This is a comprehensive book summary of the book Existentialism Is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.
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The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
A lecture turned into a short. Precise. Powerful. Thought-provoking book where one of the most dominant European intellectuals simplifies his own theories. In particular, in this work, Jean-Paul Sartre clearly defines the key concept of existentialism. Plainly, we are free to choose who we want to become. We are responsible for creating our own purpose and meaning in life. This title is highly recommended for philosophical nerds and people who accepted the idea of optimistic nihilism – and understand the cosmic insignificance proposed by existential nihilism.
The Core Idea:
Often criticized by other philosophers. The core concept of existentialism and the main subject discussed in this book is that “existence precedes essence”. You are what you make of yourself. You are not “created” to accomplish a particular deed. There is no prior plan developed before your birth to guide you. You are free to invent your purpose and, from there, set goals and act based on your own values.
Reason To Read:
Reading Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism can be both discouraging and stimulating. Stimulating because you’re told that you have the freedom to realize yourself. Create a meaningful life based on what you want. At the same time though, discouraging because if you fail. If you screw up. Well, this means that it’s your own damn fault and no one else’s.
- There is nothing external to dictate your character or your goal in life. It’s you who decide.
- Choosing not to choose is still a choice.
- Your actions define who you are and send a message to the rest of humanity.
5 Key Lessons from Existentialism Is a Humanism:
Lesson #1: Existence Precedes Essence
Consider the object closest to you right now. Say that it’s a lamp. Or the sofa you’re laying on right now.
This object was produced by someone – an individual or a team of people working in a company. And that someone created the thing with a clear idea of what it should do.
A sofa has a definite purpose even before the first element is added to the design table. And the manufacturer himself knows what the concept of a sofa is and he’s also familiar with the necessary production techniques.
This is what Satre calls “production precedes essence.”
The essence of a thing is based on the production formula. It’s predefined and predictable. You know what the end result will look like and you also know what type of actions this item will do.
Now consider yourself for a moment.
Were you created with a specific mission in life?
Even if you’re lucky enough to know what your life should be aimed at. This was determined during your lifetime, not before that.
That’s the short version of “existence precedes essence”.
You are born. You materialize in the world. You gain a bit of wisdom. Experience. Knowledge. And then, at some point, you define yourself.
As brutal as it might sound. You are nothing when you are born. You become someone only after you are being thrown into existence.
“If man as existentialists conceive of him cannot be defined, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.” Jean-Paul Sartre
Lesson #2: Your Fate is Not Predetermined
You define you.
That’s a hard pill to swallow.
This means that both your failures and your successes are based on your own actions.
Your success at the corporation you work for is due to your ability to lead and make important decisions fast.
In contrast, your failure as a husband and as a parent is caused by your inability to give enough attention to your family members.
You are a sum total of your actions. And as you can imagine, you are the one who chooses your actions. Sure, there is certain pressure from the outside world – there are always things to consider like the need for resources and laws. And yet, we are the ones who choose something over something else.
The above clearly shows why the doctrine Jean-Paul Sartre presents can horrify people.
There is no one else to blame but you.
Circumstances are against you and you think you deserve more?
Well, it’s still your fault.
Even when you reach a place of defeat. It’s up to you to proceed. Through your actions, to reach a state of success. A state defined, again, by you.
A person is a coward or a hero not because he is born as such. But because his actions are cowardly or heroic.
“Whereas the existentialist says that the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always a possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero.” Jean-Paul Sartre
Lesson #3: The Burden of Freedom
Accepting the doctrine that people must take responsibility for their actions, behavior, and life in general. Comes at a cost.
At first, it all seems very nice. We are utterly free. We are “condemned to be free”, as Satre puts it. Meaning that we have the power to become everything we wish.
However, we are so free that our freedom leaves us paralyzed.
Despair creeps in because we realize that our choices make us who we are but how do we know what type of choices we should make? How to choose what to do?
You are fully responsible for your actions, and precisely because this is true. You’re stuck in the decision-making phase.
Therefore, it’s a burden to be free.
This is described in these three existential emotions:
- Anguish: We feel anguish when we realize – even subconsciously. That our actions not only shape our lives. But also the lives of others, of mankind. Sartre claims that “In fashioning myself, I fashion Man”. You might think that a decision you make is only influencing you, but that’s hardly the case. When you choose to act a certain way, you send a message that this is the “correct” way of acting. However, if the way you acted is unworthy, you feel anguish.
- Abandonment: By abandonment, Satre means that we are alone when we make decisions in our lives. There is no set of rules that we must follow. Good and bad things are subjective. Satre rejects God. And since there is no God to guide us, we choose our own values and actions. Since there is no standard to live up to, this leaves us alone. We feel abandoned in deciding what’s best for us.
- Despair: We feel despair when we realize that our future is based on our choices. Since we cannot know if what we choose will lead to a fruitful outcome, we are left in despair. We must make a choice. But how do you make a choice when you are not sure what will happen? Satre advises the following: “we should act without hope.”
These three paint a painful picture.
And quite normally, you ask yourself. What should I do then?
The solution is equally painful.
Satre points out that you cannot know if your actions will make you successful. You don’t know if what you decide today will lead to a better tomorrow. Nonetheless, that shouldn’t discourage you.
As essentialist. A person who realized that he’s responsible for his life and also for the life of others. Your first step is to commit. Devote to a particular path and don’t look back.
As he writes in the book: “First I ought to commit myself and then act my commitment, according to the time-honoured formula that ‘one need not hope in order to undertake one’s work.'”
Even though you cannot tell if what you commit will become a worthy project. You do whatever it is in your power to make it so.
“I cannot tell, I only know that whatever may be in my power to make it so, I shall do; beyond that, I can count upon nothing.” Jean-Paul Sartre
Lesson #4: Not Choosing Is Still a Choice
It’s not possible not to choose. By not choosing, you are still making a choice.
It might seem like a purely technical difference. Like a capricious way to present not wanting something. But it’s important to note that you cannot exclude choosing.
If we take your relationship status as an example. In general, you can be a couple of things: single, married, married with children.
Just like being single is a choice. Having children is yet another choice.
Sure, you can be single while wanting to be married. But if you keep holding your desire for involving yourself in a relationship, you’ll eventually reach the desired state.
This concept involves two important extra characteristics: 1) you invent your own laws, and 2) you are always in a state of choosing.
Society has already established some basic rules to follow but this doesn’t mean that you’ll follow them. Sometimes you might follow them. Other times, you probably won’t. Meaning that you craft your own way of what is good and what is bad.
This leads to the second point: Choosing not to steal today or not to have a sexual relationship with another person – outside your marriage – are decisions you make more than once.
Today you might act heroically, but tomorrow you might not.
Commit to a certain ideal. Follow this image. This will lead you to the desired state.
“Man makes himself; he is not found ready-made; he makes himself by the choice of his morality, and he cannot but choose a morality, such is the pressure of circumstances upon him. We define man only in relation to his commitments; it is therefore absurd to reproach us for irresponsibility in our choice.” Jean-Paul Sartre
Lesson #5: Man is Always in The Making
You are constantly in the making. And you make yourself. Shape yourself along the way. This includes taking into consideration the values and moralities you collect in your life. But these things are never cemented in your head.
Satre states that, “We define man only in relation to his commitments.”
If you commit to be a good person and you follow that commitment. Only then, you will be a good person.
But as noted, good is something defined by the individual.
There is no well-established framework in our heads in relation to what being good should be.
People professing a certain faith will probably find existentialism atheistic.
According to Christianity, God does grant us with rules to follow. Meaning that there is a certain model we should obey.
But Satre tackles this by explaining the following: “even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view. Not that we believe God does exist, but we think that the real problem is not that of His existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself…”
After all, even though we are perfectly aware of what the defined laws by God represent. A lot of people choose not to follow them.
Which means that they are not hardcoded in our system. You can know the rules but this doesn’t mean that you will follow them.
This is why he stated that, “nothing can save him from himself.”
It all comes back to you. You are the one deciding how to act.
In this sense, the main characteristics of existentialism are action and will. Both which determined by the individual.
What you decide to pursue will determine whether or not you will transcend in the world.
“There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity.” Jean-Paul Sartre
- Total commitment: The prime idea of existentialism is that the destiny of man is placed within himself. You are the sum of your actions. You possess the power to become the person you ought to become. It’s up to you. And while this might seem like an attempt to discourage you – since if you fail, it will be your fault. It should serve as the opposite – optimistic doctrine. Accept that your actions will eventually lead to where you want to be. Once this framework is established in your head, you no longer hope for miracles. You commit to an idea and start executing regardless of the current results.
- Choices define you: “Man is defined as the choices he must make,” says Satre. But what you choose to choose is not something you decide alone. The social system, the current events, are all things that influence your decisions and pull you in one direction or another. What is considered important in the present moment is probably going to be unimportant in the next 10 days or 10 years. How to choose, then? Satre circles back to commitment. Commit to something and don’t let outside pressure steer you away. Freedom to choose what you should fight for is an act that should be accepted by your whole being. Not influenced by outsiders. Otherwise, this will eventually lead you to a place where you are doing things not aligned with your desires.
- Act as if others are watching you: Every time you do something, you should ask yourself: “Is the way I’m acting now should be considered a path to be followed by humanity?” If the answer is no, then it’s probably a good idea not to do what you intended. Everything you do sends a message to other humans. You basically tell them, “I believe this is the correct way of acting. Do as I do!” Every time you act, consider that everyone is watching you. But don’t do it primarily to make others like you. Rather, to ensure that what you’re doing is a moral deed.
- You create yourself: There is no design for a human being. A pen knife is designed to be a pen knife. It comes with a folding blade, which means that its essence pre-exists when it’s “born”. The person who created it was following a particular framework. In contrast, there is no design for a human being. There is no certain way we have to be. We create ourselves through what we do. In Sartre’s words, “existence precedes essence.” That’s the fundamental tenet of existentialism. By knowing this now, it’s of equal importance to ask yourself: What type of person I should be and what I should be not?
- Fighting anguish: Anguish, abandonment, and despair are the eventual negative feelings that will emerge if you decide to follow the path of an existentialist. Mainly, because you’ll realize that freedom is not as good as you thought. Freedom means that you should decide what you want to be and follow that path. At first glance, this seems joyful. “Ah, I will become an artist”, you fearlessly declare. But this decision cannot be taken lightly. This means that every future decision must be through the lens of your commitment, even when it’s difficult to be an artist.
Commentary and Key Takeaway
If you’re having a bad day. If you just got laid off. It’s probably not a good idea to read Existentialism Is a Humanism.
Not because the text requires hiring a narrator to articulate the meaning of the daunting vocabulary used. But mainly because you’ll face the harsh reality of the main idea inside. Namely, you are free to choose how your life should look like. You shape your own destiny. There is no predefined path that you should follow, nor reasons not to achieve your greatest dreams and desires.
Reading this on a causal Wednesday, when your job feels like it’s robbing your sole or your personal projects are failing, feels daunting, to say the least.
In his work, Jean-Paul Sartre simplifies – or at least that’s what he tells us – the main tenet of existentialism. The glamorous line: “existence precedes essence.” You exist first, and then you define yourself. Find your essence. Decide what you should do.
Sadly, or not. There is no universal predefined path for us, humans. We, ourselves, create our own meaning and we are free to choose how our life should unfold.
That’s the main idea of the book.
Sounds wonderful, right?
Well, not quite.
How the current world is structured strongly dismisses this concept.
From an early age, you are thrown into institutions that have little interest in what you want to do. Only care about what you can do for society – get a job and increase the GDP of the nation.
Trying to follow what Jean-Paul Sartre proposes in his book is equally troublesome.
If you do decide to commit to an ideal. To a specific way of life. This requires resisting the inner doubts that will emerge along the way – “If I choose X and if I fail, it will be my fault, should I commit?”. But also constantly making choices aligned with the particular path.
While quite short, after all, the book is based on a lecture Satre gave at Club Maintenant in Paris, on 29 October 1945. (How long a lecture can be, right?) It might take you weeks to fully grasp the philosophical concepts inside.
It’s your responsibility to create your own existence. Even if someone is trying to help. To steer you in one direction or another. It is still up to you to listen to this person and consider his advice as a path to follow. And even if you end up not defining your path. Not listening to what others are saying to help you. This is still a form of choosing.
“There is no reality except in action. Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life.” Jean-Paul Sartre
“Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.” Jean-Paul Sartre
“What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself afterward.” Jean-Paul Sartre
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