Sartre’s Existentialism

Jean-Paul Sartre and his group wrote often about “the others”. The others were at times Communists and at other times Christians. The others were the poor. Ralph Waldo Emerson also wrote about the others as did Soren Kierkegaard and Ayn Rand.


What after all is the Law, what is the Law’s requirement of a person? Well, that is for people to decide. Which people? Here the doubt begins. Since one person does not stand essentially higher than another, it is left entirely up to my arbitrary decision with whom I will affiliate in the determination of the highest unless I myself-even more arbitrarily, if possible-could be in a position to hit upon a new determination and as a recruiter win an alliance for it.

cropped-fragments-and-concluding.jpgIt is also left up to my arbitrary decision to assume one thing as the Law’s requirement today and something else tomorrow. Or should the determination of what is the Law’s requirement perhaps be an agreement among, a common decision by, all people, to which the individual then has to submit.

Splendid-that it, if it is possible to find the place and fix a date for the assembling of all people (all the living, all of them?-but what about the dead?), and if it is possible, something that is equally impossible, for all of them to agree on one thing! How large a number is necessary?

Furthermore, if what the Law requires is merely human determination of what the Law requires (but not by the individual human being, because we thereby become involved in pure arbitrariness, as indicated), how then will the individual be able to begin to act, or is it left to chance to decide where he happens to begin instead of everyone’s having to begin at the beginning?

In order to have to begin to act the individual must first find out from “the others” what the Law’s requirement is, but each one of these others must in turn as an individual find this out from “the others”. In this way all human life transforms itself into one big excuse,-this is perhaps the great, matchless common enterprise, the great achievement of the human race? The category “the others” becomes fanciful, and the fancifully sought determination of what constitutes the Law’s requirement is false alarm.

God wants each individual, for the sake of certainty and of equality and of responsibility, to learn for himself the Law’s requirement. When this is the case, there is durability in existence, because God has a firm hold on it. There is no vortex, because each individual begins, not with “the others” and therefore not with evasions and excuses, but begins with the God-relationship and therefore stands firm and thereby also stops, as far as he reaches, the dizziness that is the beginning of mutiny.

Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love 1847 Hong translation p. 115-118

Kierkegaard, who is falsely hailed as the father of modern existentialism, used the existential “dialectic” never as an end in itself but always as an offensive and defensive weapon in a battle on behalf of the Christian faith deliberately planned to meet what he thought were the special apologetic and evangelistic needs of his historical situation, and, therefore, the Kierkegaardian existentialism should be regarded rather as the exception than the rule in existential philosophizing.

And Kierkegaard himself should not be called the father of modern existentialism (especially as he would scarcely admit to the paternity of most of his imputed children), but rather the reawakener of the existential interest in European thought. All during the time that Kierkegaard’s works were still cocooned in Danish, the ground was being prepared for the emergence of existentialism as a philosophy in much of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century literature, poetry, and drama, which rebelled against the scientific and industrial civilization that was dehumanizing man.

Existentialism should be given credit for restoring man as man to the centrality of thinking, and for attempting to describe the “human situation” as accurately as it can. But the popular idea that it is a philosophy somehow tailor-made to fit the Christian believer, and that it also solves the problem of his relationship to the traditional philosophy that conceives itself as a quest for objective truth, must, on closer examination, be considerably modified. The existential viewpoint seems to fit the believer so well because it is, among other things, a summons to action, and the believer is certainly called to
action by his faith.

The Christian and the World of Unbelief 1957 by Libuse Lukas Miller p. 78 


If now we proceed to inquire into the kinds of service we derive from others, let us be warned of the danger of modern studies, and begin low enough. We must not contend against love, or deny the substantial existence of other people. I know not what would happen to us. We have social strengths. Our affection toward others creates a sort of vantage or purchase which nothing will supply. I can do that by another which I cannot do alone. I can say to you what I cannot first say to myself. Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds.

Ralph Waldo Emerson ca1857 retouched.jpgEach man seeks those of different quality from his own, and such as are good of their kind; that is, he seeks other men, and the otherest. The stronger the nature, the more it is reactive. Let us have the quality pure. A little genius let us leave alone. A main difference betwixt men is, whether they attend their own affair or not. Man is that noble endogenous plant which grows, like the palm, from within, outward. His own affair, though impossible to others, he can open with celerity and in sport…..

Men are helpful through the intellect and the affections. Other help, I find a false appearance. If you affect to give me bread and fire, I perceive that I pay for it the full price, and at last it leaves me as it found me, neither better nor worse: but all mental and moral force is a positive good. It goes out from you whether you will or not, and profits me whom you never thought of. I cannot even hear of personal vigor of any kind, great power of performance, without fresh resolution. We are emulous of all that man can do.

Representative Men: Seven Lectures by Ralph Waldo Emerson 1850


authors inspired by kierkegaard


Existentialism And Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre 1947/1948


Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality.

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist see him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of himself. Man simply is.

Not that he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing-as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. This is the first principle of existentialism. And this is what people call its “subjectivity,” using the word as a reproach against us.

But what do we mean to say by this, but that man is of a greater dignity than a stone or a table? For we mean to say that man primarily exists-that man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that he is doing so.

Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before that projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he proposes to be. Not, however, what he may wish to be. For what we usually understand by wishing or willing is a conscious decision taken-much more often than not-after we have made ourselves what we are. I may wish to join a party, to write a book or to marry-but in such a case what is usually called my will is probably a manifestation of a prior and more spontaneous decision.

If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.

The word “subjectivism” is to be understood in two senses, and our adversaries play upon only one of them. Subjectivism means, on the one hand, the freedom of the individual subject and, on the other, that man cannot pass beyond human subjectivity. It is the latter which is the deeper meaning of existentialism.

When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man as he believes he ought to be.

To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all.

If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole.

If I am a worker, for instance, I may choose to join a Christian rather than a Communist trade union. And if, by that membership, I choose to signify that resignation is, after all, the attitude that best becomes a man, that man’s kingdom is not upon this earth, I do not commit myself alone to that view. Resignation is my will for everyone, and my action is, in consequence, a commitment on behalf of all mankind.

Or, if to take a more personal case, I decide to marry and to have children, even though this decision proceeds simply from my situation, from my passion or my desire, I am thereby not only myself, but humanity as a whole, to the practice of monogamy. I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashioning man.

This may enable us to understand what is meant by such terms-perhaps a little grandiloquent-as anguish, abandonment and despair. As you will soon see, it is very simple.

First, what do we mean by anguish? The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows-When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind-in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility.

There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it. Certainly, many people think that in what they are doing they commit no one but themselves to anything: and if you ask them, “What would happen if everyone did so?” they shrug their shoulders and reply, “Everyone does not do so.”

But in truth, one ought to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing; nor can one escape from that disturbing thought except by a kind of self-deception. The man who lies in self-excuse, by saying “Everyone will not do it” must be ill at ease in his conscience, for the act of lying implies the universal value which it denies. By its very disguise his anguish reveals itself.

This is the anguish that Kierkegaard called “the anguish of Abraham.” You know the story: An angel commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son: and obedience was obligatory, if it really was an angel who had appeared and said, “Thou Abraham, shalt sacrifice they son.” But anyone in such a case would wonder, first, whether it was indeed an angel and secondly, whether I am really Abraham. Where are the proofs?

A certain mad woman who suffered hallucinations said that people were telephoning her, and giving her orders. The doctor asked, “But who is it that speaks to you?” She replied: “He says it is God.” And what, indeed, can prove to her that it was God? If an angel appears to me, what is the proof that it is an angel; or, if I hear voices, who can prove that they proceed from heaven and not from hell, or from my own subconsciousness or some pathological condition? Who can prove that they are really addressed to me?

Who then, can prove that I am the proper person to impose, by my choice, my conception of man upon mankind? I shall never find any proof whatever; there will be no sign to convince me of it.

If a voice speaks to me, it is still I myself who much decide where the voice is or is not that of an angel.

If I regard a certain course of action as good, it is only I who chooses to say that it is good and not bad. There is nothing to show that I am Abraham: nevertheless I also am obliged at every instant to perform actions which are examples.

Everything happens to every man as though the whole human race had its eyes fixed upon what he is doing and regulated its conduct accordingly. So every man ought to say, “Am I really a man who has a right to act in such a manner that humanity regulates itself by what I do.” If a man does not say that, he is dissembling his anguish. Clearly, the anguish with which we are concerned her is not one that could lead to quietism or inaction. It is anguish pure and simple, of the kind well known to all those who have borne responsibilities.  …. (27-32)


And when we speak of “abandonment” – a favorite word of Heidegger – we only mean to say that God does not exist and that it is necessary to draw the consequences of his absence to the end.

The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain type of secular moralism which seeks to suppress God at the least possible expense. …. The existentialist finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere writing that the good exists, that one must be honest or one must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men.

Dostoevsky once wrote, “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted, if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith that he is without excuse. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism-man is free, man is freedom.

Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimize our behaviour. Thus, we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse.

We are left alone without excuse. This is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.

The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never regard a grand passion as a destructive torrent upon which a man is swept into certain actions as by fate, and which, therefore, is an excuse for them. He thinks that man is responsible for his passion.

Neither will an existentialist think that a man can find help through some sign being vouchsafed upon earth for his orientation: for he thinks that the man himself interprets the sign as he chooses. He thinks that every man, without any support or help whatever, is condemned at every instant to invent man. As Ponge has written in a very fine article, “Man is the future of man.” That is exactly true.

Only, if one took this to mean that the future is laid up in heaven, that God knows what it is, that would be false, for then it would no longer even be a future. If, however, it means that, whatever man may now appear to be, there is a future to be fashioned, a virgin future that awaits him – then it is a true saying. (32-34)


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? No one. Nor is it given in any ethical scripture. The Kantian ethic says, Never regard another as a means, but always as an end. ….

When values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts. … Nut how does one estimate the strength of a feeling? … Feeling is formed by the deeds that one does; therefore I cannot consult it as a guide to action. And that is to say that I can neither seek within myself for an authentic impulse to action, nor can I expect one from some ethic, formulae that will enable me to act. … No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.

The Catholics will reply, “Oh, but there are!” Very well, still , it is I myself, in every case, who must interpret the signs. (36-38)


As for “despair”, the meaning of this expression is extremely simple. It merely means that we limit ourselves to a reliance upon that which is within our wills, or within the sum of the probabilities which render our action feasible. Whenever one wills anything, there are always these elements of probability.

If I am counting upon a visit from a friend, who may be coming by train or by tram, I presuppose that the train will arrive at the appointed time, or that the tram will not be derailed. I am in the realm of possibilities; but one does not rely upon any possibilities beyond those which are strictly concerned with one’s action. Beyond the point at which the possibilities under consideration cease to effect my action, I ought to disinterest myself.

For there is no God and no prevenient design, which can adapt the world, and all its possibilities, to my will. When Descartes said, “Conquer yourself rather than the world,” what he meant was, at bottom, – the same – that we should act without hope.

Marxists, to whom I have said thus have answered: “Your action is limited, obviously, by your death: but you can rely upon the help of others. That is, you can count both upon what others are doing to help you elsewhere, as in China and Russia, and upon what they will do later, after your death, to take up your action and carry it forward to its final accomplishment which will be the revolution. Moreover, you must rely upon this; not to do so is immoral.”

To this, I rejoin, first, that I shall always count upon my comrades in arms in the struggle, in so far as they are committed, as I am, to the definite common cause; and in the unity of a party or group which I can more or less control-that is, in which I am enrolled as a militant and whose movements at every moment are known to me.

In that respect, to rely upon the unity and the will of the party is exactly like my reckoning  that the train will run to time or that the tram will not be derailed. But I cannot count upon men whom I do not know, I cannot base my confidence upon human goodness or upon man’s interest in the good society, seeing that man is free and that there is no human nature which I can take as foundational.  (39-40)


Existentialism and Humanism p. 27-34, 36-40 by Jean-Paul Sartre 1947 translated by Philip Mairet, Methuen & Co LTD. London 1948

serving a cause

Quietism is the attitude of people who say, “let others do what I cannot do.” The doctrine I am presenting before you is precisely the opposite of this, since it declares that there is no reality except in action. It goes further, indeed, and adds, “Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.” Hence we can well understand why some people are horrified by our teaching.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism And Humanism, 1947 translated by Philip Maniret 1948 p. 41

Our aim is precisely to establish the human kingdom as a pattern of values in distinction from the material world. But the subjectivity which we thus postulate as the standard of truth is no narrowly individual subjectivism, for as we have demonstrated, it is not only one’s own self that one discovers in the cogito, but those of others too. Contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, contrary to that of Kant, when we say “I think” we are attaining to ourselves in the presence of the other, and we are just as certain of the other as we are of ourselves. Thus the man who discovers himself directly in the cogito also discovers all the others, and discovers them as the condition of his own existence. He realizes that he can’t be anything unless others recognize him as such. I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another. The other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself.

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism And Humanism, 1947 translated by Philip Maniret 1948 p.45


A critique of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ontology by Maurice Natanson 1951

Click above to read an early review of Sartre.


AtlasShrugged.jpg“Who is John Galt?” “He means,” said the fireman, “don’t ask questions nobody can answer.” Larkin shrugged sadly. “Why ask useless questions? How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky? Who is John Galt?”

He shrugged “Oh, well who is John Galt? He’s just a meaningless phrase.” “Why do people keep saying it? Nobody seems to be able to explain just what it stands for, yet they all use it as if they knew the meaning.” “I don’t know. Who knows why the worls is what is is? Oh, who is John Galt?” He shrugged. “Who is John Galt?” “Oh, don’t use gutter language.”

“John Galt was a millionaire, a man of inestimable wealth. He was sailing his yacht one night, in mid-Atlantic, fighting the worst storm ever wreaked upon the world, when he found it. He saw it in the depth, where it had sunk to escape the reach of men. He saw the towers of Atlantis shining on the bottom of the ocean. It was a sight of such kind that when one had seen it one could no longer wish to look at the rest of the earth. John Galt sank his ship and went down with his entire crew. They all chose to do it. My friend was the only one who survived.”

“What is morality?” she asked. “Judgment to distinguish right and wrong, vision to see the truth, courage to act upon it, dedication to that which is good, integrity to stand by the good at any price. But where does one find it? The young boy made a sound that was half-chuckle, half-sneer: “Who is John Galt?”

“Miss Taggart,” he called after her, “who is John Galt?” She turned, hanging onto a metal bat with one hand, suspended  for an instant above the heads of the crowd “We are!” she answered.

The cry she uttered was one she had never permitted herself before, because she made it her pride always to answer it herself — but she saw a man standing a few steps away, she did not see that he was a ragged bum, and she uttered the cry because it was the plea of reason and he was a human figure:  “What are we going to do?” The bum grinned mirthlessly and shrugged: “Who is John Galt?”

“Well, what’s the matter with the damn thing?”  asked the watcher. “Don’t know.” “You’ve been at it for an hour.” “Yeah? “How long is it going to take?” “Who is John Galt?”

Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged 1957

Since I am to speak on the Objectivist Ethics, I shall begin by quoting its best representative — John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged : “Through centuries of scourges and disasters, brought about by your code of morality, you have cried that your code had been broken, that the scourges were punishment for breaking it, that men were too weak and too selfish to spill all the blood it required. You damned man, you damned existence, you damned this earth, but never dared to question your code. … You went on crying that your code was noble, but human nature was not good enough to practice it. And no one rose to ask the question: Good? — by what standard?

“You wanted to know John Galt’s identity. I am the man who has asked that question.

“Yes, this is an age of moral crisis. … Your moral code has reached its climax, the blind alley at the end of its course. And if you wish to go on living, what you now need is not to return to morality … but to discover it.”

What is morality, or ethics? It is a code of values to guide man’s choices  and actions — the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?

Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all — and why?

Is the concept of value, of “good or evil” an arbitrary human invention, unrelated to, underived from and unsupported by any facts of reality — or is it based on a metaphysical fact, on an unalterable condition of man’s existence? (I use the word “metaphysical” to mean: that which pertains to reality, to the nature of things, to existence.) Does an arbitrary human convention, a mere custom, decree that man must guide his actions by a set of principles — or is there a fact of reality that demands it? Is ethics the province of whims: of personal emotions, social edicts and mystic revelations — or is it the province of reason ? Is ethics a subjective luxury — or an objective necessity?

The Virtue Of Selfishness by Ayn Rand 1964 p. 10-11


The intelligence, too, tells me in its way that this world is absurd. Its contrary, blind reason, may well claim that all is clear; I was waiting for proof and longing for it to be right. But despite so many pretentious centuries and over the heads of so many eloquent and persuasive men, I know that is false. On this plane, at least, there is no happiness if I cannot know.

That universal reason, practical or ethical, that determinism, those categories that explain everything are enough to make a decent man laugh. They have nothing to do with the mind. They negate its profound truth, which is to be enchained. In this unintelligible and limited universe, man’ s fate henceforth assumes its meaning. A horde of irrationals has sprung up and surrounds him until his ultimate end.

In his recovered and now studied lucidity, the feeling of the absurd becomes clear and definite. I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.

The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. It binds them one to the other as only hatred can weld two creatures together. This is all I can discern clearly in this measureless universe where my adventure takes place. Let us pause here. If I hold to be true that absurdity that determines my relationship with life, if I become thoroughly imbued with that sentiment that seizes me in face of the world’ s scenes, with that lucidity imposed on me by the pursuit of a science, I must sacrifice everything to these certainties and I must see them squarely to be able to maintain them. Above all, I must adapt my behavior to them and pursue them in all their consequences. I am speaking here of decency. But I want to know beforehand if thought can live in those deserts.

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays: Albert Camus 1942

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