Critical Essays Sartrean Existentialism: An Overview


In learning about Sartrean existentialism, it is helpful to recall data about the climate in which Sartre grew up. Recall for a moment the sadness of his childhood when no one wanted him for a friend. Recall his heavy dependence on a fantasy life as an escape from a world which he found hostile and offensive. Recall that his father died when he was two years old, leaving him in an environment of emotional strain and pressure. Add to this the fact that he was held prisoner-of-war in Germany and that he was forced to accept a lifestyle repugnant to human decency. By the age of thirty-five, he had known more duress than many people experience in a lifetime, and his sentiment of the absurd grew in proportion to the circumstantial hardships.

Sartre viewed the universe as an irrational, meaningless sphere. Existence was absurd and life had no sense, no purpose, no explanation. Death was the proverbially absurd icing on the cake, making life even more intolerable, more ridiculous. He felt "nauseated" by the vastness of this empty, pointless predicament, and he wrestled many hours for a meaningful solution.

It was in this frame of mind that he produced his massive philosophical study, Being and Nothingness, after having already written several important books on related subjects. Being and Nothingness is a study of the phenomenological ontology of humanity (the nature of being). Sartre was not interested in traditional metaphysics since he felt that the age-old problems of these thinkers would never be solvable by humanity. He suggested, for example, that the arguments for and against the existence of God were equally balanced, and that no amount of rational argumentation would provide the final word. His reasoning was simple: Humanity is virtually unable to discover solutions to such problems, so why waste the time? Therefore, he abandoned the rational approach and opted for the phenomenological one.

Phenomenology was originated by the Moravian philosopher Edmund Husserl, in the late nineteenth century. It was a method used to define the essence of conscious data (eidos), and it investigated only those phenomena which could be seen, touched, verified, experienced directly by us and related in terms of our conscious experience. A fiercely logical methodology (whose name is regrettably awkward), it is based on the relation of conscious acts to meaningful objects. We'll soon see how this is relevant to Sartre's existentialism.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre drew on the philosophy laid out by Husserl but developed it further. He defined human consciousness as being a nothingness in the sense of no-thingness, and placed it in opposition to being, that is thing-ness. It is in keeping with this definition that Sartre abandons God; his decision is for moral reasons since believing in God places limits on freedom and, ultimately, on a person's responsibility. God is not something that can be seen, touched, or perceived in a verifiable manner — hence, he cannot belong in the phenomenological system. Being and Nothingness is a psychological study, as are most of Sartre's philosophical works: He identifies the theory of freedom with that of human consciousness, showing that all objective descriptions of humankind (what he calls "situations") fail to define humans adequately. Since a person's consciousness is outside the boundaries of objective inquiry, only one's freedom to choose one's own lifestyle allows for a definition of essence. Within the confines of nothingness, Sartre realized that a person indeed possesses freedom to choose: Consciousness, being non-matter, escapes determinism, and thus permits one to make choices about the beliefs and actions of life. This freedom of choice is at the center of Sartrean existentialism, and although it is a hopeful message, it is also tragic since death puts an end to all human efforts and achievements.

But let's move further toward finding out what this all means. Consider the political situation of the World War II years. The fascists were growing in strength, and the world was threatened by a major world war. Peace was thrown out the window and order was nowhere to be found. The very fabric of society had split at the seams, and people were groping for meaning, for security, for the comfort of lawful citizenry and the basic amenities of civilization. Instead, people were being murdered, rules were imposed by a select few, foreigners to one's own country established curfews, human rights were a thing of the past, and Sartre couldn't resist concluding that the whole thing was madness — completely without meaning or justification. It was one thing to disapprove of another country's political system and problems; it was quite something else to be herded by force into a prisoner-of-war camp and to be held hostage by an ugly and vile, usurping regime.

All of this left a permanent imprint on Sartre's mind. Never again, after the war, would he miss a chance to urge people away from mindless obedience. Human beings must make their own choices, reach their own decisions, think for themselves and establish their own standards of living. Conformism to the values of an outside group (for example, the fascists) was an abomination which Sartre abhorred and condemned; it was immoral to adopt other people's beliefs if one disagreed with them internally. To act in a way which betrayed one's innermost feelings was inauthentic, irresponsible, and in "bad faith." All of Sartre's plays show characters who are forced to make decisions — many of which are tough ones — and the characters are often called upon to reassess the very substance of their belief systems, to adopt new personal standards by employing responsible choices.

Timing played a crucial role in Sartre's enormous success. Although Gabriel Marcel had been the first French writer to discuss existentialism on a large scale, Sartre benefited from the tremendously shaky emotional climate following the war. People were uncertain about their lives and were afraid. They resented what had been done to them by outside aggressors, and they were blinded by the absurdity of it all. Many people abandoned optimism and posed hard questions about the existence of a benevolent God. Among these people, Sartre attracted a vast audience by casting doubt on the heinous conformism recommended by "official" protocol.

Sartre offered people an alternative: He prompted them to choose for themselves what their lifestyles would be, regardless of outside pressures. He encouraged them to ignore governmental threats and warnings and to place personal morality above social and political faithfulness. Most of all, he impressed upon them the need to obey their own feelings, not to conform and compromise themselves.

Since he did not believe in God, he offered what he believed to be logical conclusions based on a consistent atheism. "All possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven" disappear, he claimed, since God does not exist. That necessitated a shift from the outside to the inside: Instead of seeking answers to problems through prayer and divine intervention, one must turn inward and create one's own solutions. Sartre's notion of freedom echoes, to an extent, something of Rousseau: "Man is condemned to be free," and the only difference between this assertion and the one in Ecclesiasticus is that God has been removed from the problem — a major change — and one which rearranges all the component parts of the dialectic.

Of course, things aren't so simple. Once a person has realized the need for making one's own choices, Sartre proceeds to outline the responsibilities awaiting that person. The universe, being irrational and absurd, has no meaning. Man is free to choose, hence to act, hence to give his life personal meaning. It is this confrontation with meaninglessness that creates a tormenting anguish which Sartre calls "nausea": All of a sudden, you realize that things don't seem to have any meaning or that your value system seems to be absurd. This is what underlies the concept of "nausea."

Certainly a person can decide not to accept freedom. For those who do accept it, however, this freedom brings with it considerable consequences. If the universe is absurd and without meaning, then people living in it are likewise without meaning — until they choose to create it: "Man is only what he does. Man becomes what he chooses to be." Sartre draws a sharp distinction between being and existing: If one chooses to act, one is said to be; when one chooses not to act, one merely exists. Hamlet's famous question of "to be or not to be" becomes, in this context, "to be or to exist, that is the question."

Since the act of being can only be determined through acts and deeds, a person must make the active choice to follow through with desires and intentions. This is what Sartre calls commitment (engagement): One must be committed to social, political, and moral beliefs, or one cannot hope to give himself definition. One's acts are phenomena which can be verified, whereas intentions count for nothing. This takes us back to the principles of phenomenology.

A person who fails to choose is a person trapped in a morass of confusion. The road to freedom is through choice and action: "to do and while doing to make oneself and to be nothing but the self which one has made." Freedom, then, becomes freedom from absurdity, freedom from meaninglessness. Defining the self is tantamount to escaping one's "nausea." It eliminates abstraction and turns life into a series of pragmatic responsibilities. Only through this self-definition can one shape a meaningful destiny; anything short of this results in inauthenticity, "bad faith," and a heightened sense of "nausea."

The French philosopher Robert Champigny sums up this rejection of religion by pointing out that "Sartre's main objection to the more authentic brands of Christian morality is that they provide an inadequate statement of the ethical problem and can serve only as a mask for irresponsibility." In other words, by surrendering one's problems to an outside force (God), one is sacrificing the freedom to find personal solutions. One is also, in a sense, "passing the buck" to God instead of carrying through with personal engagement — and this form of random obedience, for Sartre, is the ultimate in "bad faith."