The Republic of Silence

The French were never freer than during the Nazis occupation, or so this hypothesis is presented by Jean Paul Sartre in his short essay, “The Republic of Silence,”  where the French Heideggerean existentialist philosopher–does anyone say   Heideggerean any longer?  I know we still read Heidegger, if only because we are sure it will help us to understand Derrida, who we read through our misunderstanding and dis-understanding because we are sure he will help us understand Nietzsche who we never understood in the first place, and have become certain we should have. Detours around Deconstruction and Nietzschean bred critiques notwithstanding, Sartre’s notion of freedom is explored as the most crucial and vibrant of humanity’s highest ideals, especially so during the occupation and oppression by the brutal Nazis regime.  What it means for every human to be free is presented in this very short essay as it discusses how a person living in France under the Nazis repression faces, yes, all the horrors we have come to know from history and understand through stereotype, but also confronts the limits of his liberty as never before or since.  He is, as the Existentialists would say, engaged.

This Frenchman’s ability to move about freely, talk freely, express himself freely–and by freely we mean openly and without censor–is foreshortened.  Fear and oppression and a personally complicit repression all persons and institutions conspired to cut at the root of this freeliness.  The simple separate Frenchman looks over his shoulder, everywhere around him wherever he goes. He must suspect in part everyone; the Nazis always created conditions for the occupied to mistrust each other. He cannot be certain who might betray him, even if he is careful not to be a traitor to the Third Reich.  He walks on the same eggshells as everyone else; he walks a tightrope to and from wherever he goes.  Yet he is engaged in the making of his liberty by living, by going on, by thinking in-loud to himself, all of it anyway–this Frenchman was as the many Jewish women in the Warsaw ghetto, who right up to the time they were taken away to the camps that extinguished them, had babies, engaged day in and day out in the making of his or her freedom.  You will not wipe us out, must have been the cry of every Jewish woman who gave birth.  Every birth was Judaism’s rebirth; every child’s initial cry was as the shofar at Rosh Hashanah.  These Jewish women, as others in the many ghettos of the world, of history, of time, as our engaged Frenchman–you must choose to be free.  To be engaged in the consciousness of being free is what it means to be free. It is persistence; it is tenacity; it is vigilance. There is no other way. Free speech can never be protected by silence. Freedom must have its voices raised to be insured.

Our Frenchman’s freedom begins and ends with him, and in this it can only ever be a lower case reference.  The uppercase Freedom is something else.  His freedom exists through the kinds of choices he makes toward “winning” his freedom, which can only be for him, can only be personal–freedom qua freedom is too big, is longer than the longest, or other than, if you will; it is eternal.  And yes, freedom is always won or lost.  But the playing field or battleground is the inscape of the Self. Yet, Freedom in the upper case is what exists whether everyone’s freedom is respected or not. It is a transcendent idea, an energy that is indestructible. The ancient Greeks had to words for life, one was Zoe, or life indestructible and bios, life in manifest form. The former could not be killed, could not die; the latter could be destroyed. An individual’s freedom, his personal liberty can be destroyed, but Freedom can never be which is why it persists and can be reanimated, re-manifested.

The kind of freedom we speak of here for the French, just as we could for any other people, is only valid in the individual example, the individual expression of what it means to be free.  What is most important, and I borrow from Sartre again, is the “obstacle to surmount, the resistance to overcome.” However, there is another kind of freedom developing here under these conditions where one must watch what he says, where he says it, how he says it, and to whom he says it.  In such a society, meetings become subversive, every confidence of his opinion–every secretly expressed judgement about anything that would otherwise be censored, or instinctively curbed in open society; each is a declaration of freedom.  To whisper to a close friend your opinion of the Nazis is to shout to humanity in favor of humanity all for humanity because humanity can only ever triumph by the individual, for the individual, with the individual.

It is for this reason that I can easily accept the hypothesis that each individual human life is macrocosmic to all or any institution, nation, or religion, including laws and constitutions; to all or any politics; to history; to all things and all places and all people.  We are, firstly, lastly and mostly, because I am; in the respect and defense of the perpetual and pervasive I am, we are.

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