Chapter 1 – Introduction
In “Existentialism & Humanism”, Jean-Paul Sartre states, “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P28). According to Sartre, this is the first principle of Existentialism.
Existentialism, a passing ideology of great conversation during the mid 19th century, exists on the notion that in a lifetime, each person must make countless choices. These choices, whilst perhaps indicative of past experiences, are ultimately that person’s choice and only that person’s choice to make. When a person is faced with two suggested options, even if one option is being forced upon him by pain of death, it remains his choice and his choice alone.
According to Sartre, a key speaker for Existentialism for the majority of his life, man is basically what he makes of himself, and thus is responsible for his actions. This is what Sartre means when he claims that man is condemned to be free. When we are forced to take control of all our actions, this means that every action we make we must put our hands up in the air about and admit if they’re wrong. This can then be progressed a step and technically we are even responsible for the rest of mankind as well. The reasoning behind this is that every time we make a decision about ourselves, we express what we consider to be the morally right thing to do in that situation. To explain this more clearly Sartre talks on page 32 of “Existentialism and Humanism” (SARTRE, JP. 1948) of a General who is given an order to send his men on a mission of almost certain death (The Somme in World War One perhaps). This General is given orders from politicians and leaders above him to send these men to their graves. If he is faced with the threat of a firing squad if he disobeys this direct order, it could be argued that his actions are not of his choosing but of force. It can also be argued however that this is not true because despite forces on either side of the decision, it is still his decision to make. If the General sends his men into battle, he not only is showing his responsibility for their lives, but he is also showing others that you should follow an order irrelevant of its insanity. If however the General was to save his men by refusing to follow the order, then whilst facing death himself, the General is demonstrating to others that when faced with his situation, it is his opinion that the morally acceptable thing to do is to challenge the authority and do what you believe to be more virtuous.
Sartre’s example of the General (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P32) seems to suggest that irrelevant of external forces placed upon us, it is our responsibility for all our actions and that we possess a form of ultimate freedom.
To a lot of people, this idea of ultimate freedom is frightening, and this is one of the reasons Jean-Paul Sartre claims the idea of a “God” exists. If there is a higher being in the universe, then that being can not only take responsibility for someone’s actions, but can also be used as the foundation behind that person’s moral values.
It seems worthy of suggestion therefore to consider what it is that actually makes a person who they are. If what Sartre says is true and we must blame ourselves for who we are (SARTRE, JP. 1948. P28), then where do our morals and our attitudes to certain social situations come from? It is perhaps more appealing to suggest that rather than man being alone in his responsibilities, our attitudes are affected on a wider scale by other people and their views.
If it is worth arguing that man is himself not solely responsible for his own actions and flaws, then it is worth taking most of Sartre’s explanations of the world and considering whether they might fit into this hypothesis or not. Over the course of his works, but primarily “Being and Nothingness” (SARTRE, JP. 2002), Sartre constructs a sort of spiders web of ideas. The idea of the choice itself evolves from the way in which Sartre’s concepts of nothingness, in-itself and for-itself interact. The key difference between Sartre’s in-itself and for-itself is that unlike the in-itself (unconscious objects), the for-itself is conscious and it’s “existence comes before essence” (SARTRE, JP. Existentialism & Humanism.1948. P26). Therefore it seems logical to consider the relevance of a man’s essence in connection to his choices and whether he creates his own essence or whether it is created for him. With this link between the conscious being and its essence constructed the question of freedom is raised and how then how much it is dependent upon Sartre’s Original Project and his notion of Bad Faith. Finally it is necessary to analyse Sartre’s for-others and how people’s views of us affect how we see ourselves. With this in mind the impact other people have on our choices should become clear.