I realize today that nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to take the path that leads to himself.

Hermann Hesse.

In his famous defense for existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre elucidates what is and what isn’t existentialism. Through this graciously tactful lecture Sartre shows how one can utilize criticism to reassert one’s point in a discourse. Sartre begins by laying out the myriad kinds of criticisms faced by existentialism.

Sartre and the criticisms of existentialism

Beyond the dichotomy of bad and not bad, the gist of criticisms of Existentialism were as follows:

  • For the Communists, existentialism was a bourgeoisie philosophy that negated action and instead favored the quietism of despair.
  • For the Church, the pessimism, Godlessness and devaluation of human life was pejorative.
  • Other criticisms were based on the presumption that existentialists were cynical.

Sartre’s defense opens by asserting that existentialism is optimistic, contrary to popular misconceptions. This optimism buds from the fact that man’s essence is what he makes of himself. Sartre says that an artisan who makes a paperknife, knows exactly what he is making and what it’s nature will be. But that is not the case with man. There is nothing called human nature. Man defines his essence based on what he makes of himself.

Existentialists believe that man is condemned to freedom, for he alone, is responsible for his choice of actions, not a hegemonic fate or a deterministic God. And through his choice, he becomes responsible for all men. For in every choice, there is also a rejection. And both these are simultaneously relative to the entire mankind. The acquisition of social identity (Turner and Tajfel, 1979) fits well with this idea at each level of conceptualization.

Existentialism in social identity

Thus man is accountable not just for him but also for the entire mankind. Choices and actions make up our idea of man in this world. At the end of this labyrinth of decision making, we have no determinism and no excuses- we are doomed to be free, because we are freedom. Sartre illustrates this with an example of a pupil, who had to take a tough decision between love and duty. In a world where feelings are overlooked, he went with his feeling because his being was already existing along the line of feeling. So he chose love.

Sartre flaunts the sternness of the provocative optimism of existentialism. He calmly dismantles defensive accusations to enlighten us about existentialism. He gently brings the attention to the freedom of the here-now. Like Bhagiratha who brought the holy Ganga to Earth, Sartre brings God among us- in our connections, in our responsibilities and in our freedom to choose.

Existentialism thus is not a pessimist stream of thought, rather it beams with optimism. It is not based on quietism, but, defines man based on action. It finds hope in action. Its atheism is different in that it doesn’t bother to refute the existence of God. Rather it recognizes the agency of man to act in the grand scheme of universe, regardless of the existence of God, a sentiment echoed in God’s didactic responses to Job or Arjuna.

There is no one who can remain without action even for a moment. Indeed, all beings are compelled to act by their qualities born of material nature 

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Shloka 9

Read a translation of this remarkable essay here.

2 thoughts on “Existentialism is a humanism

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