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Sartre`s Existentialism Essay, Research Paper

The word philosophy comes from Greek and literally means "love of

wisdom." The Merriam- Webster dictionary defines philosophy as "a

critical study of fundamental beliefs and the grounds for them." Because of

the diversity of positions associated with existentialism, the term is

impossible to define precisely. However, existentialism is a philosophical

movement of the 19th and 20th century that centers on the analysis of individual

existence and the given situation of the individual who must assume complete

responsibility for his acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what

is right or wrong or good or bad. Existentialism was started in the late 19th

century by philosophers who called themselves existentialists. These

existentialists, such as Pascal, Kierekegaard, and Heidegger, gave

existentialism its foundation. Jean-Paul Sartre first gave the term

existentialism general currency by using it for his own philosophy. He also

became the leading figure of the existentialist movement in France that became

internationally influential after World War II. Sartre insisted that his

existentialism is a form of Humanism, and he strongly emphasized human freedom,

choice, and responsibility. Sartre was born in 1905 in Paris and died in 1980.

He expressed his dedication to his philosophy in both what he wrote and in the

way he lived his life. During the 1930s he began to develop his existentialist

philosophy. In 1938 he published his first major work, the novel ?Nausea’,

which set forth his existentialist ideas. He was very active politically and

founded a monthly magazine which dealt with politics, philosophy, and art. He

wrote well-known plays and won the Nobel prize for literature. Existentialism is

a philosophy which deals with man; it states that man is that which he makes of

himself, that he has to make his own choices in a state of anguish. Man chooses

in anguish, because he has no external guidelines to help him and must rely on

his own morals and beliefs. Choice is a very large theme in the philosophy of

existentialism. One chooses completely want he wants to do; one’s existence

depends on this. Sartre even says that "man is freedom." Sartre and

the modern existentialists contrast their position on morality to that of the

secular moralists of the end of the 18th century. They said that although there

is no God, that there are moral values that one should take seriously, such as

not lying, not beating one’s wife, bringing up children properly, and so forth.

The existentialist finds it extremely troubling that God does not exist because

"with Him disappear all possibility of finding values in an intelligible

heaven." As Dostoevsky once said, "If God did not exist, then

everything would be permitted." Sartre says that this is the existentialist

starting point. This is the reason that Sartre speaks of anguish, because

"one cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside

himself." It must necessarily follow that man is to be forlorn; he can’t

find anything to depend upon either internally or externally. He therefore lacks

excuses. We cannot explain our actions in terms of or in reference

to…"given and specific human nature." This rules out of the

possibility of predetermination — …"man is free, man is freedom."

For non-existentialists, passion and fate may be an excuse for their actions;

whereas for existentialists, responsibility for one’s passion is a central

belief. Fate is overruled, there is no power of passion. An existentialist will

never regard a great passion…"as a destructive torrent, upon which a man

is swept into certain actions as by fate." Since existence precedes

essence, an existentialist will also deny the aid of a spiritual compass. As a

result there is an absence of an enlightened domain of values. The

existentialist world is by nature, one of being forsaken and abandoned. In this

sense, abandonment can mean that we ourselves decide our being. Part and parcel

with abandonment comes anguish. As an example of abandonment, one may consider

the case of the Frenchman who was considered a collaborator and his eldest son,

who were both killed in the German offense of 1940. The young man’s younger

brother had two choices: to take care of his mother (a concrete mode of action,

immediate, but directed to only one individual), or to go to England to join the

free French forces (an action addressed to an infinitely greater end). The

Kantian ethic warns not to regard another person as a means, but rather as an

end. In this case, for the young son to remain with his mother, he would be

treating her as the end and the French fighters as the means. On the other hand,

if he were to aid the free French, he would be treating them as the end at the

risk of treating his mother as the means. By this example, Sartre shows the

uncertainty of values; in this case he recommended to the young man to trust his

instincts. Sartre’s philosophy also deals with despair and the meaning of one’s

life. Marxists say, "Your action is limited by your death; but you can rely

upon the help of others." However, Sartre says, "I must confine myself

to what I can see." Existentialists doubt that others will carry on their

work after their death. An existentialist will not necessarily believe that the

revolution will lead to the triumph of the proletariat (working people). As for

socialism, it is important to Sartre is that people build it with their own

hands, and not why they choose it. "What is true," said Hegel, a

philosopher, "is only what has become." An analogy is that in

psychoanalysis, it would be harmful to reveal the secrets of a patient to the

patient himself; …"the patient must rather always search for it himself

and change himself by his very search,…. To carry this further, from the

individual case to the great collective movements, it is necessary for the

proletariat to free itself by its own means and forge its own arms; once again

going back to the idea that one must do everything on his own. Another tenet of

existentialism is that one must first commit and then act upon the commitment,

according to the formula that…"one need not hope in order to undertake

one’s work." For the existentialist, hope is a passion that gets him

nowhere; he must face life in his abandoned state, with courage and

self-affirmation. Existentialism is unique in its individualistic outlook, its

objectivity, its lack of reliance of an outer code to govern behavior, and its

emphasis on man’s self-reliance. Philosophy is defined as "a critical study

of fundamental beliefs and the grounds for them." Existentialism, as

exemplified in the work of Sartre, deals with fundamental issues of life in a

critical way that is relevant to modern man.

1. Marsak, Leonard, ed. French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre. Cleveland

and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1961. Leonard Marsak’s French

Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre is an incredible book on philosophy. It

consists of forty-nine selections of sufficient length to introduce the reader

to the essential principles or features of the work of seventeen great thinkers:

Descartes, Pascal, Fontenelle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Condillac, Diderot,

Rousseau, Condorcet, De Maistre, Saint-Simon, Comte, Renan, Taine, Bergson,

Marcel, and Sartre. Thus the entire range of French thought is followed from the

seventeenth century to the present day – in all its transformations and

tendencies – in this book. I got a huge amount of information on Sartre and

existentialism from this book. It devotes about twenty pages to existentialism

and thoroughly discusses all its main points and ideas. From this book, one can

get a huge amount of information on a philosopher’s philosophy and his life. It

is a fantastic book that helped me a huge amount. 2. Durbin, James.

Existentialism. http://www.cs.tamu.edu/people/jdurbin/texts/existentialism.def.html.

This website is alright. It defines existentialism and explains some of its

important points, however, it focuses mainly on what James Durbin, the man who

wrote the site, himself wrote and what he himself thinks of existentialism. The

definitions and explanations are pretty good, however I had already gotten all

the information that he explains on the site. So, this site was of no help,

although it is ok. 3. Lafarge, Rene. Jean-Paul Sartre: His Philosophy. Indiana:

University of Notre Dame Press, 1970. In Jean-Paul Sartre: His Philosophy, Rene

Lafarge makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of modern philosophy

by presenting an objective account of the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre,

existentialism. He also makes some writings of Jean-Paul Sartre more easily

understandable by taking excerpts and main points from Sartre’s major works as a

writer. This book helped me very much. It has a huge amount of information on

Sartre and his life, and explains many points of existentialism in general. If

something had to be called wrong with this book, it would be that the author

wrote too much of his opinion of the philosophy. However, the book overall is

very good and helped me especially in writing about Sartre specifically. 4.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being And Nothingness. The Major Text of Existentialism. New

York, Avenel: Gramercy Books, 1956. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being And Nothingness is

a fascinating book, if you can understand it, that is. It is a

six-hundred-thirty-two page book written in tiny print, broken up into four

parts: the problem of nothingness, being-for-itself, being-for-others, and

having, doing, and being. I’m sure this would’ve been very helpful to me, had I

been able to understand it. Most sentences in this book have words that I’d

never seen before opening this book. By the looks of it, it seems as though it

completely explains existentialism, very thoroughly in six-hundred-thirty-two

pages. However, truthfully, I could not tell whether it is a good or bad book,

because of its incredible difficulty. However, if one is very smart, he may be

able to read, understand, and get the full value out of this book.

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