On an unusually warm night in late October 1945, a wall-eyed man wearing a wrinkled suit wound his way through a densely packed and deeply pungent meeting hall in Paris. By the time he reached the stage, some members of the audience had passed out, while others threw punches at each other over empty seats. Perhaps the swoons and swings were a reaction to the heat; perhaps they were a reaction to hunger. France had only been recently liberated, and Parisians were still subject to strict food rationing.
The young people in the stifling room that night, however, were also starved for something else. They had just weathered four years of Nazi occupation and Vichy collaboration, an experience that had upended the world that existed prior to the war. They sought not only a new kind of politics, but also a new kind of ethics for the radically new world they faced.
With his opening words — “My purpose is to defend existentialism” — that evening’s speaker, Jean-Paul Sartre, seemed to offer an answer for what the audience was seeking. It is time, 75 years later, to defend it once again.
Existentialism is the philosophy that paradoxically claims that each of us is responsible for everything we do but that no universal code exists to guide our actions. Countless commentators have referenced it as they’ve cited the despair saturating civic life today and the absurdity of our political and biological situations, and how both are largely the handiwork of our current administration.
Indeed, our national failure is nearly as absurd as France’s in 1940. But absurdity, as Sartre’s friend Albert Camus remarked, teaches nothing. It is a description of our situation, not a prescription to respond to it. And how to respond is what Sartre proposed to his audience that night.
Holding a cigarette rather than notes, Sartre told his audience that the ethics and politics of existentialism could be distilled into three words: existence precedes essence. By this striking formula, Sartre insisted that each and every one of us is utterly responsible for what we make of our own self. At the same time, though, we cannot ignore or neglect what others wish to become. On the contrary, Sartre insisted, when we shape who we wish to become, we must do so as if we are shaping all of humankind.
Moreover, Sartre declared, we are radically free. Not free to do as we wish, but free to do as we must: to make fundamental choices about our lives while keeping in our mind and actions the lives of others. If you are not already anguishing over this brute existential datum, Sartre adds a kicker. There is no single system, he reveals, that can tell us what to do. You are on your own — you and everyone else.
Sartre recognized there were many problems with the book he based on this lecture, “Existentialism is a Humanism.” After Simone de Beauvoir rapped Sartre’s knuckles for his claim about radical freedom, he admitted that factors like gender and race make this concept more complex than he first thought. But though the text is flawed, it is steeped in a sensibility that speaks to our country today as it faces an occupation that is both viral and ideological.
Consider the situation of university faculty, like me, and our students. While what we face is not nearly as dramatic as life was in the 1940s for resistance fighters, and is now for first responders, we confront certain existential realities. For instance, most universities will offer a menu of choices — ranging from hyflex through synchronous to asynchronous — for teaching and attending classes this fall. The names are repellent, but also revealing, reminding us that we need to make choices on matters that, until now, did not allow for much choice. Suddenly, we must choose how to teach and how to learn. Should I meet with my students online or in person? Should I stay at home or go to campus? Should students even take classes or instead take on police violence or racial discrimination?
There are yet more questions, but they reflect the same existential truth: We have no choice but to choose, knowing that these choices will have consequences. They will affect us; they will affect others. This makes for lots of angst. Even the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not ultimately tell me how to choose. The rules on mask wearing and social distancing are crucial, but not conclusive. One person will decide these rules rule out in-person classes, another will decide they rule in such classes, yet another will decide their place is at a protest against police violence.
What is key is that we make these decisions in good faith — that the decisions are based on a just appraisal of a situation, and not based on what others insist is the right thing to do despite evidence to the contrary. In a famous paradox, Sartre wrote that the French “were never so free” as when they were under German occupation. By this, he meant every clear and true thought and act was a hard-won victory against the state’s propaganda and the bad faith of those who echoed it. Once we emerge from the current occupation, we might agree that, at the very least, it too made us understand what it means to be free.
Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His new book, “The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas,” will be published next February.