The They

Existentialists think that what makes humans different from all other beings is the fact that we can choose what to do. In fact, we must choose: the only thing we are not free to do is not to be free. Other entities have some predefined nature: a rock, a penknife or even a beetle just is what it is. But as a human, there is no blueprint for producing me. I may be influenced by biology, culture and personal background, but at each moment I am making myself up as I go along, depending on what I choose to do next. As Sartre put it: “There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.” It is terrifying, but exhilarating.

From Think big, be free, have sex: ten reasons to be an existentialist.

However tough it is, existentialists generally strive to be “authentic”. They take this to mean being less self-deceiving, more decisive, more committed, and more willing to take on responsibility for the world.

Most of the time, we don’t do this very well. Why? For Heidegger, the fault lies with our bewitchment by a non-entity called das Man, often translated as “the they” – as in “they say it will all be over by Christmas” (or the “one” in the phrase “one doesn’t do that”). We can’t say who exactly this “they” is, but it is everywhere, and it steals the decisions I should be making by myself.

For Sartre, the problem is mauvaise foi, or bad faith. To avoid facing up to how free I am, I pretend not to be free at all.

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

5 Responses to “The They”

  1. Spoonman says:

    Thank you, that was a very enjoyable read. I need to catch up on Sartre and his contemporaries one of these days.

    The following words in the article resonated with me:

    “After the 1960s, the battle for personal liberty seemed to be mostly won. The achievements have been great – and yet, in the 21st century, we find ourselves less sure than ever about how far our freedom includes the right to offend or transgress, and how much of it we want to compromise in return for convenience, entertainment or an illusion of total security.”

  2. Hell yeah. That essay was ostensibly to promote At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell. I really enjoyed her previous book about Montagne – very insightful and she was good company as an author. And finally (because it’s not mentioned here) if you fancy a bit of Sartre try Existentialism as a Humanism because it’s very (very!) short and gets to the point quickly.

  3. Spoonman says:

    No wonder the essay felt a bit familiar, I had read an article about At the Existentialist Cafe in The Economist a few weeks back.

    A couple of years ago I read two plays by Sartre, they were good but left me wanting much more. Thanks for the suggestion, I will check out Existentialism as a Humanism to get my Sartre fix before I look at his other works.

  4. jb says:

    Free PDF copy Existentialism as a Humanism:

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