“If I gave you a book, would you read it?” My friend and I were having an emotional heart to heart, one of those moments when the genie bursts from the bottle and suddenly there’s no going back. I confessed that, although I may seem pretty content in my day to day existence, on a deeper level I’m profoundly unhappy with the way some particular aspects of my life have turned out. “I’ve learned to live a certain way because I’ve had to,” I told him, “but this is not the life I wold have chosen.” And that’s when he offered me the book. It wasn’t what I was expecting him to hand me (knowing him as I do I was anticipating Kurt Vonnegut or something similar); instead, before I knew it, I was holding Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism and Humanism”.
I’m no philosopher. It’s not something I’ve ever studied or, to be honest, read to any great extent. Trying to pass comment on the validity of his argument or produce alternative philosophies to challenge it would therefore be about as sensible as diving off the high board before you can swim. All I can talk about with any confidence is how his worldview resonated with me and how the book made me question my own interpretation of human existence.
Sartre’s aim in writing this piece (actually a lecture originally) was, he says, to answer accusations levelled against the doctrine of existentialism by people who he believes have misinterpreted its core principles. The notion of it as being nihilistic, pessimistic and focused solely on human anguish is, he claims, a completely inaccurate representation of what the movement is about. Time and again throughout the book he reasserts the case for existentialism as a positive and optimistic way of looking at the world; how far you end up agreeing with him will, I think, be very much determined by your initial standpoint on some enormously important concepts such as religious belief, but although I cannot say I bought entirely into every argument he made I was certainly able to see by the end how there is perhaps a cause for optimism in some of his ideas.
“Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism,” Sartre explains. For him, this comes from an atheistic stance where since there is no God there is no blueprint for humanity as it hasn’t been intelligently designed by a creator. Wherever you stand on this, the notion of reality being created by our actions alone is an enticing one. It’s the main reason why Sartre is able to argue that his philosophy is a predominantly positive one. “No doctrine is more optimistic [since] the destiny of man is placed within himself,” he writes. More importantly, simply wishing you were a certain type of person or dreaming of accomplishing certain things isn’t enough, as it’s only through action that we truly define ourselves. He gives the example of a person who makes excuses for things they haven’t done whilst still claiming they always had the potential to do so, as if the potential alone was enough to make them worthy: “if I haven’t written any very good books, it is because I had not the leisure to do so.”
Sound familiar? It does to me. And now I understood why my wise and perceptive friend had chosen this book to give me; without a doubt I’ve been that person who believes they could have done so much more with their life if only the cards dealt to them had been better. But it’s not enough for me to wish my life was different: to truly exist I have to take action to fulfil all the potential I have inside me. It’s not an easy philosophy to embrace in some ways; Sartre has no time for “cowards” who choose to live a life of inaction, but surely, my instinct tells me, there are some things in life (having a partner for example) that are simply outside our control? Sartre would disagree, and would probably tell me that any circumstances in my life with which I’m discontent are due to the self-delusion that I can do nothing about them. I don’t think at this point I’m able to commit myself to this vision of the world without reservation, but maybe believing that I have more responsibility for my own life than fate or chance – call it what you will – can ever have, I’ll ignite a sense of empowerment within myself.
All too often, I think, we seek out points of view that merely reinforce our own and don’t spend enough time contemplating arguments that oppose them. I’m guilty of this, one hundred percent; but my friend was brave enough to push me by encouraging me to read something he knew would challenge me in exactly the way I needed to be challenged. Whether you agree with all, some or none of Sartre’s philosophies, I would still urge you to spend a couple of hours in his company and see if he can make you see your own existence in a slightly different way.