“Existentialism As a Humanism” by Jean-Paul Sartre
Background: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) was a leading exponent of a view usually labeled “existentialism” which he expounded in scholarly works such as Being and Nothingness (1943) and in literary works such as the novel, Nausea (1938), and the play, No Exit (1944). In 1945 he cofounded with Simone de Beauvoir, his lifelong partner, the journal, Les Temps Modernes, which was a review of politics, philosophy, and art. Politically, he became an independent socialist. He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1964, but declined the award because he claimed to accept it would compromise his integrity as an author. In his early, existential phase, Sartre depicted humans as creators of their own world, who accomplish this by rebelling against all forms of pre-ordained authorities and by accepting personal responsibility for their actions without reliance on any guides. This presumes humans are characterized by “nothingness,” requiring the acceptance of one’s radical freedom as the necessary condition for becoming authentically human.
What is Sartre attempting to do in this essay? What are the two sorts of “charges” (made by Communist and by Catholic critics) (197) against his position?
Why does Sartre believe it is necessary to try to “explain” or “define” existentialism? How does he go about doing this? Do you understand what he means by the phrase “existence precedes essence”? (198-9) How does his understanding of a “paper-cutter” tie in with his explanation of God as the Creator? (199)
Why does Sartre believe that atheistic existentialism is more coherent than other forms of atheism? How does this relate to his rejection of a human “nature”? (199)
How do subjectivity, the nothingness of humanity, and fundamental freedom fit together in Sartre’s understanding of what a human being genuinely is? (199-200)
How does Sartre try to defend the “responsibility” of his existentialist portrait of human existence by tying choices into a universal context, a choice for “man”? (200)
Why does Sartre deal with the issue of “anguish”? What examples does he bring forth to explain what he means by it? How does his treatment of “anguish” help him to respond to the charge of “quietism” sometimes brought against his position? (200-201)
What does “forlornness” have to do with Sartre’s position? Why is God a crucial feature of his explanation of this notion? What does he mean when he says that we have no “justification” or “excuses” for our choices? Does his striking phrase that we are “condemned to freedom” catch any of this? (201-2) Explain. How does the story of the boy faced with the choice of joining the forces fighting for freedom or helping his mother illustrate these points? (202-3) How does the story of the young man joining the Jesuits illustrate them? (204)
How does Sartre try to deal with the Marxist charge of quietism? How does he claim that his position presumes action? Do you agree with him when he declares that man “exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself”? (205)
What do you think of Sartre’s overall understanding of what it means to be human? Does it fit into our contemporary cultural assumptions? How or why not? Do you think that Bonaventure would have been able to reply to any of Sartre’s claims about the way a creator God or an established human nature would deny genuine human freedom? How would he have done so? Or why would he not have been able to do so?