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Existentialism Is a Humanism Paperback – July 24, 2007
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"Like no one else, [Sartre] sought to understand exactly what it means to be responsible."—Ronald Aronson, International Herald Tribune
"In this small book, we discover Sartre as more than the café existentialist or the playboy. Here we see the committed philosopher working in public, with many of its evident hazards. Despite its flaws, in Existentialism is a Humanism, we have a model for a committed philosophy—one that is sorely needed today."—Nicholas Hengen, Rain Taxi
"To understand Jean-Paul Sartre is to understand something important about the present time."—Iris Murdoch
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~ Jean-Paul Sartre from Existentialism Is a Humanism
Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher, novelist, playwright, and critic. He was a leading intellectual of the 20th century and the leading proponent of existentialism.
While reading Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, I saw that James Stockdale included this book in his course syllabus on moral philosophy. So, of course, I immediately picked it up along with a bunch of the other titles. (We’ll be systematically working through that syllabus.)
Interestingly, both Stockdale and Sartre were prisoners of war. Sartre spent a year in a Nazi prison camp while Stockdale spent eight years in a North Vietnamese prison. In addition to sharing that experience, the two also share a FIERCE commitment to personal responsibility—which is, at the core, what both Stoicism and existentialism are all about.
(On that note, Viktor Frankl comes to mind—another man who suffered the indignities of war and wrote about the last freedom we each have: the freedom to choose our response to any given situation he describes in Man’s Search for Meaning.)
This short book is a transcript of a speech Sartre gave in 1945 to address many of the critics of existentialism. It’s a *remarkably* lucid, concise exposition on the primary tenets of existentialism—even more remarkable given the fact that Sartre gave this lecture without notes.
Let's explore some of my favorite Big Ideas:
1. Existential Anguish - + Its antidote.
2. Passion vs, Choice - Always your call.
3. Quietism vs. Commitment - Do what you're here to do.
4. The Stern Optimism - Of a ethical militant.
5. Moral Choices - As a work of art.
Here’s to having the courage to face the reality of our challenges and opportunities as we optimize, actualize and serve profoundly.
More goodness— including PhilosophersNotes on 300+ books in our *OPTIMIZE* membership program. Find out more at brianjohnson . me.
To wit: Existence precedes essence, and in any case is arbitrary. In this world, man is defined by the choices he makes and by his commitments to those choices. He does not define himself prior to his existence and exists only in the present, well beyond any concept of natural determinism. In Sartre's view, there is no human nature superior to that described here.
In short, there is no God; we have been abandoned to our fate. That point however should not be misconstrued as that Existentialism is only about Atheism. It simply affirms that even if a God existed, it would make no difference to our humanity. Human nature is not a self-congratulatory condition, but rather a fearful, uncertain, anguished and forlorn condition. Thus the real problem with our humanity is not with God's existence, but with man's own existence. Existentialism argues that man does not need a God so much as he needs to rediscover himself and to comprehend that nothing can save him from himself -- not even proof of the existence of a god. In Sartre's view, this understanding alone makes Existentialism, not only profoundly human, but also optimistic about human nature and the human condition.
But more to the point, according to this formulation, anyone who believes otherwise is actually acting in "bad faith." From the Existentialist's point of view, once man is abandoned to his own fate he can have only one true goal: freedom for its own sake. That is to say, he is abandoned to his own fate with freedom (and his commitment to it) as his only universal project. At the bottom of this project, choice becomes the root node of the human condition, and the very basis of his primary reality. And because there is no god, there can be no pre-determined good. Good, like meaning, morality, judgment and values, all must be constructed from scratch as an existential project. That is to say, these all emerge directly from having made the choice and commitment to be free. Thus man has another important choice to make: to proceed through his world in either "good, " or "bad" faith.
If he proceeds in "good faith, he will discover that life has no a priori meaning. In our quest for freedom we must make committed choices that result in the invention of meaning and values as we go. Life itself is nothing until (and unless) it is lived. It is we (and not our gods or our dreams and wishes) that gives life it's meaning. And values are nothing more than the meaning we ascribe to them through our actions. Thus proceeding in "good faith" means that things must be accepted as they are; one must learn to live an authentic life of action, taking responsibility for his own existence -- without the need for either crutches or excuses.
Proceeding in "bad faith," on the other hand, means living an inauthentic life, one based on fantasy, excuses, wishes, promises and mythology. According to this formulation, God is seen as the "grand executor" and "creator" of all meaning. And as a result, man's only responsibility (both to himself and to his god) is obeying God's will and edicts. From the Existentialist point of view this approach is a barren and a coward's way out, because it forces man to shrink from being responsible for his own existence. He chooses instead a kind of self-congratulatory fetishsized life of fantasized meanings.
The last chapter of the book also has a critique of Camus' "The Stranger," but I will leave that aspect for my own review of that book. Five Stars