One of the most famous sections in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is his commentary over the moment of vertigo—dramatized with a person on the edge of cliffside looking down to his death below or his freedom above. One of the easiest, and shortest, sections of his work, the “moment of vertigo” is really the realization of the totality of freedom. And the realization of the totality of freedom is the fragility of it.
Sartre was a rare metaphysical libertarian. That is, he affirmed free will while denying all determinisms. The world was not determined by the laws of motion, the world was not determined by biology, the world was not predestined to hell or salvation. The world was, for Sartre, in a state of total and complete flux and its destination—if we keep to the traditional language—was entirely determined by us. The world was “nothing.” I am “nothing.” This is why the individual, in Sartrean existentialism, constantly chooses to be and become whatever he wishes at any given moment.
The real importance of Sartre’s reflection on vertigo is the realization of the fragility of freedom. It is not necessarily the case that one recognizes the fragility of freedom in the dramatized case recounted by Sartre—though being in such a position doesn’t hurt! Vertigo represents a moment of clarity, of truth, of realization, on part of the subject person. That is, “vertigo” is a sort of “eureka” moment where everything comes together in a moment of clarity for the subject. The subject, in this case, is a human. What he understands is the intertwined fragility, and totality, of his being—which constitutes his freedom.
That Sartre intertwines freedom with life and death is important. In man’s total freedom he can hurl himself off the cliff’s edge and to his death. He has the freedom to do so. Conversely, as part of the dialectic of life-death (or suicide), he can climb back to the safety offered away from the cliff’s edge and live. He has the freedom to do so.
The maximalization of freedom, for Sartre, is that man has the ability to choose life or death. The choice of death, however “bad,” or “tragic” it is, must be respected because it is the freedom of a subject-conscience to do so. In this sense Sartre doesn’t stray far from Locke in associating the choice of negation as the real expression of man’s freedom. In fact, for Sartre, it is.
The extreme freedom of negation is the negation of one’s own being. The choice to end one’s own freedom. Moderate freedom is not living by a set of rules or customs, but going through a constant cycle of negating one’s previous facticity without negating one’s own being. Being, for Sartre, is the ability to constantly choose. In choosing, for example, to live as a waiter, I am – in this moment of choice – defined by being a waiter. The next morning I choose to live as an artist, thus negating my previous facticity of being a waiter and now becoming an artist. This is moderate freedom in contrast with extreme freedom because I never negate my own being (i.e. choosing death). Extreme freedom is not a vice—it is a good. Thus, if a person chooses suicide he or she had the freedom to do so and that freedom must be respected.
Critics of Sartre argue that Sartre embraced the nihilistic strand of romanticism and existentialism precisely because he associated the freedom to choose death as a good, in of itself, to be respected. Now Sartre certainly did not think suicide was an apt response to our condition. Nevertheless, he leaves room for it.
What is vertigo for Sartre? Vertigo is the realization of the totality of our freedom. And the realization of the totality of our freedom is necessarily related to the recognition of the fragility of our freedom. In other words, at any second I could decide to end my own existence. I have the absolute freedom to do so if I so wanted. And that is what makes the vertigo moment so unhinging. I realize I am in complete control of my life. That also means I can choose to end my life at any moment. Freedom includes the freedom to end freedom.
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