Existentialism Is a Humanism, by Jean-Paul Sartre

Existentialism Is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre

(Please note that Sartre consistently speaks of “man”. Ironically, Simone de Beauvoir’s partner of 51 years is unable or unwilling to include women in his language at least. Nevertheless, the essence of his will includes any gender.)

»Man is nothing other than his own project. He exists only to the extent that he realizes himself, therefore he is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life.”«

Existentialism is a Humanism” is originally a lecture by Jean-Paul Sartre, first delivered in 1945, aimed to clarify misunderstandings about existentialism. He adeptly defends the philosophy against critiques of it promoting despair, amorality, and nihilism. The book is built on the existentialist premise that “existence precedes essence“.

Or, in Sartre’s own words:

»We mean that man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself. If man as existentialists conceive of him cannot be defined, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature since there is no God to conceive of it. Man is not only that which he conceives himself to be, but that which he wills himself to be, and since he conceives of himself only after he exists, just as he wills himself to be after being thrown into existence, man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. This is the first principle of existentialism.«

I’ve long wanted to read about existentialism since what little grasp of it I had (and still only have) appealed to me and interested me. (For those who are in the same position as I found myself, in a nutshell: Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasises individual freedom, choice, and existence, asserting that individuals are responsible for giving meaning to their lives through their actions and decisions. It contends that people must navigate the absurdities of life without reliance on predetermined norms, thereby creating their own values and defining their own essence. Thus: existence precedes essence)

What makes this work particularly interesting is how Sartre uncomplicates (in very non-uncomplicated words and ideas, though) the existentialist stance that individuals are entirely responsible for their own actions. This notion initially appears daunting – suggesting isolation in our freedom and decisions. Yet, as Sartre explains, it is incredibly empowering. It posits that we are the architects of our own values and the authors of our lives. His assertion that “man is condemned to be free” resonated deeply with me, underscoring the weight of personal responsibility that accompanies our freedom.

»man is free and there is no human nature in which I can place my trust.«

And, yet, that freedom is not without reason: Sartre illustrates how our personal choices ripple across humanity, arguing that in choosing for ourselves, we also choose for all mankind.

»What is more, to say that we invent values means neither more nor less than this: life has no meaning a priori. Life itself is nothing until it is lived, it is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning that we give it. You can see, then, that it is possible to create a human community.«

“Existentialism Is a Humanism” also delves into the subject of despair, which Sartre describes as the acknowledgment that we rely only on ourselves and our will for action. This was an eye-opener to the liberating potential within existentialism, as it encourages one to act without hope – encouraging a direct confrontation with reality.

»“No hope is necessary to undertake anything.”«

The eloquence and intellectual clarity of Sartre’s prose are undeniable. I, with little understanding of existentialism, found this book taxing to read. It’s well-written, presents great ideas and dispels misunderstandings and accusations, and is thought-provoking. It does feel like a lecture, though, and it’s not something one would read for pleasure.

I think I will move on to Sartre’s “Nausea” and, sooner or later, to his “Being and Nothingness”.

I don’t feel “qualified” to star-rate this book but would recommend reading it to anyone with an open mind.

»Existentialism is not so much an atheism in the sense that it would exhaust itself attempting to demonstrate the nonexistence of God; rather, it affirms that even if God were to exist, it would make no difference—that is our point of view. It is not that we believe that God exists, but we think that the real problem is not one of his existence; what man needs is to rediscover himself and to comprehend that nothing can save him from himself, not even valid proof of the existence of God. In this sense, existentialism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of action, and it is only in bad faith—in confusing their own despair with ours—that Christians are able to assert that we are “without hope.”«

Ceterum censeo Putin esse delendam

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