Freedom as a Hostage

Hakan Şenyurt
The limits of freedom of the individual in any aspect such as freedom of action, freedom of thought, speech, and even will is the most important boundary to be defined. This defining process is the hardest one that humans face because social constructs, ethics, life conditions, and, even life itself is dependent on individual’s actions and the actions are all about freedom of the individual. Also, the other essential factor in this process of defining is the zeitgeist of the certain era that is again shaped by the individuals who are trying to give a definition to freedom. Therefore, building and stating a definition of freedom is not an easy task. In this paper, I will introduce, discuss, and give a response to Sartre’s understanding of freedom with the help of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa. As I will discuss, freedom is not an internal state of mind of the individual, which can be created or stated by imagining or thinking.
Sartre, states that “the existence of man starts with the realization of the existence of himself and man is nothing but the project of himself, thus his total actions present his whole life (1946, p.37)”. From this quote, we can see that Sartre defines man with the whole responsibility of his life because life is all about the total sum of one’s actions. Man is a project of himself which means that he has the ultimate control over his life. The term having the ultimate control of one’s life means to being totally free. Thus, Sartre’s definition of freedom implies an internal way of creating freedom. Therefore, Sartre rejects all ideas that the freedom of an individual depends on external factors rather than one’s personal realization of his existence and internally reaching freedom. However, he does not deny the significance of others in realizing oneself. Thus in a sense seems to contradict himself as we can see from this quote: “He realizes that he cannot be anything ( in the sense in which we say someone is spiritual, or cruel, or jealous ) unless others acknowledge him as such (Sartre, 1946, p.41). Contradiction starts when he establishes power in others to define an individual because he claimed that the definition of the life of an individual only depends on the total sum of his actions. If there is a power of recognition provided by others, this means that they have the power to affect an individual’s actions. It is important to remember that Sartre develops an association between one’s actions and his freedom by stating that man i a project of himself. Through this association we can say that others effects the freedom of the individual and there is no such thing as total freedom.
I contend that Kafka’s protagonist Gregor Samsa is the best example of being prisoned by others. After finding himself transformed into a giant insect Gregor Samsa says to himself: “But I must not stay in bed uselessly” (Kafka, 1915, p.8), rather than thinking and panicking about what happened to him. To understand this situation, we should look at Gregor’s life and his personality. Gregor was a young man who works as a sales agent. He hates this job but he has to work as he was told not to become a useless man. “If I didn’t hold back for my parent’s sake, I would’ve quit ages ago (Kafka, 1915, p.5). His parent’s ideals and definitions of a good son, hardworking son, and useful son prisoned him in this job that he hates. By telling his story Kafka defines the impossibility of freedom for the individual in such a human society. Gregor was not a project of himself, he was the project of the society, of the zeitgeist of the society. He was a part of the society as a product of a pattern of how a man should be. Therefore, his freedom is also dependent on society. His metamorphosis may be considered as a symbol of his unconscious fight to take his freedom back. However, the consequence of this fight is becoming a giant useless insect in the eyes of his family and society. Kafka pictured Gregor’s father as a figure that symbolizes the society. This father was the most hostile one towards Gregor throughout the text and also, he was the one who caused Gregor’s death. Kafka’s Metamorphosis may be considered as a story that reflects the harsh reality of life against the Sartre’s ideal of total freedom because Kafka demonstrates the power of others over the individual’s freedom.
As we can see from Gregor Samsa’s experiences and from our individual experiences being in human society means being a project of it rather than being the project of ourselves. We need to satisfy the zeitgeist of the society, in order to live as its member, as Kafka showed us in the story of an individual who lost his humanity by subconsciously fighting with the zeitgeist of the society. He hated his job but he was incapable of escaping the norms of the zeitgeist in expense of hurting his parents’ feelings or by the fear of losing his status in society. Thus, he subconsciously found himself unable to become a part of society because he transformed into a giant insect. We could develop a criticism of Gregor’s attitudes speculating about how his life could be far more different if Gregor had acted brave enough and tried to reach his dreams. Nevertheless, this would not be a legitimate criticism because if in any event the individual pays a price for his/her freedom, we can say that an individual’s freedom is already occupied beforehand by the society. Sartre, states that man is a making rather than an end (1946, p.52) yet how can a man stay as a making while society constantly defines him according to the zeitgeist? I contend that man is a constantly changing end, without any process of making. Freedom of the individual is a hostage of the zeitgeist to which the individuals belong. Thus, freedom is not an internal state of the mind of the individual, which can be created or stated by realization or thinking.


  • Kafka. 1915.The Metamorphosis. Kurt Wolff Verlag, Leipzig
  • Sartre. 1946. Existentialism Is a Humanism. Les Editions Nagel, Methuen & Co

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