[The following student paper received a grade of "A" in the Fall 1998 semester. Use it as a sample or model; do not just copy it! (The comments in boldface are mine.)]
[Student Name Omitted]
PR101 Introduction to Philosophy
Paper Assignment 2 Ė Option 1
Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism
Existentialism, a philosophical movement, is the existence and freedom of choice of each individual, with no rational criteria serving as the basis for choice. No objective, rational basis can be found for moral decisions. This is just one definition of the word (or term). In this paper I will try to explain and define this term further based on the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, an atheist existentialist, and my own interpretations of his work.
In the 19th and 20th centuries the philosophical movement of the times lead to the start of modern day existentialism. Before this time philosophers since the ancient Greek thinkers such as Plato held that the highest ethical good is universal. Insofar as one approaches moral perfection, one resembles other morally perfect individuals. God, being the perfect good, was thought to be the one responsible for man and his will. The first philosopher to address existentialismís major concerns was 17th-century Frenchman Blaise Pascal. He denounced the systematic philosophy that presumed to explain God and humanity and saw life in paradoxical terms. The human self, combining mind and body, is itself a contradiction. Soren Kierkegaard , a 19th century Danish philosopher, was the first writer to call himself existential. He believed in God but that no proof exists, we are responsible through our own choices(theistic existentialism). As he wrote in his journal, "I must find a truth that is true for me... the idea for which I can live or die." (Existentialism, Microsoft Corp., (Computer Disc).) [Improper citation form]
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a well-known philosopher and writer who first gave the term existentialism general currency by using it for his own philosophy. He was born in France and educated at the Ecole Normale Superieur, where he met his lifelong companion, Simone de Beauvoir who was also an author and a philosopher. Their relationship seemed to join minds as well as hearts in a rather unconventional way. Some of his published works were of letters written by Sartre to Beauvoir on all subjects, including his affairs with other women. It appears that as long as she was his number one soul-mate their relationship was an enduring one. While researching this I got the feeling that they actually shared a great love and passion, and respect for one another even if traditional values were not adhered to. If it worked for them, then itís a marvelous thing.
Sartre was quite unconventional in most other aspects of his life as well. He was active in the French Resistance movement of World War II, allied himself with the French Communist party, supported student uprisings of 1968, and protested against the United States during the Vietnam War in the 1960ís. In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature but declined the prize. I include these brief facts on the life of this brilliant man as it may help the reader understand his views of life in general as well as existentialism.
"What is Existentialism" is the subject of Sartreís "LíExistentialisme est une humanisme" or "Existentialism and Human Emotions". "Existence precedes essence" (215) according to Sartre. In order to understand human existence it must be understood that subjectivity is the starting point. For something to be subjective it must belong to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought, that would be objectivity.
During the "Enlightenment" of the eighteenth century the idea of God was discarded by the philosophers but they kept the idea of essence preceding existence. Existentialists have held that human beings do not have a fixed nature, or essence, as other animals and plants do; each human being makes choices that create his or her own nature. Diderot, Kant, and Volaire said that there is a human nature that is the concept of the human, is found in all humans, meaning that each human is an example of the universal concept of human nature.
Sartre represents atheistic existentialism which he believes "is more coherent"(217)then previous theories of existentialism. If God does not exist, there is at least one being where existence precedes essence, that being is man. Heidegger, calls it "human reality". The human exists, appears in the world, and, only afterwards, defines himself. The existentialist thinks that the human is indefinable because at first he is nothing. After he makes himself into something, "he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence" (217). Thereís no human nature because thereís no God to conceive it.
Sartre declared that human life requires a rational basis but the attempt is a "futile passion". Nevertheless, he insisted that his view is a form of humanism, emphasizing freedom and responsibility. Existentialist humanism is manís being outside himself, or projecting himself, and pursuing goals that enable him to exist. Thereís no other universe besides our human universe, and man is present there, not on his own but with other individuals who he is responsible for.
To explain this Sartre uses an example of a paper-cutter. The paper-cutter is made by a craftsman whose inspiration came from a concept, and was made through a known method of production. The paper-cutter is a thing thatís made a certain way and has a specific use. He canít imagine someone who doesnít know what itís used for producing it . So the essence of the paper-cutter preceded itís existence. The paper-cutter had a production routine and certain properties that enabled itís definition and production prior to its actual physical production.
Sartre compares the idea of God as the Creator to the idea of the paper-cutter. God can produce a human in the same way that the craftsman can produce a paper-cutter after following the plans. The human is the realization of a concept/essence in Godís mind. God is thought of as the master craftsman. Philosophers such as Descartes and Leibniz agree that the "will follows understanding and when God creates He knows exactly what He is creating"(216).
This is Sartreís "first principle of existialism: the human individual is nothing but what he makes of himself." He explains that this human does things and is aware of it, not as a stone or a table, or a patch of moss, a piece of garbage, etc.... But the human may not necessarily want to be what heís planned to be through his will" (218). Choice is therefore central to human existence, it is inescapable; even the refusal to choose is a choice. Freedom of choice includes commitment and responsibility. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, they must accept the risk and responsibility of following their commitment wherever it leads. By that each individual is also responsible for other human beings. By making a choice one also chooses for all. This affirms the value of what the choice is by choosing, for we canít choose evil, only good, which then will be good for us all. So we have a much greater responsibility as it involves all mankind.
Satre next writes about anguish, forlornness, and despair. "The existentialists say...that man is anguish"(219). The man who involves himself and realizes that he is who he chooses to be, thereby choosing for others, and that he cannot escape his feelings of absolute responsibility. The word anguish is used for the recognition of the total freedom of choice that confronts the individual at every moment. Not everyone looks or acts this way since some use a type of "self-deception" or "mauvais foi/bad faith" (220). But anguish may be evident even if it tries to conceal itself, Kierkegaard called it the "anguish of Abraham"(220). If he questioned everything God told him to do regarding the sacrifice of his son, for example, the angel God sent, whether or not he really is Abraham, where the proof of things is, thatís anguish. Or it could be a madwoman who had hallucinations and talks on the phone, claiming itís God, but having no proof.
In reference to forlornness Sartre writes that God doesnít exist and we have to face it and the consequences. The (theistic) existentialist disagrees with those who would write God off as easily as possible, such as certain French professors of the 1880ís. The(atheist) existentialist is very distressed that there is no God because there can be no absolute values in heaven without him. There are only human beings. Anything is allowable if God doesnít exist, leaving man forlorn(abandoned). Man is condemned to be free, and is responsible for all, including his passions and crimes of the same. With that freedom of choice he can choose good or evil and itís a heavy burden.
Sartre writes a story of a young man who was to choose between leaving his mother alone and fairly helpless or joining the Free French Forces and leaving for England. Knowing his mother lived only for him and would be crushed if he left and perhaps being killed, how could he desert her? Or should he stay with her , deserting, the entire fighting group? Two moral choices, the first one of sympathy and devotion, the second a social and political one. Where could he turn for help in making such a decision? Christine doctrine couldnít help since it says, "Be charitable, love your neighbor, take the more rugged path, etc., etc."(225). Which path is that? Who should you love more, your poor mother or your fellow men, fighting for the good of many? The young man was going to try to decide by his feelings. Sartre questions how the value of feelings can be determined. The advice he gives is "Youíre free--choose, that is, invent "(226). So, there is no one who can choose for you , we are responsible and that can be a lonely or forlorn thing, this realization. Hence, "forlornness and anguish go together"(227).
Which brings us to despair. We will only consider what depends on our will, or the probabilities that allow our actions to happen. "No God, no scheme, can make the world and its possibilities conform to my will"(227). Sartre mentions the Marxists and the Fascists he has dealt with, and doesnít want Fascism to be the human reality.
This leads into Sartreís "philosophy of action"(229). Things will be just as humans decide they are to be. He uses the coming about of socialism as an example. He supports this and will do all he can, but nothing else is guaranteed. Existentialism claims, "there is no reality except in action," which opposes those who say, "let others do what I canít do"(229). Many people abhor this since they canít blame their misery on circumstances. For example, a coward is responsible for his cowardice, a cowardly constitution doesnít exist. The "act of yielding" makes a coward. They (and heroes) are not just born that way.
"I think; therefore, I exist," Descartesí famous quote, is the start of Sartreís ideas of existential subjectivity. He feels itís the absolute truth of consciousness in its own awareness. Views are only probable, not the truth, and weíre all capable of grasping this. Thereís also an intersubjectivity that involves what a person decides he is and what others are. Even if itís impossible to find a universal essence in each human that is human nature, there is a "human condition"(233). Condition means the fixed limits outlining humanityís fundamental situation in the universe. It is necessary for him to (1)exist, (2)be at work, (3)be there among others, and (4)be mortal. These limits are objective as theyíre found everywhere, and subjective since theyíre lived(individually).
According to Sartre it is impossible for us not to choose our path. Even if we donít directly choose, weíre still choosing , and I agree that weíre choosing not to choose. Since existentialism is described as the human situation involving free choice, we have no excuses and thereís nowhere to hide. Freedom must have no other goal than wanting itself. All values are based on it. The freedom of others is dependent on our freedom since weíre all involved. Anyone who believes that their existence is through necessity rather than contingency Satre calls "stinkers/salauds"(235).
It is disturbing to Sartre that this is it. Someone must invent values since God is out of the picture. Life is nothing, has no meaning, before one comes alive and invents it for himself. In his autobiography Sartre writes "Iím answerable only to them (Griselda, Paradaillan, and Strogoff), who are answerable only to God, and I donít believe in God...I sometimes wonder whether Iím not playing winner loses and not trying hard to stamp out my one-time hopes so that everything will be restored to me a hundredfold." Itís no wonder Sartre has a rather pessimistic attitude.
I agree with the existentialist theory that each individual is responsible for their choices and that others are affected by them. But unlike Sartre I believe there is a God who has the master plan and gives us free will to choose. We are responsible first and foremost to live up to a God-like standard. I often ask myself, when making a decision or choice, "What would Jesus do/WWJD?" I think my religious beliefs keep me from feeling forlorn and in a state of despair, for I was once there before I became a born again Christian. As a grateful recovering alcoholic (who has not had a drink in three and a half years through the Grace of God)I think I can speak from experience when it comes those feelings. I am more in line with Kierkegaard who advocated a leap of faith into a Christian way of life, and even if risky, he felt it was the only way one could be saved from despair. While God gives us all the freedom of choice, itís ultimately His will in His time.
Cronk, G. (trans. and ed.) (1998). Eight Philosophical Classics. Florida: Harcourt Brace & Co.
Dante, A.C. (1975). Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Viking Press.
Microsoft WorksSuite 99 (1998). Computer disc. Redmond, WA: Microsoft.
Sartre, J. (1964). Sartre the words. (B. Frechtman, trans.) New York: George Braziller, Inc.
[References not in MLA standard form, as they should be]