Yesterday I finished Existentialism and Human Emotions, largely composed of selections from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. The first half of it, before he went mano a mano with Freud and got a little woo-woo, was about as clear an explanation of existentialism as I’ve read from one of that philosophy’s big names.
Aristotle thought that our choices in life were best guided by virtues with which we can best thrive with respect to our telos — our intended destiny as rational, social animals. Alasdair MacIntyre said that Aristotle basically had this right, except that the telos doesn’t come from human nature but from the roles we inhabit, as carried in culture-specific stories, and that in order to recover ethics and purpose from their current philosophical quagmires we will need to reconstruct healthy societies that nurture such roles and stories.
Sartre is having none of it. There is no human nature, no telos drawing us forward, no external standard to judge ourselves against, no script to follow or role to inhabit. There is not even a core being or personality at the heart of our existence — there is only the choices we are constantly making: these define not only us but the world we inhabit. Our being or our story is only something we can describe in retrospect: looking forward there is nothing but absolute freedom, with our destiny undetermined by our nature, personality, orientation, story-line, or anything else. Existence is a perpetual vertigo of choice and responsibility without appeal or pause.
For obvious historical reasons, French existentialism often explains itself by or wrestles with examples of war and collaboration. Here are some excerpts from Existentialism and Human Emotions on that theme:
[M]an being condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being. We are taking the word “responsibility” in its ordinary sense as “consciousness (of) being the incontestable author of an event or of an object.”
[T]his absolute responsibility is not resignation; it is simply the logical requirement of the consequences of our freedom. What happens to me happens through me, and I can neither affect myself with it nor revolt against it nor resign myself to it.… The most terrible situations of war, the worst tortures do not create a non-human state of things; there is no non-human situation. It is only through fear, flight, and recourse to magical types of conduct that I shall decide on the non-human, but this decision is human, and I shall carry the entire responsibility for it.
Thus there are no accidents in life; a community event which suddenly bursts forth and involves me in it does not come from the outside. If I am mobilized in a war, this war is my war; it is in my image and I deserve it. I deserve it first because I could always get out of it by suicide or by desertion; these ultimate possibles are those which must always be present for us when there is a question of envisaging a situation. For lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it. This can be due to inertia, to cowardice in the face of public opinion, or because I prefer certain other values to the value of the refusal to join in the war (the good opinion of my relatives, the honor of my family, etc.). Anyway you look at it, it is a matter of a choice. This choice will be repeated later on again and again without a break until the end of the war. Therefore we must agree with the statement by J[ules] Romains, “In war there are no innocent victims.” [Les hommes de bonne volonté; “Prélude à Verdun.”] If therefore I have preferred war to death or to dishonor, everything takes place as if I bore the entire responsibility for this war. Of course others have declared it, and one might be tempted perhaps to consider me as a simple accomplice. But this notion of complicity has only a juridical sense, and it does not hold here. For it depended on me that for me and by me this war should not exist, and I have decided that it does exist. There was no compulsion here, for the compulsion could have got no hold on a freedom. I did not have any excuse; for as we have said repeatedly in this book, the peculiar character of human-reality is that it is without excuse. Therefore it remains for me only to lay claim to this war.
But in addition the war is mine because by the sole fact that it arises in a situation which I cause to be and that I can discover it there only by engaging myself for or against it, I can no longer distinguish at present the choice which I make of myself from the choice which I make of the war. To live this war is to choose myself through it and to choose it through my choice of myself. There can be no question of considering it as “four years of vacation” or as a “reprieve,” as a “recess,” the essential part of my responsibilities being elsewhere in my married, family, or professional life. In this war which I have chosen I choose myself from day to day, and I make it mine by making myself. If it is going to be four empty years, then it is I who bear the responsibility for this.
It is… a waste of time to ask what I should have been if this war had not broken out, for I have chosen myself as one of the possible meanings of the epoch which imperceptibly led to war. I am not distinct from this same epoch; I could not be transported to another epoch without contradiction. Thus I am this war which restricts and limits and makes comprehensible the period which preceded it. In this sense we may define more precisely the responsibility of the for-itself if to the earlier quoted statement, “There are no innocent victims,” we add the words, “We have the war we deserve.”
This is from the Hazel Barnes translation; the original was written around , I think.