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Jean-Paul Sartre’s views on Sigmund Freud's Psychoanalysis.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s views on Sigmund Freud's Psychoanalysis.

A paper submitted by Brynn Binnell for the Freud course, as part of the Bachelor of Arts with Honours (Psychology) degree, 1996: University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Some introductory quotes

“I looked anxiously around me: the present, nothing but the present. Light and solid pieces of furniture, encrusted in their present, a table, a bed, a wardrobe with a mirror and me. The true nature of the present revealed itself: it was that which exists, and all that was not present did not exist. The past did not exist. Not at all. Neither in things nor even in my thoughts. True, I had realised a long time before that my past had escaped me. But until then I had believed that it had simply gone out of my range. For me the past was only a pensioning off: it was another way of existing, a state of holiday and inactivity; each event, when it had played its part, dutifully packed itself away in a box and became an honorary event: we find it so difficult to imagine nothingness. Now I knew. Things are entirely what they appear to be and behind them...there is nothing.”

(From Sartre's Nausea. 1965: 140).

“Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being -like a worm.”

(From Sartre's Being and Nothingness. 1969: 56).

“My thought is me: that is why I can't stop. I exist by what I think...and I can't prevent myself from thinking. At this very moment - this is terrible - if I exist, it is because I hate existing. It is I, it is I who pull myself from the nothingness to which I aspire: hatred and disgust for existence are just so many ways of making me exist, of thrusting me into existence. Thoughts are born behind me like a feeling of giddiness, I can feel them being born behind my head...If I give way, they'll come here in front, between my eyes - and I go on giving way, filling me completely and renewing my existence.”

(From Sartre's Nausea: 1965 145).

“...hitherto philosophers had merely understood the world; the point, however, is to change it”

(Marx: Quoted in Stumpf l975: 481).

“To do is to be”

(Sartre: Quoted in Stumpf. 1975: 484-485).

“...only in action is there any reality. Man is only the sum of his actions and purposes. Besides his actual daily life he is nothing. If a person is a coward, he made himself one. He is not a coward because of a cowardly heart or lungs or cerebrum, or because of his physiological organism. He is a coward because he made himself into one by his actions.”

(Stumpf 1975: 485).

In this paper the views of Jean-Paul Sartre on Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis will be examined. The arguments presented are based on Sartre's Being and Nothingness: An Essay On Phenomenological Ontology, which is considered to be a foundational text on existential philosophy. Sartre discussed some of the similarities and differences between his own and Freud's versions of psychoanalysis and made a number of claims that will be evaluated in this paper.

It should be stated from the outset that both of these thinkers devised elaborate and complex systems that, in order to do them justice, need to be considered in their totality. It is not possible to do a simple comparison of their respective views on certain questions without considering their total systems of thought. However, there are certain key assumptions that both Sartre and Freud make that may be compared productively. In particular, this paper evaluates whether Sartre's interpretation of Freud's metapsychology is valid.

One of the fundamental tenets of Sartre's philosophy is the argument that “existence precedes essence” (Sartre, 1969: 725). In other words, there are no (universal) pre-given facts or essentials that would come to bear on an individual's life. Human reality is governed by chance (it is contingent), and this is the source of the anguish which results from bad faith. We act in bad faith when we refuse to recognise our ability to transcend the “givens” of our existence (our facticity, which includes our past) and act in such a way that our existence becomes inauthentic.

Sartre argues that man is absolutely free, aside from the fact that one should always act with responsibility in exercising such freedom.  His views on freedom also appear startling to those who are familiar with the fact that he advocates a monist and materialist philosophy. However, Sartre resolves this apparent contradiction by arguing that although we live in a material universe in which our destiny may be predetermined, we should always act as if we are completely free. He emphasises the (phenomenological)  attitude that as we find ourselves in the world there is absolutely nothing preventing us from acting or behaving in any way that we find appropriate for our individual situation.

Many interpreters of Freud, such as Smith, argue that Freud believed in "psychical determinism, which asserts that the human mind is part of the same causal web that governs the physical universe...[and] suggests that the human mind is regulated by laws which can be scientifically identified and studied (Smith, 1993: 20).

Sartre argued that those who posited any form of determinism were in danger of using it as an excuse to escape from the responsibility of choice. He claimed that “denies the transcendence of human reality which makes it emerge in anguish beyond its own essence.” (Sartre 1969: 78). Where Freud argued that much of our behaviour stems from hidden unconscious motives, Sartre emphasised the fact that we are always free to choose any course of action necessary to bring about an improvement in our existence. He thus bases his arguments on an assumption of representational accuracy, which Freud does not do.

However, Sartre claimed that his system had the following characteristics in common with Freud's psychoanalysis. Firstly, that all objectively viewed manifestations of “psychic life” were symbols that maintained symbolic relations to the fundamental, total structures which constitute the individual person. This is an important observation, as there are many interpreters of Freud who claim that he places too much emphasis on “universal generalisations” of symbols. 

He stated that both psychoanalyses:

“...consider that there are no primary givens such as hereditary dispositions, character, etc. Existential psychoanalysis recognises nothing before the original upsurge of human freedom; empirical psychoanalysis holds that the original affectivity is virgin wax before its history. The libido is nothing besides its concrete fixations, save for a permanent possibility of fixing anything whatsoever upon anything whatsoever. Both consider the human being as a perpetual, searching historization. Rather than uncovering static, constant givens they discover the meaning, orientation, and adventures of this history. Due to this fact both consider man in the world and do not imagine that one can question the being of a man without taking into account all his situation.” (Sartre, 1969: 727).

He goes on to claim that the aim of both psychoanalyses is to uncover and examine two things. Firstly, as much information about the infancy of the individual as possible and secondly, the “psychic crystallization” that results from these crucial infancy years (Sartre, 1969: 728). He points out that each piece of information that is obtained is of no importance in itself, but only in relation to the concrete, historical reality of the individual in his situation.

Freud himself had shown complete awareness of the contingency of ones destiny that was so important to Sartre. For example, in the Preface of the third edition of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (Freud, 1905: 278) he states that:

“The fact that this book is based upon the psycho-analytic observations which led to its composition is shown, however, not only in the choice of the topics dealt with, but also in their arrangement. Throughout the entire work the various factors are placed in a particular order of preference: preference is given to the accidental factors, while disposition is left in the background, and more weight is attached to ontogenesis than to phylogenesis. For it is the accidental factors that play the principal part in analysis: they are almost entirely subject to its influence. The dispositional ones only come to light after them, as something stirred into activity by experience...” (Freud, 1905: 278).

Thus both thinkers were committed to “deep” explanations and interpretations of what was happening to the client in his/her unique situation, based on their personal history. Neither adopted a deterministic and mechanical view of the causes of human action. Both thinkers believed that it was necessary for there to be a sound and competent analyst to do this interpretation (Freud, 1926, 46; Sartre, 1969: 728).

Freud departed from the commonly held views of his day concerning humankind as “rational” beings. He argued for the existence of an “unconscious,” resulting particularly in unconscious desire and sexual drives. Freud's theory of the unconscious and the process of repression is possibly that area where the two thinkers are the furthest apart.

Freud argued (in his first topography) that there were different psychical systems within the mind - the unconscious, pre-conscious and conscious. The unconscious was separated from the other two by a censor, or doorkeeper. The censor prevented the surfacing of the representations of “unacceptable” impulses or drives from entering into conscious thought (Freud 1905: 277-375). Freud later modified his position and introduced the second topography in On Narcissism (Freud, 1914) by referring to three structures in the mind: the id, which was the source of all biological drives and demands for immediate gratification; the super-ego, which was the internalisation of the parental representations of the values and morality of the society in which individuals found themselves; and the ego, which was the mediator between the two structures, having to satisfy the individual's demands for gratification, while keeping them out of danger from the environment (Freud,, 1923: 439-483). However, there was still a division between consciousness and unconsciousness.

Sartre rejected this hidden unconscious system completely.  He argued that the very nature of being was consciousness (of something) and that the whole idea of the state of unconsciousness (or id) was a manifestation of bad faith - an attempt to deny the freedom that we have to choose our destiny (Sartre 1969: 91). He gives a number of examples that illustrate his view that the unconscious could not possibly exist, and most of them rest on his argument that it is not possible for the censor to repress unacceptable impulses without being aware of the very impulses that it is repressing. This would constitute a knowledge that was ignorant of itself which, for Sartre, was impossible because he argued that all knowing is consciousness of knowing. According to him, one would have to know the truth in order to conceal it (Sartre, 1969: 733).

It is on this crucial point that Sartre appears not to have considered Freud's introduction of the ego-ideal or super-ego in his second topography. In this reformulation of his earlier position he argued that this portion of the ego was actually unconscious. Thus the censor is indeed unconscious (Freud, 1923: 444-455).

Instead of the idea of the unconscious, Sartre argued that there is no being beforehand that appears as an irreducible limit to our investigation. He argues that we can actually know the irreducible limit to our being through self-evident intuition. We can conceive of a “human reality” a priori which would not be expressed by the will to power or libido. He claims that the libido or will to power actually constitute a psycho-biological residue which is not clear in-itself and does not appear as the original, undifferentiated project (Sartre 1969: 730). 

Sartre argues that Freud's positing of the existence of the libido, which is not evident intuitively or a priori, is not justified. It should be kept in mind that Sartre's views are a continuation of the Husserlian project to ground all the sciences in a descriptive science that describes the acts and objects of consciousness. This would mean that he would not accept anything that is not available to direct experience. This phenomenological attitude has itself been the subject of much recent criticism - to the extent that the method has never become a dominant approach in the social sciences. Sartre also fails to account for the wealth of clinical material that Freud had built into his theory of the unconscious. This is a significant omission, especially as Sartre refers to his (philosophical) system as being an “existential psychoanalysis” (Sartre, 1969: 712). Yet he gives no consideration to the pathological manifestations and symptoms that Freud had observed in the clinic that had driven him to revise his theoretical position repeatedly over the years.  The concept of an unconscious enjoys widespread credibility today, so much so that even many cognitive behaviourists accept its existence. On the other hand, it should also be born in mind that Sartre's philosophical system is premised on his desire for people to realise themselves and to own their “fundamental projects”. He is more interested in individual freedom, even where these freedoms result in actions that are socially unacceptable. For Sartre, the “pervert” is the healthier, so he calls for revolt, rebellion, non-conformity and counter-hegemonic actions. His concern is that if individuals are made aware of the existence of the unconscious they would tend to use this as an excuse to act in bad faith and fail to act consciously. Gille Deleuze and Felix Guattari also launch a critique on Freud whose method, they argue, results in the re-oedipalization of subjects. They argue that his method is a means of social control and the production of docile subjects (Deleuze & Guattari, 1992).

On the other hand, it may be argued that Sartre's desire for individual selfrealisation and freedom is not that far removed from Freud. After all, Freud's idea of a “healthy” person was not based on a system of frozen categories that individuals had to fit into. He was only interested in using psychoanalysis to cure neurotic misery, not ordinary human unhappiness. For Freud, a free person was one who was not suffering from neurotic misery and burdened by symptoms. An existential psychoanalyst would attempt to guide the individual to a state where they experience greater self-awareness and are able to live their lives in such a way that it is in accordance with (and true to) their fundamental project. Sartre agrees that the fundamental project is usually not known by the individual. Thus while rejecting Freud's hypothesis of the unconscious, he nevertheless stated that:

“ ...if the fundamental project is fully experienced by the subject and hence wholly conscious, that certainly does not mean that it must by the same token be known by him; quite the contrary. The reader will perhaps recall the care to distinguish between consciousness and knowledge...as we have seen...reflection can be considered as a quasi-knowledge.” (Sartre 1969: 729).

He does not accept the Freudian view that “non-conscious” material is repressed through the structure of the mind that enables a strict separation between material that is permissible or not. Thus his rejection of the unconscious is more related to his own (phenomenological) view of the nature of consciousness and the self than to do with any observation of clinical symptomatology. However, his therapeutic technique is not that far removed from the Freudian one. It could even be argued that a similar process takes place. Sartre argues that this is the case, but that his approach would enable the analyst and patient to achieve much more. His approach seeks to locate the individual historically, in terms of their past (that which constitutes the givens of ones existence, ones facticity), ones present circumstances, as well as in terms of their future orientation or direction. He argues that it is necessary that these all be brought into alignment.

Sartre holds a future oriented view of people and consciousness, as he points out that consciousness is always consciousness of something outside of itself. One could contrast the Cartesian view that “I think therefore I am”, with Sartre's “I think something”. Freud's was more concerned with tracing back into the past in an attempt to get to the (unconscious) roots of the patient's actions. One could argue that Freud's technique of free association would also enable the patient to relate their past to their present and future. The analyst would certainly not stop the patient from discussing the present and future. Once again, their respective techniques could well produce the same results. One major difference is that the existential psychoanalyst would attempt to intervene on a more frequent basis. They would also be more confrontational in their attempt to get the patient to accept responsibility for their actions (Van Deurzen-Smith, 1993).

Freud's technique would be to look at the dreams produced by the patients as their neurotic symptoms and interpret these. He also encouraged his patients to “free associate,” by which he intended that they should speak about everything that came to mind and omit nothing. This would reveal their chains of associations to him. He argued that patients would be cured through the transference, which rearticulated the Oedipal bonds and enabled the patient to work through unresolved conflicts. This would enable them to overcome any “fixations” that may have taken place as a result of trauma in their life that they were unable to deal with effectively at the time of their occurrence (Freud, 1926: 7-73). Using this technique, Freud was able to provide effective and convincing accounts of clinical phenomena, such as somatization and other hysterical symptomatology (which are certainly not done at a conscious level).

For Sartre consciousness existed in two “modes.”  There is the (primary) pre-reflective consciousness, which is non-personal and always conscious of something. Then there is the (secondary) cogito, which consists of the thetic or positional consciousness.  It is also important to note that he claimed that the ego is also not in consciousness, but is itself (along with the world) an object of consciousness. Thus, he would argue that, strictly speaking, one should never say “my consciousness” but rather “consciousness of me.” This is different to Freud's view of the ego, which he equated with consciousness.

This also relates to Sartre's view of the self, which he argues can exist in two “modes.” The first is the in-itself, which is the inert non-conscious being which merely exists (in material reality). The second “mode” of being is the being for-itself. This is the consciousness of being that arises from a nihilation of being-in-itself. It does not exist as a separate structure in materiality like the in-itself, but is the conscious realisation of self, of being, or the possibility of non-being - ones own nothingness. 

The attempt to practice scientific observation and classification implies that there is an objective world-out-there, and the existentialist and phenomenological approaches reject this view. They argue that it is not possible to ever know any world that exists apart from one's own consciousness. One should rather view the things in the world as phenomena, that is, one should always be aware that one is not seeing the world as one would a photograph, but as an “experience” that includes the conscious organism that is doing the viewing. An objective (external) evaluative process cannot be used in therapeutic situations, as what would be most important is the unique perspective of the perceiving subject himself. He explains his rejection of the empiricist causal model of explanation by pointing out that:

“[Existential psychoanalysis]…abandons the supposition that the environment can act on the subject under consideration. The environment can act on the subject only to the exact extent that he comprehends it, that is, transforms it into a situation.” (Sartre, 1969: 78).

Sartre also rejected the attempt to engage in psychological analysis that attempted to compress the vast complexity of human nature into a combination of typical traits, or typical abstract desires and tendencies that could be posited as “explaining” the

patient. Instead, Sartre stressed that it was necessary to focus intensely on the individual subject. He argues that it was necessary to study and attempt to understand:

“…What is individual and often even instantaneous. The method which has served for one subject will not necessarily be suitable to use for another subject, or for the same subject at a later period.” (Sartre, 1969: 732).

Sartre does not believe that Freud is sufficiently sensitive to this. For example, he argues


“By renouncing all mechanical causation, we renounce at the same time all general interpretation of the symbolization confronted...If each being is a totality, it is not conceivable that there can exist elementary symbolic relationships (e.g., the faeces = gold, or a pincushion = the breast) which preserve a constant meaning in all cases...” (Sartre, 1969: 732).

Freud himself points out that the interpretation of dreams and symbols is only possible in the light of the patient's own experiences. Yet he argues that:

“Some symbols are universally disseminated and can be met within all dreamers belonging to a single linguistic or cultural group; there are others which occur only within the most restricted and individual limits, symbols constructed by an individual out of his own ideational material” (Freud, 1901: 123-124).

This is not an unreasonable claim. After all, Sartre himself believed that it is necessary that interpretations be conducted by an analyst other than the patient him/her-self (Sartre, 1969: 728). He claimed that the perspective of the being-for-others was of the utmost importance. If this is the case then it is difficult to defend his view that there could not be common symbols within a culture. Freud was certainly not positing a crude system where every dream's contents would be decipherable on the basis of a set of pre-interpreted symbolism that one could look-up in a manual.

Another important area where the two theorists had very different views is that which concerns (conventional) morality. Freud emphasised the anti-social nature of natural man. He argued that individuals had to learn through the enculturation process how to fit in with the rest of society. He claimed that without the agents of socialisation they would be hedonistically engaged in the unrestricted satisfaction of their id impulses, and that this would be in conflict with the interests of the rest of society. Sartre's position on this is almost the opposite as he claimed that it is this very conventional morality that was leading the for-itself to being in a position of bad faith. For Sartre it was only when humans looked critically at everything that they were ever taught that the in-itself could become for-itself. He looked with despising on the “bourgeois” moralists who wanted to slot individuals into pre-established categories (Stumpf 1975: 480-485).

More recently, both Freud and Sartre have been attacked from a postmodernist perspective that claims that their theories are meta-narratives. That is, they are grand theories that try to capture the infinitely complex reality in which subjects are immersed - and fail. They are given the appearance of having succeeded because they narrate and explain at least one strand of the infinite complexity that constitutes reality. However, they claim that these theories also have no value because they are discourses that merely reflect the existing power relations. Perhaps it could be argued that Sartre, while also producing yet another (modernist) discourse, has developed theories that could be used within a postmodernist framework as they are much more subjectivist and attempt only to describe events at the particular, local level. They do not attempt to encapsulate the entire human experience and history within the confines of a grand explanatory theory, but instead focus only on what is unique in each situation -and to apply unique therapeutic techniques that are perhaps only good for one particular client and nobody else. 

It is also true that Sartre, in his later years, abandoned his philosophical work in favour of a more direct involvement in the political issues that were current in his time. For example, he petitioned the president of France for the release of the convicted murderer and sodomite Jean Genet, visited the leader of the Baader-Meinhoff gang in prison as a political gesture, and participated in street demonstrations on contentious issues. Paul Trembath (Trembath, 1991) claims that there were two Sartres. The first being the theoretical Sartre of the “Critique,” (Sartre, 1963) while the second was the militant Sartre who abandoned his earlier totalising political programme aimed at transforming society. As a militant activist he de-emphasises revolution as the end of history in favour of a view of revolution “as the ongoing business of revolt.” He acts instead of writes, and shifts from global, totalising social theory, philosophy and literature to militant local practice (Trembath, 1991).

As Sartre put it “to do is to be,” and it is only after we have acted and existed in the world that we are able to gain understanding of our situations, and an appreciation of what is relevant to us personally.

The Freudian approach, on the other hand, posits that the:

“…symptoms are the product of unconscious ideas pressing toward expression and unconscious defences keeping them at bay…[they] can be modified two ways: the lessening of the intensity of unconscious urges pressing towards consciousness or the strengthening of the defenses against those urges.” (Smith, 1993: 26).

A change of life circumstances, or a sublimation of unconscious urges would be the possible goals of treatment. Freud described the goal as wanting, “to make the unconscious conscious.” In fact, while the differences in approach may be great, the similarities are also apparent in that both methods aim to provide the individual with greater insight. It is merely a question of what it is exactly that one is being given insight into. For the psychoanalytical approach, it is the repressed material in the unconscious; while for the existential approach it is the life situation of the individual as a whole, in relation to the “unconscious” fundamental project.

Thus one is able to discern two different views of humankind and the psychè. One approach is more concerned with the role of the past in causing the present, and how to “fix” the mistakes of the past. The other approach is a direct attempt to awaken humanity to entering into a state of existence that is for-itself, and reaching for the highest level of actualisation, or authenticity that it is capable of attaining - even if this has revolutionary consequences.

Both showed themselves to be flexible and courageous thinkers who were prepared to go against the dominant morality of their time in defence of their beliefs. Both men were devoted to liberating humankind from their misery, whether it was an existential one or a neurotic one. It could also be argued that the two systems are not mutually exclusive. In practice today both can be used, depending on the needs of the client (Dryden, 1992, 1993). Individuals who have neurotic symptoms or deep emotional disturbances would benefit from a Freudian approach to treatment. Individuals who are psychologically healthy (i.e., not neurotic) but feeling alienated or that their lives are meaningless, empty or without purpose may benefit from an existential approach to treatment. It is especially true that Freud's approach can never be used with psychotic patients, while the existential approach has shown that it can produce positive results with schizophrenic patients (Dryden, 1992, 1993; Frankl, 1965; Laing, 1971, 1976, 1990; May,1972).


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Additional material: The story of Orestes

In one of the versions of the story of Orestes, it is told that while King Agamemnon was away fighting the Trojan war (for many years), his Queen, Clytemnestra was having an affair with Aegisthus. When King Agamemnon returned from the Trojan war a victorious hero, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus decided to murder him so that they could jointly continue to rule Argos - as well as keep all the spoils of battle that had been won by Agamemnon.

Clytemnestra dismissed all the servants and insisted that she would give the great King the welcome he deserved on his return home. As she embraced him however, she stabbed him to death. She then ruled golden Mycenae with Aegisthus, and they enjoyed all the fruits of the conquest of Troy.

Fortunately an old servant who was still faithful to the rightful King had hurriedly taken away Agamemnon's young son, Orestes. He managed to escape from certain death and was placed under the protection of King Strophius of Phocis, whose kingdom was in Northern Greece. Here he grew to manhood, along with King Strophius's son Pylades. Clytemnestra proceeded to banish their daughter, Electra from the palace once she had reached adulthood - and married her off to a peasant who was low in station and whose heir would not present a threat to the throne. However, the peasant was a good man who realised that the day could come when the murder of King Agamemnon would be avenged, and the Princess Electra returned to her rightful station, so he secretly refused to consummate the marriage. This would enable her to later marry a Prince that would be worthy of her.

When Orestes reached adulthood, he decided to consult with the oracle of the god Apollo at the great temple at Delphi. Apollo told him in no unclear terms that he had to go back to Mycenae and there avenge the death of his father by killing Aegisthus and his own mother. He was also warned that failure to carry out these instructions would result in dreadful punishments. However, Apollo did not reveal everything to Orestes. He did not warn him that there exist terrible avengers for a mothers blood, the savage Erinyes, and that by obeying the commands of the divine power, Orestes would be bringing upon himself the full wrath of another.

Orestes then made his way back to Mycenae with his friend Prince Pylades. They found Electra, who had been hoping for his return all her life, and together they conspired to bring about the death of the tyrants, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus -thereby avenging the death of great King Agamemnon. They succeeded in their task, and Orestes steeled his heart and slew his mother in accordance with the will of the god.

However, this obedience did not bring content. He now looked with fear and horror at the work of his hands. Terrible shapes rose up before his eyes, dreadful creatures who would not let him rest or sleep and which followed him like hounds, seeking satisfaction for his mother's blood. These beings were the Erinyes, implacable divine powers, and by them Orestes was haunted day and night, driven mad by their unceasing persecution. Neither his sister Electra nor his friend Pylades could comfort him, nor could his heart find rest in the thought that he had only done the bidding of a god. Though he travelled far and wide, he failed to shake off his pitiless pursuers.

Not until, after many wanderings, he reached Athens and put himself under the protection of the goddess Athene herself, did he know any respite from his sufferings. In Athens he was given the final judgement between Apollo, who had commanded Orestes to kill the murderers of his father, and the savage Erinyes, who would never rest till they had extracted the full price for a mother's blood. It is told that at the council of the gods, the god Apotlo had stood up and admitted full responsibility for Orestes actions, to which Orestes himself had stood up and insisted that it was him who had acted and that he accepted full responsibility for the deeds. This greatly shocked the gods, as it was the first time that a mortal had ever been prepared to actually accept full responsibility - as they were always grumbling and blaming everything on the gods, or fate.

Under the guidance and power of Athene these dreadful goddesses now relaxed their claims and ever afterwards were worshipped under a different name –“The Kindly Ones” - in the city of Athens. Orestes, having done much and suffered much was freed from guilt and the long tale of evil after evil which had fallen upon the house of Atreus now ended. Orestes reigned in the palace of his father. His sister Electra was given in marriage to his faithful friend Pylades; nor did the new King forget to honour the good peasant who had sheltered her in her misfortunes, or that old servant to whom he owed his own life.

(The above passage was quoted extensively from Warner, R. 1961. The stories of the Greeks. London: MacGibbon & Kee).

Sartre himself wrote a play called The Flies, which he based on the story of Orestes, whom he presented as an example of an existential hero.

“In this play, which is quite obviously an attack on the “spirit of seriousness” and conventional religious views, Orestes refuses to join with the people in their feeling of general guilt and need for atonement induced by the sin of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (Adam and Eve?). He will not be awed by a display of the wonders of the Universe (the Voice out of the Whirlwind?). He insists that he became free from his creator at the moment of his creation, and he claims that he is not in the universe to carry out any prescribed orders laid down by a God. But what does he offer in return? He insists on accepting full responsibility for each of his acts. He gives up the role of spectator and voluntarily commits his freedom to the cause of the people of Argos. He is willing to give up his peace of mind for the sake of the suffering. He sets out alone to find new paths of action appropriate for man who can no longer discover his destiny by viewing himself as part of Nature's plan. In short he accepts the tension of absolute freedom and total responsibility. In the play Orestes does not seem to know quite what course he will follow once he has left Argos, but we can feel sure that he will set a high premium on rational facing up to the facts of the human condition as he sees them and will work out principles of conduct consistent with his earlier pronouncements”.

(From Sartre's “The flies”. By Hazel Barnes: (translator) Sartre: Being and Nothingness. Page li. from the Introduction - Translator's notes).


Orestes is prepared to go against the conventional morality of his day that dictated that one should never kiII ones own mother - an unforgivable sin in ancient Greek culture. Even when offered an excuse from the god Apollo (at the council of the gods), who admitted that he had determined Orestes's actions, Orestes refused this and claimed full responsibility - and insisted that he had acted of his own free will, not because he was forced to do so by the god. He is then rewarded as the Erinyes continue to follow him, but bring blessings instead of curses and torment. This illustrates our ability to turn even the most awful experience into something positive by transcending it.

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