To Undertake One's Commitment Without Hope, Yet With Unwavering Action


Added on  2019-09-22

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[T]here are two kinds of existentialists. There are, on the one hand, the Christians, amongstwhom I shall name Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, both professed Catholics; and on the other theexistential atheists, amongst whom we must place Heidegger as well as the Frenchexistentialists and myself. What they have in common is simply the fact that they believe thatexistence comes before essence – or, if you will, that we must begin from the subjective. Whatexactly do we mean by that?If one considers an article of manufacture as, for example, a book or a paper-knife – one seesthat it has been made by an artisan who had a conception of it; and he has paid attention,equally, to the conception of a paper-knife and to the pre-existent technique of production whichis a part of that conception and is, at bottom, a formula. Thus the paper-knife is at the same timean article producible in a certain manner and one which, on the other hand, serves a definitepurpose, for one cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper-knife without knowing whatit was for. Let us say, then, of the paperknife that its essence – that is to say the sum of theformulae and the qualities which made its production and its definition possible – precedes itsexistence. The presence of such-and-such a paper-knife or book is thus determined before myeyes. Here, then, we are viewing the world from a technical standpoint, and we can say thatproduction precedes existence.When we think of God as the creator, we are thinking of him, most of the time, as a supernalartisan. Whatever doctrine we may be considering, whether it be a doctrine like that ofDescartes, or of Leibnitz himself, we always imply that the will follows, more or less, from theunderstanding or at least accompanies it, so that when God creates he knows precisely what heis creating. Thus, the conception of man in the mind of God is comparable to that of the paper-knife in the mind of the artisan: God makes man according to a procedure and a conception,exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife, following a definition and a formula. Thuseach individual man is the realisation of a certain conception which dwells in the divineunderstanding. In the philosophic atheism of the eighteenth century, the notion of God issuppressed, but not, for all that, the idea that essence is prior to existence; something of that
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idea we still find everywhere, in Diderot, in Voltaire and even in Kant. Man possesses a humannature; that “human nature,” which is the conception of human being, is found in every man;which means that each man is a particular example of a universal conception, the conception ofMan. In Kant, this universality goes so far that the wild man of the woods, man in the state ofnature and the bourgeois are all contained in the same definition and have the samefundamental qualities. Here again, the essence of man precedes that historic existence whichwe confront in experience.Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that ifGod does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, abeing which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man or, asHeidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedesessence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – anddefines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because tobegin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes ofhimself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it.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 towardsexistence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle ofexistentialism. And this is what people call its “subjectivity,” using the word as a reproachagainst us. But what do we mean to say by this, but that man is of a greater dignity than a stoneor a table? For we mean to say that man primarily exists – that man is, before all else,something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed,a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or acauliflower. Before that projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven ofintelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be. Not, however,what he may wish to be. For what we usually understand by wishing or willing is a consciousdecision taken – much more often than not – after we have made ourselves what we are. I maywish to join a party, to write a book or to marry – but in such a case what is usually called my
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will is probably a manifestation of a prior and more spontaneous decision. If, however, it is truethat existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect ofexistentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entireresponsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man isresponsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, butthat he is responsible for all men. The word “subjectivism” is to be understood in two senses,and our adversaries play upon only one of them. Subjectivism means, on the one hand, thefreedom of the individual subject and, on the other, that man cannot pass beyond humansubjectivity. It is the latter which is the deeper meaning of existentialism. When we say that manchooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we alsomean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a manmay take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at thesame time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this orthat is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever tochoose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unlessit is better for all. If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same timeas we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we findourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concernsmankind as a whole. If I am a worker, for instance, I may choose to join a Christian rather than aCommunist trade union. And if, by that membership, I choose to signify that resignation is, afterall, the attitude that best becomes a man, that man’s kingdom is not upon this earth, I do notcommit myself alone to that view. Resignation is my will for everyone, and my action is, inconsequence, a commitment on behalf of all mankind. Or if, to take a more personal case, Idecide to marry and to have children, even though this decision proceeds simply from mysituation, from my passion or my desire, I am thereby committing not only myself, but humanityas a whole, to the practice of monogamy. I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and Iam creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashionman.This may enable us to understand what is meant by such terms – perhaps a little grandiloquent
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