Today – June 21 – is the anniversary of the birth of the French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre is often considered one of the greatest philosophers of 20th century philosophy, particularly within the existentialist school of thought. Born in 1905 in Paris, his father died when he was a young child, and he was raised by his maternal grandfather, a professor named Carl Schweitzer. After receiving a good education as a child and young adult, he became a teacher at a lycée (a government-sponsored secondary school) in La Havre, Laon, and Paris. Starting in the late 1930’s, while still working in La Havre, Sartre began publishing novels and plays, which give us the earliest glimpse of Sartre’s thought. In 1939, Sartre was drafted into the French military, but was taken as a P.O.W. in 1940. During his year-long imprisonment, Sartre began to read the works rooted in the thought of German phenomenology, particularly the works of Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, whose thought had a major impact on the development of Sartre’s philosophy.
One of Sartre’s best known works was his 1948 work Existentialism is a Humanism. This work is considered one of the classics of contemporary existentialism. In the following article, I will analyze the main thesis in this work, and compare it to the main thesis in another classic of existentialist thought, namely Sickness Unto Death, by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. These two schools of thought represent the two main strands of existentialism: atheist existentialism and Christian existentialism.
For Sartre, the starting point of existentialism is the concept that “existence precedes essence.” What this means can be inferred from its opposite. To say that “essence precedes existence” means that what a thing is is logically prior to, and independent of, the thing itself. We can understand this by examining the creation of tools: even before the thing exists, we have an idea of that thing in our mind. It is the same with God. If God exists, then logically prior to God’s act of creating is the idea of the created order that exists within the mind of God.
Thus, for Sartre, belief in God, as it is known in the Judeo-Christian West, often includes the notion of some pre-existing order, some pre-existing essence or plan, into which man is born, and which is imposed onto man by forces beyond his control. This idea even persisted into early modern philosophy: for example, many of the secular thinkers of the 18th century Enlightenment still held to this notion that there is a universal category called “human nature”, that is, a definite set of parameters or qualities which define what it means to be human. Yet, Sartre, being an atheist, believed that one of the logical conclusions of denying God’s existence was the denial of the concept that essence precedes existence. He believed rather that existence precedes essence, which is to say that when humans first come into existence, all there is is the fact of our existence. There is no deeper, transcendent meaning to it. In Sartre’s words:
…there is at least one being whose existence comes before his essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man, or as Heidegger put it, the human reality. What do we mean when we say that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. … Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is.
This doesn’t mean that if I will to have magical powers, or to be 6’11”, or that if will to cease being human and to be a rabbit, this comes to pass simply because I will it to be. But, what Sartre is suggesting is that the direction of my life, the values that give my life meaning, what it means to be human, are defined by me. Thus, Sartre went on to say, “Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills himself after that leap towards existence.”
One consequence of this that Sartre drew was the following: “Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.” Because man lives in relation to others, the effects of man’s choices not only effect himself, but also others as well. When man is faced with the awesome responsibility of determining the meaning of his own life, and the fact that how he lives and chooses to define his life has consequences on the lives of others, this brings about existential dread. Yet, this same existential dread is also intimately bound up with the source of true authenticity. The man who is “entirely authentic” is “that man whose existence precedes his essence” – that is, the man who defines the meaning of his life on his own terms, and does not allow his life to be defined by others.
Kierkegaard, living roughly a century earlier, came to the opposite conclusions. In his 1849 work Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard defined despair in the following manner:
That self which he despairingly wills to be is a self which he is not (for to will to be the self which one truly is is indeed the opposite of despair); what he really wills is to tear himself from the Power that constituted it. But, notwithstanding all his despair, this he is unable to do; notwithstanding all the efforts of despair, that Power is the stronger, and it compels him to be the self he does not want to be.
For Kierkegaard, the self is objectively constituted a particular way. That which sets the parameters of our existence is God. Yet, despair originates when one tries to define ones sense of identity in a manner that does not align with the way one truly is. When one attempts to define the meaning of their life in terms of something other than how we were created by God, despair arises, since that in terms of which we define our life usually fails to deliver; it fails to satisfy us as much as we thought, supposing we were able to attain it in the first place (the failure to obtain that which we desire is also a source of despair).
Despair is thus a self-perpetuating cycle. Thus, one who suffers from existential despair is likened by Kierkegaard to a man at or near the point of death, yet, never experiencing the release of death. The ultimate root of this despair is caused by man “detaching the self from every relation to the Power [God] that posited it, or detaching it from the very conception that there is such a Power in existence.” It is for this reason that Kierkegaard’s work is peppered with talk of “faith” and “salvation”: faith is trust in and submission to He Who created us, He who constituted our life in a particular way and thus bestowed onto us a particular identity, and salvation is thus the result of this. Faith is thus the antidote to despair.
Kierkegaard and Sartre thus have two radically different views of authenticity. For Kierkegaard, to be inauthentic is to pretend to be something we are not; it is to define our life on terms other than those set by God. For Sartre, to be inauthentic is to let our lives be defined by some person, being or force beyond ourselves. For Kierkegaard, we need to accept the terms on which we were created and be what we were created to be, but for Sartre this is the opposite of what we need to do; for Sartre, we need to not live on other people’s terms in order to be authentic.
These thoughts may sound profound and deep, but often go beyond the depth with which most people analyze and explore the meaning of their life. Yet, this is the exact point that examining Sartre and Kierkegaard side-by-side leads to: humans, as sentient beings aware of their surroundings, we have a duty to take part in this sort of reflection. What is the overarching narrative of human life? Who defines it? By what standard? How do we go about discovering it?
This is something that plays a major role in Christianity. The ethical teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, as articulated in the second part of the Summa Theologiæ, begin with questions on the nature of happiness. For Aquinas, happiness, for man, is attained only through living in accordance with man’s proper end. And man’s proper end is defined as union with God. While this particular way of articulating it has strong and often explicit Aristotelian undertones, it still reflects a larger point which is the starting point for the entire Catholic and Biblical worldview: man was created for God, but man fails to attain this end through sin. Yet, man is given the ability to attain and live in accordance with this end through grace. And it is this which allows man to be authentically what he is.
- The translation of Existential Is A Humanism was originally published in Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by Walter Kaufman (New York: Meridian Publishing Company, 1989). Accessed at https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm
- The translation of Sickness Unto Death was by Dr. Walter Lowrie, and was found in A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. by Robert Bretall (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946), pg. 339-372