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Sartre: Existential Life

Life and Works
. . Freedom
. . Responsibility
. . Self-Deception
. . Despair
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French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre focussed more sharply on the moral consequences of existentialist thought. In literary texts as well as in philosophical treatises, Sartre emphasized the vital implications of human subjectivity.

Sartre's 1946 lecture L'Existentialisme est un humanisme ("Existentialism is a Humanism") offers a convenient summary of his basic views. The most fundamental doctrine of existentialism is the claim that—for human beings at least—existence precedes essence. As an atheism, Sartre demands that we completely abandon the traditional notion of human beings as the carefully designed artifacts of a divine creator. There is no abstract nature that one is destined to fill. Instead, each of us simply is in the world; what we will be is then entirely up to us. Being human just means having the capacity to create one's own essence in time.

But my exercise of this capacity inevitably makes me totally responsible for the life I choose. Since I could always have chosen some other path in life, the one I follow is my own. Since nothing has been imposed on me from outside, there are no excuses for what I am. Since the choices I make are ones I deem best, they constitute my proposal for what any human being ought to be. On Sartre's view, the inescapable condition of human life is the requirement of choosing something and accepting the responsibility for the consequences.


But accepting such total responsibility entails a profound alteration of my attitude towards life. Sharing in the awesome business of determining the future development of humanity generally through the particular decisions I make for myself produces an overwhelming sense of anguish. Moreover, since there is no external authority to which I can turn in an effort to escape my duty in this regard, I am bound to feel abandonment as well. Finally, since I repeatedly experience evidence that my own powers are inadequate to the task, I am driven to despair. There can be no relief, no help, no hope. Human life demands total commitment to a path whose significance will always remain open to doubt.

Although this account of human life is thoroughly subjective, that does not reduce the importance of moral judgment. Indeed, Sartre maintained that only this account does justice to the fundamental dignity and value of human life. Since all of us share in the same situation, we must embrace our awesome freedom, deliberately rejecting any (false) promise of authoritative moral determination. Even when we choose to seek or accept advice about what to do, we remain ourselves responsible for choosing which advice to accept.

This doesn't mean that I can do whatever I want, since free choice is never exercised capriciously. Making a moral decision is an act of creation, like the creation of a work of art; nothing about it is predetermined, so its value lies wholly within itself. Nor does this mean that it is impossible to make mistakes. Although there can be no objective failure to meet external standards, an individual human being can choose badly. When that happens, it is not that I have betrayed my abstract essence, but rather that I have failed to keep faith with myself.


Sartre thoroughly expounded his notion of the self-negation of freedom in l'Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness) (1943). Since the central feature of human existence is the capacity to choose in full awareness of one's own non-being, it follows that the basic question is always whether or not I will be true to myself. Self-deception invariably involves an attempt to evade responsibility for myself. If, for example, I attribute undesirable thoughts and actions to the influence upon me of the subconscious or unconscious, I have made part of myself into an "other" that I then suppose to control the real me. Thus, using psychological theory to distinguish between a "good I" and a "bad me" only serves to perpetuate my evasion of responsibility and its concomitants.

Sartre offered practical examples of mauvaise foi (bad faith) in action. People who pretend to keep all options open while on a date by deliberately ignoring the sexual implications of their partners' behavior, for example, illustrate the perpetual tension between facticity and transcendence. Focussing exclusively on what-we-might-become is a handy (though self-deceptive) way of overlooking the truth about what-we-are. Similarly, servers who extravagantly "play at" performing their roles illustrate the tendency to embrace an externally-determined essence, an artificial expectation about what we ought-to-be. But once again, of course, the cost is losing what we uniquely are in fact.

The ability to accept ourselves for what we are—without exaggeration—is the key, since the chief value of human life is fidelity to our selves, sincerity in the most profound sense. In our relationships with other human beings, what we truly are is all that counts, yet it is precisely here that we most often betray ourselves by trying to be whatever the other person expects us to be. This is invidious, on Sartre's view, since it exhibits a total lack of faith in ourselves: to the extent that I have faith in anyone else, I reveal my lack of the courage to be myself. There are, in the end, only two choices—sincerity or self-deception, to be or not to be.


Sartre's short story "The Wall" captures his central philosophical themes in a fictional setting. Only in the true-to-life moment of someone facing up to the immanence of his own death will the nature of human life be revealed.

Pablo fully experiences his own weakness in the face of death. But then his captors offer him the choice of saving himself by betraying his comrade. Now he must decide whether to defend the great cause or to live. After sweating it out, he chooses to give the authorities a phony story, knowing that it will guarantee his death. But the tables are turned when the lie turns out to be true.

Here are all of the consequences of human responsibility: anguish over the decision, abandonment in making it alone, and despair when it backfires. This, Sartre believed, is the character of human life.

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