Sartre On Resolutions: A Philosophical Guide to Success

December 28, 2017
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We are moving into the season of change – of renewing our commitment to transformation and of reasserting our dedication to a better life. Soon we will resolve to adopt or give up habits and lifestyle choices that will move us towards our future, better self. In short, we have come upon that blank parchment of possibility known as resolution season.

And that means every blogger worth his salt is going to have the requisite resolution post decrying how to begin, why you will fail, and what you can do to make those resolutions stick. Well this hackney blogger is no different in that regard, but I wanted to approach the topic of resolutions from the mindset of philosophy. Big surprise, huh?

We might think that philosophy is not relevant in helping us to achieve our resolution goals, but there is a particular philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, who had something to say about the difficulty of change in regards to resolutions – be they for the new year or simply for the new you. It is that philosopher we will explore in the hope of strengthening your resolve and to help you in achieving your resolution goals for this new year.

Why Resolutions Fail

Sartre, in his seminal work Being and Nothingness, presents his exploration of resolutions by looking at the radical freedom that we have in every moment and what it means for our ability to support the conviction of our resolutions. In his example he looks at

“the gambler who has freely and sincerely decided not to gamble any more and who when he approaches the gaming table, suddenly sees all his resolutions melt away.”

The resolution to not gamble is there in the gambler – it exists with strength and force and is brought to the front of his mind as soon as he sees the table – but he understands that there is no force within the resolution itself that is actually preventing him from gambling again. There is nothing tangible in the commitment that he can rely upon that will allow him to keep his resolution. The decision to not gamble has no ability to enforce itself on my actions. In short, the gambler has the freedom to gamble again at any time, despite his decision to not want to.

What’s more, he must face that freedom within him to gamble or not to gamble every time he is confronted with the opportunity. He must stare down the anguish of his freedom and reaffirm his resolution countless times and forever. There is no power in his resolution that does not come from his perpetual choosing of it.

Ignoring Your Freedom

So it is the same for you and the resolutions you have made. You do not have the luxury of referring back to your personal promise to yourself that you make on December 31st and think that it alone is powerful enough to prevent you from going back on it. You have to reaffirm that choice everyday in every action because you are condemned with that level of freedom.

Your resolutions have no power to compel you to act in accordance with them. They are merely ideas that you want to make real. They represent a very real desire for a better life or better health or better finances but they only exist as thoughts that require you to bring to actionable life. To that ends, you must determine, again and again, to take that action to which you before resolved to take.

And therein lies the difficulty of keeping and maintaining resolutions. Because you are lacking one or all of these three components:

  1. Vigilant awareness of the freedom of temptation
  2. Resolute strength of your decision to change
  3. A willed power to choose rightly again and again

These are the three critical points of resolution success, according to Sartre. Does he use different more philosophically robust language to talk about these things? Yes. But I don’t think it is necessary for us to throw around big words just to get to the heart of the matter.

What Sartre is saying is, when we make those initial resolutions it seems to us that we have “established a real barrier” between ourselves and our past behavior. We want the change badly. We think that simply in making it the resolution is burned into the depths of our being, and as such, will prevent us from committing to actions that will break our resolution. And in this thinking we fall under the hypnotic, deterministic trap that we have already changed simply because we so deeply want to change. But no great change comes without great effort and thinking we have changed is a far cry from actually changing. 

How To Make Your Resolutions Stick?

To use Sartre’s own words:

“I must re-create [my resolution] as experienced fear. It stands behind me like a boneless phantom. It depends on me alone to lend it flesh. I am alone and naked before temptation as I was the day before. After having patiently built up barriers and walls, after enclosing myself in the magic circle of a resolution, I perceive with anguish that nothing prevents me from [breaking it].”

In short, in order for our resolutions to be a successful mechanism for change we must re-enter the experience of the first emotional reason for our resolution. We must return to that visceral passion and bring it to mind perpetually – as though it were the first time – with all the agony, pain and cost of failure. Through that revisiting we are able to find the strength necessary to defend our resolutions to ourselves and find the will to change the negative habits that have become so ingrained in us.

You have to return to the resolution in it’s full force. Something which Sartre calls “synthetic apprehension of the situation”.

Re-envision Our Failure

What this means is that we must re-envision the results of our failure. When faced with a choice of adherence to our resolution, or the breaking of it, we must relive, with the greatest and gravest of detail, the pain of failing to uphold our decision. The pain of being overweight and out of shape and the price it demands on our health and future. We must relive the sickness and costs of our smoking on ourselves and our family. We must relive the misery of our current monetary situation and the stress and anguish it brings to our lives. We must relive all the past reasons that pushed us to our resolution and we must imagine the future state of our lives if we fail. Then we must use those as motivation for our resolution and return to them as often as necessary to make the resolution stick.

Re-Commit Constantly

In order to see our resolutions through, we must commit again and again to them. We do not have the luxury of simply referring back to our original decision to change. We are forced, through the burden of our perpetual freedom, to reaffirm, time and time again, the strength and force of our decision. An exhausting proposition but a necessary one to make our resolutions real.

But there is hope. There will come a time when it will become easier to stick to your resolution because you will become your resolution. Sartre refers to this as “transcendence” but how we understand is as, “becoming the person we imagined ourselves to be”. It doesn’t matter what we call it because we all know what it feels like and it will not be something outside of you that you are forcing on yourself. It will become a habitual fact of your being and not a temporary affirmation you must constantly resolve to affirm.


There is nothing wrong with desiring deeply to change something about ourselves. It is in fact a great and courageous exercise of our personal freedom to decide to make better what became ruined in our lives. It is never too late to face down our problems and decide to take up arms against them. But there is a stubborn difficulty that must be acknowledged in trying to stick to our resolutions. A difficulty that is born of our perpetual freedom to choose our direction in every moment of life.

We must acknowledge this burden of our freedom and recognize the necessity of reaffirming our resolutions in every moment. We must retreat back to the force of our original decision and relive the emotions that pushed the resolution to the forefront of our minds. Only in the strength of those visceral, emotional recollections are we able to constantly choose the right action that will help us see our resolutions to reality.

We must reaffirm, with constant force, our resolutions through a developed awareness of ourselves, our actions, and our intent. It is in that tiny space of freedom awareness that the success of our resolutions most lie. That awareness and then the discipline to choose rightly. 

And that is the Sartrean recipe for success regarding resolutions. It is not easy. There are no short cuts and it is completely up to you in every moment to make your resolutions last, but in this personal responsibility and choice lies a wellspring of self-confidence, self-determinism, and strength that can carry fully into the rest of your life. 


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