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.

An Analysis of Ambiguity in Humans

by Sanjana Sankaran, November 12, 2021

The existentialist philosopher Simone De Beauvoir explained in her book titled, The Ethics of Ambiguity, why humans are ambiguous creatures. Beauvoir first proclaims that humans have felt the ambiguity of the states of life and death for a long time. However, even if people recognize the ambiguity of life and understand that as humans we will all die, they eliminate ambiguity by proclaiming religious immortality, and by saying one should become pure internally and externally (Beauvoir 7). As an advocate for women’s rights and human rights, she believed that in order for people to achieve a sense of freedom they must recognize and appreciate the ambiguity. I will further analyze the importance of ambiguity of life and why Beauvoir’s assessment of the human condition as fundamentally ambiguous is correct. 

After recognizing the concept of ambiguity, Beauvoir then differentiates between the two main types: fundamental ambiguity and the simpler ambiguity.  The fundamental ambiguity of the human experience has two parts: the first being that humans are free, we have the ability to think about the world (consciousness), and we can decide how we wish to act and have a private life (internal) (Lecture Notes 11/9/2020). This knowledge gives us strength and power to act (Beauvoir 8). The second part contradicts the first by stating that we are not free because humans cannot escape death in any way. Humans, in many ways, are objects by which external forces can act, so we therefore also have an external existence that cannot be controlled. The simpler ambiguity also has two parts: one is factual and deals with our bodily existence, while the other is free and deals without conscious existence (Lecture Notes, 11/9/2020). Again, philosophers have been dishonest about the ambiguity of life in two ways; they either deny its existence or they disparage it and deem it as negligible to understand and recognize. So, in this process, their style of ethics try to assert one of the ideas of this dualism of life, complete freedom, and determinism, where all your actions have already been determined and you have no control (Lecture Notes, 11/9/2020). 

Ambiguity is extremely important to Beauvoir’s style of ethics because she argues that the concept of ethics itself only makes sense within the context of ambiguous creatures like humans. She states that ethics is brought about by the tension of what is and what ought to be. ‘What is’ is the reality of a situation, such as “there is social injustice.” ‘What ought’ is how things should be –  our opinion –  such as “there should not be social injustice”. She argues therefore that ethics becomes valid when we recognize the ambiguity between what we are and what we could and should be (Lecture Notes 11/9/2020). Beauvoir’s ethics is the ethics of freedom for humanity, which she claims is the source and goal of all ethics. Freedom is what lets humans express meaning and value about certain things and thus must be willed because humans are ambiguous. To will freedom, humans must first recognize the ambiguity instead of denying it to open up their future and keep the ability to act in multiple ways (Lecture Notes 11/11/2020). 

The human condition is fundamentally ambiguous for three main reasons: we cannot escape death,  there is freedom in the uncertain or ambiguous and, lastly, humans live in constant doubt. Humans cannot escape death; philosophers and other thinkers have tried to escape death by arguing that it does not matter what we do in life as long as we end up pure enough to be in heaven. The same goes for religions that discuss reincarnation; however, we live it does not matter because we will be reincarnated. However, as Beauvoir states, the ends do not always justify the means, nor should one be focused on the means and forget about the end. In the first case, when people ignore the means to achieve their goal, they will commit atrocities to get there (Lecture Notes 12/2/2020). For example, in the case of the serious man, they find a single value the absolute and will become a slave to this value, and find everything else as unimportant. This ultimately results in a fascist regime, cult followers, and other heinous crimes against humanity. The serious man fails to recognize the ambiguity in human existence and that humans are free to set up their own values and not blindly follow the values of others (Lecture Notes 11/16/2020). Nietzsche, one of the fundamental philosophers of the existentialist movement, explains the avoidance of death as an end to asceticism – humans will endure severe self-discipline, abstinence, or a denial of our own enjoyments in favor of the spiritual world, a kingdom of God. He argues that humans have used this to endure suffering under the pretense that it can give life meaning. However, Nietzsche wonders how to avoid ascetic ideals without falling into the trap of nihilism (Lecture Notes 11/2/2020). “The ascetic ideal has an aim – this goal is, putting it generally, that all the other interests of human life should, measured by its standard, appear petty and narrow” (Nietzsche Essay 3 Section 23). Asceticism allows for ethics of certainty, not ambiguity; in doing so traps them, and restricts their future. The ascetic ideals, when taken advantage of by cult leaders and tyrants, are often used as a method of oppression. The goal of human life is freedom, not the ascetic ideal. As Beauvoir states, this is achieved by humans having to create their own values, constantly living in doubt, and in the process, gaining genuine freedom. Genuine freedom is something humans have to produce on their  own; we must will it ourselves (Lecture Notes 11/9/2020). As Nietzsche states, “Man, the bravest animal and the one most inured to suffering, does not repudiate suffering in itself: he wills it, he even seeks it out, provided that he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering” (Nietzsche Essay 3 Section 28). Ambiguity states that life has the ability to be meaningful; however, humans must make life meaningful. Humans have made life meaningful by choosing to stand up for the oppressed and not just assuming an existing value system; they have made it meaningful by protesting injustice and changing unjust laws. They may suffer while standing up for the oppressed as Nietzsche states, but there is a greater purpose for it, and that is freedom. 

Life is uncertain, and acknowledging this uncertainty opens up our future and allows us to be free. When humans follow ethics of certainty instead of uncertainty, they leave themselves in an echo chamber where they may become narcissistic, brainwashed, and tyrannical. If humans choose freedom they must live in this ambiguity, as many of us do. Humans live in a constant state of doubt, questioning what is right and wrong, seeking advice from others, and learning from different resources (Lecture Notes 12/2/2020). This doubt is  why humans read books – to learn more about the world they live in. Ethics can therefore not tell us exactly what to do, for this would be ethics of certainty; one must determine right from wrong while making decisions as they question value systems already in place. Those who reject the fundamental ambiguity are those who do not reject the previous value systems. According to Nietzsche, the value systems in place are the aristocratic value system and the slave value system. The aristocratic system is one where good is associated with characteristics of nobility, and bad is associated with characteristics of common people, or the minority. The slave value system was developed from the original system as ressentiment or resentment, causing an inversion of values; good is only derived by comparison to the aristocrats and evil is a term of vilification where it represents narcissism, racism, and so on (Lecture Notes 10/19/2020). Nietzsche states that both the aristocratic value system ‘good and bad’ and the slave value system ‘good and evil’  have existed in our society since the aristocratic times; however, humans must question the values already present (Lecture Notes 10/21/2020). Beauvoir goes on to state that, “an ethics of ambiguity will be one which will refuse to deny a priori that separate existants can, at the same time, be bound to each other, that their individual freedoms can forge laws valid for all” (Beauvoir 18). In other words, the ethics of ambiguity can only exist when people acknowledge the separation that exists between humans, especially of different minority groups. By acknowledging the imbalance that exists, all humans of separate groups have the ability to develop a new value system where there is freedom for all.   

We do not live in the future, and we cannot wait for it; the future is created. In the present, we make choices as we live in a state of doubt that builds a better future for others. This is shown in politics all the time (Lecture Notes 12/2/2020). For example, in the state of this pandemic, people in the present should stay at home and make the decision in the present to protect themselves and others, in order to build a future where COVID is no longer a major concern. Over the summer as people increasingly doubted the structure of our governmental system, people intervened and criticized the justice system, standing up for black lives. This doubt of the certainty that existed allows for freedom in the future. Beauvoir elaborates, “one must attempt to judge the chances of success that are involved in a certain sacrifice; but at the beginning, this judgment will always be doubtful […]” (Beauvoir 148). Choices in the present must be made by doubting the chances of success in the beginning. When people assume the world to go a certain way, this leads to events of destruction and oppression with Nazi Germany being a key example.  Hitler, in this case, is a serious man, who took a value that already existed, did not doubt it, and oppressed many. Those who questioned his assumptions are those who accepted the concept of ambiguity. 

In conclusion, Beauvoir was correct, humans are fundamentally ambiguous creatures because death is inescapable, even through religious means. Life will end at any time, and we live in this uncertainty and create a sense of meaning on our own. Humans live in constant doubt making dynamic choices in the situation that they are currently in while deciding how to create a better future. This is how humans live life to the fullest and by recognizing this we are free, but not from circumstances out of our control.

References/Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Ethics of Ambiguity: Pour Une Morale De L’ambiguïté. Translated by Bernard Frechtman, Open Road Integrated Media, 2018.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 9 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 11 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 16 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy 104. 2 Dec. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “On the Geneology of Morals.” Philosophy 104. 19 Oct. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “On the Geneology of Morals.” Philosophy 104. 2 Nov. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Faul, Caleb. “On the Geneology of Morals.” Philosophy 104. 21 Oct. 2020, Stony Brook University. Class Lecture.

Nietzsche, Fredrich. “On the Genealogy of Morals (A Modernized Translation with a New Introduction and Biography).” Edited by Bill Chapko. Translated by Horace B. Samuel, 2010.

Can Lying Ever Be Justified?

by Ayesha Azeem, October 29, 2021

As the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant once asserted, “there is nothing it is possible to think of anywhere in the world, or indeed anything at all outside it, that can be held to be good without limitation, excepting only a good will” (Kant 9). Kantianism focuses on motives rather than consequences. Kant introduces the idea of a categorical imperative, an absolute rule of conduct that cannot have any exceptions and must be followed regardless of our desires; any action against this is immoral. Kant uses the categorical imperative to support his belief that it is immoral to lie; if we lie, we make ourselves the “exception” to the universal moral law, holding ourselves in a different standard than everyone else. Though it is easy to deem an action absolutely immoral, this is impossible due to the fact that not everyone’s moral conduct is the same, and there will always be rightful exceptions to any “universal law” proposed. 

Kant supports that lying is immoral with a famous situation: if a murderer knocks on your door, asking for your friend, it is your moral duty to tell the truth and expose your friend to the murderer. Kant argues that if we choose to lie, even if it was to save a friend from murder, we would violate the categorical imperative, an immoral act. However, the morals of lying are not as black and white as Kant wants them to be. Though lying is sinful in most cultures, one needs to consider the circumstances in which lying may be better. Lying may prevent a situation from becoming worse – in Kant’s example, lying would actually help your friend survive. Rather than ruling lying as absolutely immoral, it is important to compare one’s options and determine which would be beneficial for the majority. For example, during the Holocaust, a situation similar to Kant’s famous example was experienced by many Jewish refugees and the heroes who courageously hid them from torture. If they had followed Kant’s philosophy, they would have surrendered the Jewish refugees to the Nazis, adding to the brutally inflicted crimes against humanity. The moral guilt resulting from being an accessory to murder is far worse than the guilt accompanying the decision to lie; in situations like these, lying may be more moral, and thus should not be ruled out completely. 

Though Kant is right in that we should not make exceptions for ourselves, moral decision-making is not as straightforward enough to have universal laws because one’s sense of morality may be different from another person’s. This holds true especially when one considers how influential a person’s culture is on their moral reasoning. Kant’s ethical theory of deontology is primarily concerned with one’s intentions – the actual consequences of the action don’t matter. Though lying should be considered morally wrong, exceptions should be rightfully made when the motive is genuinely benevolent. This is seen in Lulu Wang’s movie The Farewell (2019) when a family hides the truth about their grandmother’s cancer diagnosis from her to ensure that her last days are filled with only happiness. The family visits their Nai Nai, the Chinese term for grandmother, after years, with the excuse of a wedding, in order to spend their last moments together. Though Kant would argue that even a situation like this does not justify lying, it is clear that the family’s intentions are pure – they just want to prevent as much emotional pain as possible to Nai Nai. In this case, lying to Nai Nai would not have made the situation worse – she was going to die, whether she knew about it or not. Telling her the truth would not be beneficial, as it would only cause more heartache for everyone. Lying was the more morally correct choice, as Nai Nai actually lived longer than the three months the family expected. This may be because she was not emotionally burdened with her diagnosis; the family made the right choice, even though lying is morally wrong under normal circumstances. 

The Farewell depicts how our culture often influences the choices we make. The movie is mostly set in the point-of-view of Billi, a Chinese-American woman morally conflicted between two cultures, Chinese and American, each promoting different sets of values. When she travels to China to say her farewell, Billi often questions her family’s choices. In one scene, Billi asks her parents why they are keeping the diagnosis a secret. Billi, who has lived most of her life in America, does not understand how the family is so willing to lie – she worries that Nai Nai may have unfinished business that needs attending to before her death. Billi’s mother sternly says, “Chinese people have a saying: when people get cancer, they die. But it’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear” (The Farewell). This is a Chinese tradition that has been passed down through generations – Nai Nai lied to her husband about his diagnosis until he was on his deathbed. The reasoning behind this was so that he would not be plagued by the worry of leaving his family behind. 

When Billi expresses her hesitancy in lying, saying that this would not be acceptable in America, her aunt reminds her that they are in China, where morals are different. In some cultures, we are taught not to question the legitimacy of traditions. For example, South Asian culture often forces “compromising,” especially on women, during a marriage. This began with the notion that the couple should communicate effectively to move their marriage forward. Over generations, however, the idea of compromising has instead led to many women suffering through domestic violence due to fear of societal backlash if they go through with a divorce. South Asian culture often blames the woman if there is a divorce between a couple, claiming that it was her fault for failing to compromise. Parents still teach their daughters to tolerate any “obstacles” (though domestic abuse should not be considered an obstacle, but a physically and physiologically scarring reason to leave) during their marriage. Mothers who have suffered through trauma throughout their marriage and fail to get a divorce tell their daughters to also “compromise.” While this has been ingrained in South Asian culture for generations, this does not mean it is morally correct. 

To establish a strong moral foundation, we must think about the moral reasoning behind our decisions, and why we believe we made the right choice, regardless of what our culture may preach. Though lying may be immoral, context is always needed before we can deem a choice to be moral, which Kant fails to account for.

References/Works Cited

The Farewell. Directed by Lulu Wang, Big Beach Films, 2019.

Kant, Immanuel, et al. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Oxford University Press, 2019.