Existentialism emerged in Paris after World War Two as an intellectual movement catching the imagination of young intellectuals. Jean-Paul Sartre was its somewhat unwilling representative, becoming associated with it through his stories, novels and plays. This was augmented by hearsay about his wartime book, Being and Nothingness, which is much too difficult for most people to follow. To read it well, you need a classical education and a wide reading of philosophy, especially in the tradition that runs from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes, through Kant, Hegel and Marx, to Husserl and Heiddeger. Sartre is the inheritor of Cartesian dualism and German phenomenology and to understand his technical philosophy requires a good deal of learning.
The buzz-words in the cafés were “choice”, “freedom”, “consciousness” and “absurdity”. The emblem of existentialism for the philosophically unsophisticated was the acte gratuite or meaningless action. Sartre graphically pictures this in his novel, The Age of Reason. The hero, a professional philosophy teacher named Mathieu, is flirting with one of his more outrageous students in a nightclub, when she deliberately sets out to shock some respectable middle class patrons by slicing her hand with a knife and making them watch her blood flow. This is absurd, not to say stupid. To Mathieu, it looks like a heroic act of freedom in defiance of respectability and normality. It can appear as a gesture of pure freedom, since both reason and nature argue against slicing your hand. To outdo her in sheer absurdity, Mathieu takes the knife and pins his hand to the table before the shocked stares of the other patrons. Later, when the euphoria wears off, and the pain sets in, Mathieu berates himself for stabbing himself just to impress an immature young woman.
This is not freedom, and Sartre never suggests it is. To act freely is not to do absurd things in an acte gratuite, but to act with reasons to make a change in the world. On the other hand, Mathieu did freely stab himself, but no differently than if he had chosen to do something more sensible, like taking the girl off to bandage her hand. Sartre argues that freedom is absolute, and belongs to our being-in-the-world as a matter of existence (ontology) and the human condition.
The confusion of freedom with the acte gratuite is just one of many in the minds of the young intellectuals who followed existentialism. They took Sartre’s writings as inviting them to smash traditions, Gods, fathers and values. They took the message that since the universe is absurd, it doesn’t matter what you do. There is no ultimate meaning or value, so we must make it for ourselves. There is no “human nature”, no essence that defines us. We are what we do, and there is nothing to stop us recreating ourselves. We face the world without hope and without chains. Brave new words.
Existentialism became part of a wider philosophy of liberation and revolt against traditional authorities. It also became associated with hedonism and amorality. Sartre wanted to detach himself from the pastiche of his philosophy circulating in the streets. Existentialism as a Humanism is a polemical work in which Sartre uses rhetorical devices to counter mistakes about his philosophy as he sees it. We must remember that he wrote to a contemporary audience, and not to us. Therefore, he uses arguments to fit the circumstances of the debate, and if Sartre seems at times to argue badly, it may be simply that he is writing for a different time and a different audience. He is saying what will counter bad publicity. Sometimes he does argue badly, at others, he backslides into the tradition that he rejects in order to make his points. This paradox runs through all of Sartre’s philosophy. He is shaped by the tradition he seeks to transcend, so he never entirely succeeds in transcending it. This should be kept in mind in reading Existentialism as a Humanism.
In this book Sartre argues that existence precedes essence for conscious creatures like ourselves. What this means is that we exist first and acquire an essence or meaning later. For example, I was not born a philosopher, but made myself one by studying the writings of the philosophers. If I continue to do this until I die, which is, after all, up to me, then you can write “Here lies a philosopher” on my tombstone. It was never written in the stars, and if I stop doing all my philosophical activities tomorrow, I will cease to be a philosopher, though it will always be true that I was one. The epithet belongs to me in the mode of “having-been”. We must maintain our characters through actions. No one can know themselves as they know other things. Our qualities do not belong to us as they do to them. We do not have qualities, but live them.
If you have no nature, then nothing constrains your actions. You must make an existential choice everyday to continue to be the sort of person you have been up until now. You must make the big choices of life alone. It is no good seeking advice, for by the time you have decided whose advice to seek, you have already made up your mind what you are going to do. Conscious deliberation simply confirms a prior choice.
As free conscious beings we are responsible for our actions and their consequences. We are also responsible for our non-actions and their consequences. Nothing grounds our projects. We stand on a void, and it makes one dizzy to look down. All the common certainties vanish, and suddenly human lives appear false, as though everyone was trying to be something they are not, or trying not to be something they are. No one takes responsibility for the free acts they make of their lives. This is bad faith. The truth does make you dizzy at first, but you have to get used to it.
We have to live without excuse from now on, without a transcendent crutch, without a purpose or a meaning. There is no designer who made us according to some pre-conceived pattern. We have to make ourselves in a world we did not choose. Life is contingent and can be snuffed out at any second, will be snuffed out at some second in the future. Our existence is de trop, superfluous, extraneous to requirements. Every one must live with a kind of ontological insecurity induced by the awareness of mortality. This is the famous “Existential Angst” or “Dread” signified by a black beret and turtleneck sweater, French cigarettes and espresso. We must lose the last of our innocence, or fall back into self-deception. We have to find a way to live with anxiety and to use its energy creatively, not escape into bad faith. Our situation in the world is risky and scary, but we have to face up to it.
Now a critic asks how Sartre is able to generalise so much about human anguish, if there is no human nature? How can he know that all of us are anxious about our being-in-the-world, even when we are not consciously aware of it? Isn’t ontological insecurity part of human nature? Isn’t freedom part of human being’s essence, since we are defined by it? Sartre tries to answer these questions in his other writings, but since he isn’t here to answer for himself, I will argue for him.
We need a distinction between the idea of human nature and that of the human condition. The idea of a thing’s nature, as well as of its essence, pictures beings with qualities, for example, a solid inkwell. The object is positive through and through. Even a triangle has a certain nature and is defined in a certain way. It’s essential properties are necessary to it and common to all other triangles. If we think this way about conscious beings like ourselves, then we arrive at an Aristotelian definition of human beings as rational animals. The term “animal” captures our genus; the term “rational” captures our essence. Sartre argues that this definition leaves out our existence as conscious beings.
Ontological insecurity does not belong to our nature. We might find a way to keep our bodies going indefinitely. The insecurity belongs to our condition. This we share with other people, not a nature with an essence. It is part of our condition to be born, to act and respond to the world and other people, and to face the possibility of dying. Even if we could, in principle, keep our bodies going forever, there is always the chance one will be obliterated in a great explosion. Our being is in question for ourselves because we are conscious of our dependence on things in the world for our continued existence.
Freedom is not part of human nature, but that which releases us from it. We find ourselves abandoned in a vast universe that owes us nothing. Consciousness is a “nothingness” at the heart of being. We make of human nature what we want, and in history we see what we have made of it. It is the same thing to choose, act, be free and to be conscious. A world is revealed in which we find ourselves obliged to choose and act. Ontological insecurity is the flip side of freedom, and it frames the human condition. We have no one to blame for our own actions but ourselves, no excuse, no fate or destiny. Such things appear only in hindsight.
It would be so much nicer to have an essence, so much safer. I could be myself then, rather than condemned to be free. I could rest quietly in my fate and not struggle against it. There would be no more existential choices, no more unbearable responsibility, no anxiety. We could come to look forward to personal extinction or hope for immortality. Religion steps in at this point to offer salvation as a kind of sanctified self-deception.
Sartre is an atheist. The idea of God is an impossible dream. It is a projection of ourselves without the contingency and absurdity that clings to our existence in the world. God overcomes all powerlessness, all meaninglessness, and death itself. He exists in Himself and for Himself and therefore has all the benefits of consciousness without weakness of human flesh.
Existentialism is the scourge of the dream of perfect Being. The cancellation of God puts us back into a more honest appreciation of our situation as involving both freedom and resistance. Our freedom does not cover all the things which we did not choose, and had no choice about. It does not cover who your parents were, what language you grew up speaking, your neighbourhood, economic circumstances, genetic inheritance, etc. Freedom covers action and includes the adoption of attitudes toward the unchosen facts of one’s life.
The world is there. The world is real. There is no other world that is more real than the one in which we live. Being is; how we respond to it is up to us. The only thing that limits freedom is freedom itself. Consciousness, or existence for itself, must choose, and by choosing limits itself. There is nothing outside us that can determine our choices and actions. We must make our own history and be responsible for what we make of ourselves. We create and maintain the values by which we live.
The main problem with all this is that most people are unable or unwilling to create their own values, or understand that their choice is the only underpinning their value system has. We flee into the security of an imagined being, or we flee from being altogether into our own imagination. We pretend that we are free without restrictions, or that our situation makes us choose what we do. The fact is that we encounter both a choice and something to choose in every situation we find ourselves. We discover our facticity and our transcendence. To pretend to be exclusively the one or the other is to fall into the pervasive patterns of bad faith that Sartre describes so famously in Being and Nothingness.
All this points to a very individualist philosophy. The individual faces an indifferent world equipped with no more than her or his own choices and commitments. At best, we live an authentic independent life, recognising contingency and transcendence, and not hiding the facts of conscious existence under religious or philosophical veils. We can be brave and resolute, live beyond despair and hope, lucid about our prospects and our condition. These are the elements of the authentic life.
Where does this leave ethics and morality? Human beings are social as well as rational animals. We must live with them, for it is difficult to be a hermit on a crowded planet. The question is whether there are any limits to the values by which we should choose to live. Does the moral “ought” have any hold on the resolute existentialist? Does the project of living authentically imply an ethical value system. Are there limits to the values that we should choose, if we want to live authentically? In Existentialism as a Humanism, Sartre tries to argue just that. How well he succeeds will be the topic of Part 2.