We are, according to existentialism, hopelessly free. Jean-Paul Sartre argued that, in the absence of God and the sort of meaningful meta-narratives that give life an objective meaning and purpose, we are free to define our own natures: ‘To Do is To Be’ because ‘Existence Precedes Essence’. The problem is that freedom is a double-edged sword and while the death of God may well have done away with all limitations on our freedom, it has also served to render all of our choices meaningless. Indeed, if all paths are open to us and equally inviting then there is no correct path to take and so every decision we do make is tainted by the knowledge that all of our choices are effectively meaningless and arbitrary.
Freedom’s double edge so concerned Sartre that he wrote a short pamphlet entitled Existentialism is a Humanism (1946) addressing the charge that existentialism is a gloomy credo. The pamphlet ends with a barnstorming rant against Christianity:
This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realise himself as truly human (…) In this sense, existentialism is optimistic, it is a doctrine of action, and it is only by self-deception, by confusing their own despair with ours that Christians can describe us as without hope.
Barnstorming though it may be, this rant is hardly convincing as the vision of human nature that Sartre describes is one of perpetual vertigo and while ridding ourselves of the tyrannical sky-pixie is no bad thing, Sartre seems to have saddled us with another form of tyranny: The tyranny of responsibility for ourselves and the tyranny of endless choice.
This tension within the concept of freedom is beautifully demonstrated by Krzysztof Kieslowski in Three Colours: Blue, the first of a trilogy of films interrogating the values of the French Revolution (Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite).