Jean-Paul Sartre is one of the most, if not the most, familiar names in modern existentialism. Known mostly for his introductory work Existentialism is a Humanism and his principal work On Being and Nothingness; Jean-Paul Sartre’s benefaction to the forum of existential philosophy cannot be understated. Much of what we understand to be existential thought, though commonly attributed to Kierkegaard as its credited founder, is spoken from the voice of Sartre. The overall difference—as Sarte himself is quick to point out—separating his existential philosophy is that Sartre is an aesthetic existentialist and Kierkegaard is a religious existentialist. The overall difference separating the two being a disagreement on the existence of a god and the ontology of being. Never the less Sartre sums up his perspective of aesthetic existentialism in the following quote.
“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does”—Existentialism is a Humanism (1946)
What is existentialism according to Sartre?
Existentialism is an overall recognition of man’s solus and unguided existence in reality. Though the idea of existentialism covers a wide variety of subjects such as the nature of conscience, ethics, and the relation of the mind to its body; it is easily summed by the aforementioned quote. “Man is condemned to be free…” Because of the human condemnation of freedom there are several consequent’s that come with it:
First, life, objectively speaking, has no inherent meaning to it. The concept of destiny and purpose to one’s life are false assumptions when considering the idea of human life from the outside. One is born, one exists, one dies. What one does while they exist is of no consequence in the grand and impartial truth. From the point that man is “thrown into the world” his destiny is limited only by his agency, there is no invisible guiding force behind his existence or action. Which leads us to the next point…
Second, purpose is subjective. In his book Existentialism is a Humanism Sartre states that man’s “existence precedes his essence“. In other words, man is antecedent and his purpose, meaning, and conception follow his entrance into the world; it is precedent. The individual’s definition of self is found along the road of existence. His essence is a passive gathering of experiences, knowledge, and interactions that develop his nature. In this sense man’s essence is fluid, changing with the environments it find’s itself encased in. Because of this, mans holistic essence is gained not predetermined.
Third, everything is permissible. Assuming that no guiding hand exists, morality and ethics are as up to the individual as their essence. Pre-determinate concepts like a “God” do not fit in Sartre’s aesthetic existentialist structure of reality. God, as a moral agent cannot exercise consequence on the individual decision maker as he/she would not exist. This goes for all resulting concepts from moral authority. Being that an individual’s nature is self-determined, it is the individual’s liberty to decide what structures guide his decision-making. Whether morality govern’s reality is subject to the individual’s perception, therefore, one’s ethical compass is drawn by the forces of subjectivity. Because of this, right and wrong are relieved of absolutism and enter the gray of pluralistic individuality.
These three basic tenets surround the basic theme of Sartre’s existential philosophy and best suited to lead to the existentialist form of transcendence. The word transcendence in Sartre’s work and in most existentialist writings is in reference to the “man”. More specifically man’s need to transcend self. Sartre speaks of transcendence not in the same way as one would speak of god, but, as one would speak of going beyond subjectivity; leaving one’s self—in recognition of one’s solitude or solus—and seeking an to live outwardly. By pursuit of this transcendence, one’s essence becomes subject to outward influences such as society and the behaviorism that its given culture abides to. Furthermore this outward influence comes with a collection of pursuits—goals, if you will—that can dictate one’s direction.The seeking of outward goals gives the individual existence purpose and lends to its essence governance to meet those goals. Therefore, only through transcendence, as Sartre defines it, can “man” overcome his solitude, give meaning to his existence, and operate with his own ethics in a permissive reality.
Transcendence, Morality, and Sartre
For Sartre, to pursue transcendence, was to pursue freedom. A freedom that—most importantly— allowed the individual to act according to their own essence. One’s essence being the only reasonable source of choice, as Sartre highlights in the following anecdote:
“I will refer to the case of a pupil of mine…His mother was living alone with him, deeply afflicted by the semi-treason of his father and by the death of her eldest son, and her one consolation was in this young man. But he…had the choice between going to England to join the Free French Forces or of staying near his mother and helping her to live. He fully realised that this woman lived only for him and that his disappearance…would plunge her into despair. He also realised that…every action he performed on his mother’s behalf would be sure of effect in the sense of aiding her to live, whereas anything he did in order to go and fight would be an ambiguous action which might vanish like water into sand and serve no purpose. For instance, to set out for England he would have to wait indefinitely in a Spanish camp on the way through Spain; or, on arriving in England or in Algiers he might be put into an office to fill up forms. Consequently, he found himself confronted by two very different modes of action; the one concrete, immediate, but directed towards only one individual; and the other an action addressed to an end infinitely greater, a national collectivity, but for that very reason ambiguous – and it might be frustrated on the way. At the same time, he was hesitating between two kinds of morality; on the one side the morality of sympathy, of personal devotion and, on the other side, a morality of wider scope but of more debatable validity. He had to choose between those two. …Which is the more useful aim, the general one of fighting in and for the whole community, or the precise aim of helping one particular person to live? Who can give an answer to that a priori?”—Existentialism is a Humanism (1946)
For Sartre’s pupil to have knowledge a priori—independent of experience— for his dilemma, a casual observer would typically and reflexively postulate that a moral authority, such as a priest, would be the ideal person to present such a problem. It would be an outward influence of which the pupil could use to determine the correct action. However, this precisely the type of dilemma that presents an issue that moral authority cannot answer due to a concept of what Sartre describes as “the narrow way” and furthermore it is because of that concept that the pupil sought him out.
Sartre’s phrase “the narrow way” is used to categorically show the limited capacity for moral systems to answer complex dilemmas like the one described. Summoning the christian perspective, Sartre writes that while both choices are filled with unique forms of christian good (honor thy father and thy mother and loving one as your brother) they both have polar consequences. Should he remain at home his duty to love his countrymen as a brother would be replaced with the label of a coward. Conversely, he would be abandoning his mother despite serving his country. Sartre sees this not only as a problem only the pupil can find the most useful answer to, he sees it as the reason the pupil came to him in the first place.
In Sartre’s own reasoning, the pupil’s choice to come to his professor and not a priest was indicative of why the priest could not provide the most useful answer. Should the pupil have chosen the priest he would have limited his decision based on the source of advice to christian morality and, in essence, would have determined his answer. This decision further becomes determined based on the beliefs of the priest. A priest with nationalist sympathies might have directed the pupil that fighting was the better choice and vis versa. The pupil’s choice to come to an unbiased mentor to Sartre that the pupil wanted the most useful answer and not the answer that was subjectively right based on the mentor. Unfortunately for the pupil, Sartre could not answer for the pupil either.
Sartre’s inability to answer for the pupil stem’s from the existential truth that every individual is responsible for their own actions. Right and wrong are for one’s self to find out and then act upon. That every individual has an inherent “anguish” Sartre puts it; an anguish that comes with making a decision. In the case of the pupil, the anguish, though sometimes physical was in this case moral. The pupil found himself at a crossroad where utility, good, and negative connotations all existed in both directions. Ultimately the pupil would have to make a choice and in despite of that choice what matter was that the pupil took charge of his existence in recognition of his solitude.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s influence in philosophy, though controversial, recognizes a common feeling we all experience. Isolated confusion in the face of moral ambiguity. The realization that we might last the necessary knowledge of right and wrong to act appropriately when experience has evaded us. What Sartre provides is not so much a complete answer as a perspective to relieve the burden of choice. We all carry in ourselves our own essence, who we are, the things that shape us, and the aspects that define us. Sartre implores us to recognize this and to see that while we are objectively alone we have the power to shape ourselves by reaching outward and taking control of that essence. Sartre’s existentialism is not one of being trapped in an absurd existence but the freedom of seeking self determined purpose. In Sartre’s mind it is not only right, it is freedom.