My purpose here is to defend existentialism against several reproaches that have been laid against it.
Existentialism has been criticised for inviting people to remain in a quietism of despair, to fall back into a the middle-class luxury of a merely contemplative philosophy. We are reproached for underlining human nastiness, and forgetting, as the Catholic Mme. Mercier has it, the smile of the child. All and sundry reproach us for treating men as isolated beings, largely because we
begin with the ‘I think’ of Descartes. Christians especially reproach us for denying the reality and seriousness of human society, since, if we ignore God’s eternal values, no-one is able to condemn anyone else.
Existentialism is being seen as ugliness; our appeal to nature as scandalous, our writings sickening. Yet what could be more disillusioning than repeating those mottoes like ‘don’t fight against tradition’, or ‘know your station’? They say that man is base and doomed to fall, he needs fixed rules to keep him from anarchy. In the end, is not what makes our doctrine so fearful to some merely the fact that it leaves all possibility of choice with man?
It has become fashionable to call this painter, or musician or columnist an “existentialist” – a term so loosely applied that it no longer means anything at all.
However, it can be defined easily. Existentialists are either Christian, such as the Catholics Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, or atheists like Heidegger and myself. What they have in common is to believe that existence comes before essence, that we always begin from the subjective. What does this mean? If one considers a manufactured object, say a book or a paper-knife, one sees that it has been made to serve a definite purpose. It has an essence, the sum of its purpose and qualities, which precedes its existence. The concept of man in the mind of God is comparable to the concept of paper-knife in the mind of the artisan.