purposefully married young, the legal age twelve, to “ensure an undefiled body and mind.”6 This view alone amplifies the misogynistic logic used by the ancient Romans to control female sexuality and restrict freewill. 

As expected, Roman societal structures continued to subjugate women throughout the longevity of the republic and empire. The specific reasons for this perceived inferiority of women thrived on their generalization as “fragile and fickle, therefore in need of protection.”7 A plausible explanation for these rigid social structures is the historical dichotomy of men as “protectors” and women as “childbearers.” Additionally, it was a widespread belief that women were “emotional, irrational, and intellectually less capable than men”8 to the point where objections to such beliefs were controversial. In a speech written by Livy, capturing the thoughts of Cato says: “Our ancestors decided that women should not handle anything…they should always be in power of fathers, brothers, husbands. If once they get equality, they’ll be on top.”9 In contrast, Musonius, a Stoic philosopher, argued that women possessed reason and logic, were inclined towards good virtue just like men, and that “men should have as high a standard of sexual virtue as women.”10

Marriage was beyond a sufficient reason society deemed it unworthy for girls to continue their education, instead prioritizing domestic tasks and tending to the wishes of their husbands. It is also dire to address the fact that the majority of the available information about the daily lives of Roman women is provided through the lens of men, often incidental in orations or letters or poems.11 It is clear the ancient Romans did not prioritize women’s education nor urge them to contribute to literature or philosophy. The already lacking information about the daily lives of women is focused on upper class women, with scarce information about common women. In the study of classics, a field that has traditionally been dominated by men, studying the lives of ancient women was an academic priority until recent feminist perspectives concerning historical analysis emerged.

It is known that Roman women were established as subservient to men in all aspects of life; their names were technically not even their own. A Roman woman’s name was the feminine form of her father’s gentilicium during the early republic, which was passed down to all of the sisters, and also shared with aunts and cousins on her paternal side.12 Marriage was largely an social and economic proposition for both parties since the Romans rarely married for happiness and romantic love; the latter was usually reserved for extramarital affairs.

 Additionally, women had limited citizenship status, meaning they could not vote or run for public office, and in many cases their properties were under control of their father and eventually husband. Specific terms evolved for circumstances of marriage: cum manu, “with the hand,” and sine manu, “without the hand.” A woman who was married cum manu was no longer under her father’s authority, but under the legal control of her husband.13 This meant that she was under potestas, “power,” of her husband rather than her father. If she was married cum sine, which was common in the late republic, she remained under her father’s control. She needed his approval to make important financial transactions, and “might have her marriage ended by him even against her wish.”14 In a divorce, which women were allowed to bring forth under legally valid conditions, children were no longer left to her, but rather to her husband’s family. 

A woman’s influence was not acknowledged in the public sphere; they were restricted to domestic matters concerned with running the home. Such partially demonstrates why Lucretia was glorified above the other wives from the moment Collatinus and his companions found her tending to her weaving, historically one of the most domestic chores, instead of away socializing with other women. A “virtuous” Roman wife influenced by the precedent of Lucretia behaved modestly, felt great devotion to her husband and tended to his needs, and most importantly valued her chastity, and in this legendary case, above her own life.

The widespread idealization of Lucretia in ancient Rome provides insight into the way Romans viewed the social structures of gender, family life, law, and marriage. Often portrayed as a docile victim, it is clear Lucretia embodies the submissive traits women were expected to display in order to fit the status quo. Although in modern times her story is often regarded as a mere puzzle piece in the larger image of ancient Rome, it continues to raise questions regarding the position of women in a society where they were severely oppressed.


References

  1. “Titus Livius (Livy), the History of Rome, Book 1 Benjamin Oliver Foster, Ph.d., Ed.” Titus Livius (Livy), The History of Rome, Book 1, chapter 57. Accessed December 8, 2021. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0151%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D57
  2. Livy, Chapter 57.
  3. Ibid, Chapter 58.
  4. Noreña, Carlos F. “Hadrian’s Chastity.” Phoenix 61, no. 3/4 (2007): 296–317.
  5. Noreña, 301.
  6. Clark, Gillian. “Roman Women.” Greece and Rome 28, no. 2 (October 1981): 193–212. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0017383500033313.
  7. Ibid, 207.
  8. Ibid, 208.
  9. Ibid, 207.
  10. Ibid, 208.
  11. Ibid, 194.
  12. Ibid, 202.
  13. Ibid, 203.
  14. Ibid, 204.

The Contradictory Holiday of Thanksgiving

by Nora Rivera-Larkin, December 6, 2021

While the basis for Thanksgiving is rooted in the concept of giving back and giving thanks to the many positives in our lives as well as a way to reflect on the year, this holiday also comes with some very contradictory underlying tones. The holiday of Thanksgiving serves as a way to gloss over the struggles of many people throughout the years. The pain of the Civil War and the history of slavery, the ignored role of women in the household, and its’ use of reinforcing patriotism and distracting many from the deep sociological issues in America, are some ways that the holiday has been used to promote an exalted idea of the United States and its history. 

The first Thanksgiving, as an official national holiday, is a prime example of how the holiday has been used to smooth over the troubles of a nation. In his “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” President Lincoln said,

“Peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict…”

(Lincoln).

This excerpt from Lincoln’s speech shows that the establishment of the holiday was based on the concept of solidifying this idea of unity into a national holiday on the backdrop of a war that tore apart the country. Though it has a positive message and meaning, it hides the intensity of the war and the issues still rampant within the country such as institutionalized racism, the masses of freed yet unsupported slaves, and the continued resistance of the South. In a review of the holiday, history scholar Elizabeth Pleck writes, “Thanksgiving did not unify a war-torn nation, but the holiday probably did help unify the Northern side during the Civil War” (Pleck). While this new national holiday may have been an opportunity for renewed strength and power in the North, it was a conceptual holiday that paid no dues to the ongoing suffering throughout the country and did not serve as the day of remembrance and unification it was supposedly for. 

As time went on, Thanksgiving became more widely celebrated and became a day for relaxation and a positive outlook on the hard work of the past year. But it had some very sexist underlying tones: “As women in the kitchen washed the dishes, and men listened to the game, one could recognize that women (willingly) gave up their leisure, and that men and children benefitted” (Pleck). Though this situation may not be as true in current times given the many changes in the “traditional” American household, the underlying tone may still hold true. A day for celebration and relaxation is often a double-edged sword; the holiday was built on the backs of someone – whether it be a political purpose or a sexist approach – and it continues to ignore its origins and the continued work of the less fortunate. It pays no real remembrance to the work of many and has often become an egotistical holiday geared towards the more fortunate and to the men of the country. 

The final target of this holiday is children. In schools, the idea of patriotism and a sort of “happy past” is widely promoted. Oftentimes, history lessons are smoothed over to protect the image of the country and to hide its ugly truths and origins. As a land of immigrants, people saw it imperative to get children, especially immigrant children, to believe in this idea of a “golden country.” Pleck continues to analyze the teaching of this holiday in schools, writing,

The schools recognized that they had to develop an emotional bond between the immigrant and the nation, a love of country… the home was where the deepest feelings of patriotism were conveyed. Thus, the home celebration of holidays needed to be encouraged to reinforce the patriotism”

(Pleck).

Again, the holiday is twisted into a political tactic, erasing its supposed true origins and elements to form a specific idea of patriotism and unity in a child’s mind and then their home. It becomes an ignorance of struggles, of past truths, and the reinforcement of this glossy, picture-perfect holiday used to conceal its true intentions. 

It cannot be forgotten that the true pillar of the Thanksgiving holiday has been political strategy, whether to reinforce the idea of unity even in the face of war, to make an example of the power structure and imbalance between genders in the household, or to become a way to spread an idea of patriotism in the country. Thanksgiving has many ugly truths and it is important that these be taught, without the edited versions that conceal the truths of this nation. It is only when these truths are taught, when we confront our history and understand that it has been painful and unfair to so many people in this country, that we can move forward and make proper change, and hopefully celebrate a future Thanksgiving that not only gives remembrance to our most recent past year but also to the ones far before it and those who have been hurt by this holiday’s history. 


Works Cited

Lincoln, Abraham. “Proclamation of Thanksgiving.” Abraham Lincoln Online, 2018, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/thanks.htm. 

Pleck, Elizabeth. “The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States.” Journal of Social History, vol. 32, no. 4, 1999, pp. 773–89. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3789891.

The Power of Presentation and Representation throughout History

by Nora Rivera-Larkin, April 20, 2021

History is often subjective, with the primary voice being given to the winners. Accounts of historical events are often biased, and while there is much they can tell us about the people who delivered them, such as the driving force behind their actions and what rhetorical strategies and methods were crucial to their success and failure, objective accounts of history should also be brought to the foreground of discussion and show other perspectives on history, giving voice to people of marginalized communities. Some writers utilize the power of media and genre to enhance their message and to give it the larger platform it needs, like Fredrick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and the Munsee petition to former President Zachary Taylor. More recent works, such as the 1619 Project, look back on historical events, giving voice to those who were previously silenced. Written and oral transcriptions of historical events serve the purpose of convincing the reader of an argument, and giving an objective look at the past of this country.

Fredrick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” demonstrates the power of public forum and the emotional weight of spoken word. Douglass connects the experiences of the revolutionaries that led to the Fourth of July holiday the people celebrate now, to the struggles of the enslaved and oppressed black people. He says, “Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress,” (Douglass). Douglass intertwines pathos and logos within his speech, playing on the pride of the nation, the citizens who still believe so much in the revolution and their young country, and slowly unveils the similarities between their experiences and those of the oppressed. The very presence of his speech, his articulation, and his ability to stand in front of a crowd, humble but firm, only adds to the message he is trying to convey and only further supports the idea of equality by representing his intelligence.

In addition to the oppression of black people in America, the manipulation of information throughout history is also crucial to the Native Americans exploitation by the American government. This was demonstrated with the Munsee petition, which reminded the president, Zachary Taylor, and the government of the United States of America of the history between the founders of America and the Native American tribes. They wrote, “The Commissioner’s name was Capt. Bullen, who acted on the part of the government of the United States, in making the said important Covenant of peace. He told our people to commit to Memory in their feeble way of entering into Record, such important national matters,” (Williams). The writers of the petition call out the commissioner and the government of the United States, illustrating how they played on a Munsee tradition of Wampum Records which eventually held no value or pertinence to the government. It was a ploy used to manufacture a friendship that would then be abused by the United States government. This is an example of how information can be manipulated and twisted by one side to get their way. The government, encouraging a Wampum Record while knowing it would have no meaning to them in the future served as empty promises in the wake of potential growth and benefit that the government officials wanted at the time.

Though many accounts of history only provide the pieces of information that the winners wanted to emphasize, more recent works provide a more accurate and objective view of the history of this country. The 1619 Project allowed voices often suppressed to be heard, and for history to finally be shown through the lens of those it had oppressed. It identified the hypocrisy in this nation’s birth, saying, “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst,” (Hannah-Jones). A nation built on the backs of those it enslaved and denied rights to for hundreds of years often ignores the voices of those who try to speak up about the truth of America’s founding. Projects and collections such as these challenge the pure idea of the American memory and call it into question. They are the ones who are providing a truly objective view of American history by allowing all sides of history to be properly voiced and considered.

Writing and transcription are very powerful forces in shaping history and shaping perspective. Both written accounts and oral accounts can serve as a complication to the objective view of events, but they can also hold power in analyzing history and in providing cohesive messages of change to societies. The purpose of all of these works is to convince the reader of the side presented, to justify their actions and their side of history, whether it be for colonization or change in society, but cultivating multiple perspectives of historical events is the only way to maintain true objectivity.


Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”.” Teaching American History, teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july

“Gideon Williams Letter to Zachary Taylor – Transcription.” Scalar: Login, dsp.domains.trincoll.edu/HL/hidden-literacies/gideon-williams-letter-to-zachary-taylor—transcription-uncorrected?path=andrew-newman.

“The 1619 Project.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html?mtrref=blackboard.stonybrook.edu.