Written at California State University of Fullerton, Existentialism, 2012


 THE FREEDOM OF WAR: AN EXISTENTIAL PARADOX

 

War is a necessary evil for progress. At some point in our lives we all experience war; external between individuals or between nations, or internal within ourselves, but in the end that war is what will define us. An internal war forces us to see our past actions and our facticity, and it also makes us realize what choices that can and must be made. Without war, existence would stagnate and a being would not have the means for progress, and if there were no means for progress there would be no choices for us to make; and to have a choice is to be free, therefore war provides freedom. But war is also an existential paradox since it creates casualties, physical or non-physical. The resolution to achieve the freedom war provides is therefore to fight for that freedom or one surrender and becomes a casualty of war, but first one must make a choice to fight. My thesis is therefore that only within the freedom of war will a person realize oneself as a being and find value in existence.

In order to explain my theory that war provides the ultimate existential freedom, I will use Sartre’s different descriptions of being from “Existentialism Basic Writings” and use them in relation to “Narrative of The Life Of Frederick Douglass”, and the characters of Franz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks”. To describe the necessity of war and its existential paradox as an ultimate freedom, I will begin with Douglass and his war against his facticity as being born a slave and his war against white slave owners. Then, I will conclude by paraphrasing Fanon and his view on the necessity of struggle, and compare his view on slavery with Douglass.

First, let me begin by making an existential definition of what a being is and the relation between being and the world. In Sartre’s, Being, Consciousness, and Nothingness, he defines this condition by saying that “we should avoid presupposing the duality of subject and object, and should instead start out by characterizing being-in-the-world as a totality (Sartre 2001, 259).” With this statement, Sartre means that a person is a being in-itself, a subject, but are also a part of a world perceived by others and is therefore seen by others which makes a person an object. These two parts of a being should not oppose one another but instead correlate as they create a totality of our existence. Sartre does not suggest that a being should become an object; he merely states that as a conscious being perceives another conscious being and therefore a reference point must exist. He claims that as one consciously perceives another, the activity gives that another meaning. In short, one cannot exist without its existence being defined by another, and a person cannot perceive something without defining what is being perceived. This definition of existence concludes that for one to exist there will always be a need for another. But as two existences prove the existence of one, a comparison will always exist; a comparison that often display itself as an internal war between two definitions. 

This internal war of comparison, to perceive and thus give it meaning, rationalizes Douglass self-definition as a free slave, because he could simply not be a slave for then his being would lose meaning, instead he had to reinvent himself from a slave in to a free slave, and therefore the meaning of his being remained. Douglass still saw himself as slave even after he became free, a man who was forced to be turned into an object, a man caught in a war he could not escape or had chosen to be part of. This to me is bad faith. His project was to survive but once he became a free man he chooses to still be seen as a slave, he even turned himself into the front image of a slave. He described the brutality he witnessed, about the horrible things that were done to him, yet one might wonder why he never left to start a new life somewhere else. If there were no fences, only tradition and the fear of freedom, to hold them within that world, how can he condemn others for keeping him in the state of a slave? Somehow, he did choose to remain a slave. It became his identity. As Douglass said in Narrative of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, as a free man: “I gave Mr. Johnson the privilege of choosing me a name, but told him he must not take from me the name of “Frederick.” I must hold on to that, to preserve a sense of my identity (Douglass 2010, 229-230).” This sentence can be interpreted as Douglass not escaping his facticity but embracing it and therefore not consumed by bad faith. However, I also interpret his strong feeling to keeping his name as a fear of losing his facticity, and instead of transcending from it, reinventing himself as a free man, he chose to hold on to himself as an object, a slave, and therefore not creating an identity of a free individual.

Douglass’s war was both an internal war against his own facticity and an external war against his masters, the slave owners; a war that creates a number of bad faiths, a self-deception that one does not have a choice or is in fact free. The first bad faith is one consumed by the slaves, believing they are forced to be a being in-itself, an object, that they are perceived and thus defined as slaves and therefore that facticity is not a choice. Douglass explains how the slaves were manipulated into believing that their world was the only one that existed, and if they left the world of slave hood, they would be alone, and that scared them more than violence. Douglass himself describes this fear of separation as he was contained in a jail cell. “I regarded this separation as a final one. It caused me more pain than anything else in the whole transaction. I was ready for anything rather than separation (Douglass 2010, 209).”

Douglass had a choice to leave, to walk away from being a slave and survive without his owner, but he didn’t, none of them did, because that choice had a certain outcome of loneliness, and if they lost their counterpart, they would lose their meaning and thus cease to exist. So, he stayed, they all stayed, and with that choice the war became external. Douglass still longed for freedom and so instead of transcending from his facticity as being defined as a slave into a self-defined individual, his project became to be a free slave. This decision was however a choice, but a choice to remain as an object as they kept quiet and blamed the war of slavery as something they did not choose for themselves.

Sartre uses war as an example of how everyone chooses how to be a part of a world. An external war is created through a choice made by another, although a person that is a part of a war has chosen to be so, therefore, one cannot blame a war or others for creating it, but must take responsibility for one’s own choice of acting or not acting in that war. Because making a choice is a choice in itself, a project where a person takes responsibility not only for the act of making a choice, but also for the outcomes resulting in that choice. In Sartre’s example of war, he describes in context that because we choose to be part of a war it becomes our war, and therefore we deserve that war. I want to go one step further and say that we do not only deserve the war, we create it unconsciously knowing that it is a tool that provides struggles necessary for our progress.

Douglass war was to survive, not to be free, even though he saw freedom as a way to survive. Douglass ultimately fights back in two distinct ways and thus claims his freedom both internal and external, learning how to read and to fight back through physical force. This is his step from being in-itself, enslavement, and being for-itself, freedom. Only as his life has been giving meaning through the perception of others, as a slave, he continues to call himself a free slave in order to keep his existential meaning. For me this is bad faith because he never makes the choice to be free, he merely becomes a free slave, so he creates a self-deception of making a choice. But actually, the choice was made for him. Douglass longed for freedom and at the same time feared it. This is something I believe many slaves, or any other person in the midst of war feels. As Douglass began to learn how to read he felt a strong sense of anguish as he recognized his responsibilities and therefore feels a temptation to flee his choice of being free.

 

As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! That very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. (Douglass 2010, 151)

 

Another bad faith in Douglass autobiography is the one consumed by the slave owners, as they perceived themselves as a being in-itself, a being who has full control on both their own destiny and their slaves. They deceive themselves as not having a choice of becoming slave owners for this is a reality created not by them but by others, a war they are placed in, and therefore they do not see themselves as actors within that war, merely causalities. Sartre’s being-in-itself, is a being independent of any human consciousness, thus a being not given meaning through the perception of others. Sartre claims that everyone must make a choice; therefore, a human cannot be in-itself as an object can, and that this is a problem of human existence: the desire to attain being in-itself, because in order to do that one must gain full control over one’s destiny and the destiny of all existence, something only achievable by a God. (Sartre 2001, 261). Sartre calls this human longing of control as bad faith as it is a self-deception of having control. Being in-itself is merely a facticity, a passive human condition that exists up until the present, and therefore does not provide the possibility for transcendence (Sartre 2001, 264).

In Sartre’s Bad Faith and Authenticity, he claims that bad faith occurs when a being denies freedom to make a choice, or when a being denies its own facticity, such as past choices or pattern of choices. Sartre believes that when a person is aware of its freedom to make a choice but denies it to oneself, it becomes a form of self-deception (Sartre 2001, 269). To remain in a passive state of existence, not creating something from our facticity, our lives does not only exclude meaning through the perception of others, but also as it loses freedom when no choices are being made. A person must transcend its facticity and this is accomplished by endowing oneself in projects, such as participating in a war. These projects are what ultimately define us as it forces us to take a stand and to do something with our lives. Because of this freedom of choice, Sartre claims that we are “condemned to be free (Sartre 2001, 267).” A theory where each and everyone always have the freedom to make a choice, a choice of projects, possibilities, but also how we perceive others, and therefore, the choice in how others perceive us. This duality of subjectivism and objectivism creates an existential paradox as it forces us to confront our own existence as a continuously changeable entity, viewed and defined by our projects and through the perception of others, without allowing us to become that definition.

In the context of Douglass’s slavery, or the black people of Fanon, the becoming a definition is the war both characters face. It is an existential war. Douglass was labeled a slave from birth and so he became a slave in his own eyes, and even after deciding to be free he still only became a free slave. Fanon’s black individual’s facticity of carrying the weight of the history of the black race on their shoulders, struggles not to be perceived as an object, but as that person struggles to be free from being defined as an object rather than a separate individual that person defines the color of the skin as black rather than white. Therefore, the black person fights for freedom to choose a separate definition can never become accomplished as long as those individuals fight for that specific separation. This self-deception of escaping a facticity by repeating its pattern is a form of bad faith not uncommon to many of us. To compare oneself to another in order to find meaning is a flight from one’s own facticity. An individual must instead choose a definition, a character, a past, a present, and a future, and in that choice a person will be condemned to be free. For making that choice is not an easy task. It is faced with anguish as an endless sea of possibilities opens up and therefore many of us take flight into comparing oneself to another. Aiming to be what another is, as a child who instead of creating values merely exchanges values from a parent to another group’s values as the child grows up. This is what Douglass and the characters of Fanons is doing, instead of reclaiming themselves as free entities with black skin or free individuals, they struggled to become their opposite, what they are not; white, and not slaves.

Douglass saw his struggle to become what he was not as a fight for freedom stating that “the slave is actually conscious of the fact that freedom is not a fact, it is not given, but rather something to be fought for; it can exist only through a process of struggle (Douglass 2010, 52).” This is a statement Fanon would object to and claim that the slaves did not actually fight for freedom; instead their masters set them free. This would explain why to this day there is still a sense of shame and resentment among black and white people, because the comparison is still evident and so the war has not been resolved. Therefore, the black people of Fanon still carry the history, the definition of black upon their shoulders, because they never fought to get rid of it, they still flee from freedom because they did not fight to be free, they fought to be white.

 

Man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose himself on another man in order to be recognized by him. As long as he has not been effectively recognized by the other, it is this other who remains the focus of his actions. His human worth and reality depend on this other and on his recognition by the other. It is in this order that the meaning of his life is condensed. (Fanon 2008, 191)

 

Escaping labels is a war we all take part of; some acknowledges them and tries hard to live up to them, some recent them but still does not see that it is up to them to break free from them, other forcefully breaks free and creates labels of their own. Yet one will never escape them. You are not defined through others, but judged, whether one agrees, or not, to the judgment is subjective and it is there the war lies. This is why war as an example is very constructive when explaining that the freedom of war lies in choosing it, but there are also internal wars that we have chosen to be a part of, or to escape from. Here freedom of war is not only in the sense that we choose that war, but also the freedom that war provides. Only through struggles, hardships, and being forced to make a choice, can one be absolutely free, and war provides that freedom. Because from the moment we realize that we exist we must take full responsibility of our own choice, live or die, fight or surrender. From that moment life becomes war, and war becomes freedom. The freedom to choose how we want our lives to be shaped, and so from that moment there are no longer any excuses to not be free. A choice has no value if there are no consequences; something a child becomes aware of, as it becomes an adult. In war our existence becomes a choice in itself, to become a person or an object. But war is not only between countries, or between people; war is always imminent in our own being.

 


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Guignon, & Pereboom, ed. Existentialism Basic Writings. 2nd ed., The Humanism of

Existentialism, by Sartre. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2001.

Guignon, & Pereboom, ed. Existentialism Basic Writings. 2nd ed., Being and Nothingness, by

Sartre. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2001.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of The Life Of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. San

Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010.

Fanons, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 2008.