Monday, May 18, 2015

Book: Existentialism & Humanism by Jean Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre is a key player in the existentialist movement. While I don't buy into his spiel hook, line and sinker, I do find his writing fresh, powerful and invigorating.

His little book, "Existentialism and Humanism", is all about how man defines himself through his actions ('the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic'). This idea, that the meaning of a person's life is something that is defined by the individual. is a central tenet of the existentialist philosophy. It's all sound stuff but Sartre overreaches somewhat when he turns freedom into a burden by stating that because we have choices, we are legislators for the whole of mankind, and that as a consequence there is a great anguish created by this responsibility, a kind of burden of the responsibility freedom.

Effectively Sartre's message is that we are free to make choices and so are without excuse. As a consequence, I think he is unduly harsh on people who don't live each part of their life with full conviction e.g. the waiter who 'acts' as a waiter is in bad faith and lacking in authenticity, denying his own freedom. Simplifying for clarity is one thing but Sartre, at least at this point in his life, seemed convinced of this opinion. In truth the necessities of reality surely mean that our actions are not black and white with respect to authenticity and bad faith, e.g. playing the waiter may allow for a salary which provides greater freedoms in other avenues. Also, on a day-to-day basis, surely we are forever reigning ourselves in a little in order to get along with society, to the betterment of everybody? If we recall that Sartre lived in a time when the Nazi's occupied France, the context of his message is more meaningful. In today's era, however, I think we can afford to be a bit more balanced, although we should never forget the principle point, which is that we are (condemned to be) free.



There is no reality except in action.

In life man commits himself and draws his own portrait, outside of which there is nothing.

What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world - and defines himself. begin with he is nothing.

There is no reality except in action. Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life.

...the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.

We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.

He (the existentialist) thinks that every man, without support or help whatever, is condemned at every instant to invent man.

This is what 'abandonment' implies, that we ourselves decide our being. And with this abandonment goes anguish.

...there is not reality except in action. It goes further, indeed, and adds, 'Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realises himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.' Hence we can well understand why some people are horrified by our teaching. For many have but one resource to sustain them in misery, and that is to think, 'Circusmtances have been against me.. there remains in me a wide range of abilities, inclinations and potentialities, which endow me with a worthiness that could never be inferred from the mere history of my actions.' But in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love except for the deeds of genius other that that which is expressed.

Nevertheless, when one says, 'You are nothing else but what you live,' it does not imply that an artist is to be judged solely on by his works of art, for a thousand other things contribute no less to his definition of a man. What we mean to say is that a man is no other than a series of undertakings, that he is the sum, the organisation, the set of relations that constitute these undertakings.

...the existentialist, when he portrays a coward, shows him as responsible for his cowardice. He is not like that on account of a cowardly heart or lungs or cerebrum, he has not become like that through his physiological organism; he is like that because he has made himself like that by his actions.

....what counts is total commitment.

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