Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness: A Summary of his Philosophy, Bad Faith, and Vertigo

Jean Paul Sartre was among the most famous of the modern existentialists and phenomenologists, perhaps second only to Martin Heidegger.  Sartre’s great text of fame was his “essay on ontology,” Being and Nothingness.  In typical French fashion, the text is weighty, dense, and draws heavily from the history of philosophy, especially Christianity, Bacon, Descartes, Hegel, Husserl, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.

The opening paragraph of Sartre’s great work begins, “Modern thought has realized considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it.  Its aim was to overcome a certain number of dualisms which have embarrassed philosophy and to replace them by the monism of the phenomenon. Has the attempt been successful” (p. 3)?  Sartre’s famous opening addresses the problem of the dualisms that “monism” have attempted to resolve.  However, Sartre’s opening statement is somewhat misleading since many prominent phenomenologists before him, especially St. Augustine, Georg Hegel, and Martin Heidegger, aren’t really “monists” as he said – they were rather unitive thinkers in which pluralism was tied together in unity giving the impression of monism.  Likewise, many figures associated with the monist movement operated from a practical dualism: Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke (who was actually a dualist but functional monist).

What was Sartre’s concern?  First was the implied dualism and “bad faith” of Christianity.  The separation of man into Elect and damned, heaven and hell, soul and body, etc., was a problem that modern philosophy had to overcome.  Although Christianity properly rejects dualism as a heresy, and its teachings are unitive, Sartre nevertheless sees a certain dualism within Christianity as “embarrassing” to modern philosophy.  Second is the functional dualism of the materialist monists of the new science.  Francis Bacon was a monistic materialist; man was but a mass of matter in the world which Thomas Hobbes, one of Bacon’s great disciples, explained more thoroughly in Leviathan.  Bacon’s new science, however, created a functional dualism in separating man from nature: man vs. nature.  Third was the mind-body (or subject-matter) dualism of Descartes.  Man, as subject-consciousness, was primarily immaterial and not material.  But man is “enclosed in a body.”  This leads to the subject-object crisis that preoccupies much of modern ontology.  Sartre sees the history of modern philosophy as the attempt to resolve dualism but thinks, ultimately, that the project has been unsuccessful.  That is where his work steps in.

Ontology is the study of being.  A further derivation of ontology is anthropology (specifically the study of the being of man).  Properly, it should be tied to metaphysics when being logically coherent.  For instance, a materialist metaphysic should necessitate a materialist ontology.  An idealist metaphysic should necessitate an idealist ontology.  A monistic metaphysic should necessitate a monistic ontology.  A pluralist metaphysic should necessitate a pluralistic ontology, etc.  For Sartre, the problem with modern philosophy is that it holds to a monist, and materialist, metaphysic, but is trapped in a dualistic ontology: subject and object.  To hold to a materialistic monistic metaphysic would mean to render the human person to a body of matter without subjectivity (or consciousness).  But where, and why, do humans have such subjectivity?  If it emanates from matter, then we still have the problem of Descartes’ mind-body dualism and the contradiction of the new science which separated man from nature (if consciousness came from matter, e.g. nature, then man should be seen as part of nature rather than opposed to it).

Sartre’s attempt to resolve the problem of dualisms is based on his metaphysics of nothingness.  What does he mean and where does he draw from?

Many observers have noted that Sartre’s work falls into two major traditions in philosophy.  First is that of post-Hegelian phenomenology; though scholars remain divided as to whether Sartre misinterpreted Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger or whether he was rejecting their efforts while substantially drawing from their works.  Second is that of post-Christian theological anthropology.  St. Augustine and Catholicism factor prominently in between the lines of the text.  But Sartre’s work is not one of Christian apologia, but rather the atrophied inheritance of the Christian system.

Part of Christianity’s doctrine of creation is creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing).  God, all powerful as God is, created the Cosmos at a beginning moment which is also the beginning of time (we shall pass over the philosophy of time for the sake of time, pardon the pun).  But Christianity’s triune doctrine of creation also includes the idea that the Cosmos is rationally order (rationally created) and is created in love for love (creatio ex amore Dei: creation from the love of God).  Because the world is rationally ordered and made in love, there is Truth to it that we can come to know and we can relate, affectionately with others and the world according to Christianity.  (You should see how this all follows within Christianity’s system of thought.)  Being a post-Christian work, however, Sartre rejects that the world is rationally ordered and that it was made in love for love.  The Cosmos is not ordered to anything and certainly was not made in love for love, thus we cannot know the Truth of the universe because there is no order to it, and we cannot come to love because love is not integral to the stitches of the Cosmos so to speak.  Instead of returning to the pagan cosmologies of an eternal universe, Sartre accepts one-third of the Christian creation narrative: creation from nothing, and takes this as his starting point.  This will have radical consequences when he begins to discuss ethics in the section “Concrete Relations with Others.”

But this should serve as enough sufficient background to now proceed into one of his most famous sections within his text: Part I, Chapter I, Section V: The Origin of Nothingness.

The Origin of Nothingness: Or Man as the Center of the Universe

Sartre’s section entitled the “Origin of Nothingness” lays out his foundations, his metaphysic, for the rest of the work.  Sartre argues that the being-in-itself is the unconscious being that lay at the center of life itself.  Here Sartre is specifically rejecting Kant and Hegel, and Hegel especially.  Sartre does not accept the Hegelian position that a subject being can negate itself.  Negation is at the beginning.  “[W]e must recognize that only Being can nihilate itself; however it comes about, in order to nihilate itself, it must be.  But Nothingness is not…Nothingess does not nihilate itself; Nothingness ‘is nihilated’” (p. 57).

Typical of French philosophy this is word soup and a bunch of fantastical terminological talk with seemingly little ability for a reader to comprehend.  So I will hopefully help, taking into consideration the brief background that I provided at the beginning of this post.

If we return to Christianity’s tripartite creation metaphysic, we should remember the idea of creation from nothing.  Sartre identifies the in-itself, human consciousness, as the pin that links being with nothingness.  If we also remember the dualism of Descrates, I am a subject-consciousness enclosed in a body.  Thus, the being-in-itself is an object of consciousness that only comes to know itself through its encounters with other objects.  Those familiar with Hegel and Augustine should see the dialectic within Sartre’s ontology of consciousness: I, as an object with consciousness, only come to realize my consciousness through encountering other objects (without consciousness).  “In order to nihiliate, it must be.”  This is a play on the Cartesian cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.  Because I can negate myself, I must be.  My consciousness rises in awareness as I perceive missing objects, encountering objects, or overcoming objects (or, perhaps, objects overcoming me).  To this end this is what Sartre means by using the term “consciousness,” that which transcends myself (for itself) to allow greater reflective power and awareness of being-in-the-world.  In other words, no consciousness, no awareness; and without awareness we cannot come to know ourselves in the world.

Thus, because I am the being-in-itself (object with consciousness) through raising consciousness I negate my thesis of being: being-in-itself and become aware of my freedom!  I thus become a being-for-itself no longer defined by fixity but aware of the consciousness which is also the seat of my freedom.

Sartre returns us to Protagoras, man is at the center of the universe and is the center of the universe.  Man is, for all intents and purposes, God, for Sartre.  Man, and man alone, has the power to create, destroy, think, determine, accept, reject, judge, encounter, decide, etc.  And contrary to Hegel, where man is becoming free, Sartre takes the position that man, in his being, is freedom itself.  Sartre takes the modern understanding of freedom as the free ability to exert oneself and choose for oneself without external impediments or barriers.  If there was truth and order to the Cosmos, which we are to come into union with, then we cannot be free in Sartre’s mind.  For we would be submitting ourselves to a higher power or force or law; Sartre’s liberty doesn’t entail any degree of ontological flourishing for our freedom is the freedom to choose and create and do as we will.  Our essence, for Sartre, is freedom itself.  Humanity is trapped in freedom to create and do as it will in a cold and dark Cosmos without any direction or guidance.  This is unsettling for most people, which is why we create systems to give guidance or meaning in life (but this would be “bad faith” which we shall explore later).  As Sartre says, “Man does not exist first in order to be free subsequently;  there is no difference between the being of man and his being-free” (p. 60).

What is the origin of the Cosmos?  Nothingness.  What does this mean?  Man is the “creator of the Cosmos” insofar that man attempts, in his freedom, to proscribe meaning to the Cosmos.  Sartre is a metaphysical libertarian: man has free will and the Cosmos has no end (telos) to it.

Once man comes to know his nothingness, he feels great anguish over him (p. 65).  Man has expectations.  But to fall short of such expectations is to create anguish.  We once again see the Sartrean dialectic at work.  My expectations and my possibility of falling short of expectations, which creates anguish, is a reflection of my consciousness.  To realize this is to realize freedom.  Here we see Sartre’s existentialism as defined by the anxiety of freedom.  It is the realization that I am the center of the Cosmos.  And since the Cosmos has no end to which it is moving toward, or defined by, the conclusion I reach is that I am the mover of the Cosmos.

Sartre claims that this moment of realization of nothingness (freedom) is at the “Vertigo.”  The Vertigo, for Sartre, is the moment that we experience anguish when we sit at the precipice of a cliff, coming to the realization that I can hurl myself off the cliff to my death and thus, my self negation (or nihilation).  I literally do control everything.  It is on the precipice we see the crisis of freedom of possibility; nothingness is guaranteed.  Anticipation of falling to death produces fear, one becomes a mere thing as a result.  In this I recognize the inherent dilemma of existence: I am an object with subjectivity.

It is in this moment of Vertigo that we truly come to understand what freedom entails.  Choice is completely yours, but choice has consequences.  For those who wish to choose without consequences live in bad faith for Sartre.  True freedom entails taking responsibility for every and all actions that one takes in life.  You cannot be free while wanting to reject consequences.  This is why freedom is unsettling for so many.  We would rather “choose” without the fear of consequences.  But consequences is essential to freedom for without, freedom would be moot without the possibility of failure, death, or negation.  Choice is based, ultimately, on nothing.  It is based entirely on the nothingness of consciousness.  There is no influence over my choice but consciousness itself (hence nothing because consciousness is nothing).  The attainment of consciousness which comes from freedom moves the being-in-itself to the being-for-itself, I realize my freedom and realize my choice in everything that I do – I do everything for myself (hence being-for-itself).

This leads to Sartre’s tripartite ontology and dialectic: being-in-itself (object with consciousness without realization of freedom); being-for-itself (object with consciousness realizing its freedom); being-for-others (object with consciousness that rejects its freedom to be subservient to others).  The thesis of existence is the being-in-itself.  The antithesis of existence is the being-for-itself.  The synthesis would be being-for-others.  But Sartre rejects the temptation to move into the being-for-others because this would be a sign of bad faith and suppression of our esse (freedom).  Sartre’s dialectic situates itself permanently in the antithesis.  We must always choose to be the being-for-itself!  This is the highest expression of my acceptance of my consciousness.  That I make a conscious choice to always be for myself.  We can never go back to the being-in-itself either after the process of negation because negation is the origo of the consciousness of freedom: the realization of my freedom of choice over all matters.


In this section of Being and Nothingness Sartre gives the formulation that existence precedes essence.  I am not defined by anything (essence).  My existence (freedom) allows me to control what I am and what I can be.  There is no essentialism to Sartre’s view of the human being.

Thus, for Sartre, his metaphysics of nothingness follows as such:

  • We exist.
  • We become consciously aware of our existence which destroys the being-in-itself (this is the origin of nihilation).
  • We are free and creative (or destructive) beings, we create our meaning or essence through constant choices and we must constantly be in a state of creativity (note the Nietzschean influence here).
  • The reality of freedom is burdensome and we arrive at anguish when we realize the totality of our freedom and all the consequences that come with choices. Freedom becomes a burden because we realize that we are nothing, we are exist for nothing, and we are going nowhere.  We have an uncertain and unfixed future.  We control the future!
  • When we attempt to run from our freedom we act in bad faith which is the negation of our freedom to outside forces (becoming a being-for-others which is bad).
  • Paradoxically, we affirm our freedom in running from our freedom because the abandonment of our freedom is a free choice made a free subjectivity, the ability to reject this freedom presupposes consciousness which affirms our freedom in order to run away from our freedom.
  • We are in a constant state of flux, and this flux is the flux of choice which constitutes our freedom. Freedom is not something rationally ordered but something that is chaotic or comes from the void.

For Sartre, humans are condemned to be free but this freedom is without any guidance because if we had guidance we wouldn’t be free.  Creation comes after existence, whereby our existence creates and provides meaning but we must engage in this activity constantly.  “To not choose” is, itself, a choice.  We must never fall into acceptance of our past choices but must constantly be in a state of perpetual choosing and creation.  What is the origin of nothingness?  We are.

All of Satre’s fancy language can be boiled down to this.  First, the universe has no meaning or order to it.  Second, we exist in this meaningless universe but have this wonderful gift called consciousness which allows us to experience and live in the world as more than mere objects.  Third, in our experiences in the world we come to grow in awareness of our own consciousness which is the seat of our freedom.  Fourth, our freedom, which is tied to consciousness, is the ability to choose how to live, how to create, and, even, when to destroy (others or ourselves).  Fifth, this realization of freedom is our own doing (self-negating or self-nihilating) and is deeply unsettling.  Sixth, in this anguish of freedom we choose to either accept this freedom and all the consequences which can emanate from it (good) or we can choose to reject this freedom and live for others or external things and forces (bad faith).  Seventh, we must never embrace contentment in life.  Life is not about happiness or relationships with others; life is fundamentally about the radical freedom to choose and create (or destroy) until our own lives expire.  The final and ultimate conclusion we reach from this experience in the world is that man is god, man controls and creates as he wills.

Just as God created from nothing in the Christian account of creation, man creates from nothing.  Just as God created man free in the Christian account of creation and endowed him with a conscious soul, man truly is a free conscious animal unique in the order of creation.  The difference, of course, is that man’s freedom is rooted in his rebellion and not union with the good, true, or beautiful.  The “bad faith” of Christianity was to create a greater subjectivity beyond that of man, God, and claiming that we should be in union with that being.  The freedom of uncertainty has led to established orders and systems which inhibit man’s freedom and creativity.  But the 20th century is showing, for Sartre, the true genius of man: his genius to deceive (in bad faith) and his genius to (re)realize his (original) freedom.

Moving forward we should also see dilemmas that Sartre is going to address in the rest of the text.  If I subject myself (in free choice) to outside forces I live in bad faith; Sartre is to explain why this is something to be avoided.  There comes a moment when I realize that I am not the only center of the universe: there are other people who are subject-beings in a body.  How do I relate to them?  Because the Cosmos is not created in love for love, I am not going to be able to actually love them.  How does human ethics and relationships proceed with this inability to love? Ultimately, as Sartre says, “We are our choices.”


The one theme from Sartre’s magnum opus, Being and Nothingness, that stuck was his commentary on “Bad Faith.”  Ignorant atheists who have never read Sartre have employed Sartrean language to refer to religious faith as the bad faith that Sartre is discussing even though it is not.  Furthermore, the concept of bad faith is included in Sartre’s many criticisms: he critiques Freud, psychoanalysis, reductionist materialism, and all forms of anthropological essentialism; these were the main targets of Sartre’s criticism and not religion.

Sartre’s understanding of what he calls bad faith is premised on the ontological dialectic of Georg W.F. Hegel.  That is, I primarily understand myself through the encounter with the Other.  This encounter with the Other, however, often leads one down the route of bad faith.  Though it can also lead one, ideally, to freedom as one comes to understand themself.  For Sartre, the essence of bad faith is to allow others, or the world, to define what you are.  This follows from Sartre’s famous dictum that “existence precedes essence.”  Thus, all forms of essentialism are representations of bad faith.

Bad Faith as Essentialism

Why is essentialism bad?  Because essentialism doesn’t follow from Sartre’s metaphysical premise: nothingness (man at the center of the universe as a free and creative being).  If humans have an essential nature this means, for Sartre, that humans cannot be free.  This logically results from the notion of having to live in accordance with nature.  This would be analogous to living for others since I do not have control over what I can position myself as and create myself to be.  Thus we see in Sartre the idea of existence preceding essence is a philosophy of becoming – we become whatever we want to be.  This is what our essential freedom entails.  Anything less than this is bad faith.

But you might ask, why isn’t the essentialism of freedom which undergirds Sartre bad?  This is because freedom is not something essential.  Freedom is nothingness.  Freedom is always a process of becoming.  Freedom is not something fixed.  Thus, our essential freedom isn’t a form of essentialism because freedom is a constant state of fluidity.

Bad faith has two component principles to it: first is the unconscious; second is self-deception.  Lying is not a form of bad faith because lying involves a conscious choice on the part of the liar.  Bad faith is allowing oneself to be defined by something other than oneself which would be a restriction of freedom.

Why does bad faith arise?  According to Sartre bad faith is the retreat into unconsciousness after having been awoken to consciousness.  Our realization of freedom and the cold, dark, and meaningless Cosmos is something that causes deep anxiety, anguish, and worry.  Instead of embracing the freedom of being the creators of the Cosmos we sink into an attempt to bring order to the unorderly and meaningless Cosmos.  This retreat into bad faith is also the retreat into dualism which is what Sartre is attempting to resolve, “Better yet I must know the truth not at two different momentsm which at a pinch would allow us to reestablish a semblance of duality-but in the unitary structure of a single project.  How then can the lie subsist if the duality which conditions is suppressed?

Bad faith exhausts itself into into dualism and a false sense of security and order.  I either live for another who defines me (like in the Master-Slave relationship).  Or I live in the false accord with nature (nature defining me).  But the reality of the world is that I am my own – I am my own being and should live for myself which means I create for myself my own meaning in the meaningless Cosmos.  Everything is a social construction and has no teleological end to it.  In the randomness and chaos that is existence, I control everything.

Psychoanalysis as Bad Faith

Phenomenology is the philosophy of consciousness and being-in-the-world, or self in the world.  Phenomenology has its roots in Augustine and, more contemporarily, in Hegel.  The problem with Freud and psychoanalysis from Sartre’s perspective is that Freudian psychoanalysis is about the unconscious.  The unconscious is what permits bad faith as one is not consciously aware of their being and freedom.  As he wrote, “Psychoanalysis has not gained anything for us since in order to overcome bad faith, it has established between the unconscious and consciousness an autonomous consciousness in bad faith.”

Psychoanalysis defines us in our unconsciousness which is why it is worthless and dangerous.  Psychoanalysis comes to define us by arguing that most of our actions are done unconsciously or subconsciously.  Thus, I am not a free being (because I am not conscious of my choices).  I am defined by an essentialism of determinism.

The reason why psychoanalysis is bad faith is because psychoanalysis creates a pattern of permanent bad faith by deceiving one to reject their own consciousness of freedom.  Psychoanalysis boxes one in through its unconscious determinism which demands that people understand themselves as being constrained by their unconscious actions.  Thus, psychoanalysis is deficient in understanding our being and freedom therein.  For Sartre, psychoanalysis is a form of secularized Original Sin – “psychoanalysis has not succeeded in dissociating the two phases of the act, since the libido is a blind conatus toward conscious expression and since the conscious phenomenon is passive.”

If one knows Augustine’s understanding of Original Sin and sin is, which is the lust for domination and belief that this lust will bring about our happiness which is what we all desire, we see psychoanalysis as arguing much the same.  The unconscious lust for gratification prevents one from making a rational (conscious) decision.  And since, in Christianity, God is Reason and Christ is the Logos, the elimination of human rationality and consciousness is the human acting apart from God (and therefore sin since the human is directing their desire to things that cannot satisfy it).

Bad Faith as Reductionism

Another problem that Sartre is tackling is the push toward facticity.  For Sartre, the biggest proponent of bad faith in the modern world is not religion as ignorant atheists often say.  It is, for Sartre, the reduction of the human to mere facticity (material objectification).  As he says, “If we reject the language and the materialist mythology of psychoanalysis we perceive that the censor in order to apply its activity with discernment must know what it is repressing.”  Because psychoanalysis is the outgrowth of materialistic reductionism, psychoanalysis is a form of bad faith – but so too then are all forms of reductionism.

To reduce the person to mere material objectivity and physical facticity is bad faith because this is using matter to define us.  The reduction of everything to material facticity is to deny the reality of the erotic and consciousness which are profound elements to the human being.  Admittedly, however, this is difficult for Sartre to resolve because he himself is something of a materialist.  In denying God and transcendence he cannot appeal to innatism, idealism, or transcendental phenomenology.  He is thus trapped in having to accept materiality as the cause of everything but a materialism of emergentism rather than reductionism.  The problem of reductionist materialism is that it denies to intense reality of consciousness and the erotic.

Consciousness is what allows us to decide for ourselves what our life will be and what we will live for.  Consciousness cannot be reduced to objective facticity because that would be a restriction on consciousness and therefore a restriction of human freedom.  The materialistic brand of liberalism also comes under attack by Sartre when he assails the “person possessing rights.”

To be free in the form of having rights is itself a restriction of freedom.  If I am free by having C, D, E, and F, but not A and B, I am not fully free.  Rights-based freedom is a form of control and dictation, permitting what a person can do and be and denying what a person cannot do and be.  True freedom, in the form of true consciousness, is all-encompassing and knows no rights because rights are a form of control and boundaries.  The truly free person does not have rights because the truly free person and can and be whatever they decide to do and be on a continual basis.

Highlighting his famous example of the waiter, to accept myself as just a waiter is to reduce myself to facticity and reduction.  I am not Pierre.  I am a waiter.  I am not merely a “waiter,” I am further reduced to what a waiter does.  But I am not just a waiter who does X, Y, and Z, I am reduced further because as a waiter I am a being-for-others; my existence as a waiter is defined by others and not myself.  In accepting being a waiter I am objectifying myself into something that I am not: a waiter, who does certain actions, whose actions are dictated to me by another, thereby I live for others rather than myself.  This is a reductionism of Pierre to a waiter which further reduces him to what a waiter does and, finally, exhausts itself in a final reduction of being-for-others since the waiter lives for others and does things for others rather than determine things for oneself.

For Sartre, reductionism does this for everything.  In reducing everything to a single cause we are further reduced in our freedom and our consciousness is retarded from possible becoming.  An accountant, for instance, is defined by what he does and what orders he takes.  As such, the accountant is also a being-for-others.  A soldier too is reduced to what he does and what orders he takes.

In between the lines we see Sartre’s anti-capitalism and crypto-Marxism on display in his attack of being-for-others and materialist reductionism (even if Marxism is a materialist philosophy).  In examining the reduction of people to their jobs and what they do and what orders they take, we see that the vast majority of people are not free but enslaved.  The only people who are free are those who control others and dictate to them what to do and what to say (e.g. the capitalist bosses).  To accept my reduction to facticity and job is to accept my enslavement and abdicate my freedom of being.

Sincere Belief as Bad Faith

In another famous section in dealing with Bad Faith Sartre attacks sincerity.  Sartre’s assault on sincerity stems from his belief that sincerity is a form of self-deception.  It is to embrace an essentialism “sincerely” and living by that standard which is automatically a form of restriction.

Sincerity is also impossible according to Sartre because this involves a moment of conscious decision-making on part of the one who is acting, or living, sincerely.  Sincerity is the worst form of the retreat from the conscious back to the unconscious because it is the conscious decision to reject one’s consciousness and live a false life of sincerity and deceive oneself that one is being sincere when, in reality, one is living by a feeling of anguish and guilt.  It is the anguish of living in a cold and harsh world and the guilt of living by being defined by others.  Sincerity casts oneself as an object rather than a being of consciousness.

Sincerity is, as Sartre says, “to be what one is.”  To be what one is is to embrace essentialism over existence.  It is the reversal of the metaphysical axiom of nothingness and that existence precedes essence.  And this is, by axiomatic definition, impossible if nothingness and existence preceding essence is the reality of existence.  Sartre takes as a given, naturally, that his metaphysic is correct – thereby all other alternatives are wrong.  This is why sincerity is a form of bad faith.  It would be the philosophy of essentialism and living in accordance with nature.  Since there is no nature (no essence prior to existence) sincere living is false.


What is the essence, pardon the pun, of Sartre’s Bad Faith?  Bad faith, for Sartre, is living-for-others or, simply, not living-for-myself.  Rather than me being the controller of my destiny I allow myself to be defined by others, or things, other than myself.  Bad faith is the retreat away from being the center of the universe, the decider of all things and the measure of all things.

Sartre is a modern day Protagoras.  Protagoras famously said that “man is the measure of all things.”  Sartre said that “existence precedes essence.”  In phenomenological and existentialist language, Sartre’s declaration is identical to Protagoras’s.  In existence preceding essence, that means man, as simply an existent being, controls what he does and what he is to become.  Hence man is, in fact, the measure of all things.

  1. Bad Faith is not lying to others.
  2. Bad Faith is acting in a manner contrary to one’s own being, the being of freedom (existence preceding essence).
  3. Bad Faith allows others, or the world, to restrict one’s freedom and define one’s essence for oneself.
  4. Bad Faith accepts this external essentialism proscribed onto oneself and living in accord to this external essentialism.
  5. Sincerity of belief is also a form of Bad Faith because it endorses a form of essentialism that is automatically restrictive in the form of “sincere belief” and therefore a form of self-deceit and deception.  Sincerity is the retreat back into the unconscious.
  6. Bad Faith always has an unconscious element to it.

Sartre’s analysis of bad faith is not a commentary over the problems of religion.  Though religion is also an institution of bad faith from Sartre’s perspective, his commentary over bad faith is about how people live for others or union with non-existent nature which suppresses one’s free and creative being.  Bad Faith is the embrace of essentialism over nothingness; it is the embrace of a non-existent ideal to live up to instead of living for oneself and constantly creating one own’s being and freedom.  We live in a fluid and non-orderly and non-defined state of existence for Sartre.  Any attempt to cast an orderliness, fixity, or nature to existence is to corrupt the premise that existence precedes essence.

The radicalness of Sartre’s ontology is that it answers the three big questions of life: who are we, why are we here, and where are we going with: (1) we are nothing; (2) we exist for no reason; (3) we are going nowhere.  Sartre is living in a nihilistic reality.  But rather than let the world (nihilism) defeat us, we are called upon to embrace the freedom which is nothingness and constantly decide for ourselves what our lives are to be.  Readers of Nietzsche will find commonality between Sartre and Nietzsche on this point.  We have eaten from the tree of good and evil, the realization of our freedom, the freedom to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, what is meaningful and what is not, and we will constantly create right and wrong and meaning in our lives.  Sartre subverts Nietzsche’s hierarchy and aristocratic ethos of overcoming nihilism with a prototypical leftwing approach: non-hierarchy and egalitarian.

Bad Faith is, essentially, the embrace of the Nietzschean Last Man as what life is rather than the superman who is in a constant state of creating his own meaning through the freedom he realizes he now possesses.  In Sartre’s metaphysical and ontological framework, Bad Faith is the rejection of freedom, which is the rejection of the nothingness that undergirds reality.  It is, in other words, the attempt to reject existence itself since existence precedes essence.  Bad faith is the attempt to establish any sort of preordained meaning, truth, system, structure, or telos into the world and living by that standard, rather than living by your own (constant) self-creating standard.  In many ways Sartre just augmented Nietzsche’s philosophy within his section on Bad Faith.


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.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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