The Final Duel

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Saturday, January 22, 2005

The abridged verion of Existentialism is a Humanism, which is a nice intro for those eager to explore existentialism. (Squashed version edited by Glyn Hughes © 2000)

I should like on this occasion to defend existentialism against some charges which have been brought against it. It has been reproached as an invitation to the quietism of despair, a bourgeois contemplative luxury. We are reproached for underlining the mean and sordid, to the neglect of charm, beauty - as the Catholic Mlle. Mercier put it we forget an infant's smiles. This, say the Communists is because we base our doctrine on the subjective Cartesian "I think". By Christians we are reproached for denying the reality and seriousness of human affairs - if everyone can do what he likes he will be incapable of condemning anyone else. It appears that ugliness is being identified with existentialism. Those who can quite keep down a novel by Zola such as la Terre are sickened as soon as they read an existentialist novel. Those who appeal to the sad "wisdom of the people" find ours sadder. Yet what could be more disillusioned than sayings like "Charity begins at home" or "Promote a rogue and he'll sue you for damage", one thing- don't oppose the powers-that-be, don't meddle in matters above your station. They say that man is inclined to evil and must have firm rules to restrain him. What then, is this thing we call existentialism? 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. All the same it can easily be defined. Existentialists may be Christians (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 must begin from the subjective. What do we mean by that? If one considers an article of manufacture, say a book or a paper-knife, one sees that it has been made to serve a definite purpose. Its essence, the sum of the formulae and qualities which made its definition and production possible, precedes its existence. If we think of God as creator, then the conception of man in the mind of God is comparable to that of the paper knife in the mind of the artisan. Atheist existentialism (of which I am a representative) declares that there is only one being whose existence comes before its essence - that being is man (or, as Heidegger has it, human reality). By this we mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world - and defines himself afterwards. There is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man primarily exists - man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is a Project which will only attain essence when he is what he purposes to be. Not, however, what he may wish to be. For what we usually understand by wishing or willing is a conscious decision - but it is more probably a manifestation of a prior and more spontaneous decision. When a man chooses for himself, he chooses for all men, He creates an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. If I decide to marry, even though this decision proceeds simply from my desire, I am thereby committing not only myself but humanity as a whole to the practice of monogamy. In fashioning myself, I fashion man. This may enable us to understand such grandiloquent terms as anguish, abandonment and despair. The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish - meaning that when a man commits himself to anything he cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility that he is thereby legislating for the whole of mankind. Many people think they commit no-one but themselves to anything - but in truth one ought to ask what would happen if everyone did as one is doing, to try to escape from such a disturbing thought is a kind of mauvaise foi. This is what Kierkegaard called "the anguish of Abraham". You know the story: an angel commended Abraham to sacrifice his son. But anyone in such a case would wonder if it really was an angel and if they were really Abraham. Who, then, can prove that I am the proper person to impose my conception of man upon mankind? There will be no signs to convince me. It is I who must decide whether the voice is that of an angel. If I regard a certain course of action as good, it is I who choose. When a military leader sends men to their deaths, he may have his orders but at the bottom it is he alone who chooses. When we speak of "abandonment" (a word favorite word of Heidegger) - we mean that God does not exist and that it is necessary to draw the consequences of his absence right to the very end. The existentialist is strongly opposed to the type of secular moralism which attempts to suppress God at the least possible expense. Like the French professors of the 1880's who tried to define a world where definitive rules like 'do not lie' existed in an intelligible heaven without God. The existentialist finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist for there disappears with him all possibility of finding values in a heaven. Dostoievsky wrote "If God did not exist, everything would be permitted"; that is a starting point - man is in consequence forlorn for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. In other words - there is no determinism - man is free, man is freedom. We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. The existentialist thinks that man is responsible for his passion- he cannot find help in some sign vouchsafed upon earth for his orientation: for he will interpret the sign as he chooses. As Ponge has truly written "Man is the future of man" As an example of abandonment, I will refer to the case of a pupil of mine. 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? Could the Christian doctrine? To whom does he owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother? Which is the more useful, to fight for the whole community or help one particular person to live? Who can give an answer to that one a priori? No one. nor is it given in any ethical scripture. The Kantian ethic says, Never regard another as a means but always as an end. Very well, if I remain with my mother, I shall be regarding her as an end but treating those who fight on my behalf as a means. And the converse is true. I said to him "In the end, it is feeling that counts..." But how does one estimate the strength of feeling? You may say that the youth did at least seek the advice of a professor. But if you seek counsel - from a priest, for example - in choosing which priest you know already, more or less, what they would advise. Whilst I was imprisoned I met a remarkable man, a Jesuit who had joined that order in the following manner. 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 the age of 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, rather than secular success, was the way for him. Who can doubt that his decision as to the meaning of the sign was his and his alone? Abandonment implies that we ourselves decide our being. And with that goes anguish. As for "despair", it merely means that we limit ourselves to a reliance upon that which is within our wills, or within the sum of the probabilities which renders our actions feasible. If I am counting on the visit of a friend, I presuppose that their train will be on time. One does not rely on possibilities beyond those concerned in one's action. Descartes said "Conquer yourself rather than the world" and meant the same - that we should act without hope. Marxists have answered "Your action is limited by your death, but you can rely on others to later take up your action and carry it forward to the revolution". To this I rejoin that I cannot rely upon men who I do not know and I cannot know where the revolution will ultimately lead. Others may come and establish Fascism. Quietism is the attitude of people who say "let others do what I cannot do." The doctrine I present is the opposite; that there is no reality except action, adding "Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is nothing but the sum of his actions". Many have but one resource to sustain them in their misery, to think that "Circumstances have been against me, I was worthy to be something better. I never found a lover worthy of me, I never had time to write great books. There remains within me a range of abilities, unused but perfectly viable- a worthiness which could never be inferred from the mere history of my actions" But in reality, and for the existentialist, there is no genius other than that expressed in works of art. The genius of Proust is the works of Proust. In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait, and there is nothing but that portrait. This may seem comfortless to one who has not made a success of life, but it puts everyone in a position to understand that reality alone is reliable; dreams, expectations and hopes serve to define a man as only as deceptive dreams, abortive hopes and expectations unfulfilled. What people reproach us with is not, after all, our pessimism but the sternness of our optimism. If people condemn our works of fiction it is not because we describe characters that are base, weak and evil but because, unlike Zola whose characters were the product of heredity or environment, you cannot say of ours "That is what we are like, no one can do anything about it". The existentialist portrays a coward as a coward because of his deeds, a coward who makes himself a coward; a hero who makes himself heroic. Ours is not a philosophy of quietism; it defines man by action and without hope other than in action. We are still reproached for confining man within his individual subjectivity, these people badly misunderstand us. Our point of departure is I think, therefore I am, the absolute truth of consciousness. Before there can be any truth, there must be an absolute truth within the reach of everyone; it consists on one's sense of self. This theory alone is compatible with the dignity of man, it is the only one which does not make man into an object. Our aim is to establish the human kingdom as a pattern of values distinct from the material world. Contrary to the philosophy of Descartes, and of Kant, we are discovering in the cogito not just ourselves but all others. Thus we find ourselves in a world of "inter-subjectivity" where man has to decide what he is and what others are. It is impossible to find a human nature, but there is a human universality of condition. Every purpose, even that of a Chinese, an Indian or a Negro, can be understood by a European. There is always some way of understanding an idiot, a child, a primitive or a foreigner if one has sufficient information. In this sense, human universality is not something given, but something being perpetually made. I make this universality in choosing myself. That does not completely refute the charge of subjectivism. People tax us with anarchy as in "it does not matter what you do" "You cannot judge others, for there is no reason to prefer one purpose to another" or "Everything being merely voluntary, you give with one hand and take with the other" Let us say that moral choice is comparable to the construction of a work of art, but it is only a comparison. Do we reproach an artist when he paints a picture for not following the rules established a priori ? Does one ask what is the picture he ought to paint? There is no pre-defined picture, no one can tell what the painting of tomorrow will be like; no one can judge it until it is done. What has this to do with morality? That student who came to me could not appeal to any system for guidance; he was obliged to invent the law for himself. We define man only in relation to his commitments; it is therefore absurd to reproach us for irresponsibility in our choice. We can judge another man, nevertheless, in saying that he deceives himself. Any man who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, or by inventing some deterministic doctrine, is a self-deceiver. "And what if I wish to deceive myself?" - there is no reason why you should not, but I declare publicly that you are doing so. We will freedom for freedom's sake. And in thus willing, we discover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others - and that the freedom of others depends on our own. I cannot make liberty my aim unless I make that of all others equally my aim. As Kant declared, freedom is a will both to itself and to the freedom of others. To the objection that "You take with one hand and give with the other", which I take to mean "your values are not serious, since you choose them yourselves" I can only say that I am very sorry, but having excluded God, there must be someone to invent values. We have to take things as they are. I have been reproached for suggesting that existentialism is a form of humanism , when I myself ridiculed a type of humanism in Nauseé. The absurd type of humanism is to glory in "Man the magnificent" ascribing the value of man to the deeds of the most distinguished men. Only a dog or a horse would be in a position to declare such a general judgement. Existentialism will not take man as the end, since man is still to be determined. We have no right to believe that humanity is something to which we could set up a cult. Existentialism is not despair. It declares that even if God did exist, that would make no difference.

This posting is incredibly complete and in need of a second read by myself.
Existence before essence. Condemned to freedom.
Solely responsible for my self.

Please continue to write.
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