The Flies

by: Jean-Paul Sartre


Summary Act III

The true conflict, of course, is not between Orestes and Electra, but between him and Jupiter. Sartre's idea of freedom specifically requires that the being- for-itself not be either a being-for-others or a being-in-itself. A being-for- others occurs when human beings accept morals thrust onto them by others. A being-in-itself occurs when human beings do not separate themselves from objects of nature. Jupiter represents both a moral norm, the Good, and Nature. Both Orestes and Jupiter recognize that, in the recognition of freedom, one is cut off from Nature and from the human community that exists under the moral norm. Orestes is an aberration of Nature: he will not yield to the same standard of the Good that orders the universe. He must choose his own path, unlike the predetermined paths of the stars and planets. Since the Argives live by Jupiter's moral laws, Orestes is also cast out of their society and even Electra rejects him, unable to let go of the moral law of the gods. Jupiter points out that Orestes is even foreign to himself. Since his past does not determine his future, Orestes has no set identity: he freely creates his identity anew at every moment. He can never know who he is with certainty because his identity changes from moment to moment. He is being for himself.

At first Jupiter mocks Orestes's view of freedom, saying that if Orestes has freedom, then one might as well speak of a slave nailed to the cross as having freedom. Here again Orestes is compared to Christ. This time Orestes accepts the comparison. He does see himself as a Christ figure in the sense that he believes himself to be the savior of Argos. Freedom is not the ability to physically do whatever one wants. It is the ability to mentally interpret one's own life for oneself—to define oneself and create one's own values. Even the slave can interpret his or her life in different ways, and in this sense the slave is free.

When Electra, tempted by Jupiter, repudiates her crime, Orestes says that she is bringing guilt on herself. Guilt results from the failure to accept responsibility for one's actions as a product of one's freedom. To repudiate one's actions is to agree that it was wrong to take those actions in the first place. In doing this, Electra repudiates her ability to freely choose her own values. Instead, she accepts the values that Jupiter imposes on her. In repudiating the murders of Clytemnestra and Aegistheus, Electra allows Jupiter to determine her past for her. She surrenders her freedom by letting her past take on a meaning that she did not give to it by herself, and as a result she becomes bound to a meaning that did not come from her. Electra can choose, like Orestes, to see the murders as right and therefore to reject feelings of guilt. Instead, she allows Jupiter to tell her that the murders were wrong and to implicate her in a crime.

When Jupiter and Orestes face off, Jupiter is revealed as the weaker of the two. His physical appearance changes and his voice grows louder. His voice, however, is only the effect of a loudspeaker, and his demonstration of power borders on melodrama. Orestes is neither shaken nor impressed; he sees Jupiter for what he is: a being capable of controlling nature, but unable to either control those who are free or even to find his own freedom. Jupiter's Good lies in Nature, in "the weight of stone," and even in the human body. But human freedom is separate from this Good. Human beings can follow divine law only if they allow themselves to become like stones.

When Orestes says that he cannot return to Jupiter's Good, he does not mean that he does not want to do so, but, rather, he means that it is impossible for freedom, once it is recognized, to surrender itself. One cannot freely choose to not be free, since the fact that one chooses freely already implies that one is free. Because Orestes, having recognized his freedom, cannot freely give it up, Jupiter suggests that Orestes is the slave of his own freedom. But Orestes replies that he is neither its slave nor its master. He is his freedom. Human consciousness, the being-for-itself, is necessarily separate from Nature. Nature has no meaning in itself; meaning is imparted on objects by consciousness. In order to impart meaning on Nature, consciousness must necessarily be separate from Nature. Freedom is simply the ability to impose meaning on Nature, i.e., to define one's own circumstances for oneself. Thus consciousness, by definition, is freedom, so that Orestes can claim that he is his freedom. This freedom comes with a price. Consciousness is by its nature separate from the world of things. Jupiter says, "You are not in your own home, intruder; you are a foreign body in the world." Orestes's face shows anguish because he has lost the comfortable safety of having his values predetermined for him. Nature has fallen away from him, as he says, and he feels the anguish of having to define the entire world for himself. This is why Orestes says he can feel no hatred for Jupiter: they exist in separate worlds—one in the world of Nature, the other in the world of freedom—and their paths do not intersect.

When asked why he wishes to share his despair with the Argives, Orestes says, "human life begins on the far side of despair." Despair is the recognition of nothingness in the world: when one becomes aware of one's freedom, one realizes that the world, or Nature, has no meaning apart from the meaning one imposes on it. This lack of intrinsic meaning is nothingness. To despair, for Sartre, means to recognize that meanings are not definite or certain, but depend entirely on ourselves. It is only after this realization that human beings can begin to create their own meanings and determine their own lives. True human life, then, must follow despair.