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Existentialism and Human Emotions

by Jean-Paul Sartre

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By most accounts, Jean-Paul Sartre led a directionless life. He flirted with Marxism, even speaking at the Communist World Peace Movement in Vienna in 1952. After visiting the Soviet Union in 1954, he had the audacity to tell a reporter that “There is total freedom of criticism in the USSR.”

This bit of propaganda was quickly seen for what it was, forcing Sartre to later admit, “After my first visit to the USSR in 1954, I lied.” But this didn’t stop him from praising Mao’s reign in China, or from comparing America to the Nazis during the Vietnam War. It seems that he tried to stir up the left any way he could imagine, even writing that for a black man “to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time.”

By the end of his life, Sartre seems more of a caricature than a man, and so it’s easy to doubt that he could clearly articulate any worldview. Strangely enough, he does. In the essay “Existentialism,” he not only differentiates between the Christian existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard and atheistic existentialism, but also describes the latter as a fairly coherent worldview.

Atheistic existentialism will never be internally consistent, of course, but Sartre can make it sound pretty inescapable once you’ve accepted the premise that God is dead: “[F]irst of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence. Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism.”

Because Sartre had the wrong worldview, he became a sloppy thinker—but this isn’t the same as saying he was always a sloppy thinker. In “Existentialism” we meet a sharp mind that has embraced the wrong faith and is now carefully seeking to articulate it.

by Jeff Baldwin