Issue #56 October 2022

The Burden of Freedom: Sartre’s Sleep and Fromm’s Awakening

Carl Spitzweg - Angelnder Mönch (ca. 1869) (detail)

In his essay Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre succinctly expresses how human freedom – to which human beings are truly condemned – is at the same time the basic condition of the freedom of all human beings (whereby Sartre directly counteracts the accusation that he is talking about an atomistic individualism). 

Sartre assumes that human existence precedes its being – more concretely: its essence – from which it can be concluded that humans bear responsibility for their actions – which they perform in the image of their own freedom. Thus, in terms of the existentialist approach, freedom always represents a burden at the same time, since responsibility for one’s own existence (and thus also for one’s essence) is imposed on the individual. At this point, however, it is worth going into Sartre’s structure of argumentation when he points out that this very responsibility does not refer to the human being as a genuine subject – decoupled from any form of community affiliation – but rather to the whole of humanity, in that the responsibility logically refers to the humanity of all human beings.  

Sartre explains: 

“When we say that man chooses himself, we mean that each of us chooses himself, but we also mean that in choosing himself he chooses all men. In fact, for us there is no action that, in creating the human being we want to be, does not at the same time produce an image of the human being as we believe he should be. To choose to be this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of what we choose, for we can never choose the bad; what we choose is always the good, and nothing can be good for us without being so for all. If, on the other hand, existence precedes essence and we want to exist and form the image of ourselves at the same time, this image applies to all and to our entire epoch. Thus our responsibility is much greater than we can suppose, for it concerns all humanity.” (2010: 150)

Sartre’s motto that we, as human beings, are virtually condemned to freedom is probably nowhere as evident as in this passage. The radical responsibility that becomes visible in Sartre’s conception of freedom is expressed first of all in the fact that the choice we make, which is at the same time always determined by the way we exist, always implies our individual essence and, inseparably connected with it, the essence of the whole of humanity (which we also represent). To put it more concretely: human beings design themselves according to the imagination of what they want to be. At the same time, this imagination always expresses a normative attitude of what is desirable not only for the individual but for all of humanity. 

In this context, Sartre cites the example of a wedding in the further course of his argumentation: the decision to marry and to have children is at the same time always – regardless of the fact that it is made by an individual and is thus always initially due to individual desire – a decision for humanity, i.e. the decision for individual monogamy is at the same time the view that human beings themselves should live monogamously. 

According to Sartre, this radical responsibility that we bear through the actions that shape our existence leads to a deep form of despair and anxiety. In this context, according to Sartre, it can even be explained why a transcendent entity (God, for example) represents something extremely relieving for human beings. Following Dostoevsky, the absence of God virtually implies that man cannot shift responsibility to a higher entity that transcends his earthly limitations: In short, without the existence of God, everything is initially permitted (at least in principle). 

The core essence of existentialism, which is virtually – to find an appropriate expression for the dilemma described by Sartre, with which man is confronted – an unavoidable choice to choose, is concretised by Sartre in the further course in a particularly impressive way:

“Indeed, everything is permitted if God does not exist, and consequently man is abandoned, for he finds no support either within himself or outside himself. First of all, he finds no excuses. If indeed existence precedes essence, nothing can be explained by reference to a given and immutable human nature; in other words, there is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom. Secondly, if God does not exist, we have no values or instructions before us to justify our behaviour. So we find no justifications or excuses either behind us or before us in the light realm of values. We are alone, without excuses. I would like to express this with the words: man is condemned to be free. Condemned because he did not create himself, and yet free because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for all that he does. The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never think that a beautiful passion is an all-carrying tide that fatefully forces man to do certain deeds and is therefore an excuse. He means that man is responsible for his passion. The existentialist does not think that man can find help in a sign given on earth that points him in the right direction, because he thinks that man deciphers the sign as he pleases. He therefore thinks that man is condemned at every moment, without support and without help, to invent man.” (ibid. 155) 

If one reads this passage more closely, the normative dichotomy that characterises the existence of human beings becomes clear. On the one hand, the radical throwing back of human beings onto themselves naturally has an unmistakably emancipatory character. Human beings are not pre-determined by any prevailing ideology based on a specific image of man. Thus there is no divine order whose normative demands could have a limiting effect on the existence of human beings. 

At the same time, however, the other side of the coin comes into play here when Sartre points out that human beings are virtually condemned by their very existence to be free. If there is no longer a higher metaphysical order onto which the individual can project responsibility for its own actions, the only bearer of responsibility remains the individual itself. Sartre therefore also points out in apt terminology that human beings are responsible for their decisions insofar as they themselves are the decision. In other words, the human essence (which emerges from the mode of existence of human beings themselves) is to be regarded as a product of human decisions (and thus as a product of human freedom). Even though Sartre can certainly be classified as a left-wing thinker – do the aforementioned remarks not have an unmistakably neoliberal element? Doesn’t Sartre go back to an atomised individual radically turned in on itself? The answer is, on the one hand, yes, since Sartre’s basic existentialist position does indeed assume an individual radically thrown back on itself, but at the same time, no, since it is precisely in the power of human beings themselves to bring about the change that is necessary for the improvement of humanity. Sartre expresses this thought particularly aptly towards the end of his essay:

“After these few considerations, one sees that nothing is more unjust than the objections raised against us. Existentialism is nothing other than an effort to draw all the consequences from a coherent atheistic position. It in no way seeks to plunge man into despair. However, if one calls every unbelieving attitude despair, as the Christians do, then it starts from primordial despair. Existentialism is not so much atheism in the sense that it exhausts itself in the proof that God does not exist. Rather, it declares that even if God existed, it would not change anything; that is our point of view. Not that we believe God exists, but we think the problem is not his existence; man must find himself again and convince himself that nothing can save him from himself, even if it is a valid proof of the existence of God. In this sense, existentialism is an optimism, a doctrine of action, and it is only out of insincerity that Christians, confusing their own despair with ours, can call us despairers.” (ibid. 191) 

When Sartre points out that the core essence of the existentialist idea is to draw all conceivable consequences from the atheist position, this indicates that it is about a form of transcendental relief, which at the same time also explains why freedom can certainly be perceived by humans as a form of burden, since this very relief is transferred to human beings themselves. What is important, however, is Sartre’s indication that the existentialist is not primarily concerned with an ontological argument that attempts to prove the (non)-existence of a divine entity. Rather, the existentialist idea assumes that it does not even matter whether God exists or not. Even if God existed – or if his existence were proven – this would not in the least save human beings from themselves. Sartre then engages in an argumentative manoeuvre that can certainly be classified as interesting by pointing out that the actual despair lies in Christianity itself, since the doctrines of faith resulting from Christianity – or so Sartre’s argumentation at least suggests – merely serve to conceal one’s own despair with regard to the riddle of human existence. For Sartre, the emancipatory aspect of the existentialist position consists precisely in the fact that it starts from a radical humanism that shifts divine power (divine power in this context is merely to be described as the fact that there is a subject that has the possibility of free choice and is thus itself to be regarded directly as something resulting from free choice) onto the shoulders of human beings. 

But is this really the emancipation of human beings, or rather a form of powerlessness that makes a real form of human emancipation impossible (even if Sartre did not intend this, of course)?

The paradox of human freedom already recognisable in Sartre, which shows that it can both empower human beings and throw them back into a form of powerlessness, is expressed particularly clearly by Lea Ypi in her book Free: Coming of Age at the End of History. Ypi reflects on her youth in communist Albania and, more specifically, on the question of whether the fall of the Wall has really brought more freedom to her home country of Albania, due to the economic problems caused by Western market liberalisation. This brings Ypi to the real question: What does freedom mean? Due to the fact that Ypi poses this question against the background of the historical developments of the time, which have shown that the capitalist influences from the West have rather led to mass unemployment and emigration, it becomes clear that this can also be seen as an objection to the position represented by Sartre’s basic existentialist thought. In a sense, Ypi thus raises the question of the extent to which human beings can really be regarded as shapers of their own essence in the course of their own existence, when this existence is in a sense shaped by the social structures with which human beings are confronted. To put it more concretely: Are human beings really capable of fully realising their freedom in the course of their own existence? Ypi reports that her parents still had the hope that liberalism would be the emancipative liberation from the shortcomings of Albanian socialism. At the end of the book, however, Ypi admits that she no longer has any illusions about liberalism’s promise of more freedom – neither liberalism nor socialism, according to Ypi’s diagnosis, were capable of realising the promise of freedom. The question remains: Can human beings be enabled at all to experience that moment of their full freedom or does the principle of freedom remain nothing less than a concept in people’s imagination? 

Here it seems more than worthwhile to refer to Erich Fromm. In his famous work Escape from Freedom, Fromm explores the question of whether it has ever been possible for human beings to attain full freedom – whether under capitalism or state socialism. In order to better understand Fromm’s line of argument, it is first worth taking a closer look at the basic anthropological assumptions that Fromm represents. 

According to Fromm, the existence of human beings is characterised by a deep form of division. In concrete terms, this split manifests itself in the fact that, on the one hand, human beings can be regarded as a direct component of the natural cycle, but on the other hand, they are also capable of transcending the natural conditions of their existence. In The Art of Loving, Fromm elaborates as follows:

“The essence of man’s existence is […] that he has risen above the animal kingdom and its instinctive adaptation, that he has transcended nature, even if he never completely leaves it. He is a part of it and yet cannot return to it once he has torn himself away from it.” (Fromm 2019: 17)

According to Fromm’s reading, the contradiction of human existence becomes concretely recognisable in the fact that man is endowed with an astonishingly high degree of cognitive abilities (an aspect that makes it clear that man is quite capable of transcending the natural conditions of his existence), but on the other hand (which is why man is not to be regarded as something completely decoupled from the prevailing natural cycle) has a far inferior instinctual apparatus compared to the animal kingdom. From this dichotomy, which characterises human existence, Fromm draws the conclusion that human beings, due to their deficient instinctual apparatus, cannot help but behave in a free, self-aware and rational manner in relation to the conditions of their existence. 

This ambivalence, which results from the dichotomous situation in which the Conditio humana finds itself, is further concretised by Fromm in The Art of Loving:

“Man is endowed with reason; he is life that is conscious of itself. He has an awareness of himself, of his fellow human beings, of his past and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the realisation that he has a short life span ahead of him, that he was born without a will and will die against his will, that he will die before those he loves (or they before him), that he is alone and separate and helplessly at the mercy of the forces of nature and society – all this makes his separate, solitary existence an unbearable prison. He would fall into madness if he could not free himself from this prison […]. The experience of separateness arouses fear, indeed it is the source of fear. […] The deepest need of man is therefore to overcome his separateness and to get out of the prison of his loneliness.” (Fromm 2019: 18-19)

The isolation and powerlessness that human beings experience because of their own existence can be traced back to the fact that the self-awareness of human beings – that is, the awareness of their own existence together with the implications that arise from this very mode of existence – ensures that they become aware of both the involuntariness and the finiteness of their own existence. 

The complex mental structures peculiar to human beings enable them to rise above the determinants of nature, but on the other hand they nevertheless remain an immediate part of it, which they become aware of, in contrast to animals, due to their complex cognitive-mental equipment. For Fromm, the awareness of separateness – that is, the realisation that human life is inevitably linked to a state of isolation – is one of the defining characteristics of human existence. Consequently, the main aspiration of human beings is to overcome this form of separateness from nature and fellow human beings.

Carl Spitzweg - Angelnder Mönch (ca. 1869) (detail)

Fromm assumes that every human being goes through a so-called individuation process – the separation that human beings experience in the course of their existence is a key concept for understanding the individuation process more precisely. 

The first natural step of this individuation process can already be discerned in early childhood, when the child – symbolically illustrated by the cutting of the umbilical cord – no longer forms a biological unit with its mother. Regardless of this initial biological separation from its mother, the child nevertheless remains connected to her. This is made clear not least by the fact that the child is still dependent on the mother due to its biological constitution. In the course of its own individuation process, however, the child becomes increasingly aware of itself and is consequently increasingly able to perceive its own self and the world around it as separate entities. In this context, Fromm aptly states in Escape from Freedom:

“We see that the process of growing human freedom has a dialectical character that we observed in the process of individual growth. On the one hand, it is a process of increasing strength and integration, of mastering nature and increasing mastery of human reason, of growing solidarity with other human beings. On the other hand, however, this increasing individuation also means increasing isolation, insecurity and, as a result, a growing sense of one’s own powerlessness and insignificance as an individual.” (Fromm 2019: 32)

For Fromm, the increase in freedom – both on an individual and a societal level – has an unmistakably dialectical character: the way in which human beings detach themselves from their primary ties, which previously gave them a sense of security, goes hand in hand with the increase of an awareness with regard to their own self. However, the flip side of this process is made clear by the fact that human beings’ self-awareness is also accompanied by a growing form of loneliness. The paradox in this context consists specifically in the fact that human beings try to develop escape mechanisms in order to escape the negative aspects, which are to be regarded as immediate side effects of the individuation process. This attempt to escape in human beings goes hand in hand with the possibility of escaping the negative freedom given to them. At this point it is worth being a little more specific. 

Fromm essentially distinguishes between three different forms of freedom: (I) the pre-freedom state, (II) the state of negative freedom and (III) the state of positive freedom. 

As already mentioned, according to Fromm’s theory, the process of detachment is a completely natural part of the human individuation process. On a biological level, the process can be illustrated particularly well – on a symbolic level – when the umbilical cord of the child is separated from the mother – with which the human being experiences himself as something separate for the first time in his life. This biological individuation process is applied by Fromm – and this is probably one of the most interesting lines of argumentation in Fromm’s thinking – to a social-historical level: According to Fromm, there is also a similar ambivalence in the course of human history. If one wants to understand the ambivalence that Fromm ascribes to the social individuation process more precisely, one lands directly at the heart of Fromm’s critique of capitalism: while according to Fromm the process of civilisational development certainly reveals positive aspects – for example, the democratic state and human rights – it also has the consequence that human beings, especially due to the modern socio-economic structures of capitalism, are also confronted with an increasing degree of isolation. In contrast to the medieval-feudal social structures, human beings may have attained a higher degree of freedom, but this increasing degree of freedom also means a new form of insecurity and loneliness.

Fromm describes the powerlessness caused by this form of freedom in the course of the social individuation process as follows:

“However, if the economic, social and political conditions on which the entire process of human individuation depends offer no basis for the realisation of individuality […] while at the same time people have lost the ties that offered them security, then this empty space makes freedom an unbearable burden.” (Fromm 2019: 33)

At this point, Fromm first draws attention to a crucial point that Sartre did not seem to take into account in his essay. The immediate powerlessness that the gain in freedom can bring with it can be explained by the fact that, according to Fromm, the freedom to develop one’s own self – or, in Sartre’s terminology, to form one’s own essence in the course of existence – presupposes that human beings at the same time find the economic, social and political framework conditions that enable them to make use of their own freedom – since these ideally represent the protective structure that the bonds represented in previous historical periods. 

At this point, it is worthwhile to go into the three forms of freedom (already indicated) that Fromm differentiates between. 

The point in time at which human beings have not yet freed themselves from their primary bonds is what Fromm calls the pre-freedom state. According to Fromm, a paradigmatic example of the pre-freedom state are the medieval social structures, which were characterised by strict hierarchies in which everyone knew their place:

“Since from the moment of his birth, man had a definite, immovable place that no one could dispute, he was rooted in a structured whole. Life had a meaning for him that left no room for doubt. Everyone was identical with his role in society. He was a peasant, an artisan or a knight – and not an individual who happened to be pursuing that particular occupation. The social order was seen as natural, and being a certain part of it gave one a sense of security and belonging.” (Fromm 2019: 37)

The degree of lack of freedom that characterises the pre-freedom state is at the same time responsible – and this is the paradox – for human beings feeling a higher degree of security. In the pre-freedom state, humans can delegate the form of responsibility that human freedom inevitably entails to the social order, which is to be regarded as God-given, in accordance with the basic idea shaped by Sartre’s existentialism. Whether one is a peasant or a knight does not depend – in contrast to the market-capitalist social structures – on whether one has fallen into this profession through one’s own efforts or responsibility. Rather, one’s status in society – like the social order itself – is seen as something given by nature. 

Consequently, the process of alienation had not yet occurred among the human beings living in the Middle Ages, since people did not regard themselves as individuals but as a component of a larger nature-given order. This in turn meant that human existence was characterised by a much lower degree of negative freedom but a higher degree of sense of belonging. According to Fromm, the process of individuation – and thus also the process of the increase in negative freedom – begins with the economic transformation processes towards the end of the Middle Ages.

Characteristic of the phenomenon of negative freedom – which first of all denotes a form of freedom from external coercive elements (royal rulers, etc.) – is that human beings are confronted with an increasing degree of powerlessness and loss of orientation:

“We encounter a double face of freedom […]. The individual becomes free from economic and political fetters. He also gains some positive freedom through the active, independent role he must play in the new system. But at the same time he is also freed from all those ties that previously gave him security and a sense of belonging. Life no longer takes place in a self-contained world whose centre was the human being; the world has become boundless and at the same time threatening.” (Fromm 2019: 51)

The degree of individualism that came into effect simultaneously with the destabilisation of medieval social structures ensured that human beings no longer had a socially clearly identifiable place to which they could return. 

On the other hand, due to the fact that human beings have detached themselves from primary ties and thus freed themselves from external constraints, new forms of coercion have manifested themselves in human behaviour. These new forms of coercion are, in contrast to the primary bonds – be it, symbolically speaking, the umbilical cord of the mother, which connects human beings with nature, or bonds manifested in social reality, such as membership of a religious community – not external, but internal in nature. In concrete terms, this means that the coercive elements characteristic of modern capitalist social structures arise from the concrete psychological dispositions of the individuals living within these social structures. Fromm presents the dialectic inherent in the negative concept of freedom particularly succinctly:

“We are enthralled by the increase in our freedom from powers outside ourselves and are blind to the internal constraints and anxieties that threaten to undermine the significance of the victories that freedom has won against its traditional enemies.” (Fromm 2019: 81)

According to Fromm, the blindness to the inner psychological constraints caused by the increase in newly won negative freedom can be explained not least by the fact that the struggles for freedom characteristic of modern history were singularly focused on a detachment from pre-modern authorities and constraints. Such a singular focus ultimately had the consequence that the new forms of unfreedom hardly, if at all, made themselves felt by human beings on a conscious level.

The question that arises in view of the previous considerations at this point is how (and whether) human beings can reach that state of positive freedom. 

Before answering this question, it is worthwhile to first explain in a little more detail what Fromm understands by the state of positive freedom. In this context, Fromm describes the state of positive freedom as follows:

“Positive freedom as the realisation of the self includes the full affirmation of the uniqueness of the individual. Human beings are born equal, but they are also born different.” (Fromm 2019: 191) 

The equality of which Fromm speaks here and which unites all human beings refers first to the humanity of the human being itself. Simply formulated: that the human being – regardless of all differences – is a human being. Fromm specifies even more precisely what distinguishes the state of positive freedom in concrete terms:

“When the man realises his self through spontaneous activity and in this way enters into a relationship with the world, he ceases to be an isolated atom, he and the world become part of a structured whole, he has his rightful place in the world, with which his doubts about himself and the meaning of life also disappear. These doubts arose from his seclusion and the thwarting of his life. The doubts disappear as soon as he manages to live spontaneously rather than under compulsion and automatically.” (Fromm 2019: 190)

However, Fromm correctly points out that the new security that human beings experience through spontaneous activity is different from that in the pre-freedom state. Consequently, it would be a misconception to believe that the form of spontaneous activity made possible by the state of positive freedom ensures that human beings can re-establish the primary ties severed by separation and thus experience that old form of protection and security again. According to Fromm, the new form of security is rather of a dynamic nature and in no way excludes the aspect of failure, and thus of insecurity. For Fromm, the realisation of the individual associated with spontaneous activity is not merely an instrument for overcoming alienation, but rather an end in itself.

But what conditions must now be ensured in concrete terms so that human beings can progress towards positive freedom? 

For Fromm, human beings can only achieve positive freedom if the economic system is restructured in such a way that the basic mechanisms from which this system is constituted promote the individual’s self-development. With regard to the necessary social conditions that must prevail so that human beings can develop their individual selves in the best possible way, Fromm states at the end of Escape from Freedom:

“Only human beings get a grip on society, only if they put the economic apparatus at the service of human happiness, and only if every individual is actively involved in the social process, can they overcome their loneliness and the feeling of powerlessness that drives them to despair today. Today, human beings suffer not so much from poverty as from the fact that they have become a cog in a great machine, an automaton, and that their lives have become empty and meaningless.” (Fromm 2019: 199)

Fromm repeatedly points out in all clarity that human beings can only overcome their own process of alienation if the individual is actively involved in the social process and can thus give expression to his or her own self. On a more specific level, this means for Fromm that modern democracy at least creates the necessary conditions for the political, economic and cultural development of human beings. For Fromm, the most difficult aspect of the transformation of the economic system is to adjust how the establishment of a planned economy can be reconciled with the active participation of the individual members of society. According to Fromm, the centralisation that goes hand in hand with a planned economy requires an unavoidable process of bureaucratisation, which in turn harbours the danger that the interests of the individual members of society will be ignored. Even if the question is difficult to solve with regard to the combination of centralisation and decentralisation processes, according to Fromm, the capitalist economic system, which he finds in his lifetime, must undergo a necessary process of transformation so that human beings are enabled to develop their individual selves.

At this point it is now worth returning to Sartre. Why – as noted in the title of this contribution – can we speak of Sartre’s sleep and Fromm’s awakening in relation to human freedom? 

In a sense, Fromm’s reflections offer an answer to the question raised by Ypi as to whether there is a freedom beyond the human imagination (and thus beyond state socialism and market-based capitalism). According to Fromm, there is such freedom – but to achieve this freedom Fromm goes a decisive step further than Sartre.

For Sartre, human freedom and – inextricably linked to it – human responsibility are to be seen as something inevitable. Here Fromm and Sartre are in agreement. Where they differ in one crucial respect, however, is when it comes to the question of how the possibility of positive freedom can be realised. For Fromm, it is clear that this must go hand in hand with a change in the economic structures – a realisation that Sartre did seem to be attentive to but not his theory of Existentialism.

Florian Maiwald is a PhD student at the University of Bonn. His thesis examines John Stuart Mill in order to explore the connection between liberalism and socialism. In 2021, his book Das Konzept des individuellen Selbst bei John Stuart Mill und Erich Fromm (engl.: The Concept of the Individual Self in the works of John Stuart Mill and Erich Fromm) has been published in German.  In addition to his doctoral thesis and his work at the university, he regularly deals with philosophical and social issues in various articles (published in Epoché Magazine and ABC Australia, among others). Florian Maiwald is an honorary editorial member of the Austrian political online magazine Unsere Zeitung – Die Demokratische and runs the podcast Bezüglich Bildung (engl.: Concerning education) with Sebastian Lenze. You can reach him at

Works Cited

Sartre, J.P., Existentialism is a Humanism: And Other Philosophical Essays, Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 2010 (German edition). 

Fromm, E., Escape from Freedom, dtv-Verlagsgesellschaft, 2019 (German edition).

Fromm, E., The Art of Loving, dtv-Verlagsgesellschaft, 2019 (German edition).


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