Existentialism is a Humanism

Jean-Paul Sartre was born at the dawn of the century of total war and lived seventy-five years. An existentialist philosopher and novelist, he was awarded (and declined) a Nobel Prize in literature. Today, I’m just focusing on his lecture presented in 1945 Paris: Existentialism is a Humanism.

Today’s post is not going to be some university-level lecture on Sartre, or even on this lecture. Instead, I’m going to give a quick overview and pick out a few of the things I’ve highlighted in my copy. Really, what I want is for everyone to buy the book and read it. There are enough youtube lectures and sparks notes out there, but nothing compares to the text, itself.

So, a quick overview… Enlightenment era philosophy and culture, by way of it’s rabid anti-clericalism, effectively “killed God”. It didn’t kill religion, spirituality, or morality, but it killed that which served as the foundation for such human activities. This is, essentially, what Nietzsche’s entire project consisted of: pointing out the hypocrisy of using the tools, traditions, and philosophies of Christianity after having announced a total divorce from it. This attitude, largely led to the humanist movement.

Ultimately, humanism along with other political, historical, and moral philosophies created during and after the enlightenment and fostered until the 20th century resulted in the sudden violent expansion of state power, resulting in the World War… which effectively continues to this very day. As the second chapter of the world war raged on throughout Europe, a certain philosophy began to emerge in France. Existentialism, fundamentally, is a philosophy of trying to pick up the pieces after humanism, progressivism, and scientism resulted in Nazi and American concentration camps, the wholesale slaughter of millions of soldiers, the UK and American militaries firebombing civilians throughout Europe and the Pacific as well as irradiating entire cities. Unsurprisingly, there was a bit of a culture-wide existential crisis, a collective ennui, and existentialism is searching for solutions, largely by way of doubling-down on Nietzsche.

Sartre, a huge fan of Camus (the arch-existentialist), was an indomitable philosophical figure himself. He was enamored with Marxism, but the Marxists were not impressed.. At the same time, other ideological and political factions were not happy with his communist sympathies or his supposedly amoral philosophy. This lecture, Existentialism is a Humanism, was an answer to his critics, to try and distill his entire project and present it in a manner such so as to make friends with the post-progressives and the commies, simultaneously. I chose this text as my first “Teaching from philosophical texts” post, as it’s one that I’ve recently re-read and it is an excellent primer or overview of existentialism.

There is a large camp in philosophy which agrees, to some degree or another, that existentialism is, fundamentally, nihilism. I am actually in that camp, despite my love for existential writers and texts. Sartre disagrees, though: “It would appear that existentialism is associated with something ugly, which is why some call us naturalists. If we are, it is strange that we should frighten or shock people far more than naturalism per se frightens or offends them… Those that find solace in the wisdom of the people -which is a sad, depressing thing- find us even sadder… However, since it is the very same people who are forever spouting dreary old proverbs -the ones who say ‘It is so human!’ whenever some repugnant act is pointed out to them… who also accuse existentialism of being too gloomy, it makes me wonder if what they are really annoyed about is not its pessimism, but rather its optimism. When all is said and done, it could be what frightens them about the doctrine is that it offers man the possibility of individual choice?”

That supposed optimism is the result of coming to grips with a reality in which man is abandoned. “Man is condemned to be free: condemned because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” This is a form of condemnation because, “Existentialists [unlike the secular materialists] find it extremely disturbing that God no longer exists, for along with his disappearance goes the possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There could no longer be any a priori good, since there would be no infinite and perfect consciousness to conceive of it.”

That doesn’t sound too optimistic, does it? Maybe you’re an atheist libertine, and this sounds great already… Well, for better or worse, when man finds himself abandoned by God, he is still faced with a reality that sounds an awful lot like Kant’s categorical imperative. “When we say that man chooses for himself, not only do we mean that each of us much choose himself, but also that in choosing himself, he is choosing for all men. In fact, in creating the man each of us wills ourselves to be, there is not a single one of our actions that does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be… I am therefore responsible for myself and for everyone else, and I am fashioning a certain image of man as I choose him to be. In choosing myself, I choose man.”

Despite the overt mentions of God’s nonexistence, the general theme here seems to parallel common Christianity. Most Christians, by far, do not have routine two-way conversations with God; it tends to be a strange relationship by which one writes letters to an estranged Father and only periodically receives checks in the mail. This is the “abandonment” which is so popular in existentialism and explicitly outlined in Existentialism is a Humanism. Because of this abandonment, one bears full responsibility for one’s actions, as I’ve already brought up. This burden of responsibility is often referred to as “anguish”, which makes sense given the extreme weight of that burden, choosing the nature of mankind though one’s actions.

Of course, a philosophy as moody as existentialism, one built around “abandonment” and “anguish” would be incomplete without “despair”. Despite the novelty of the name and the extremely poetic method of presentation, despair (as formulated by Sartre) is actually an ancient idea. Interestingly enough, Sartre’s “despair” is one of stoic philosophy’s basic tenets: one ought to concern oneself exclusively with that which one can control and one ought to divorce oneself from the expected results of one’s actions. That divorce from the hope and expectation of getting the desired result is where “despair” gets its name. One may instinctively recoil at such a suggestion, but the results of one’s actions are largely contingent on the quality of information available to the actor, the innumerable facts outside one’s control, and the actions of others… why place hope and faith in such fickle and pernicious things?

With an entire metaphysics built around human action and choice, it’s also no wonder that “The doctrine [Sartre is] presenting to you is precisely the opposite of quietism, since it declares that reality exists only in action… Man is nothing other than his own project. He exists only to the extent that he realizes himself, therefore he is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life.” What he means is something quite akin to Aristotle, that there is no virtue that is not inextricably bound to the virtuous act and no vice that is not inextricably bound to the vicious act. Relationships, character, ideas, and power are not “things” which one possesses but are, instead, performative: they are things that an individual does or exercises. For such things, there is no existence outside of that actuality.

It is this performative nature of being which, I think, gives rise to Sartre’s exuberance for freedom. I dare say Sartre cares more about freedom as an end in itself than I do, and I’m an anarchist. “When I affirm that freedom, under any circumstance, can have no other aim than itself, and once a man realizes, in his state of abandonment, that it is he who imposes values, he can will but one thing: freedom as the foundation of all values… Therefore, in the name of will to freedom, implied by freedom itself, I can pass judgment on those who seek to conceal from themselves the complete arbitrariness of their existence, and their total freedom, under the guise of solemnity, or by making determinist excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to prove their existence is necessary, when man’s appearance on earth is merely contingent, I will call bastards.”

There is far more contained in the book than the handful of quotes I’ve haphazardly thrown at you, most notable of which is Sartre’s commentary on the work of Camus. If this post elicited any reaction, positive or negative, I recommend reading the book. Sartre does a better job of explicating his position. So, if you like what you’ve read here, you’ll definitely enjoy reading the source material; conversely, if I have said anything that has upset you or that you find disagreeable, you could possibly find a better interpretation in the actual text or find more material with which to construct a counter-argument.

TL;DR: I really enjoy reading existentialist texts; the pathos and prose of even the more procedural works is artistically skillful, a perfect compliment to the rich intellectualism of the content. I don’t ascribe to existentialism as a philosophical commitment (Sartre would take some degree of pleasure in calling me a coward and a bastard), but it has certainly influenced my philosophy and life choices. I feel that Existentialism is a Humanism is the best introductory work to the philosophy of existentialism, and everyone ought to read it.

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