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What is Freedom?: Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Age of Reason” (Part 1)

The first instalment of Jean-Paul Sartre’s trilogy Roads to Freedom, The Age of Reason (L’Âge de Raison, 1945), compels the modern reader to re-define the idea of freedom, conventionally worded as “the condition of being free of restraints” (The Free Dictionary). “Free of restraints” is murky waters when it comes to Mathieu and Daniel, the two main characters of Sartre’s soul-searching work. 

Sartre’s characters are primarily “for-itself beings,” existentially free persons who act according to the choices that have moulded them. The words “existentially free” are oxymoronic, and the phrase “free persons who act according to the choices that have moulded them” is painfully paradoxical. This is classic Sartrean paradox: it tells you that as an individual you are “free” to make choices, but these choices are pre-determined by a whole other set of choices beyond your control or manipulation.

Mathieu Delarue has made the mistake of impregnating his mistress of seven years, and now has to find a way to secure 4,000 francs for the abortion. During the course of the novel, he approaches several characters - one of whom is Daniel, a closeted homosexual with his own demons - but none of them can (or are willing to) give him the help he desperately seeks. He is left with two choices: either to steal the money from somewhere (an opportunity that does present itself in the second half of the novel, fittingly reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment), or to accept that his “freedom” as a carefree bachelor has reached its end and make a respectable woman out of Marcelle. Either choice is repulsive to him. Thus, in this dithering fashion we arrive at the jarring conclusion of the novel, where Daniel the homosexual offers to marry Marcelle for, the reader suspects, egotistical reasons.

After Daniel’s confession that he is homosexual but intends to marry Marcelle nonetheless, he says to Mathieu: “You’ve been a winner all around … You are free.” Mathieu’s response is: “No … it isn’t by giving up a woman that a man is free” (298). He then reflects on Daniel’s act:

Is that what freedom is? … He (Daniel) has acted: and now he can’t go back: it must seem strange to him to feel behind him an unknown act, which he has already ceased to understand and which will turn his life upside down. All I do, I do for nothing. It might be said that I am robbed of the consequences of my acts: everything happens as though I could always play my strokes again. I don’t know what I would give to do something irrevocable.” (299)

To fully understand Mathieu’s frustration at being “robbed of the consequences of my acts,” one must return to earlier sections of the novel where it can be seen that Mathieu is a modern man going through an existential crisis.

In one of Mathieu’s early stream of consciousness passages, we read the following:

I’m getting old. Here I am, lounging in a chair and believing in nothing … For thirty-five years I’ve been sipping at myself and I’m getting old. I have worked. I have waited, I have had my desire: Marcelle, Paris, independence: and now it’s over. I look for nothing more … That’s how they view me – Daniel, Marcelle, Brunet, Jacques: the man who aspires to be free … Freedom, that is his secret garden: a little scheme with himself as sole accomplice … An idle, unresponsive fellow, rather chimerical, but ultimately quite sensible, who has dexterously constructed an undistinguished but solid happiness upon a basis of inertia, and justified himself from time to time on the highest moral grounds. Is that what I am? (48-9)

Mathieu’s questioning of his own being reveals two facts: (1) He is very conscious of his need for freedom, and (2) he suspects the “free state” he is in is illusory. It is a condition born out of “inertia,” or lack of action. He has only managed to maintain his so-called freedom by doing nothing.
Sartre’s concept of freedom can be defined as follows:
1. Every situation is an opportunity that is either made use of or neglected.
2. Hence, every situation forces us to choose what we will make of it.
3. In this sense we are free, but our freedom comes ultimately from the fact of our being as a for-itself, a being who is thrown into this situation of being forced to choose at every moment.
4. Hence, although we are free, we are also anguished - we are always having to make difficult choices and never allowed to shift responsibility onto others.

Strictly adhering to Sartre’s definition of freedom, we could claim that Mathieu is the opposite of a “free man.” He is, in truth, a man trapped by irresolution. His various acts of deferment deny him the possibility of becoming free in the Sartrean sense.

When Daniel says to Mathieu early on that marrying Marcelle will be “a superb opportunity to proclaim [his] freedom,” he fails to understand Daniel’s reasoning (96). He only sees in marriage the termination of his “freedom”; he has not yet acknowledged that freedom means he must accept the consequence of his choice.   

Mathieu’s brother Jacques has this to say to him when he knocks on his door to borrow the much-needed sum of money:

I should myself have thought … that freedom consisted in frankly confronting situations into which one had deliberately entered, and accepting all one’s responsibilities … You have, however, reached the age of reason, my poor Mathieu … But you try to  dodge that fact too, you try to pretend you’re younger than you are. (107)

“The age of reason” referred to here is the age of responsibility. A free man must first claim responsibility for what he has done and face all the (potentially awful) consequences his act may bring.

As the novel deepens, Mathieu indeed becomes more anguished and alienated from his surroundings; it is almost as though he were losing his physical self and becoming an abstraction. When Brunet visits him in his apartment, Mathieu says to him he is “very real” and his solid physical presence revolts him (119). In a crucial passage where the reader finds Mathieu drinking with his motley crew of friends in a club, he envisions himself as a “pure consciousness without ego,” and concludes that “the verdict of that consciousness was – The fellow is a wash-out, and deserves his fate” (187). Self-extinction comes to mind; he judges that no-one will remember who or what he has been when he is dead. After these annihilating thoughts, self-mutilation is only one easy step away.

Mathieu does arrive at Sartre’s definition of freedom towards the end of the novel, before Daniel’s surprise confession, when he realises that “all his freedom had come back on him once more” and that “whatever happens, it is by my agency that everything must happen” (242). The narrator continues on his behalf:

Even if he let himself be carried off, in helplessness and in despair … he would have chosen his own damnation: he was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate: to marry, to give up the game, to drag this dead weight about him with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good nor Evil unless he brought them into being … He was alone, enveloped on this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned for ever to be free. (243)

The same paradoxical language appears in this passage that perfectly encapsulates the existentialist philosophy: yes, we are free to decide, but in the end we only have ourselves to answer to and can expect no help from some higher omnipotent presence which does not exist. The Good and Evil in the universe are caused by our own actions. We are for ever alone, left here on this blue planet surrounded by “monstrous silence.” We cannot excuse our behaviour by way of religious superstition; the concept and conception of God cannot explain the stone-faced indifference of the universe. And yet this state of abandonment is precisely why we are “free.” 

Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Age of Reason. London: Penguin Books, 2001 Penguin Classics ed.


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