Photo: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre attended the ceremony of 6th Anniversary of Founding of Communist China in Beijing on 1 October 1955 in Tiananmen square. (Public Domain, via Wiki Commons)
Jean-Paul Sartre is a strong advocate of human freedom. He is influenced by Descartes in that the starting point of his philosophy is Humankind as thinking, existing beings. The importance of existence to Sartre can be seen in the name by which his philosophy is known: Existentialism. To Sartre, we must always begin with existence, not with any a priori (prior to experience) theory. For Sartre, we must keep in mind what it means to be an existing human being.
In his famous essay “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1945), Sartre attempts to defend his philosophy from four reproaches that have been leveled against it. These reproaches include: 1) Existentialism leads to quietism of despair, 2) Existentialism emphasizes all that is shameful in the human condition, 3) Existentialism ignores the solidarity of Humankind, and 4) Existentialism denies the seriousness of human affairs.
However, before making a defense of Existentialism, Sartre first tells us what Existentialism is because people have misunderstood it. The main characteristic of Existentialism is its emphasis on human freedom. In fact, this is what is most alarming to most people about Existentialism, according to Sartre.
Some people do not want to accept responsibility for who they are. If their life has not been good, they wish to blame their heredity and environment. Such people may say, “Poor, poor pitiful me. I should have been born a rich Kennedy. If my parents had been John and Jackie Kennedy, I would have lived an interesting life. Instead, my life is boring.” Sartre would tell these people that they are responsible for their life. If they wish to have a great love affair or a great friendship, it is up to them to go out and have one. It’s not fair to blame their parents (“I have to take care of my aged parents”) or the town in which they were born (“I should have been born in Paris, not in a small town in Ohio”) for their lack of a lover or a friend. Even (very) short, fat, balding Danny DeVito (Louie DePalma on TV’s Taxi) has a wife and family (he married Rhea Perlman, the actress who played a waitress on TV’s Cheers).
In explaining Existentialism, Sartre explains why it matters whether existence precedes essence. First let’s take essence preceding existence. An example of an object of which this is true is a paperknife. Let’s say a person wants to start a business, and he or she decides to build a factory that manufactures paperknives. In such a case, the businessperson will hire someone to design a paperknife, then he or she will set up a factory for manufacturing the paperknives. In this case, the essence of the paperknife (what makes the paperknife a paperknife) was created before the paperknife came into existence. Things whose essences are created before they came into existence are not free. They are created according to a preconceived essence.
Humankind is different from a paperknife. According to Sartre, Humankind exists without being created according to a preconceived essence. For example, Humankind came into existence by evolving from the life that was first a slime in the ocean. Sartre rejects the Adam and Eve story, according to which God first created the essence of Humankind in His mind, then created Humankind in accordance with that preconceived essence. The Adam and Eve story detracts from human freedom, according to Sartre.
Let me point out here that Sartre is very much an atheistic Existentialist. However, some Existentialists were theists, including several Catholics. Sartre’s emphasis on atheism comes about from his insistence on freedom. However, in my opinion the existence of God and His creation of Humankind need not detract from human freedom. If God gave Humankind free will, then Humankind creates its essence. God may have given Humankind a certain kind of body, but the existence of a body does not make Humankind distinct from other animals. Instead, what makes Humankind distinct (its essence) is reason and free will. Through Humankind’s actions (which may or may not be rational), it creates its own essence.
Sartre makes many interesting points about Humankind’s ability to define its essence. According to Sartre, “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” If you think that you are capable of writing a great novel, but you in fact do not write a great novel, then you cannot take credit for what you have in fact not done. You get credit only for what you have accomplished in life.
Sartre also says that “man is responsible for what he is.” We are free within a situation. Two people may be born into a poverty-stricken ghetto, but it is still up to the two people what they will become. One person may become a criminal; the other may become a police officer. Neither person can blame their environment for what they become. They are responsible for the career they choose to pursue.
In addition, Sartre points out responsibility to other human beings. What we do affects not only our own essence, but also the essence of Humankind as a whole. Sartre believes that we are “responsible for all men” and that “in choosing for himself,” a man chooses for all men. He also says that “in fashioning myself I fashion man.”
By these sentences, Sartre means that since Humankind does not have a preconceived essence, that we are therefore creating the essence of Humankind by our actions. After World War II and Hiroshima and the Nazi death camps, we know about the great evil that Humankind is capable of doing. These have become a part of Humankind’s essence at this time — we have proof that Humankind is capable of great evil because Humankind has done great evil. However, because of such people as Mother Teresa, we know that Humankind is capable of doing great good. Humankind’s essence is still being created, and time will tell whether Humankind will follow the model of Adolf Hitler or the model of Mother Teresa.
In his essay, Sartre also points out three characteristics of Existentialists. According to Sartre, Existentialists feel anguish, feel abandoned, and feel despair. Existentialists feel anguish because of their heavy responsibility in creating the essence of Humankind. Humankind’s essence is formed by the actions of human beings, and so each action I perform helps to determine the essence of Humankind. This is a heavy responsibility because I am responsible not only for creating my own essence but also for my part in creating the essence of Humankind as a whole. This means that I cannot make exceptions for my own behavior. I cannot say that I don’t want other people to cheat on exams (I don’t want Humankind to be a bunch of cheaters), but just this one time I will cheat on an exam. If I cheat on an exam, then part of the essence of Humankind is that human beings consist — at least in part — of cheaters.
In addition, the Existentialist feels abandoned because he or she does not believe that God exists. The atheistic Existentialist is alone in the universe. However, as I pointed out above, not all Existentialists are atheists.
Sartre also points out that Existentialists feel despair. Through my actions, I create a model of the essence of Humankind. I hope that others will follow my model, but will they? A philosopher who teaches creates a model of Humankind: Part of the essence of Humankind is that Humankind pursues an examined life, seeking the answers to such questions as, What is the meaning of life? However, not all of the students in the philosopher’s class will respond positively to the philosopher’s model. (The philosopher hopes that students will engage in a heated discussion about truth and beauty during class, but many students are more likely to say things such as, “Will this be on the test?”) Probably every philosophy teacher has read student evaluations that say philosophy is worthless and that the student is outraged that he or she has to take courses in the humanities when the only reason the student is attending college is to prepare him- or herself to make lots of money after graduation.
Some people have charged Existentialism with leading people to quietism and pessimism, but Sartre points out the importance of action in existentialism. We define our essence through our actions; therefore, our actions are important. You are what you do — not what you would have done if only … [add whatever excuses you wish here]. As for pessimism, you can change your life immediately by acting differently. To become a hero, act like a hero and do things the way a hero would do them.
From Sartre, I believe that we ought to take his idea of freedom. However, I do not believe that we ought to accept his idea that God does not exist. In my opinion, the existence of God is not a restraint on our freedom. If God gave us free will, then it is still up to us to create our own essence.
Sartre does have a problem in his version of Existentialism. He believes that objective moral standards, if they existed, would be a restraint on human freedom. I deny this. I believe that objective moral standards exist (e.g., rape is morally wrong); however, we are still free to follow the objective moral standards or to ignore them. The same thing applies to human-created laws. For example, the state of Ohio has laws against the consumption of alcohol by people under the age of 21; however, very few college freshmen under the age of 21 in Ohio have not tasted alcohol.
In my opinion, Sartre’s advocacy of human freedom can be meaningfully combined with a belief in God and a belief in objective moral standards. In reading philosophers, we need not accept or reject all their beliefs. We can pick out those insights that seem to be true and believe them while rejecting any opinions that seem to be false.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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