SARTRE: Existentialism is a Humanism. Part 3



To give you an example of this ‘abandonment’, I will quote the case of one of my pupils who came to me. He lived alone with his mother, his father having gone off as a collaborator and his brother killed in 1940. He had a choice – to go and fight with the Free French to avenge his brother and protect his nation, or to stay and be his mother’s only consolation. So he was confronted by two modes of action; one concrete and immediate but directed only towards one single individual; the other addressed to an infinitely greater end but very ambiguous.

What would help him choose? Christian doctrine? Accepted morals? Kant?

I said to him, “In the end, it is your feelings which count”. But how can we put a value on a feeling?

At least, you may say, he sought the counsel of a professor. But, if you seek advice, from a priest for example, in choosing which priest you know already, more or less, what they would advise.

When I was imprisoned, I met a rather remarkable man, a Jesuit who had joined that order in the following way: As a child, his father had died leaving him in poverty. At school he was made to feel that he was accepted only for charity’s sake and denied the usual pleasures. At eighteen he came to grief in a sentimental affair and then failed his military examinations. He could regard himself as a total failure, but, cleverly, took it as a sign that the religious life was the way for him. He saw the word of God there, but who can doubt that the decision was his and his alone? He could as easily have chosen to be a carpenter or a revolutionary.

As for ‘despair’, this simply means that we will restrict ourselves to relying only on our own will, or on the probabilities which make our action possible. If I am counting on the arrival of a friend, I presuppose that their train will be on time. But I am still among possibilities, outside my own field of action. No God, no intention, is going to alter the world to my will.

In the end, Descartes meant the same, that we must act without hope.

Marxists have answered “Your action is limited by your death, but you can rely on others to later take up your deeds and carry them forward to the revolution“. To this I rejoin that I cannot know where the revolution will lead. Others may come and establish Fascism. Does that mean that I must give up myself to quietism? No!

Quietism is the attitude of people who say: “let others do what I cannot do”. The doctrine that I present is precisely the opposite: there is reality only in the action; and more, man is nothing other than his own project and exists only in as far as he carries it out.

From this we see why our ideas so often cause horror. Many people have but one resource to sustain them in their misery; to think, “circumstances were against me, I was worthy of better. I had no great love because I never met anyone worthy of me. I wrote no great book because I had no time.  I am filled with a crowd of possibilities greater than anyone could guess from my few achievements.”

But in reality, for the existentialist, there is no love other than that which is built, no artistic genius other than in works of art. The genius of Proust is the works of Proust. A man engages in his own life, draws his own portrait, there is nothing more.

This is hard for somebody who has not made a success of life. But it is only reality that counts, not dreams, expectations or hopes. What people reproach us for here is not our pessimism, but the sternness of our optimism.


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