Biography of Jean-Paul Sartre / Биография Жана-Поля Сартра
Jean-Paul Sartre (usually pronounced SARR-truh), 1905-1980, was born in Paris and was the cousin of the great humanitarian and musician, Dr. Albert Schweitzer. A student of the German phenomenologists Husser and Heidegger, Sartre developed his own existential viewpoint in the 1930’s and 1940’s. He introduced it to the public, not only in essays like the one below, but also in novels (Nausea, The Roads of Freedom), stage plays (No Exit, The Flies), screenplays, and radio and television broadcasts. He refused the Nobel Prize when it was offered him in 1964, because he considered it too bourgeois.
I would like to defend existentialism against certain objections that have been raised against it. Existentialism has been criticized by the Communists for having invited people to live in a kind of quietism of despair because, they maintain, having refuted all solutions, one would have to consider action in this world totally impossible and would end up with a purely contemplative philosophy . . . . Others reproach us for emphasizing human ignominy, concentrating on ugliness and neglecting beauty, for example, according to one Catholic critic, forgetting the smile of a child. Both groups reproach us for having ignored human interdependence, for having considered the human being as isolated. Our Communist critics claim that we take as our basis pure subjectivity — i.e., the Cartesian co ito [«Je ense, donc je suis,» = I think and therefore I exist — by which we mean the moment when the human being realizes himself in his solitude, thus rendering himself incapable of returning to solidarity with people who are outside himself. The Christians reproach us for denying the reality and the seriousness of human enterprise because, they say, if we suppress God’s commandments and eternal values, then there remains nothing but gratuitousness: each person being able to do what he wants and also being incapable, from his point of view, of condemning the points of view and the acts of others.
The situation is complicated by the fact that there are two types of existentialists: the Christian existentialists, among whom I count the Catholic writers Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel , and the atheistic existentialists, including Heidegger and myself. The latter believe that existence precedes essence or, if you will, that it is necessary to begin with subjectivity. Now what does that mean? If we consider a manufactured object, a letter-opener for instance, we know that this object has been made by a craftsman who was inspired by the concept of a letter-opener and also aware of techniques of production that are determined by the concept and which basically constitute a formula. Thus the letter-opener is an object which is produced in a certain manner and has a defined use, and one cannot imagine a man producing a letter-opener without knowing how that object is to be used. Therefore we can say that for the letter-opener, its essence — i.e., the sum of the formulas and qualities which permit it to be produced and defined — precedes its existence . . .
Now when we think of God, that God is most often compared to a superior craftsman. And no matter what doctrine we may consider, whether it be that of Descartes or that of Leibnitz,
we must admit that the will follows, more or less, from understanding, or at least accompanies it, and that when God creates he knows exactly what he’s creating. Thus the concept of the papercutter in the mind of the industrial artisan. And God produces man following techniques and a conception exactly as the artisan fabricates a paper-cutter. Within this concept of a creating God, a human being is the realization or the completion of a certain concept which is in the divine mind. In the philosophical atheism of the 18th century, the notion of God was suppressed, but not the idea that essence precedes existence.
This idea is found nearly everywhere — in Diderot, in Voltaire, and even Kant. Humankind possesses a human nature. This human nature, which is the human concept, is found in all human beings, which means that each human being is a particular example of the universal concept — mankind. With Kant, one result of this universality is that the savage and the bourgeois are defined alike and said to possess the same basic qualities. There again the essence of the human being precedes that historical existence which we meet in nature. Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more coherent. It declares that, if God does not exist, there is at least a being whose existence precedes essence, a being who exists before the power to be defined by any concept and that this being is, as Heidegger has said, human reality. What does it mean here, that existence recedes essence? This means that the human being first exists, encounters himself, thrusts himself into the world, and then defines himself. If a man, as conceived by atheistic existentialism, cannot be defined, it is because at first, he is nothing. He will be only later. And he will be what he has made himself. Thus, there is no such thing as human nature, because there is no such thing as God to conceive it.
Man just is: not only as he conceives himself, but as he wants to be. And as he conceives himself after this leap toward existence — as he wants to be — man is nothing other than what he makes himself. This is the first principle of existentialism. That is what we call subjectivity — and which is held against us, under this very name. But what does this mean other than that man has greater dignity than a rock or a table? We mean that man is . . . basically . . . that which is conscious of projecting itself toward its future. Man is above all a project, which sees itself subjectively, instead of being a chocolate mousse, a piece of garbage, or a cauliflower. Nothing exists prior to this project. . . Man will be, primarily, that which he will have projected being — not really what he wants to be. What we normally understand by wanting is a conscious decision and is, for most of us, posterior to that which has made itself. I can desire to become a member of a certain political party, write a book, marry.
All of that is only a manifestation of a more original choice, a more spontaneous choice, than what one normally calls will. But if existence truly precedes essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus the first step of existentialism is to put every person in possession of what he is, and to place upon him the total responsibility of his existence. And when we say that man is responsible for himself we are saying that he is responsible for all human beings. . . When we say that man chooses himself, we mean that . . . in choosing himself, he also chooses all people. In fact, there is not a single one of our actions in creating the person we want to be that doesn’t also create an image of the person we think that person should be. To choose to be this or that is also to affirm the value of that which we choose.
We can never choose evil. That which we choose is always good. And nothing can be good for us without being good for everyone. If existence precedes essence and if we want to exist at the same time that we create our image, this image has value for everyone and for our entire age. Thus our responsibility is much greater than we might have supposed, because our responsibility affects all of humanity. If I’m a working man in France and I choose to belong to a Christian labor union rather than a Communist one, and if by this choice I want to indicate that resignation is basically the solution appropriate to humankind . . I am not making an isolated decision. I want to be resigned for everyone. Thus my choice embraces all of humanity. And if, to take a more personal case, I want to get married, to have children . . . by that action I commit not only myself, but all humanity, to monogamy. Thus I am responsible for myself and for everyone, and I create a certain image o of man through my choice. In choosing myself I choose humanity. This permits us to understand the meaning behind the expressions anguish, abandonment, and despair.
As you will see, it s extremely simple. What does one mean by anguish? The existentialist declares that man is languishing. This means that the man who engages himself and who realizes that he is not only the one whom he chooses to be, but also a legislator choosing at the same time as himself all of humanity, could not know how to escape from the feeling of his total and profound responsibility. Certainly there are some people who do not show anxiety. But we would contend that they mask their anguish from themselves, that they flee from it. Many people believe that in acting they engage only themselves. And if someone asks them, «But what if everyone did that?» they shrug their shoulders and reply, «But everyone doesn’t do that.» To toll the truth, one must always ask oneself, «What if everybody did that?» and one can escape from this disquieting thought only by self-deception [mauvaise foi]. The person who excuses himself by declaring «Everybody doesn’t do that» is someone who is ill at ease with his conscience. . . . Even when it masks itself anxiety appears. It is this anxiety that Kierkegaard called «the anguish of Abraham. . . . And when we speak of abandonment, that expression so dear to Heidegger, we mean only that God does not exist and that it is necessary to follow that assertion to its logical conclusion. The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain type of secular moralism which would want to suppress God at the least possible cost. Around 1880 when French intellectuals tried to establish a secular morality, they said something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis. We will suppress it, but it will still be necessary to have a society, a structured world, morality. Certain values must be taken seriously and considered as existing a priori. For example, one must be honest, not beat one s wife, have children, etc. Therefore, we show that these values exist all the same, written as it were by a divine intelligence, although, by the way, God does not exist. In other words . . . if God does not exist, nothing will change. We will discover the same norms of honesty, of progress, of humanism, and we will have transformed God into a hypothesis, which will die tranquilly in its own obsolescence. Existentialism on the other hand thinks that it is extremely annoying that God does not exist because with God disappears all possibility of finding values in an intelligible universe.
You can no longer have a priori good, because there is no infinite and perfect conscience to think of it. Is it written anywhere that good exists, that one must be honest, that one shouldn’t lie because we are in a world where there are only humans? Dostoevsky wrote, «If God did not exist, everything would be permitted.» That is the point of departure for existentialism. In fact, everything is permitted if God does not exist. And consequently, man is alone because he cannot find either in himself or outside himself anything to depend upon. Ho finds no excuses. If in fact existence precedes essence one can never explain anything by reference to given and fixed human nature. There is no determinism. Man is free. Man is freedom. If God does not exist, we do not discover ourselves faced with values or order which will legitimate our conduct. Thus, we have neither behind us nor before us in the domain of values either justifications or excuses. We are alone without excuses. This is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free: condemned because he did not create himself, and nevertheless free, because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for all he does. The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion or faith as an excuse.
The existentialist thinks that man is responsible for his passion. He thinks that man, without any support and without any aid, is condemned at every instance to invent himself. The French writer Francis Ponge has said, «Man is the future of man.» That is quite true. Yet if one understands by these words that this future is written somehow in the stars, that God knows it, then that is false, because that would no longer be a future. If one understands that no matter how man now appears there is a future to make, a virginal future which awaits him, then this statement by Ponge is correct. But one is still alone. As an example which gives better understanding of this abandonment, I shall cite the case of one of my students who recounted to me the following circumstances.
His father and mother were separated. His father collaborated with the Germans during the Second World War. His older brother had been killed during the German offensive of 1940. And this somewhat naive yet generous young man wanted to avenge his brother. His mother was living with him and was very much upset by the semi-betrayal of his father and by the death of her oldest son, and she found in him her only consolation. At that moment, this young man had the choice between leaving for England and joining the forces for the liberation of France, that is to say, abandoning his mother, or of staying with her and helping her to live. Ho understood that his mother lived for him and that his disappearance, perhaps his death, would plunge her into despair. He also understood that basically, concretely, every act in regard to his mother had its respondent in the sense that he was helping her to live, whereas every act that he would do if he were to leave to go to combat was an ambiguous act which might be lost in broader conflicts and serve no good end.
So, ho found himself faced with two very different types of actions: one very concrete, immediate, but addressing itself only to an individual, the other an action which addressed itself to a much vaster potential audience, a national collectivity, but which was by its very nature ambiguous, and which might be interrupted before it could come to completion. Who could help him choose? The Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says be charitable, love your neighbor, sacrifice for others, choose the straight and narrow way. But what is the straighter way? Whom must one love like one’s brother, the combatant or one’s mother? Which is of the most usefulness, vaguely fighting for a country, or helping a particular person to live? Who can decide a priori? No one. No ethic or scripture suffices to tell you. The Kantian morality says never treat others as a means, but as an end. Very fine. If I stay near my mother, I will treat her as an end, not a means.
But from this very fact I take a chance on treating as a means those who are fighting all around me. And similarly, if I go join those who are fighting I will treat them as an end, and from that fact, it is possible that I will treat my mother as a means. If values are vague and if they are always too vast for the precise and concrete case that we are considering, we have no choice but to rely on our instinct. And that is what this young man has tried to do. When I last saw him he was saying, basically, What counts is feeling. I must choose what truly pushes me in a certain direction. If I feel that I love my mother enough to sacrifice all the rest for her — my desire for vengeance, my desire for action, my desire for adventure— then I’ll stay with her.
If, on the other hand, I feel that my love for my mother is insufficient, I shall leave. But how to determine the value of a sentiment? What constituted the value of his feeling for his mother? Precisely the fact that he was staying for her. I can say, «I love a certain friend enough to sacrifice a certain amount of money for him,» only when I’ve done that. I can say, «I love my mother enough to stay with her,» only if I have stayed with her. I am able to determine the value of this affection only if I have done an act which defines it, and which codifies it. Now whenever I ask justification for my act from this affection, I find myself caught up in a vicious circle. The writer Andri Gide said it very well when he said that a feeling which plays itself out in ` . one s mind or a feeling which is actualized are very nearly the same thing. To say that I love my mother while staying near her or to play a game which would make it appear that I had stayed for my mother — these are very nearly the same thing. In the final analysis, feeling results from the deeds one does.
Therefore, I cannot consult feeling to guide me in my feeling. That means that I can neither look in myself for that authentic state which will force me to act nor appeal to any ethic for concepts which will permit me to act. You will say, «At least he went to see a professor to ask for advice.» But if you seek advice from a priest, for example, you have chosen that priest. You already knew more or less, what he was going to advise. In other words, to choose an adviser is to engage oneself. The proof is that if you are Christian you will say consult a priest. But priests have diverse political views, and if the young man wore to choose a priest who was himself affiliated with the resistance or a priest who was a collaborator with the Germans he has already decided the type of advice that he shall receive. Thus in coming to me, ho already knew the answer that I was going to give him, and I had only one answer to give: You are free, choose, invent . . . . As for the term despair this word has an extremely simple meaning: it means that we limit ourselves to depending on that which is within our will, or on the sum of probabilities which render our action possible.
When one wants something there are always probable elements . . . . It’s a matter of counting on possibilities only to the extent that our action comprises the sum of those possibilities. As soon as the possibilities that I consider are not rigorously engaged by my action I am forced to disinterest myself from them because no God, no destiny, can adapt the world and its possibilities to my will. When Descartes said, «conquer yourself rather than the world,» he meant the same thing: act without hope. Marxists, to whom I’ve spoken, have replied «Your acts will obviously be limited by your death, but you can count on the support of others. . . . But I am not able to count on people I do not know or to base myself on human goodness or on human interest for the good of society since it’s given that man is free and that there is no such thing as human nature on which I can base such attitudes. I do not know what will happen to the Russian Revolution. I can admire it and make an example of it to the extent that today proves to me that the Russian proletarian plays a role in Russia which he does not play in any other nation.
But I cannot affirm that this will necessarily lead to a triumph of the proletariat. I must limit myself to what I see. I cannot be sure that my comrades in this struggle will take up my cause and carry it on since those people are free and they will decide freely tomorrow what humanity will bring. After my death these people might decide to establish fascism. And others might be sufficiently lazy or intimidated to let them do it. At that time, fascism will be living truth — and . . . things will be as people will have decided they must be. Does this mean that I have to give myself over to quietism? No, at first I must become engaged then act according to the old proverb, «It’s not necessary to hope in order to act.» That does not mean that I should not belong to a party, but that I shall be without illusions and that I shall be what I can be. Quietism is the attitude of people who say, «Others can do what I am unable to do. The doctrine which I present to you is just the opposite of quietism because this doctrine says that there is no reality except in actions.
And it goes oven further because it adds that man is nothing more than his project. He exists only to the extent that he realizes himself. He is nothing other than the sum of his acts. Although it is impossible to find in each man a universal essence which would be human nature, there does exist a human universality of condition. It is not by chance that today’s thinkers speak more readily of the human condition than of human nature. By condition, they mean more or less, the sum total of the limits sot a priori by our fundamental situation in the universe. The historical situations vary — a man might be born a slave in a pagan society, or a lord, or a proletarian. What does not vary is his obligation to be in the world, to work there, to be among others there, and to be mortal.
These limits have an objective aspect and a subjective aspect: objective in so far as they meet one another everywhere and are everywhere recognizable, subjective because they are lived and are nothing if man does not live them. And even though our various projects may be extremely diverse, it is at least true that not one of them is a perfect stranger to me, because they all present themselves as an attempt to cross those limits or to drive them back or to deny them or to accommodate them. Consequently every project, no matter how individualistic, has universal value. Every project — that of the Chinaman, the Indian, the Black — can be understood by a European. That means that the European of today can launch himself toward his limits in exactly the same way, and that he can reconstruct within himself the project of the Chinaman, or the Indian, or the African.
There is this universality of project, in the sense that every project is comprehensible to every man. This is not to say in any way that the project defines that man but that it can be found and be recognized. There’s always a way of understanding an idiot, or a child, a savage, or a foreigner provided that one has enough information. Thus we can say that there is a universality of man. But it is not given; it is constantly built. I build the universal in choosing myself and I construct it by understanding the project of every other man. . . This absolute choice does not suppress the relativity of every period. Existentialism endeavors to demonstrate both the connection of the absolute character of free choice by which each person realizes himself in realizing a typo of humanity and engagement in life, which is always understandable at every period and by every other human, and also the relativity of the cultural context which results from such a choice. One must note both the relativity of Cartesianism and the absolute character of Cartesian engagement. In this sense one can say that each of us makes the absolute by breathing, sleeping, or acting in a certain way.
There is no difference between being freely as project, as existence which chooses its essence, and being absolute; and there is not any difference between being an absolute, localized in history, and being universally comprehensible. That does not completely resolve the charge of subjectivism. In fact, that objection takes still other forms. The first is this: they say to us, «well, you know, you can do absolutely anything and in any way you please.» They accuse us of anarchy. Then they declare, «You cannot judge others, because there is no reason to prefer one project to another.» Finally, they can say to us, «Everything is by chance and what you choose, you give with one hand and you take away with the other.» These three objections are not very serious ones.
The first «you can choose absolutely anything,» is not true. Choice is possible in one sense, but it is impossible not to choose. Although it may seem strictly formal, this is of great importance to limit fantasy and capriciousness. If it is true that, faced with a situation, for example the situation which makes me a sexual being who can have relations with a being of another sex, who can have children, I am obliged to choose an attitude. I also carry the responsibility of a choice which, by engaging me, also engages humanity. This has nothing to do with capriciousness. And if one thinks that one will find here the Gidean theory of the gratuitous act, one doesn’t understand the enormous difference which exists between this doctrine and that of Gide. Gide doesn’t know what the situation is. He acts by simple capriciousness. For us one man finds himself in an organized situation where he is himself engaged. He engages by his choice all of humanity, and he cannot avoid choosing. Either he will remain celibate, or he will marry without having children, or he will marry and have children. In any event, no matter what he does, it is impossible for him not to take total responsibility. It would be unjust to accuse him of capriciousness.
Let’s say moreover, that one could compare an ethical choice with the making of a piece of art. There are certainly no pro-defined paintings to make; rather the artist engages himself in the construction of his painting. Similarly, there are no pre-established esthetic values, but there are values which manifest themselves after the fact in the very coherence of the painting, in the relationship which exists between the will to create and the result. No one can say what painting will be tomorrow. One can only judge the painting once it is done. Now what is the relationship between that and ethics? We are in precisely the same situation. We never speak of gratuitousness in regard to a work of art. When we speak of a painting by Picasso, we never say that it is gratuitous. We understand Perfectly well that he made himself at the same time that he painted and that his work is incorporated in his life. It’s the same on the ethical level. In ethics as in art we find creation and invention.
We cannot decide in advance what is to be done. I think that I’ve shown you this in speaking of the situation of my student who was able to take into account all ethical schools, Kantian or otherwise, without finding there any firm direction. He is obliged to invent his own law himself. We shall never say that man has made a gratuitous choice. Man makes himself. He simply is not complete from the beginning. He must make himself by choosing his ethic, and the force of circumstances is such that he cannot refrain from choosing one. We define man only in relationship to a commitment. Therefore it is perfectly absurd to reproach us with gratuitousness in regard to choice. The second objection, «You cannot judge others,» is true in one sense, but false in another. It is true in the sense that . . . we do not believe in progress. Progress is an improvement. Man is always the same, but his situation changes. And his choice remains a choice relative to his situation. The ethical problem has not changed since the time of the Civil War when one was able to choose between slavery and anti-slavery: at the present moment, one can opt for the Communists or for their adversaries.
Nevertheless one is able to judge because, as I told you, one chooses in the context of others. One can choose first (and this is perhaps not a value judgment, but it is a logical judgment) that certain choices are founded on error, others on truth. One can judge a man in saying that he is dishonest. If we accept the definition of the human situation as a free choice, without excuses and without aid, every human who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, every person who invents a determinism is dishonest. One might object «But why not choose for oneself dishonesty?» I respond that it is not a question of moral judgment, but of defining: is dishonesty an error? Here one cannot escape from a judgment of truth. Dishonesty is evidently a lie precisely because it undermines total freedom of commitment. Similarly I would say that there is also dishonesty if I choose to declare that certain values exist before me.
I am contradicting myself if, at the same time, I want them and I declare that they are imposed upon me. If someone says to me, «And what if I wish to deceive myself?» I will reply, «There’s no reason that you should not, but I declare that you are and that the attitude of strict coherence is one of honesty.» And beyond that I can then raise a moral judgement when I declare that freedom, in the context of each concrete circumstance, can have no other purpose, or aim but itself. Once a man has recognized that he creates values in his vanity, he can then want only one thing, and that is liberty as a foundation always. . . . In the desire for liberty we shall discover that it depends entirely upon the liberty of others and that the freedom of others depends on ours, because as soon as I make a commitment I am obliged to want both my liberty and the liberty of others. I cannot take my liberty for a goal unless I also take that of others for a goal. Consequently when in the context of total authenticity I have recognized that a person is a being whose essence is preceded by his existence, that he is a free being who cannot, in diverse circumstances, want anything other than freedom, I have also recognized that I do not want anything but the freedom of others. Thus, in the name of this will for freedom which is implicit in freedom itself, I can form judgments on those who tend to hide from themselves the total gratuitousness of their existence and their total freedom. Some, who hide their freedom from themselves by pretense of solemnity or by deterministic excuses, I call cowards. Others who try to show that their existence is necessary when in reality it is strictly contingent, I call S.O.B.’s [salauds]. But cowards or scum though they be, they can be judged only against the strict authenticity of existence.
Thus, although the content of ethics may vary, a certain form of this ethic is universal. Kant declares that freedom desires itself and also the freedom of others. That’s fine, but he also says that the formal and the universal suffice to constitute an ethic. The existentialists think, on the contrary, that overly abstract principles fail to define action. Once again, let’s take the case of the student. In the name of what great moral maxim do you think he would have been able to decide In complete tranquility of mind to abandon his mother or to remain with her? There Is no way to judge. The content is always concrete and consequently unpredictable. There is always invention, and the only thing that counts is to know whether the invention which creates itself makes itself in the name of freedom. Let’s take two literary examples . . . . In George Eliot’s novel, The Mill on the Floss, we find a certain Maggie Tuliver, who personifies passion and who Is aware of it. She is in love with young Stephen, who is engaged to someone else. Now in the name of human solidarity Maggie chooses to sacrifice herself and to renounce the man she loves instead of working for her own happiness. On the other hand, la Senseverina in Stendhal’s novel, La Chartreuse do Parme, believing that passion constitutes the true value of the person, would declare that a great love merits sacrifices, and that one should prefer it to the banality which unites Stephen to that young goose he is to marry. She would choose to sacrifice that girl and to achieve her own happiness.
And as Stendhal shows, she will sacrifice herself to passion if this life obliges her to. In these examples we find two seemingly opposed ethics which I contend to be equivalent since what has been proposed as a goal in both cases is freedom. The two attitudes are comparable as to their effects: one girl resigns herself to give up a love; another, by sexual appetite, prefers to neglect previous bonds for a man whom she loves. The attitude of La Senseverina is much closer to that of Maggie Tuliver than to one of thoughtless greed. Thus you see that the second objection is both true and false. One may choose everything within the context of free commitment. The third objection is that «you take with one hand what you give with the other,» i.e., that values are not serious considerations because we choose them. To this I reply that I regret that it is that way, but if I have eliminated God, somebody has to invent values. We must take things as they are. Moreover, saying that we invent values signifies nothing more than this: life has no sense a priori. Before you were living, life was nothing; it’s up to you to give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning you choose. By that you see that it is possible to create a human community. I have been reproached for asking whether existentialism might not be a type of humanism.
People have said, «In your novel Nausea you made fun of a certain type of human~~Why reverse yourself now?» In reality, the word humanism has two very different meanings. By humanism one can mean a theory which takes man as an end and as of ultimate value, as for example in the works of Jean Cocteau, who has a character saying as he glides over the mountains in an airplane, «Man is fantastic.» That means that I personally, who have never built an airplane, benefit from these particular inventions and that as a man, I can consider myself partially responsible for and honored by the particular acts of men. That supposes that we might give value to a man according to the greatest achievements of the greatest men. This kind of humanism is absurd, because only a dog or a horse could bring a judgment against men in general and declare that humankind is wonderful. It is inadmissible that a man should bring judgment upon humankind. Existentialism dispenses him from any judgment of this kind. Existentialism will never take men as an end because everything is to be done and we must not believe that there is a humanity which we can worship. This cult of humanity leads to a humanism closed upon itself, like that of Auguste Comte, and I must admit, to fascism. It s a kind of humanism of which we want no part.
But there Is another sense of humanism which means basically this — man is constantly outside himself; it is in projecting himself, in striving for transcendent goals that he exists. Being this transcendence and seizing objects only in regard to this transcendence, man is in his heart at the center of this transcendence. There is no other universe than the universe of human subjectivity. This connection of transcendency, as a constituent element of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of projecting oneself beyond the present) with subjectivity (in the sense that man is not enclosed in himself but always present in a human context) that is what we call existentialist. It is humanistic because we remind man that there is no other legislator but himself and that abandoned he must decide for himself.
We also show that it is not by turning back upon himself but by searching, beyond himself for an aim, which is one of liberation or one of some particular achievement, that man can realize himself as truly human. It’s easy to see after these reflections that the objections raised against us are totally absurd. Existentialism is nothing more than an effort to carry this life to its logical conclusion: i.e., a coherent, atheistic position. Existentialism is not at all seeking to plunge mankind into despair. But if, like the Christians, one calls «despair» any attitude of disbelief, then our position participates in original despair. Existentialism will not wear itself out trying to demonstrate that God does not exist. Existentialism claims that even if God existed, that would change nothing.
That is our point of view. Not that we believe that God exists, but that we believe the problem is not that of God’s existence. It’s more a question of man re-finding himself and of persuading himself that nothing can save him from himself — not even a valid proof of the existence of God. In that sense, existentialism is a form of optimism, a doctrine of action, and it is only by selfdeception, by confounding their own despair with ours, the Christians can call us hopeless. (From: Jean-Paul Sartre, «Atheistic Existentialism,» excerpts trans. by James M Vest [Memphis: Rhodes College, 1985]. Printed with the permission of Prof. Vest.)