I was re-reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1946 piece Existentialism Is a Humanism recently, as I headed off to explore existentialism with some 6th Formers locally. It was an interesting session, and not too doom-laden – I hope…
What struck me though, on my -re-read, was the following passage:
What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, 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. 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 towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.
This seems to hit the nail on the head. It lays out clearly the consequence of atheism: that we are a starting point, as humans. Without a human nature, we lay aside ideas of having an immutable spirit, or soul – or prior, spiritual form, and look to see what we can do as finite, temporally limited beings.
This account, that tells us we have no recourse to anything but ourselves, is the opening up of freedom. Of course, Sartre and other existentialists (including the religious ones) are very aware that such freedom is far from unproblematic. Freedom in the absence of authority is, in part, where we derive absurdity from. We must choose. But how? With no spirit guide, no Holy book, no metaphysics which can guide morals, we are bereft of guidance.
Yet we must still choose.
This bracing circumstance may seem like a burden, but I want – in future posts – to see if we can employ some Buddhist ideas to help see where it might lead. The primary one of these will be the idea of ‘good’ action as being kusala. In The Philosophy of Desire book I begin to address the meaning of this term – and am largely in favour of the translation as ‘skilful’. This leads me, in that book, to argue for the idea of a ‘well-crafted life’ in a Buddhist context.
What would a ‘well-crafted life’, in an atheistic, existentialist world that Sartre claims we inhabit, look like? That’s what I hope to move on to in future posts..