Jean-Paul Sartre, 19451
My purpose here is to defend existentialism against several reproaches that have been laid against it.
Existentialism has been criticised for inviting people to remain in a quietism of despair, to fall back into a the middle-class luxury of a merely contemplative philosophy. We are reproached for underlining human nastiness, and forgetting, as the Catholic Mme. Mercier has it, the smile of the child. All and sundry reproach us for treating men as isolated beings, largely because we begin with the 'I think' of Descartes. Christians especially reproach us for denying the reality and seriousness of human society, since, if we ignore God's eternal values, no-one is able to condemn anyone else.
Existentialism is being seen as ugliness; our appeal to nature as scandalous, our writings sickening. Yet what could be more disillusioning than repeating those mottoes like 'don't fight against tradition', or 'know your station'? They say that man is base and doomed to fall, he needs fixed rules to keep him from anarchy. In the end, is not what makes our doctrine so fearful to some merely the fact that it leaves all possibility of choice with man? It has become fashionable to call this painter, or musician or columnist an "existentialist" - a term so loosely applied that it no longer means anything at all. However, it can be defined easily. Existentialists are either Christian, such as the Catholics Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, or atheists like Heidegger and myself. What they have in common is to believe that existence comes before essence, that we always begin from the subjective. What does this mean? If one considers a manufactured object, say a book or a paper-knife, one sees that it has been made to serve a definite purpose. It has an essence, the sum of its purpose and qualities, which precedes its existence. The concept of man in the mind of God is comparable to the concept of paper-knife in the mind of the artisan. My atheist existentialism is rather more coherent. It declares that God does not exist, yet there is still a being in whom existence precedes essence, a being which exists before being defined by any concept, and this being is man or, as Heidegger puts it, human reality. That means that man first exists, encounters himself and emerges in the world, to be defined 1
Squashed version edited by Glyn Hughes: http://www.btinternet.com/~glynhughes/squashed/sartre.htm 1
afterwards. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. It is man who conceives himself, who propels himself towards existence. Man becomes nothing other than what is actually done, not what he will want to be.
And when we say that man takes responsibility for himself, we say more than that - he is in his choices responsible for all men. All our acts of creating ourselves create at the same time an image of man such as we believe he must be. Thus, our personal responsibility is vast, because it engages all humanity.
If I want, say, to marry and have children, such choice may depend on my situation, my passion, my desire, but by it I engage not only myself, but all humanity in the way of the monogamy. In fashioning myself, I fashion man. This helps us to understand some rather grandiloquent words like anguish, abandonment, despair.
The existentialist declares that man is in anguish, meaning that he who chooses cannot escape a deep responsibility for all humanity. Admittedly, few people appear to be anxious; but we claim that they mask their anguish, that they flee it.
This is what Kierkegaard called the anguish of Abraham. You know the old story: An angel commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. But anyone in such a case would wonder straight away, is this an angel? am I the Abraham? If we hear voices from the sky, what proves that they come not from hell, or the subconscious, or some pathological state? Who proves that they are addressed to me?
Each man must say to himself:...