The Age of Reason, by French author and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, is an existential novel that questions the fundamentals of freedom and whether it can truly be obtained within human society.

Set over three days one Parisian summer in the late 1930s, The Age of Reason follows Frenchman Mathieu, as he struggles to find the necessary money to pay for his girlfriend’s, Marcelle’s, abortion.  During this period we are shown different angles and glimpses into the lives of those he deems closest to him, which gives us the opportunity to better understand how Mathieu thinks and what compels him to act.  Rather quickly we learn that at the heart of all his actions, Mathieu’s motive is always freedom.  Not to just obtain it, but to live it as truly as possible, so that he can fully believe that he is a man who has wholly, and entirely, chosen his own course of life.

First off, I will put my hand up and admit that I’m not a massive fan of existentialism.  Existentialism is basically the philosophy that each and every individual human being has the ability to create a meaning of life, and that individual’s views, opinions and experiences differently shape what that meaning of life is.

In short, existentialism requires an individual to over think each aspect of their lives to determine whether what they’re doing will provide meaning for them in the overall arch of their lifespan.  As I said, not necessarily a fan.

While I can understand the appeal of wanting to ascertain why we’re here doing what we’re doing, there’s a larger part of me that thinks that we’re, well, over thinking things.  And while Sartre does write beautifully, his character Mathieu simply encompasses this belief, to the extent that if it weren’t so serious a novel, it would be downright comical the way that he thinks.

At the crux of it, The Age of Reason is a novel that focuses on what it is to be free – are we truly responsible and capable of choosing what we do in our lives, or is life predisposed, predetermined: are we being forced, against our will, upon a course that inevitably will lead us to our fate, no matter what we think or do in the meantime?

Freedom on the surface appears to be a two-dimensional thing.  Most of us in the world are ‘free’.  We are free to go about our lives in the way that we see fit; we are free to choose, to vote, to live where we want to live.  We are free, in the most basic of terms, to go and do as we please.

Yet are we really?  Society definitely binds us.  While in theory we are able to wear what we want, say what we please, act how we feel – yet the reality shows that depending on what level of society or class we belong to, our actions, dress and words mimic those around us.  After all, almost every single one of us could easily say that we’ve dressed a certain way, or refrained from saying something we wished we could have, simply because it would have a negative effect within our little place in the society that we belong to.

Or perhaps, the utter and complete control that money has over us?  There’s the saying that the only way you can forget about money is when you have a lot of it – but what does that mean for the rest of us?  Sure, we all have the choice to travel overseas, sleep in, miss work and go to the movies in the afternoon.  But do we honestly have that freedom, particularly in the long run?  For most of us, of course not.

These are issues that Sartre brings up repetitively in The Age of Reason with his character Mathieu, as well as his friends around him.  While Mathieu has the ability to choose and act how he wants, he routinely conforms to set notions of how his society expects him to – in this case, the ‘bourgeoise’.  And when Mathieu finally does something to simply prove that he is ‘free’, he quickly learns that the consequences of his actions are far more important and long-lasting than the notion of what freedom truly is.

The issue that I had with The Age of Reason is that I felt like Sartre was repetitively enforcing this ‘sense of freedom’ without the results time and again when most people would understand what would happen if we act differently than what we’re supposed to.

A prime example is that of Daniel and his cats.  He loves his cats dearly and therefore, since he has the freedom to, decides to drown them in the river.  Of course, the problem is that Daniel does truly love his cats, and as a result cannot drown them.  Almost any of us could say that we have the freedom to harm those around us that we love, or to do something that we don’t want to, but we don’t.  Because the effects and the consequences of the actions far outweigh proving to ourselves that we’re free.  If we know that we have that choice  in the first place, then doesn’t that prove that we’re just as free then if we acted out the choice anyway?

Ugh.  The conclusion to all this is that while Sartre is a beautiful writer, with excellent character development and a lovely story arch, he also makes my head hurt a little.  Because let’s be honest, I went into this blog post thinking that he was overthinking things, but now that I’ve given it a little bit of thought, perhaps he was just thinking the right amount in the first place.

Anyone else confused?

Have you read The Age of Reason? How are you with existentialism?  Do you believe that we are all able to access the true values and meanings of freedom?  Are you a fan of the existential philosophers like Sartre?  Or, are you perhaps in the other boat, and believe that if we thought less, we’d be happier?  Let me know!

the age of reason by jean-paul satre

The Age of Reason – (image taken from http://www.p.gr-assets.com)

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