Existentialism, Humanism & Nihilism: A Short Analysis of Sartre’s Contentions on the Nature of Being

Jean-Paul Sartre, needless to say, is no stranger to the philosophical playing field. If the individuals that have shaped Existentialism, Secular Humanism, and for that matter, the nascent beginnings of Marxism were to be described using the pieces on a chess board, Sartre would constitute no less than an elegant, irreverent and uncontainable queen. Through his profound yet remarkably accessible notions of human nature, he indelibly transformed the face of modern existentialism and, in doing so, came to define it. Perhaps his most-known and circulated publication, in that sense, is ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’. As many of its even fiercest critics have pointed out, it straddles an ocean in the literary equivalent of a drop. 

This analysis, albeit not a philosophically rigorous one, is meant to relay an interplay of ideas, interpretations and syllogisms which stem from his commentaries – determining, in essence, whether an existentialist, innocent and yet free, silently lurks underneath the countenance of every individual. It is also an attempt to unravel its resilience to nihilism; that is to say, does existence precede essence, even when essence itself has lost all value (or worse, never had any)?

In ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, he uses a brilliant analogy tying together atheism and the philosophy’s founding thought – ‘existence precedes essence.’ In a Godly or Messianic world, men and women are necessarily predetermined by virtue of an underlying idea; the idea of what it means to be human. They are designed in the image of something that already exists and can be thought of as ancillary pawns purposed to service a theological superstructure. 

If God does not exist, he says, then a man or woman is first and foremost birthed into existence from an idea (or an ‘intelligible heaven’, as he feels), condemned in a sense to materialise into the world before them. It is only after doing so, after existing, for its own sake, that they can begin to define themselves. More significantly, it is only after existing completely and meaningfully, and after performing a sum of actions, that they can be defined by the world they live in. It’s a straightforward and yet ever-present idea. 

How does one judge a carpenter if not against the wood he shapes? How does one assess a priest if not by virtue of his devoutness? How does one see a mother if not in relation to her son? In this instance, one cannot be a mother first and then raise a child; it is the very act of raising a child that makes a woman a mother and a man a father. 

One can take this a few steps further than what his original tenet implies: Existence not only precedes essence but also determines it. In meditation, it’s a powerful idea. You, by some measure, do not have to be made in the image of something. Consider your individual nature, for example, to be a mirror. You can only see in that mirror an exact reflection of what you do across it; what you do determines what your nature is, as opposed to your nature determining what you do. 

Having realised this, Sartre brings us onto the notion of what this freedom implies; with no inviolate nature guiding us, how must we act? Where must we source our virtues? Who shall punish us? And should we cease our loyalty to them? 

The short answer is that there isn’t anyone who will do so because Existentialism, by its nature, is a concept which imbibes freedom, unconditional and untrammelled, in everything. This is what Sartre meant when he said, ‘Man is condemned to be free.’ Dostoevsky believed that everything was permissible in a Godless world, and that’s not a trivial proposition. 

Freedom, I believe, is a liberation of the heart and a condemnation of the soul. 

It is a liberation of the heart because it sets it free and, in doing so, unshackles the complete strength of its heartbeat, the fire of its fervours, and the insatiable depth of its desires. Freedom is what yields one’s ability to dream and imagine, to be ambitious, and to dare. 

At the same time, it is a condemnation of man’s very soul. Why? Because the very instant he is set free, he is likewise set free in his ability to lose his innocence; there is no integrity without vice, no truth without falsity, and no goodness without a counteracting evil.

Although it is often termed a slightly reductive resolution, Sartre’s analysis of human purpose is also frequently cited as a perfectly reasonable address to the reproaches brought forth by conventional schools of nihilism. When one declaims that nothing bears intrinsic, universally attributable purpose, what better a reply than to assert that one needs no such purpose in the first place? Ironically enough, it is precisely its ideological compatibility with nihilism that makes it such a tenacious opponent to it. 

One of my favourite comparisons between them, in that regard, can be seen through a Christian allegory. In the Bible’s Book of Revelation, Michael, an Archangel, seeks to embattle against and defeat an ancient serpent, construed as Satan, who unceasingly leads the world astray. Michael is a palpable embodiment of Sartre’s archetype; he leads the armies of heaven and represents the idea that men and women alone determine their nature and, consequently, their destiny. Contrary perhaps to the biblical interpretation lies an existentialist meaning. By birth, he is not a warrior nor a saviour fated to defeat the corpora of evil. Instead, he becomes one by doing precisely so.

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