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The Anguish of Freedom

by Bill Meacham on June 29th, 2023
man trudging, gloomy background

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity contains an extensive taxonomy of ways people try to avoid what she calls “the anguish [one] feels in the face of [one’s] freedom.”(1) Throughout her work she cites “the anguish of freedom”(2) as a reason for various approaches to life that fall short of genuine freedom. But what is this anguish? And what is her concept of freedom? To answer these questions, we need to look at Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. De Beauvoir and Sartre were colleagues, and her work is in many ways a continuation of his monumental tome.

On the face of it, the phrase “the anguish of freedom” seems peculiar. We can understand the anguish of captivity, but a person released from prison or freed from the threat of being locked up would more likely feel happiness or relief than anguish. The meaning of “freedom” here, however, is not physical but metaphysical; we are talking about free will. To say that our will is free is to say that at least in some cases we ourselves, not something other than or external to us, choose what we do and strive for.

Sartre agrees, but takes a very extreme position. He is a radical libertarian (in the philosophical sense, not the political). He thinks our choices are not determined in any way, neither by physical causality nor by prior motivation. Here are some representative passages from Being and Nothingness:

[A person] escapes from the causal order of the world and extricates himself from the glue of being.(3)

In conceiving, on the basis of my perceptions of the bedroom that he lived in, the person who is no longer in the bedroom, I must necessarily perform an act of thought that cannot be determined or motivated by any antecedent state ….(4)

Freedom is the human being putting his past out of play ….(5)

… my motives [are] inefficacious ….(6)

… [psychological] tendencies are actualized with my cooperation, … they are not forces of nature … by constantly deciding on their value, I lend them their efficacy ….”(7)

According to Sartre our will and our choices are not determined by the causal order of the world, nor by our psychological tendencies nor even by our motives. They are not determined by any antecedent state at all!

Now, we can certainly criticize this concept of freedom of will. If our choices are not determined at all, then they are in effect random. But if our actions are caused by randomness then we are just as unfree as if they were caused by determinism. This is quite a radical conception. To see how radical, let’s focus on what Sartre does with this concept. His view leads to him to assert that if we truly realized our radical freedom, we would be in anguish.

He asks how our freedom appears to us. Remember, he is working in the tradition of Phenomenology, which attempts to describe first-person experience just as it is without preconceptions. He asks “What form does this consciousness of freedom take?” He replies,

It is in anguish that man becomes conscious of his freedom or, alternatively anguish is freedom’s mode of being as consciousness of being; it is in anguish that freedom is … in question for itself.(8)

His argument for this surprising assertion is in the form of illustrative examples. One is that of walking along a narrow ledge. Anguish is different from fear, he says, in that fear is of something in the world but anguish is about oneself.

Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am frightened not of falling into the precipice but of throwing myself into it. A situation that provokes fear, insofar as it threatens to change my life and my being from the outside, provokes anguish to the extent to which I mistrust my own reactions to this situation.(9)

He elaborates.(10) You are on a narrow ledge and you are afraid of slipping on a stone or of the ground crumbling beneath you. To avert such an eventuality you pay close attention and take care; you watch for loose stones and stay away from the edge. In doing so you apprehend yourself as a physical object, one among many. Your fall, if it happens, will be determined by causes external to you.

But you are also a free agent; you might, of your own free will, decide instead to jump! Your strategies for preventing a fall “do not appear to [you] as determined by external causes,” he says.(11) You think of other possible behaviors such as failing to pay attention, running heedlessly or thinking of something else, and decide to avoid them. But “no external cause will set them aside. [You] alone [are] the permanent source of their non-being.”(12) These possible events might still happen—not just the loose stones, which are not in your control, but your strategies for avoiding catastrophe, which are. Knowing that your choices are totally free, neither determined by the past nor by your own motives for self-preservation, you feel anguish.

I grasp these motives … as insufficiently effective. At the very moment when I apprehend myself as horrified of the chasm, I am conscious of this horror as not being determining in relation to my possible behavior. … I realize that nothing can oblige me to take this action [of being careful not to fall].(13)

Once you realize your essential freedom, Sartre says, you feel anguish. Anguish doesn’t prove we are free, but it is “a specific way of being conscious of freedom.”(14) So how come we don’t feel it all the time? Because many of our actions are habitual and because most of the time we don’t need to think about what we are doing; we just do it. Anguish arises only when we reflectively notice that we are free, not when we are unreflectively engaged in action.(15)

He gives another example. He is writing a book. As he writes, the words become sentences and the sentences, paragraphs. They have a momentum of their own. Once he gets started, he tends to keep going, possibly pausing for a while, but in anticipation of starting up again. No anguish is involved. But the paragraphs become chapters and eventually a book, and the work as a whole is an occasion for anguish.

This work is a possibility in relation to which I can feel anguish: it really is my possible, and I do not know if I will continue it tomorrow …. I have been “wanting to write it” but nothing, not even what I have been, can force me to write it.(16)

And that is the anguish of freedom. You just don’t know whether what you do in the future will be at all consistent with what you have done in the past. Maybe you will jump off a cliff. Maybe you will abandon a cherished project to which you have devoted lots of time and energy. Heck, maybe you will abandon your whole life and go live under a bridge. Anything is possible; and that, says Sartre, is occasion for anguish.

But is it? Do these examples make sense? My opinion is that they don’t; they are so far-fetched as to be almost absurd. Sartre purports to describe a feature of human reality generally, “a permanent structure of the human being.”(17) I think it’s more likely that what he describes is idiosyncratic to himself. Few of us, I think, would feel anguish in these situations.

Let’s take the second one first. Why should the idea that you might suddenly abandon a cherished project cause you anguish? Why is the idea so troubling? Perhaps the fear is that something alien to your habitual ways of being might suddenly erupt. The abandonment would be a radical disruption of yourself. Anguish would be an appropriate response. But is it probable?

Your considering the idea is a form of what I call second-order thinking, which others call metacognition or self-awareness. You can easily entertain such a thought. Maybe the words just aren’t coming today and you feel frustrated. Maybe you find that you have other, more pressing things to do. Or maybe you are just bored with the whole thing. Those scenarios are plausible, but would not, I think, provoke anguish. Your actually being in anguish about the possibility would be a second-order distrust of your first-order self. If the abandonment happened, you would be like a whole different person. Most of us do have some ego-attachment to who we think we are. Certainly a sudden disruption would threaten that attachment. But it’s not very likely.

Equally implausible is the scenario of being in anguish while hiking on a narrow ledge. The odds of being there on the cliff in the first place are very slim, but let’s ignore that. It’s ludicrous for most of us to think that we would suddenly kill ourself. It’s not a realistically probable outcome and not something you need to worry about. It’s unlikely that you would even think about it. And if you did think about it, it is unlikely that you would be in anguish about the possibility. I asked a friend about it, and she said that the possibility of stepping off a tall building had occurred to her once, but she didn’t feel any anguish and quickly put it out of her mind. I venture to guess that the same would be true for most of us.

Sartre is looking at what software developers call “edge cases,” things that happen only at extreme ends of the range of possibilities, such as maximum and minimum values. If your user is to enter a number between one and ten, you would test what happens when they enter 0, 1, 10 and 11. It’s useful to consider edge cases to avoid unexpected results, but most often we are concerned with normal cases, things that most people are likely to encounter.

Here’s a non-edge case: You anticipate getting some ice cream and you imagine ordering vanilla. As you think about it, you prefer vanilla. But you know that you might change your mind when you actually order it. You might get something else, chocolate or strawberry perhaps. Does that possibility give you pause? Do you feel anguish about it? Probably not. The stakes are low, and if you even think about it, you trust that your future self will make a good choice.

Consider all the proto-humans that lived a long time ago. The ones who cowered in existential anguish over every choice failed to survive long enough to leave offspring. We, descendants of those who did not suffer such anguish, aren’t built that way.

All this is to say that Sartre greatly exaggerates the prevalence of the feeling of anguish. The idea that anguish is universally a response to recognizing one’s freedom is clearly false. It is not a feature of human reality generally, only of a few psychologically unstable individuals.

The idea makes sense only if you buy into Sartre’s notion of freedom, that we are radically undetermined by any past causes, psychological tendencies, motives and the like. If that were the case, then it might make sense to worry about whether we would suddenly do things completely out of character as if we were possessed by some evil spirit. But Sartre’s examples are so outlandish that they serve as a kind of reductio ad absurdum and render his notion false.

Are we then not free at all? No, our will is indeed free, but it is subject to constraints. Causality, tendencies and motives as well as, crucially, our beliefs and desires are far more efficacious than Sartre would have us believe.(18) Sartre is right in emphasizing our capacity for second-order thinking (although he uses quite different language). Observing ourselves and thinking about ourselves allow us to step back mentally, appraise what we are up to, consider possible consequences and decide what to do. In such appraisals we remember our valued projects and our will to live. We might recognize that theoretically we have the ability to abandon our past, but we see no reason to do so and quickly move on.

Our capacity for self-reflection does give us an ability that Sartre evidently does not recognize, however, the ability to choose our response to our freedom. Yes, we can choose to be in anguish, but we can equally well choose take delight and comfort that we are not mere puppets.

A different and more cogent assessment of our freedom comes from a Sufi teacher:

Freedom of will … is strictly speaking continuous opportunity to do good, no matter how many the shortcomings or how often the repetition of serious mistakes.(19)

Far from occasion for anguish, our ability to make free choices can engender hope. We don’t have to be stuck in harmful behaviors. Our freedom can give us the great satisfaction and even exhilaration of knowing that we are each, as the poet says, master of our fate and captain of our soul.(20)


(1) de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, near the end of Part I. (The online version has no page numbers.)

(2) Idem, throughout Part II.

(3) Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 59

(4) Idem, p. 64.

(5) Idem, p. 65.

(6) Idem, p. 72.

(7) Idem, p. 107.

(8) Idem, p. 66.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Idem, pp. 67-70.

(11) Idem, p. 68.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Idem, p. 69.

(14) Idem, p. 72.

(15) Idem, pp. 74-75.

(16) Idem, p. 76.

(17) Idem, p. 74.

(18) Please see Meacham, How To Exert Free Will for a fuller treatment.

(19) Lewis, The Sutra on the Three Hundred and Sixty Aphorisms, PDF p. 12.

(20) Henley, “Invictus”.


de Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. On-line publication, URL = as of 21 June 2023.

Henley, William Ernest. “Invictus.” Available online at as of 28 June 2023.

Lewis, Samuel L. The Sutra on the Three Hundred and Sixty Aphorisms. Online publication as of 21 September 2018.

Meacham, Bill. “How To Exert Free Will.” Online publication Amazon Kindle edition,

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Tr. Sarah Richmond. New York: Washington Square Press/Atria, 2018.

From → Philosophy

  1. Norman permalink

    It’s complicated. Consciousness, education, profession, culture, class, geography, hierarchy are some of the variables affecting freedom (choices)!

  2. R. Collins permalink

    Read your essay. Interesting perspective.

    I do see your point.

    Kind of like the extreme one reaches when one asks what happened before the big bang?

    Or if all the layers of the onion around the ‘self’ I call myself are removed and I find nothing there?

    Who is in anguish? Certainly not the emptiness at the center of the illusion of the conditioned ‘self’ (ego), but the conditioned ego, searching for some exterior premise upon which to base its values may feel nervous if/when if finds nothing, or even if it does find something and decides that is arbitrary and invalid.

  3. S. Graham permalink

    Thank you so much for this splendid essay. It has caused me to rethink several issues I thought I had resolved long since, the very best kind of intellectual stimulation. Now I must put it all in the cauldron of meditation so that eventually I will come to know what I really think.

  4. Carl E permalink

    Per usual you have opened Pandora’s box and allowed some interesting ideas into the light of day. While I have read some of both Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre I make no claim as to competence or expertise but the notion of the “Anguish of Freedom” has been on my plate for quite a while.

    We in the western world talk a lot about freedom usually referring to the removal of constraints of one kind or another – freedom of speech, freedom to bear arms, freedom of assembly etc.. Interestingly, I agree with Sartre that, ”Anguish arises only when we reflectively notice that we are free, not when we are unreflectively engaged in action.“ Most of our lives are routine, habitual and predictable as he points out. Todays world of increasing complexity and ever accelerating change has opened our horizons but it has also brought doubt, uncertainty and I feel, an increasing sense of existential angst or “freedom anguish”. This is nothing new as Eric Fromm back in the 40’s in his book “Escape from Freedom” pointed out. “The masters of renaissance capitalism were not as happy and secure as is often pictured. It seems that the new freedom brought two things to them: An increased feeling of strength and at the same time and increased isolation, doubt, skepticism, and – resulting from all these – anxiety”.

    We talk a good show but when push comes to shove, freedom involves responsibility and we are not comfortable with that. I have often quoted the phrase that, “Most people feel more comfortable being absolutely certain of something they know to be a lie then doubtful of something that is most likely true.” Comfort lies not in freedom to choose but in certainty of outcome even if that outcome is false. Much of the current turn throughout the western democracies is to authoritarian figures who portray strength and allow people to escape freedom by subsuming themselves into so called greater causes. They are no longer responsible for what they do. Freedom is abandoned for subservience and blind obedience and anxiety is relieved because I no longer need choose. All I need do is follow the herd.

    Your statement, “The idea that anguish is universally a response to recognizing one’s freedom is clearly false. It’s not a feature of human reality generally, only a few psychologically unstable individuals.” Is one I must disagree with. Anxiety, it seems to me, is nearly a universal human response these days and I would attribute it to the anguish of freedom, existential angst, or perhaps our feelings of uncertainty and doubt brought about by our confrontation with an ever expanding world of freedom and possibility. Our universe, thanks to genetic manipulation, artificial intelligence and the like is expanding exponentially and our options in terms of self creation and freedom are also exploding but our abilities in terms of dealing with this expansion, our growth curve is struggling to keep up and the net result – anxiety and a need to retrench, enclose ourselves and deny our freedom. It is easier to obey, follow the leader, not think or question or choose than to jump off the cliff into the unknown Canyon of freedom.

    Anyway, I always enjoy your posts.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Carl. I agree that anxiety about the world, one’s place in it and the future seems to be widespread. But is that due to a fundamental structure of human reality or to current social and economic conditions? I wonder if Paleolithic humans felt the anxiety Sartre talks about.

  5. George H permalink


    I find myself in total agreement, nicely done.

    Sartre was imprisoned by the Nazis, maybe he never was able to get past that? And, after the war France must have been a mess.

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