May Discussion: “Existentialism is a Humanism”

(Possibly Part 1 of more than 1)

Is there hope?

The question is rarely asked. But at times the question becomes consuming, and in those times existentialism appears.

In late 1945 Jean-Paul Sartre gave a lecture. He aims, he said, to “offer a defence [sic] of existentialism.” What he really does is argue against idealism, both secular and religious, while simultaneously trying to ground hope amidst despair.

His first opponent is the church. Against it, Sartre poses the main tenet of existentialism: “existence comes before essence.” What does this mean? It is, in fact, a subtly aimed shot at the core of the religious worldview: That God made man “in his own image,” that therefore man has a purpose, an essence. Against this, Sartre says we have no essence; we are conscious beings, and as such exist before we can be defined. To explain: because consciousness can always turn back on itself, reflect on itself, choose to continue in its path or not, it is never something finalized and settled. “If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world,” says Camus; objects and animals have no problem, since they just exist as they are. As consciousness, however, I am always not yet and already beyond something—I am, in a word, transcendence beyond my past and into an undecided future. I am, fundamentally, unsettled. God does not decide what I am. Further, since I am a consciousness always taking a stance, God couldn’t decide what I am. Existentialism “declares, rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view.” So much for religion.

Sartre’s second opponent, as he sees it, is communism. The same argument is used here. If I am a consciousness always transcending any concrete essence, I am not a class, worker, party member. I am always more—an individual human being, transcending what I am. There is no God, but also no human nature from above or below, because any definition of the human essence is an attempt to solidify consciousness. And consciousness will have none of it: “I am not what I am,” he says elsewhere.

It’s clear why existentialism is considered depressing. But Sartre thinks it is not hopelessness: “no doctrine is more optimistic, the destiny of man is placed within himself.” Without an essence, being always a consciousness reaching out to the world, we are free. Not that we can fly if we choose to—we are free to decide how to take the world around us, whether to follow or leave the path, whether to accept or rebel–we choose, and so choosing establish a model for human existence. Thus freedom, responsibility, dignity are given their due by existentialism, and Sartre thinks only by existentialism. There is hope of a sort, but it’s on us to make something of it.

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