Part 6 - Sartre

SARTRE: Existentialism and Humanism

This lecture was delivered by Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris in 1945; it is a defense of Existentialism as a doctrine true to Humanism. Sartre carried his philosophical ideas into his many novels and plays. His uniqueness lies in the success with which he demonstrates the utility of  Existentialist doctrine while creating, at the same time, works of the highest literary merit. Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris in 1905 and graduated in philosophy from the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1929. He then taught philosophy in Le Havre, Laon, and Paris. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. He died in Paris in 1980.

The purpose of the lecture is to defend Existentialism against several criticisms that have been raised from various quarters. In answering such criticisms Sartre produces a clear description of what Existentialism, at least his own version of it, actually is. He lists such criticisms:

  • Existentialism has been reproached as an invitation to people to dwell in quietism of despair. There are no objective, universal values for the existentialist, each person must create his own values by the choices he makes. The problem, say the Communists, is that we will end up with an endless number of individual choices, with the result that very little is accomplished. If very little is accomplished, why should one bother at all? Is it not better to sit quietly in despair? Communism, on the other hand, believes in universal values like equality, a classless society, State control of all means of production, etc.: if we put all our energies together we can transform our society, we can achieve results for everyone. Communism, therefore, will never end up with “quietism of despair”, but existentialism, with its insistence on the individual creator of values, will.
  • Catholic writers attack existentialism as a philosophy that seems to stress only what is sordid, base, ignominious in the human situation, to the neglect of certain things that possess charm and beauty. According to the Catholic critic, Mlle. Mercier, “we forget how an infant smiles”. It is a fact that most existentialist novels and plays contain vulgar and ugly characters, why such insistence?
  • Both Catholics and Communists criticize Existentialism for its subjectivity, for making the “subject”, the individual the source of all values and of all choices. What about human solidarity? What about concern for others, working together with others to achieve a better world?
  • Catholic critics charge Existentialism with making a mockery of moral choices, of moral values. Everyone, in the name of freedom, must create his own values, must make his own moral choices with no reference to any pre-established moral code, or world of values. The subject creates values by simply choosing, according to his own instinct. Can this be called a serious morality, when everyone chooses what he wants?

Sartre begins by defining Existentialism. For him Existentialism is based on this truth:
“Existence precedes Essence”
He claims that all other philosophies hold the opposite, that Essence precedes Existence. What does he mean? He gives the example of a paper-knife. The essence of the paper-knife existed in the mind of the artisan before the paper-knife actually came into existence. The artisan had a project, had a design, had a purpose, had a standard of what a good or bad paper-knife should be. The essence of the paper-knife was in the mind of the artisan: when it came into existence the rules had already been drawn by the artisan.

Philosophers who believe in God must hold that the essence of man precedes his existence: God is seen as the supernal artisan who devised man, his essential qualities, his purpose, his rules, his morality. The essence of man came first, in the mind of God. When man comes into existence, he must fulfill the purpose God invented for him, he must follow the rules God has established for him; a man will be a good man if he follows his Maker’s instructions, the commandments already written on tablets of stone long before he came into existence.

Other philosophers do not believe in God, yet even they hold the belief that  Essence precedes Existence: the Humanists claim that “human nature” is a given, that we possess innately all that it takes to be a good, honest, human being, that human morality is basic to all and universal. Other philosophers do not believe in God nor in human nature, yet they too hold that all human beings have an innate, a priori morality, built into them.

For Sartre instead, Existence precedes Essence: we discover ourselves as existing beings and we strive all our life to create, to invent our own essence which will be completed only at the moment of our death. It will be other people who will look at all our actions, at all our choices and will then pass a judgment on our essence, on what we have made of ourselves.

Believers in God or in human nature or in a priori morality cannot be truly free; they are directed, guided, limited by their pre-established essence. Existentialism alone can claim total, unlimited freedom for each individual. You become aware of yourself as an utterly free person, you are “condemned to be free”, then you use your unlimited freedom to create your essence, to make your choices, to invent your values.

“Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. This is the first principle of existentialism. Man is indeed a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before the projection of the self nothing exists; man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be. Thus the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders”.

Sartre distinguishes between “etre-pour-soi” (being for itself) and “etre-en-soi” (being in itself): all objects in the world except human beings are “etre-en-soi”, in the sense that their essence is fixed, determined, a stone, a tree, a star are all etre-en-soi, determined by their composition and nature. Human beings, on the other hand, are etre-pour-soi in the sense that they are free to become what they plan, what they want, they are free to make choices, to create values. Each subject must create his own values, his own essence. This is what may be called “subjectivism”: there is no one above, no innate values, no human nature, but there is the individual, his utter freedom, his choices, his creating his own values. Where are other people?

Sartre agreed fully with Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum: we must start from the I, from the certainty of my own existence as a thinking being. Sartre, however, criticizes Descartes for attempting, and failing, to prove the existence of others, ending with solipsism. For Sartre there is no need to prove the existence of the “other”; the “other” is given the moment one becomes aware of oneself; the “other” is the condition for the affirmation of my “I”. To say “I” is at the same time to know that others exist. “I” is a relational word; as Buber says, “The I cannot exist in isolation, is only the first part of a relation, “I-Thou” or “I-It””. Subjectivity is the starting point of solid philosophy, is the basic truth which displays the dignity of man. But “subjectivity” must not be confused with “subjectivism” (making the I the center of everything else, the measure of all things, treated as pure objects): Sartre claims that the I discovers all the others and that therefore lives in a world of “inter-subjectivity”, in a world populated by other “subjects”, other people, all endowed with dignity and freedom. You can actually perceive another “I”, another “subject” in his subjectivity, for example when one is caught unawares by the “look” (le regard) of another person.

But more than this: it is true that “human nature” does not exist since this would imply the existence of God and the abolition of freedom, but there is “a human universality of condition”. What does Sartre mean by this? There are limitations which are independent of ourselves: being in this world, having to work and to die, being born in a certain country, in a certain family, etc. These limitations are objective and also universal in the sense that all other people encounter them. They do not affect our absolute freedom: we need to tackle them and make ourselves in the face of all such limitations. All subjects are involved in this endeavour, all purposes are attempts to deal with such limitations, by trying to “surpass them, or to widen them, or else to deny or to accommodate oneself to them”. We can therefore understand people around us, since they, like us, are involved in making themselves by having to face up to the same situations as ourselves: “In every purpose there is universality, in this sense that every purpose is comprehensible to every man. In this sense we may say that there is a human universality, but it is not something given; it is being perpetually made”.

For Sartre, therefore, existentialism is not a solipsistic, individualistic philosophy that excludes human solidarity; on the contrary, it acknowledges the others as a condition of the definition of oneself, it acknowledges the others as beings endowed with dignity and freedom, and it sees all human beings as perennially involved in making themselves in the face of “conditions”, limitations, which are very much the same for all people and can, therefore, be understood by all. From this, presumably, solidarity can flourish, or, at least, is not denied.

Each man lives in a world of “inter-subjectivity”: this reality brings with it immense responsibility:
“When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men… What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all”.

When I make a choice, I am making a statement, that that choice is the best available and in committing myself to it I am committing also the whole human race. I make my choices before the whole human race, I am prepared to stand up before the whole human race and defend my choice as the best possible choice. I am therefore responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. “In fashioning myself I fashion man”.

Three are the consequences of such awesome freedom and responsibility:

  • Anguish. Man is condemned to make choices all the time. There are no guidelines, no pre-established values, therefore every choice must be my own creation valid not only for myself but for the whole human race. This total responsibility generates anguish. There is no one to blame, there is no one to turn to: every choice is entirely mine, and this truth creates anxiety, anguish. Am I doing the right thing for myself and for all? It is true that people flee from such responsibility and produce all kind of excuses; but this is the result of “bad faith”, of rejecting freedom deceiving ourselves. We then blame others, or our parents, or our psychological or physical make up. But there is no escape for a true existentialist: he must choose, for himself and for others, and his choice must be the best available to him. Sartre mentions the anguish of Abraham, who has to decide whether to kill his son or not; he mentions the anguish of a general before committing his men to a dangerous assault. There is no hiding place, the choice, at the end, is entirely ours: the bucket stops with me!
  • Abandonment. A true existentialist knows that God does not exist, and that, therefore, each individual is left to himself with no God to turn to. This is the feeling of abandonment, the feeling that one cannot turn for comfort, for guidance, for commandments, for values, to the infinite, all knowing God: “The existentialist finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is no where written that the “good” exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoievsky once wrote, “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that for existentialism is the starting point”. Man is alone in creating his own values, he is condemned to be free, he has to bear the responsibility of making choices on the basis of his unlimited freedom and of universality. Can the advice of others help? Sartre believes that we seek the advice of those we think are going to give us the answers we want to hear, and even then, we still need to make the final choice of whether to accept or to reject the advice. No, we must create, invent our values following our instinct. A young man asked Sartre for advice: should he go and join the partisans, fighting for his country against the German occupation, or should he stay at home looking after his elderly, frail, and abandoned mother? Sartre did not give any advice, but wrote later, “If he comes to ask your advice, it is because he has already chosen the answer. Practically, I should have been very well able to give him some advice. But as he was seeking freedom I wanted to let him decide. Besides, I knew what he was going to do, and that is what he did”.
  • Despair. The feeling of despair must be understood carefully. It is not, for Sartre, the giving up before the difficulties in life, but rather the taking of a realistic view on what my commitment can achieve. Given that every individual has to make his own choices on the basis of freedom, he has also to understand that the results of his choices and commitment may well be limited. I may choose to commit myself to saving the environment: my choice is authentic because done in total freedom and on behalf of all. But I am one person and my efforts will produce limited results; it may happen that others will freely choose the same commitment, and in this case we may achieve more. But I cannot impose my values on anyone; each person has to create his own values, and other people may choose differently, may choose the opposite of what I have chosen. This limitation of my hope about what can be achieved is what Sartre calls despair. There is an obvious criticism that has been raised against this kind of despair. Will humanity ever achieve anything given that efforts will be so widely dispersed? Sartre answers this criticism with some difficulty. He agrees that we may achieve very little since each individual must choose freely, although his hope is that certain causes, like peace, may be chosen by many because they express freedom, they allow freedom to operate. But he does agree that there is a risk of achieving little. But he rejects the charge of “quietism of despair”: an existentialist cannot be “quiet”, cannot renounce choices, he is always propelled into making himself by what he does, hence he must always choose and act: this is the opposite of “quietism”. As to “despair” he accepts that our hopes are indeed “limited” but not abolished; they are limited by the fact that we may hope only in relation to our own choices, not in relation to the choices of others. Others, our own children, may choose differently, therefore it would be foolish to pin my hopes on them! An existentialist does “hope”, but within limits, i.e. the limits of his own personal choice. “Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is… There is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art”.


For existentialists, say the critics, “it does not matter what you choose”, since there are no pre-established values, nothing is valuable until after the choice. There are no values in the sky, nor on stone tablets, nor on our conscience: we must create, invent our values. The criticism, therefore, suggests that an existentialist can choose what he wants and make what he wants into a value. I freely choose to commit adultery and adultery becomes a value because of my choosing it! How does Sartre deal with this criticism?

  • It is not true to say that an existentialist makes choices in a capricious, gratuitous way; he is brought down to reality by the knowledge that he cannot not choose, that he must choose, that even the refusal of making a choice is actually a choice; he cannot escape from choosing. “This is of great importance as a limit to fantasy and caprice; you feel immediately the responsibility of your choices.
  • Moreover, I cannot choose in a capricious way because “I bear the responsibility of the choice which, in committing myself, also commits the whole of humanity”: my choice involves humanity in its entirety. Hence, my immense responsibility rules out “capricious choices”.
  • Choice has to do with creativity and invention, like art. An artist who creates a masterpiece is fully responsible for what he does, cannot be accused of caprice or irresponsibility, even though he has no pre-established patterns to follow but only his own ability to invent. Moral choices are like production of an artistic work: a man has to create, to invent anew, without having to follow non-existent values. Man makes himself; he is not found ready made; he makes himself by the choice of his morality, and he cannot but choose a morality. Man is like a block of marble at the beginning: his choices are the progressive modeling of the marble to make of it a masterpiece. He must invent, create himself.

There is much truth in what Sartre says about choices; but the very unsatisfactory point to pick up is the fact that choices appear to be without a base. Do “reasons” count as a base for choosing? If they do then “reasons” are simply “pre-established values”, preceding and determining my choices. If reasons are not taken into account as causes for action then our actions or choices appear “irrational”.

Sartre answer the further criticism that existentialist novels and plays underline all that is ignominious in the human situation, depicting what is mean, sordid or base to the neglect of certain things that possess charm and beauty. Sartre claims that no one seems to notice that ugly and vulgar characters are part of most literary works, so why pick this point against existentialism? Sartre argues that there is indeed a profound difference between ugly characters described by others and ugly characters found in existentialist novels.

All other authors reassure their readers even when they present horrifying characters by telling them that such awful characters are the result of human nature, of genetic conditioning, of family or social factors. Readers are reassured: we know why such ugly beings behave the way they do, it’s all human nature’s responsibility, it is because of original sin, it is because of genetic make up gone awry! An existentialist, on the other hand, cannot give that assurance, cannot provide such excuse: each of those ugly characters are actually “guilty”, are actually fully responsible for their ugliness:

“What people feel obscurely, and with horror, is that the coward as we present him is guilty of being a coward. What people would prefer would be to be born either a coward or a hero. If you are born cowards, you can be quite content, you can do nothing about it and you will be cowards all your lives whatever you do”.

Existentialists, therefore, are far more optimistic: the coward can change and become a hero; his future is virgin and can be made according to new authentic choices based on freedom and universality. Ignominious and sordid persons, therefore, are described to teach us that we are guilty, responsible for our ugly actions, that we become sordid because we choose to be so by not living authentic existence. Against Sartre, however, we could argue that we may not be as free as he claims, that we are indeed conditioned by many factors, our genes, our environment, our situations. Is Sartre guilty of stressing freedom too much, ignoring human nature and natural dispositions?

Sartre laments that people are far too scared to live according to the complete freedom they have, they take the easy way out of freedom by self-deception or bad faith. They tend to reassure themselves by putting the blame on human nature, on original sin, on genetic or social conditioning. I excuse my mediocrity by blaming my nature, or my parents; I put on a mask as I go about doing my various tasks for fear of acting fully after freedom, and I deceive myself by inventing all kinds of excuses. One wonders what would Sartre say about people who hide themselves behind the “enneagram” types! I am a five or a seven, I cannot act otherwise! There are Superiors in religious orders, it is said, that choose positions for individuals according to their enneagram type!

Brief final points on Sartre:

Responsible view of freedom, as the basis of true human existence; the full responsibility we must take over our own life, our own freedom; mature, liberating approach to life, you must invent your life, you must make yourself, you are not ready made with values already fixed for yourself; you create your values out of yourself like a sculptor invents his next work of art out of his being; highlights the danger of self-deception, of our cowardice, of our constant flight from true freedom; values created by ourselves are not subjective acts of caprice but responsible values which can be defended before the tribunal of the human race, created in the name of universal freedom not only my own.

He is so obsessed with freedom that is forced to deny human nature, pre-existing values, God; he thinks that if any of these exist then one cannot be free; yet he seems to re-introduce human nature under the name freedom, universalism, human condition, universal judgment of what bad faith is, universal approach of how to create true authentic values. One could argue also that he re-introduces Kantian conditions of morality, universality and, perhaps, rationality –how does one invent values? How are these values created? By choosing them is not sufficient, why do we choose them? Are we using rationality throughout? If we are, are we not back to categorical imperatives?

His anguish, abandonment and despair flourish on the condition of utter freedom: we can say that if there are valuable things in themselves then there is no need of profound anguish or abandonment or despair; if I accept God, I am not in anguish when I choose to do what He wants; should I help the oppressed? I already know that it is a value to help oppressed people therefore I choose it without the awful pangs of deep anguish, abandonment, despair; I know that it is a value to keep promises therefore I do not need to be in deep anguish when I choose to keep my promises, etc. Sartre is in trouble when he denies that there are things, actions, choices, which are already valuable; he denies this in the name of utter freedom, but at the cost of messing up the basis of our choices.

Other criticism, his immense tension between subjectivism and universalism, he does not find a really satisfying reason to support both; he has great trouble with solidarity, once he denies the existence of common values. He does not recognize the importance of conditioning, of various types; modern psychology and the study of the human genome seems to suggest that we are indeed conditioned in many ways.

Rosmini would attack Sartre’s claim that freedom is an innate quality which cannot be justified rationally. For Sartre, freedom is just there and we are condemned to use it in order to live authentic lives. Rosmini would question the purpose of using freedom when there is nothing objectively valuable to guide my choices. Rosmini’s Principles of Ethics, on the other hand, lays powerful foundations for the objectivity and universality of morality, ultimately based on the innate and fully objective idea of being. Sartre’s philosophy is a philosophy of choices and actions, but it lacks the fundamental epistemological basis that would ensure solidity and permanence. But existentialism is very much alive today and its consequences can be detected even in a variety of Christian moral theological approaches that exalt personal, subjective choices and freedom, to the detriment of objective, universal principles of morality.

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