For Sartre we are trapped between being subjects with experience and objects of experience. We are consciousness, but we are also physical bodies. We are free, but also limited. In order to escape this duality, we must transcend ourselves through love, writes Alexandra Gustafson.
According to the existentialists, we as human beings find ourselves uniquely situated in the world. We are masters of our own fate, yet we are still beholden to the facts; we have the freedom to act however we wish, yet we are constrained by laws and norms. The question becomes how to live. How are we to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of freedom and the world in a way that does not veer toward inauthenticity?
The question of how to live is not new, but is instead perhaps the oldest of philosophical puzzles. From Plato’ Republic to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, conceptions of ‘the good life’ have long argued that morality is humankind’s central defining feature. While it’s true that we are capable of self-reflection and action, however, to think that this is what defines man is to commit an error of bad faith, or inauthenticity; we are neither so entirely free nor so completely beholden to the world. Here, I’ll argue that the answer to the question of how to live can only be answered through a philosophy of love.
The love lives of philosophers changed how we think Read more According to Sartre in Being and Nothingness, we as human beings are continually wrestling with our dual nature as free, experiencing subjects and externally-determined, experienceable objects. Try as we might, we can only treat ourselves as one of these things at a time: either we are freedom, or we are facticity. Why is this the case? Because to honour our essential freedom to act however we may choose is to ignore that we are also essentially instantiated beings. We live in a physical world governed by physical laws; a social world governed by social norms. To treat ourselves as above or outside of these is to deny the facts.
We are experiencing subjects, but we are also experienceable objects. We have the freedom to act however we choose, yet we are also determined by the world.
Similarly, to bend entirely to our facticity is to deny that we are free. It may very well be that social constraints require us to behave in a certain way in one sense of the word ‘require’, but in another, stricter sense, they have no power over us at all. To treat these constraints as though they determine our actions, therefore, is to ignore the latter sense in which we are free to act however we choose. Thus, as both freedom and facticity, our lives are defined by opposition. We are experiencing subjects, but we are also experienceable objects. We have the freedom to act however we choose, yet we are also determined by the world.
In order to avoid inauthenticity, we must either recognize ourselves as equally subject and object, freedom and facticity, simultaneously; or transcend this distinction entirely. I believe that, through love, the latter path is possible. This is because love is essentially unreflective, and therefore, selfless.
This is one way that romantic love feels. For a moment, with our beloved at the center and forefront of our focus, everything else melts away.
Imagine, if you will, sitting across the table from your beloved at your favourite restaurant. The server is placing down your plate, and while smiling in thanks, your eyes catch your beloved’s. They’re also smiling. You see the outermost corners of their eyes, the curve of their lips, their single arched brow. At the same time, you see none of these things in particular - rather, what you see is, precisely, your beloved. For a moment, with your beloved at the center and forefront of your focus, everything else melts away.
Here’s another example. Imagine that you are in the kitchen and that your beloved is pouring wine at the dinner table. Soft music plays, but you don’t really hear it. Instead, there is only their gentle sway, their hands cupping each glass tenderly in turn. As you watch, there is only them, and you are transfixed. There they are in your kitchen, somehow yours to love; and you know you love them precisely because they grip you in this way.
This is one way that romantic love feels. For a moment, with our beloved at the center and forefront of our focus, everything else melts away. What follows from this picture? Two things: that love is essentially unreflective, and also that it is truly selfless. These two things are essential, for it is due to them that we are able to transcend the essential opposition that governs our lives. This is because only in being unreflective do we escape our nature as an experiencing subject, and only in being selfless do we escape our nature as an experienceable object.
When our attention is arrested in the way just described, I believe that our entire nature slips from our mind. Thus it is that love is unreflective: We neither see ourselves as essentially subject nor essentially object, for indeed, we do not see ourselves at all. We are aware of neither our freedom nor our facticity, because we are aware of our beloved alone. This feeling is neither positive nor negative—neither an assertion of value or the assertion of negativity.
Our love, in essentially lacking reflective awareness of self, is therefore also selfless (this, in the most robust sense of the word). The experience of these moments when we feel most in love is a consciousness of our beloved and only them, continuously them, all of them, with no element of ourselves entering into the picture. In these moments of love, our self does not factor into our consciousness at all. So it is that we are not a part of our love, in the strictest sense of the word.
We often love from a distance, or continue to love those who have ceased to love us in return. To say that these feelings are not love proper until our beloved comes to return our affection is too implausible a claim to accept.
The most plausible alternative to selfless love is, I think, the view that love is a union between two lovers (indeed, versions of this view have been popular since Aristotle). Though the details vary, the general opinion among these views is that, in love, the lovers shed their individual identities (you and me) to become a we. Setting aside the metaphysical difficulties (e.g. What happens to me when we become we? What happens to us should we fall out of love?), I think this view makes the mistake of conflating love with relationships. While the latter certainly requires more than one party, it seems clear that love itself does not. We often love from a distance, or continue to love those who have ceased to love us in return. To say that these feelings are not love proper until our beloved comes to return our affection, or that our feeling ceases to be love once our beloved loses heart, is too implausible a claim to accept.
Of course, this only establishes that love isn’t a union, not that love is therefore selfless. But that it’s possible to love unrequitedly is a further clue. Loving someone who doesn’t love you back hurts tremendously, and yet, this pain often does not extinguish our love. If love was self-involved, then surely we would cease to do something so detrimental to our wellbeing. And yet, despite our pain, we often continue to love, even when we are well aware that there is no hope of having our love returned. This further suggests that our love is not really about us at all, but rather, essentially about our beloved.
Love, essentially unreflective, focussed entirely on our beloved, is the key. In loving, we transcend our dual nature as experiencing subject and experienceable object because we are not part of our love. A philosophy of life that excludes the role of love in our lives will thus always get our essential nature wrong. This is because it is only through love that we as agents in the world may escape the otherwise inescapable trap of bad faith.