Existentialism Is a Humanism – Jean-Paul Sartre

Rating: 
29/07/14

Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself.
— Jean-Paul Sartre
 

51985
If you’re interested in Existentialism, this is the book you should dive into. You will find an energetic Sartre defending his views on many subjects. I was immediately drawn to one opinion in particular: existentialism emphasizes what is despicable about the world. I have read that before. Most people apparently want to read about beauty and bliss and puppies and all those things that are part of one side of our reality. Denying the ugliness of the world doesn’t vanish it at all. It is there in all its glory regardless of how fast you close your eyes. Some authors have been labeled as violent freaks, racists or misogynists because they wrote about those particulas issues—the cruelty and selfishness that also characterize human beings—as if they were more than mere narrators. Some people mistake honesty with a defense of whatever the awful subject the book deals with. Speaking about it doesn’t justify it.

I have already wrote about Sartre’s beautiful and accessible writing while reviewing Nausea. This book is no exception. I also found a subtle humor that made the reading experience even more enjoyable.

Those who easily stomach a Zola novel like “The Earth” are sickened when they open an existentialist novel. (19)

I am quite intrigued by that, now.

Sartre felt the need to make a statement in favor of this doctrine. Why do people criticize it? Perhaps because they have read about it and know what it is all about. Others because they have heard about it… And that is much more common than most of us think. We tend to judge what we don’t know. And in most cases we don’t even bother in getting to know it. We judge and we fear. And we talk. That is why Sartre asked and answered the following question: “What, then, is ‘existentialism’?” He then started by explaining one of the most important principles of the doctrine: existence precedes essence. That alone might sound confusing, however, Sartre’s masterful use of metaphors and engaging prose made it all possible.
In a universe where there is not a god, man is born empty without a specific purpose. He creates his own essence while making decisions based on the well-known concept of freedom. A thing every man and woman pursuits but few would be able to handle.

Freedom without God. Without that sense of protection. Because we do feel safe if we are only acting according to something that has been decided before we were born. Every awful consequence would not be our fault. Nevertheless, in a world sans God, we become a little lonely dot with nothing above us but stars. And that’s a horrifying thought. Liberating, terrifying.

The author later affirmed that when man makes a choice, he doesn’t make it just for himself but for all humanity. Those choices reflect what we think a man should be. Try not to feel pressured for the great responsibility that represents making choices that concerns all people in the planet.

Choosing to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing can he good for any of us unless it is good for all. (24)

Debatable.

There are certain words that people use to reach the conclusion that existentialism is a depressing way to look at the world: anguish, abandonment, despair. They are all related to what the author explained about man’s existence in a godless world. A man who is aware of the fact that he is responsible for himself and for the rest of humanity. That kind of responsibility surely creates anguish, but it does not prevent men from acting. As for the abandonment issue, it’s not as negative as it sounds. He simply meant that if God doesn’t exist, then we are alone without excuses. We are alone and free. That thought led him to one of the most memorable lines of the book:

That is what I mean when I say that 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. (29)

Freedom has been defined as the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action. From a certain perspective, Sartre made his point. Without God, everything is permissible. However, the freedom (or lack of it) we have to deal with every day, the freedom that is far away from the abstraction of a concept, that entails earthly matters such as work, people, love, well… that is another issue. The absence of necessity is too rare.
Can a person be happy while knowing that he is free because there is no God but, at the same time, not so free because he is a victim of some system? Just like there are several concepts of freedom, there are many factors that restrict them, making the man feel like a powerless individual immersed in a situation he cannot complain about without being replaced in a heartbeat.
On one hand, we are condemned to be free; on the other, freedom is apparently nothing more than theory, something we experience by convincing ourselves that we are free while being constrained by political or economical factors (Locke explained it with much more precise words).
Yes. There is an answer for every aspect of the term. We can be free or we can convince ourselves that we are. Birds still sing while they spend their lives in a cage—whether it is because of joy or plea, that is another matter.

There is another interesting passage about signs. We often look for them while going through a difficult situation. Sartre skillfully explained that we are the ones who find a particular meaning in those signs. They may mean something different for everybody; in any case, said meaning is determined by us.

This is what “abandonment” implies: it is we, ourselves, who decide who we are to he. (34)

The last word used to describe existentialism was “despair”. That alone, yes, it doesn’t sound so pleasant. Even so, by adding some context to it… still, it doesn’t sound good. I had some trouble trying to digest this idea.

It means that we must limit ourselves to reckoning only with those things that depend on our will, or on the set of probabilities that enable action… From the moment that the possibilities I am considering cease to be rigorously engaged by my action, I must no longer take interest in them, for no God or greater design can bend the world and its possibilities to my will. In the final analysis, when Descartes said “Conquer yourself rather than the world,” he actually meant the same thing: we should act without hope. (35)

From a practical point of view, the time we spend hoping for a result is time wasted. Sartre encourages us to act. To do something in order to achieve what we want and not to wait for others to do it for us; people or a superior being, whichever the case may be. Reality exists only in action.

By the end of the book, there is a commentary on The Stranger. Do not miss it.

If you are new to Sartre’s philosophy, then this remarkable essay would be a perfect introduction.
It’s not only a book that sheds some light on the matter and rectifies many misconceptions, but also a book which gently encourages you to do some serious introspection. Shall we?

Stop for a minute. Breathe. Take a look around. Look back; contemplate your present. Where are you right now? Are you the person you have always wanted to be?

“Get up, take subway, work four hours at the office or plant, eat, take subway, work four hours, eat, sleep—Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday-Saturday—always the same routine…” (77)

Now tell me, I’m dying to know. Do you feel free?


* Photo credit: Book cover via Goodreads.


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