What is Existentialism

Jean-Paul Sartre

What is Existentialism?

In his 1945 lecture on existentialism and humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre asserts: “existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw all the conclusions from a coherent atheist position.” He begins his explication of existentialist philosophy by discussing one of its key concepts: that existence precedes essence.

Let us, he says, consider any man-made object, a book or paper cutter, for instance. Here is an object that began as a concept or idea in the mind of the artisan who designed and constructed it. The concept involves the manner by which the paper cutter is constructed and, more importantly, the specific purpose or use to which it is put (in this case, to cut paper). “Therefore,” Sartre concludes,

let us say that, for the paper-cutter, essence—that is, the ensemble of both the production routines and the properties which enable it to be both produced and defined—precedes existence…Therefore, we have here a technical view of the world whereby it can be said that production precedes existence.

In other words, in the “technical view of the world,” the “essence” of the artifact precedes the actual physical existence of the artifact, in the sense that the blueprint or concept of the paper-cutter already exists in the artisan’s mind before he ever commits to its actual production in his workshop.

When we conceive God as the Creator, Sartre continues, He is thought of as a kind of superhuman artisan: God creates the Earth and the human species according to a deliberate and specific plan or idea: “Thus, the concept of man in the mind of God is comparable to the concept of paper-cutter in the mind of the manufacturer, and, following certain techniques and a conception, God produces man, just as the artisan, following a definition and a technique, makes a paper-cutter.” The concept of mankind in the divine intelligence is what we refer to as “human nature”: it defines mankind in terms of what we are and how we are meant to live (as we see, for example, in the natural law teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas).

Atheistic existentialism, Sartre claims, is a more coherent doctrine. It states: “if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept, and this being is man…” That is, man first of all exists, “turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself.” Because there is no God who conceives the concept “man” and then creates mankind according to that concept, there is no such thing as human nature. There is, in other words, no particular reason “why” we as a species are here. We are indeterminate beings, without any fixed essence of nature, and hence entirely free to live our lives in whatever manner we choose. The first principle of existentialism is that “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” Sartre also refers to this principle as “subjectivity.” Let us explore it in greater detail.

Unlike inert or non-conscious objects like stones and tables, man has a kind of intrinsic dignity insofar as he is a being who “is at the start a plan which is aware of itself…” “Nothing exists prior to this plan; there is nothing in heaven; man will be what he will have planned to be.” The human being creates his own essence or nature through his freely chosen acts, there being no pre-determined human nature with which he is stamped at conception and to which he must conform his actions. Thus if existence precedes essence, then “man is responsible for what he is.” And to be responsible for our own individuality necessarily entails being “responsible for all men,” for “in creating the man that we want to be… [we] at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be.” In other words, when we make a fundamental choice in life, we do so according to a set of personally chosen values which projects a certain image of ourselves as we choose to be, and by extension we are projecting an ideal image of man as we think he ought to be. For example,

if I want to marry, to have children; even if this marriage depends solely on my own circumstances or passion or wish, I am involving all humanity in monogamy and not merely myself. Therefore, I am responsible for myself and for everyone else. I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man.

 Anguish, Forlornness, Despair

By anguish Sartre means that “the man who involves himself and who realizes that he is not only the person he chooses to be, but also a law-maker who is, at the same time, choosing all mankind as well as himself, cannot escape the feeling of his total and deep responsibility.” Because man is free and at the same time responsible, he cannot escape the feeling of immense, deep, and total responsibility not only for his own actions but also for other men, since by choosing himself he assumes the responsibility of creating an image for all of humanity. His actions, therefore, are those of a lawmaker to whom “everything happens as if all mankind had its eyes fixed on him and were guiding itself by what he does.” Of course, many people attempt to flee from anxiety either by renouncing freedom (through relying on the advice of others instead of deciding on our own) or through self-deception (by believing that our actions have no affect on anyone else). If we are truly honest with ourselves, we recognize the disquieting and inescapable fact that we alone must choose what to do, without relying on any external source of guidance, however comforting that may be. Thus, in making a decision, one “cannot help having a certain anguish.”

“When we speak of forlornness,” writes Sartre, “we mean only that God does not exist and that we have to face all the consequences of this.” Sartre exposes the naivety of the casual or fashionable atheist who believes one can maintain a secular ethics while dispensing with the need for God altogether. The rationale of these superficial thinkers runs as follows:

God is a useless and costly hypothesis; we are discarding it, but meanwhile, in order for there to be an ethics, a society, a civilization, it is essential that certain values be taken seriously and that they be considered as having an a priori existence. It must be obligatory, a priori, to be honest, not to lie, not to beat your wife, to have children, etc., …In other words…nothing will be changed if God does not exist. We shall find ourselves with the same norms of honesty, progress, and humanism, and we shall have made of God an outdated hypothesis which will peacefully die off by itself.

The thoughtless atheist wants to have the best of both worlds—that is, to jettison entirely the belief in God (with all the irksome restraints on our personal liberty such belief necessarily entails) while at the same time preserving the universal moral structure that makes civilization possible (but for which there is absolutely no place in a godless universe).

The existentialist, on the other hand, “thinks it very distressing that God does not exist,” for once God is out of the picture, “there can be no longer an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it.” If God does not exist, then “everything is permitted” because, to invoke St. Thomas Aquinas, there would be no natural and eternal law to define and punish evil and injustice. This key insight “is the very starting point of existentialism,” and as a result man is forlorn, consumed by a feeling of abandonment, “because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to.” We are utterly alone in the universe, without any natural (or supernatural) basis by which we can guide and assess our lives (This should remind you of Nietzsche’s “Mad Man and the Death of God”). Hence Sartre’s famous dictum that “man is condemned to be free.” Condemned, because he is not self-created, yet, in other respects free; “because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

In order to give us a better understanding of forlornness, Sartre refers to one of his students, who sought his advice on whether or not to join the French resistance, rather than stay with his mother. Sartre points out that no world-view or ideology (outside of existentialism) would be of any use to this boy because universal values are too vague and broad for the concrete and specific dilemmas each of us faces in life. For this reason Sartre says: “the only thing left for us is to trust our instincts,” by which he means that, “in the end, feeling is what counts. I ought to choose whichever pushes me in one direction.” His young student, embracing his freedom and responsibility, ought therefore to reach a decision in the following way:

If I feel that I love my mother enough to sacrifice everything else for her—my desire for vengeance, for action, for adventure—then I’ll stay with her. If, on the contrary, I feel that my love for my mother isn’t enough, I’ll leave.

But how do we determine the value of a “feeling”? For Sartre, it is precisely through action that we determine the value of our “instincts.” By choosing to stay with his mother, the boy’s feeling for her acquires value; but short of an “act which confirms and defines it,” such “feeling” is worthless. In other words, despite what we may think of ourselves in the safety of our imagination, we cannot possibly know how we would act in a given situation until we actually find ourselves in that situation, being forced by circumstances to make a choice one way or the other: “I may say that I like so-and-so well enough to sacrifice a certain amount of money for him, but I may say so only if I’ve done it.”

We arrive finally at Sartre’s analysis of despair, which results from our awareness that there are a multitude of factors in life that lie completely beyond our control. Thus when “we want something, we always have to reckon with probabilities.” “The moment,” Sartre continues, “the possibilities I am considering are not rigorously involved by my action, I ought to disengage myself from them, because no God, no scheme, can adapt the world and its possibilities to my will.” Thus no matter how well thought out your plan, no matter how determined your will, there will be contingencies you cannot influence. You may, for example, develop a detailed, long-term plan to become, say, an engineer. You may study hard and get into the best schools. But then one day, as you are driving home late one night after a graduate seminar, someone runs a red light and hits your car on the driver’s side, causing you severe and permanent brain damage, and thus in one stroke destroying your chances of fulfilling your plan to become an engineer. Or perhaps you meet the person you think is your “soul mate,” and you invest much effort and hope in building a life-long relationship with that person, only to find out that after ten years of marriage, your spouse has been cheating on you all along.

The lesson here is that it is impossible to conquer chance: hence Descartes’ famous dictum: “Conquer yourself rather than the world,” by which he means that you should accommodate your will to what is probable—knowing full well that circumstances outside of your control may hinder your plans—rather than expect the world (through belief in, for example, Divine Providence, or destiny) to adapt itself to your will, hopes, or desires. “Does this mean,” Sartre asks, “that I should abandon myself to quietism? No. First, I should involve myself; then, act on the old saying, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’” The existentialist says to himself: “I shall have no illusions and shall do what I can.” This is the very opposite of quietism, since it declares that (in a most fitting end to a chapter on atheistic existentialism)

Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is, therefore, nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life.

5. What does Sartre mean when he says “existence precedes essence”? Do you think this is a correct characterization of the human condition? Why or why not?

6. Do you agree that if “God does not exist, everything is permitted?” Why or why not?

7. In what sense is existentialism empowering, and in what sense is it burdensome, or even terrifying? Do you see yourself as an existentialist? Why or why not?

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