Existentialism is a Humanism, translated

I would like to defend existentialism against a number of criticisms.

Existentialism has been accused of inviting people to remain in quietism of despair. By “existentialism” we mean a doctrine that makes human life possible and which, moreover, declares that every truth and every action involves a milieu and a human subjectivity. The main criticism says, as we know, that existentialists focus on the bad side of human life. A lady, I was told recently, says when she drops a vulgar word in a moment of nervousness, “I think I am becoming an existentialist.” Those that appeal to the knowledge of the people—which is very sad—find us even sadder. Yet what could be more disillusioned than sayings like “charity begins at home” or “Love a villain and he’ll hate you. Hate a villain and he’ll love you”? We know the clichés on this subject, and they all say the same thing: Do not try to rise above your station. Do not fight the powers that be, do not struggle; any action that does not fit into tradition is a romance; an attempt which is not based on proven experience is doomed to failure; and experience shows that men are always descending into baseness and anarchy and must be restrained by force. But it is the people who insist on these sad proverbs: the people who say “How typical!” every time they are shown a more or less repugnant act, the people who revel in sickening songs. These are the people who accuse existentialism of being too dark, and to the point that I wonder if what grieves them is not its pessimism, but rather its optimism. Is it the foundation that scares them, the doctrine that I am going to explain to you, that leaves a possibility of choice to man? To find out, we need to revisit the issue from a strictly philosophical framework. What is it we call existentialism?

Most people who use the word would be lost to justify it because today it has become a fashion; in reality it is the the least scandalous doctrine, the most austere, and it is strictly for technicians and philosophers. However, it can be defined easily. What makes things complicated is that there are two kinds of existentialists: the first, who are Christian existentialists, and among whom I put Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, a Catholic; and, secondly, the atheist existentialists among whom we must place Heidegger, and also the French existentialists and myself. What they have in common is simply that they believe that existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that we must begin from subjectivity. What, exactly, does this mean? When considering a manufactured object, such as a book or a paper cutter, this object was made by a craftsman who was inspired by a concept; he referred to the concept of cut paper, and also a pre-production technique that is part of the concept, which is basically a recipe. Thus, the cutter is at once an object that occurs in a certain way and also, on the other hand, has a defined value, and we cannot assume a man would produce a paper cutter without knowing how it will be used. Let us say that, for the paper-cutter, the essence—that is to say all definitions and qualities that help produce it and define it—precedes existence, and thus the presence in front of me, like the paper cutter or the book, is determined. Here we have a technical vision of the world in which we can say that production precedes existence.

When we design a creator God, this God is considered mostly a superior craftsman, and whatever we consider the doctrine, whether it be a doctrine like that of Descartes or Leibniz’s, we always assume that the will more or less follows the understanding or, at least, accompanies it, and that when God creates, He knows precisely what He creates. Thus, the concept of man, who has the spirit of God, is comparable to the concept of a paper cutter in the spirit of the artisan, and God produces man following techniques and design, just as the artisan manufactures a paper cutter following a definition and a technique.

The atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more consistent. It states that if there is no God, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before it can be defined by any concept, and that this being is man or, as Heidegger says, human reality. What is meant by this, that existence precedes essence? This means that man first exists, occurs, arises in the world, and is only defined later. Man, as conceived by the existentialist, if he is not definable, is not definable because he is, at first, nothing. He will not be until later, and then he will be as he makes himself. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. This is the first principle of existentialism. It is also called subjectivity, and it is this for which we are also criticized. But what do we mean by this, but that man has more dignity than a stone or a table? We mean that man first exists, that is to say, man is, first, what is thrust into a future, and he is conscious of himself existing into that future. Man is primarily a project that is lived subjectively, rather than a foam, a rot or a cauliflower. But if indeed existence precedes essence, man is responsible for what he is. And when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not want to say that man is responsible for his strict individuality, but he is responsible for all men. We can never choose evil; what we choose is always good, and nothing can be good for us without being for all. If existence precedes essence and we want to exist at the same time as we shape our image, that image is valid for all and for our whole epoch. Thus, our responsibility is much greater than we might suppose, because it involves all mankind.

This allows us to understand what is meant by rather grandiloquent words such as anguish, abandonment, and despair. The existentialist says that man is in happy agony. He means this: the man who is committed and who realizes he is not only choosing for himself but is also a legislator choosing at the same time for all humanity cannot escape the sense of his total and deep responsibility. Certainly, many people believe in not committing themselves, and when asked “But what if everyone did that?” shrug their shoulders and answer: “Everybody does not do that.” But in truth, we must always ask: what if everyone did the same? and we will escape this disturbing thought only by a sort of bad faith.

When, for example, a military leader takes responsibility for an attack and sends a number of men to death, he chooses to do, and basically he chooses alone. No doubt there are orders coming from above, but they are too wide and his interpretation is required, and on that interpretation depends the life of ten or fourteen or twenty men. He cannot but have, in the decision he makes, some anxiety. All leaders know that anguish. This does not prevent them from acting; on the contrary, it is the very condition of their action, because it means they are considering a plurality of possibilities, and when they choose one, they realize that the choice is valuable only because it is chosen.

And when speaking of abandonment, we mean only that God does not exist, and we must draw out the consequences. Dostoyevsky wrote: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted.” This is the starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permitted if God does not exist, and therefore man is helpless, because he finds neither within nor outside himself a fixed point. He first finds no excuses. If, indeed, existence precedes essence, one can never explain by reference to a fixed and given human nature, meaning that there is no determinism; man is free, man is freedom. If, on the other hand, there is no God, we do not find in front of us values or orders which legitimize our conduct. We are alone, without apologies. This is what I express by saying that man is condemned to be free.

To give you an example that allows better understanding of neglect, I cite the case of one of my students came to me in the following circumstances: his father had quarreled with his mother, and was also inclined to collaborate; his older brother was killed in the German offensive of 1940, and this young man, with somewhat primitive but generous feelings, wanted revenge. His mother lived alone with him and was very distressed by the semi-treason of his father and the death of her eldest son, and could find consolation only in him. This young man had a choice, at that time, between going to England and enlisting in the French Underground forces—that is to say abandoning his mother—or remaining with his mother, helping them survive. He was well aware that this woman lived only for him and that his disappearance—and perhaps his death—would plunge her into despair. If, instead, he went to go and fight, his actions could get lost in the sands and be of no avail: for example, leaving for England, he could have to stay indefinitely in a Spanish camp, it could happen in England or Algiers; he could be in an office doing paperwork. Therefore, he was faced with two very different types of action: one concrete, immediate, but addressed only one individual, or another action that targeted a whole infinitely greater, a nation, but which was thus ambiguous, and could be stopped on the way. And at the same time, he hesitated between two types of morality. On the one hand, a morality of sympathy, of personal devotion, and secondly, a wider morality, but of more questionable effectiveness. We had to choose between the two. What could help him choose? Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: be charitable, love your neighbor, sacrifice yourself to others, choose the hardest way, etc. But what way is the hardest? Who is he to love as his brother, the fellow patriot or his mother? How useful is the large action, the wave of fighting, in a whole compared to one that is specific and will help a specific living being? Who can decide a priori? No one. No moral code can help. Kantian ethics says: never treat others as means but only ever as an ends. Okay, if I live with my mother, I will treat her as an end and not as a means; but doing so, I treat as means those who fight around me; and vice versa if I join those who fight. I will treat them as ends, and therefore I will treat my mother as a means.

If values are vague, and if they are still too vast for precise and concrete cases, we think it only remains for us to trust our instincts. That’s what this young man has tried to do, and when I saw him, he said, basically, what matters is the feeling. I should choose the direction I am pushed in. If I feel that I love my mother enough to sacrifice everything else—my revenge, my want of action, my desire for adventure—I will stay with her. If, on the contrary, I feel that my love for my mother is not enough, I will leave. But how to determine the value of a feeling? What was the value of his feeling for his mother? Precisely the fact that he stayed there with her. I can say: I like this friend enough to give him a sum of money, but I cannot say it unless I’ve done it. I can say I love my mother enough to stay with her, if I stayed with her. I determine the value of the feeling by acting to endorse it and define it. I also ask the feeling to justify my action. I find myself drawn into a vicious circle.

Gide has said very well that a feeling that is merely playing and a feeling that lives are almost indistinguishable: I decide that I love my mother by staying with her, or play a little theatre that will make it so that I do; it’s quite the same. In other words, the feeling is built by the acts we do, I cannot consult feeling to guide me through actions. Which means that I can neither seek in myself an authentic state nor claim a moral concept that will allow me to act. At least, you say, did he go see a professor for advice? But if you should seek advice from a priest, for example, you chose this priest; you already knew basically, more or less, what he would advise you to do. In other words, to choose the counselor is to still commit yourself. Thus, coming to find me, he knew the answer I was going to give, and I had a reply for him: you are free to choose, that is to say, you are free to invent. No general moral code can tell you what to do; there is no evidence in the world. Catholics will say: but there are signs. Let’s face it; I myself must read the direction from the signs. I knew, while I was captive, a remarkable man who was a Jesuit; he entered the Jesuit order as follows: he had suffered a number of quite bitter failures; as a child, his father had died, leaving him poor, and he was left in a religious institution where they constantly made him feel that he was accepting charity; later, he missed out on a number of honors that appeal to children, and then at eighteen, he missed out on an affair. And finally, at twenty-two, something quite childish happened, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back: he failed his military training. This young man could therefore feel that he had failed at everything; it was a sign. But a sign of what? He could take refuge in bitterness or despair. But he held, very cleverly for him, that this was the sign that he was not made for secular triumphs, and that only the triumphs of religion, holiness, faith, were accessible. He then felt the calling, and entered into orders. Who cannot see that the decision about the meaning of the sign was made by him alone? We could have concluded something else in this series of failures: for example it would better that he should become a carpenter or a revolutionary. He therefore bears full responsibility for the interpretation. Abandonment implies that we choose our beings ourselves. Neglect goes with anxiety. As for abandonment, this is extremely simple. Abandonment means that we can only rely on what depends on our will, or the set of probabilities that make our work possible.

Quietism is the attitude of people who say “others can do what I cannot do”. The doctrine I am presenting is precisely the opposite of quietism, since it says there is no reality except in action; it also goes further, since it adds that man is nothing but his project. He exists only insofar as he is realized, so there is nothing more than all of his actions, nothing more than his life. From this we can understand why our doctrine horrifies some people. They often have only one way of supporting their misery, which is to think: “The circumstances were against me; I was worth much more than I seemed, of course. I did not have a great love or great friendship, but that’s because I have not met a man or a woman who were worthy. I have not written very good books, but it’s because I had no leisure to do so. I have not had children to devote myself to, but that is because I have not found the man with whom I could have made my life. I have remained so, at home, unused and fully viable, with a variety of dispositions, inclinations, and possibilities that give me a value that the simple series of my actions do not display.” In reality, for an existentialist, there is no love other than that which is being built; there is no possibility of love other than that which manifests itself in a love. There is no genius other than one that is expressed in works of art: the genius of Proust is all of the works of Proust, and the genius of Racine is his series of tragedies. Apart from that there is nothing. Obviously, this thought may seem harsh to someone who failed in his life. However, this does not imply that the artist will be judged solely on his artwork. A thousand other things also contribute to defining him.

Under these conditions, when we are reproached, it is not for our deep pessimism, but for our optimistic toughness. The existentialist, when he describes a coward, says the coward is responsible for his cowardice. He is not like that because he has a heart, lung or brain loose. He is not like that from a physiological disorganization. He is like that because he has made himself a coward through his actions. What people feel obscurely and what horrifies them is that the coward that we present is guilty of cowardice. What people want is one born a coward or a hero: if you are born a coward, you’ll be perfectly quiet, you cannot help it; you will be cowardly all your life, whatever you do; and if you are born a hero, you will also be perfectly still; you will be a hero all your life, you will drink like a hero, and you will eat like a hero. What the existentialist says is that the coward is a coward, that the hero is a hero, but there is always a possibility for the coward not to be a coward, and for the hero to stop being a hero. What matters is the total commitment, and this is not a special case, a particular action; you engage fully.

Thus, we have responded to, I believe, a number of criticisms about existentialism. However, we are sometimes reproached for confining man in his individual subjectivity. Our starting point is indeed the subjectivity of the individual, and for strictly philosophical reasons. There can be no other truth, as this one, the starting point: I think therefore I am.

The subjectivity which we reach there as truth is not a strictly individual subjectivity, because we demonstrated that in the cogito, we did not discover ourselves only, but also others. By “I think”, contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, contrary to the philosophy of Kant, we reach ourselves in front of the other, and the other is as certain to us as ourselves. For any truth about me, I must pass by the other. The other is essential to my existence, as well as to the knowledge I have of myself. Under these conditions, the discovery of my privacy at the same time uncovers the other as a freedom posed in front of me, whom I think of, and who wants only to be for or against me. Thus we discover at once a world we call intersubjectivity, and it is in this world that man decides what he is and what is the other.

Furthermore, there is a universal human condition. It is not by chance that the thinkers of today speak more readily of the human condition and as to its nature. They mean by condition with varying degrees of clarity all the a priori limits that outline our fundamental situation in the universe. Historical situations vary: the man can be born a slave in a pagan society or a feudal lord or a proletarian. What does not vary is the need for him to be in the world, to be at work, to be surrounded by the other and be mortal. These limits are neither subjective nor objective; or, rather, they have an objective side and a subjective side. The are objective because they are ubiquitous and are recognizable everywhere; they are subjective because they are lived and are nothing if man does not live them. And although the projects may be diverse, at least none have been left unknown, because we all attempt to overcome these limits or to reduce or deny them or to accommodate them. Accordingly, any project, however individual, has a universal value. Any project, even that of the Chinese, the Indian or the negro, can be understood by a European. There is always a way to understand the idiot, the child, the primitive or foreigner, provided we have sufficient information. In this sense we can say that there is a universality of man, but it is not given; it is perpetually constructed.

This does not entirely solve the objection of subjectivism. Indeed, this objection takes on even more forms. The first is this: we are told, “then you can do anything”; this is expressed in various ways. First, they tax us with anarchy. Then they say: you cannot judge others, because there is no reason to prefer one project to another. Then there is the final objection: everything is free in what you choose; you are giving with one hand what you pretend to receive the other. These three objections are not very serious. The first objection, you can choose anything, is not accurate. The choice is possible in one sense, but it is not possible not to choose. I can always choose, but I do know that if I do not choose, I choose again. Rather, it is necessary to compare the moral choice with the construction of a work of art. Has anyone ever criticized an artist who makes a picture not abiding by rules established a priori? Has anyone ever told an artist what he must do at the easel? It is understood that there is no picture to be painted. The artist engages in the construction of his painting, and the picture to be made is exactly the picture he did make. It is the same in moral terms. What is common between art and morality is that, in both cases, we have creation and invention. We cannot decide a priori what to do. Secondly, we are told: you cannot judge others. This is true in one way, yet false in another. This is true in the sense that whenever a man chooses his commitment and project in all sincerity and with lucidity, whatever his project, it is impossible for him to prefer another; it’s true in the sense that we do not believe in progress. Progress is an improvement; man is always the same in the face of a situation that varies, and choice is always a choice in a situation. The moral problem has not changed since the time when one could choose between slavery and non-slavery.

But we can judge, however, because as I have said, we choose in front of others, and we choose ourselves in front of others. We can be judged, first (and this is perhaps not a value judgment, but it is a logical judgment), that some choices are based on error, and others on truth. We can judge a man by saying he is in bad faith. If we defined the situation of man as free choice, without excuse and without help, every man who hides behind the excuse of his passions, every man who invents a determinism, is a man of bad faith. One could object: but did not he choose to be in bad faith? I reply that I did not judge him morally, but I define bad faith as an error. Of course, freedom as the definition of man does not depend on others, but once there is commitment, I am obliged to want, along with my freedom, the freedom of others. Thus, in the name of this desire for freedom, the freedom implied by itself, I can make judgments on those who seek to hide the total gratuitousness of their existence, and its total freedom. Those who will hide, in the spirit of seriousness or deterministic excuses, their total freedom: I call them cowards. Others who will try to show that their existence was necessary, that it is the very contingency of the appearance of man on earth, I will call them bastards. But cowards or bastards cannot be judged in terms of strict authenticity. Thus, although the content of morality is variable, some form of this morality is universal. Kant declared that freedom wants itself and wants the freedom of others. Yes, but he believes the formal and universal to be morality enough. We believe, however, that principles are too abstract to define the action. Again, take the case of this student. The content is always concrete, and therefore unpredictable, and there always invention. The only thing that matters is whether the invention done is done in the name of freedom.

So you see that second reproach is both true and false. We can all choose, in terms of free commitment.

The third objection is this: “you receive with one hand what you give to the other”, that is to say, our values are not serious, since we choose them. To this I reply that I am very sorry it is so, but if I removed God the father, someone must invent values. We must take things as they are. And, moreover, that we invent values does not mean anything but this: life has no meaning a priori. Before you live life it is nothing, but it’s up to you to give it meaning, and that value is nothing but the direction you choose. Thus, you see, there is the possibility of creating a human community. I have been accused of asking if existentialism is a humanism. I was told: “but you wrote in Nausea that humanists were wrong; why come back now?” In fact, the word ‘humanism’ has two very different meanings. ‘Humanism’ can mean a theory that takes man as the end and of the highest value. There’s humanism in the sense of Cocteau, for example, when in his story, Around the World in 80 Hours, a character says, “Man is amazing because he flies over mountains by plane!” This means that I, personally, who have not built airplanes, I benefit from these particular inventions, and I could personally, as a man, consider myself responsible and be honored by particular acts of other men. This would imply that we value a man according to the highest acts of some other men. This humanism is absurd. The cult of humanity leads to humanism closed in on itself, and, it must be said, to fascism. It is a humanism which we do not want.

But there is another sense of humanism, which basically means this: man is constantly outside himself; it is in projecting and losing himself that man is made, and, on the other hand, it is pursuing transcendent aims that he can exist; man is transcendent and does not know objects except as compared to that transcendence. This is the heart, the center of the transcendence. There is no universe other than the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This binding to transcendence as constitutive of man—not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-transcendence—and subjectivity in the sense that man is not confined to himself but is always present in a human world, this is what we call existential humanism. Humanism, because we remind man that there is no other legislator but himself, and that it is in neglect that he will decide for himself, and because we show that it is not in turning to himself, but in always looking out of himself, that he will find release (a goal that is liberation, as particular realization) and will realize what is human.

Existentialism is not so much an atheism in the sense that it would run out to prove that God does not exist. It says instead: even if God existed, it would not change anything. That’s our point of view. Not that we believe that God exists; but we think the problem is not one of his existence. Man must find himself and persuade himself that nothing can save him, not even a proof of the existence of God. In this sense existentialism is optimistic.