Existence presents itself chiefly as a task – each individual human being tasked with its own project – namely, becoming a self. Insofar as each individual is concerned, his particular project is both determined and un-determined for him. It is determined insofar as the individual always finds itself situated in the world; and thus its project is a thrown project. It is at the same time un-determined insofar as the existing individual self is responsible for his choosing among the existent possibilities. But which meaningful possibilities present themselves to the individual self as real possibilities, is in large part determined by the vast network of meaning-given structures by which the individual understands itself, and its possibilities in the world, at all.
Thus, while I am free to choose for myself whether I take up my understanding of my being-in-the-world as a student, a doctor, a lawyer, a husband, or philosopher; I am not free to choose from among those possibilities for which, on account of my thrownness, do not present themselves to me as meaningful possibilities.
Thus, Sartre is wrong when he concludes that human being’s freedom (of action) is absolute. This presumes that one can get fully behind, or separate from, one’s facticity; but this only evidences Sartre’s latent Cartesianism – and indeed, contributing to his general misreading of Heidegger. In other words, Sartre is unable to move beyond his presupposition of a subject removed, or detached from his situated-ness in the world.
It still suffices to say that human being is doomed to his freedom. Even if our freedom isn’t the absolute freedom that Sartre believes it to be, we are still all alone, abandoned to ourselves, and faced with the same abysmal groundlessness of existence – with only the slight qualification as regards the otherwise tenuous security offered by our facticity.
Existential angst occurs when the Self is brought face-to-face with itself as a finite and temporal self. In angst, the world in which the Self finds itself is revealed as groundless and meaningless. The Self becomes detached from its own projects and everything that has hitherto provided grounding; meaning; and structure. In short, the Self comes face-to-face with its own finiteness; and is forced to come to terms with the full meaning of its finite existence as temporal being.
In anxiety, the self is confronted with death. But death is not merely the cessation of biological processes; nor is it what we commonly associated with the notion of “perishing” or “expiring.” Nor is death an ‘event’ that is yet to take place in some distant future; a mere “not-yet.”
Rather, death is the possibility of impossibility — the vulnerability of total and complete world collapse; thus; the Self comes to grips with its possibility of having no more possibilities: ceasing to exist. As such, death (understood as the possibility of no more possibilities) is always already a part of the Self.
Thus, the self is revealed to itself to be groundless and futile; isolated in its own finitude and thrown into a distant and indifferent world. Angst that all possibilities of the Self are ephemeral and pointless. Not only does the Self surrender its sense of an intrinsic or universal meaning to its life — but abandons as hopeless the possibility of ever uncovering such a meaning. Existential angst is not the loss of meaning; but rather, its the coming to the realization that there never was any meaning to begin with.
When delivered over into existential angst, the Self is confronted with the “dizzying freedom” of choice:
Existnetial angst discloses the Self’s freedom. In the absence of any meaningful standards by which to ground itself in, the Self comes face to face its own freedom to determine itself. When the Self makes the choice to embrace its ownmost nothingness as finite and temporal — it exists authentically. This freedom is noxious; it discloses the existential solipsism of the Self. As such, anyone who finds himself in existential angst may equally choose to flee from death; back into the illusory security and structured “grounding” of the Crowd.
The freedom disclosed by angst is not the transcendental variety of the the metaphysical tradition. It is a freedom of action: the freedom to take an active stand on relating one’s Self to to itself through the world; by taking up its ownmost potential amidst the groundlessness and meaninglessness of existence.
There is no moral criteria attached to the choosing. And from the outside, “others” cannot tell if one Self is existing authentically or not. Rather, it is a highly personalized endeavor in which the Self affirms the process of becoming a Self in the face of the absolute emptiness of existence.
Nor is authentic existence to be understood as the path to the “good life.” This is emphatically not the case. In all actuality, inauthentic existence is likely far more comforting and pleasurable than existing authentically. It’s not hard to imagine why. Fleeing from one’s own recognition that one is going to die — and reverting back to the ready-made meaning provided by others or the Crowd is far more likely to produce a “happy,” or at the very least, a more agreeable life.
If there’s one thing our modern civilization is never left wanting, it’s rules, regulations, and “instructions” in how to live our lives. One simply cannot engage in any activity whatsoever anymore without there being some type of administrative, criminal, or regulatory rule telling us how, when, where, and on what grounds we may do so.
The absurd lengths to which modern man tries to regulate away the realities of his existence is best illustrated in the decaying West. Take, for example, the United States. The United States of America is the administrative state par excellence. Every single law, regulation, or rule governing the most quintessential to the most mundane aspect of our existence may be found in some Code or another. This is true at all levels of government: municipal/local, state, and Federal. The sheer abundance of local regulations (i.e., zoning, commercial, tax, etc.) is mind-boggling.
A more illustrative example may be the effort of the last 10-20 years to abolish smoking from our “culture” (and I use this word in the loosest sense). Nowadays, depending on the jurisdiction, one cannot smoke in one’s place of employment (with a few exceptions); on a public sidewalk, 25-feet from any public place, or in the most extreme cases, even in one’s apartment. In some states, i.e., New York, the state legislature has taken absurd paternalism to its next logical level in the campaign to eradicate unhealthy decisions by imposing taxes on cigarette consumers that, in effect, double their prices. I recently traveled to New York, where I’m originally from, and was astounded when the cashier informed me that my two packs of Marlboro Reds were going to cost me in excess of $20.
Similar results have taken form in our society’s effort to combat un-healthy food (i.e., San Francisco’s war on trans-fats and Happy Meal toys.).
The point isn’t that we should smoke, or that we should eat McDonald’s food. But when a culture passively cedes its own sense of individual responsibility and simply requires someone else to tell it what to do, it’s symptomatic of a much greater problem. Nietzsche had a profound mistrust of rules such as the ones that dominate our lives today. For him, rules were merely a means of making life easy for weak people. Why have to make difficult choices for yourself, i.e., weigh the benefits of eating a cheeseburger (it tastes good) versus the health costs (it’s bad for me). Rather, if the government steps in and makes the decision for me (ban unhealthy food or tax it into oblivion), then I’m spared the difficult choice of taking responsibility for my own life.
Moreover, general rules that dictate everyone presupposes the common man. But what is common is usually ugly, decadent, weak, or all of the above. The attempt to over-civilize modern mankind is nothing more than an attempt to make life easier for those who can’t be bothered to make their own decisions or are too stupid to know what to do with their lives. In a sense, this goes a long way towards illustrating the incompatibility of freedom and happiness. Americans love to tout themselves as the “freest” people in the world; but what type of freedom is envisaged when one has had all of life’s choices made for you? Abrogating responsibility to make one’s own decisions means relieving oneself from suffering the consequences. This, without a doubt, makes life more comfortable, more secure, and “easier.” And taking that happiness is negative, in other words, may be described as the absence of suffering and pain, overcivilization is trading in the one thing that we do have, a sense of metaphysical freedom to suffer our own choices in life, for an illusory form of happiness that bestows on us the most inauthentic form of existence.
Real freedom (and no, this does NOT mean the type that has anything to do with casting a ballot for the least offensive or obnoxious candidate every four years) is most likely entirely incompatible with the security and happiness that is the telos or goal of liberal society. The effect of overcivilization has created a peoples in which they believe they are happy (happiness is negative, and even then only fleeting and transient) but which is incapable, and utterly terrified, of exercising any authentic freedom to even come close to shaping its own life or existence.