In the aftermath of World War II a suffering France sought answers for the horrors that besieged their country for six long years. The old value systems no longer held explanatory power, could offer no solace for a world that had been plunged into chaos. A few offered answers. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre stood amid the rubble and advocated the radical freedom of his existentialism, gaining global recognition as a powerful thinker, and earning the admiration of the counterculture admiration that would follow in the decades ahead. He may be the most popular philosopher of the 20th century, though his words were often misinterpreted by a public increasingly concerned with philosophical questions. On October 29th, 1945 Sartre delivered a lecture at the Club Maintenant in Paris to lift the nebulous fog around his thoughts, titled Existentialism is a Humanism.
He opens the public address with the first principle of his existentialism:
“What do we mean here by ‘existence precedes essence’? We mean that man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself. 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 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, man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. This is the first principle of existentialism.”
Central to “existence precedes essence” is the tenet of radical freedom. Man has the sole responsibility for making himself who he is; there is no divinity above or phenomenon beyond nature that defines who he is, that defines his essence—no thing outside of nature that hands down a lucid value system to be obeyed. Ultimately, according to Sartre, we must all define ourselves through our actions.
“This is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
“If God does not exist, everything is permissible,” writes Dostoyevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov. Sartre points his finger to the memorable quote and says “This is the starting point of existentialism;” it can be a terrifying recognition. Far from reveling in the absurd with Emil Cioran, Sartre sees his existentialism as liberating: every choice we make is entirely our own. We are not victims of circumstance, not bound to Fortunata’s wheel.
“What the existentialist says is that the coward makes himself cowardly and the hero makes himself heroic; there is always the possibility that one day the coward may no longer be cowardly and the hero may cease to be a hero. What matters is the total commitment, but there is no one particular situation or action that fully commits you, one way or the other.”
Man always has a choice even if that choice means not acting at all. It is a compelling doctrine and easy to see its attractiveness to the various youth cultural movements that challenged orthodox authority in the years during and after Sartre’s prominence.
The question as to whether or not radical freedom—in which all value judgement is dictated by individual choics—is a humanism remains open, and Sartre does not sell the notion in the limited time available during the lecture. He appeals to Kant, in a way, to construe his existentialism as providing moral guidance:
When I affirm that freedom, under any concrete circumstance, can have no other aim than itself, and once a man realizes, in his state of abandonment, that it is he who imposes values, he can will but one thing: freedom as the foundation of all values.
And in thus willing freedom, we discover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others, and that the freedom of others depends on our own.
It’s a kind of categorical imperative, in which we are obligated to act to promote the greatest degree of freedom for not only ourselves but all mankind. Far from being an explicit code of ethics, Sartre’s comment opens up more questions, such as what kind of moral code would ripple out in a world in which each person determined subjectively what would best promote freedom for all people.
Sartre regretted the lecture’s publication, feeling that it became a summary of his philosophy, but the attentive student will recognize Existentialism Is A Humanism as a fine starting point for students to begin exploring Sartre’s thought.
Existentialism is a Humanism is not a summary, or the final say, of Sartre’s existentialist thought, though it did galvanize a popular perception after its publication. If you’re interested in Sartre and his worldview you should also look to his literary works such as Nausea, his first novel—while we may remember Sartre today as a philosopher, he was most prominently a writer. For a more rigorous account of Sartre’s thought then try his seminal work Being and Nothingness.