Sartre, Human Nature and ‘kusala’…

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.

Photo of Sartre

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..

8 thoughts on “Sartre, Human Nature and ‘kusala’…

  1. I tend to read Sartre through an Aristotelian lens, particularly the nature of eudaimonia as the cultivation of wisdom and character as similar to the creation of our own essence. This seems to be reflected in the current trend for ‘well-being’ in certain respects. Would kusala fit into that picture at all?

    1. Longer answer.. In the Desire book, I say something on these lines…

      Rather than implying utilitarianism’s hedonic calculus it seems more akin to Aristotelian notions of the rounded individual and ideas of eudaimonia. I have long felt ‘skilful’ to be useful as a means of making morality analogous to craftsmanship in a sense that flatters morality rather than reducing it. In this way morality becomes the craft of living well, of living in accordance with a well-measured insight into the nature of things.
      We can perhaps see how some might view the notion of ‘skill’ as removing some qualitative feature from morality. But this is only the case if one wishes to posit a moral or meta-ethical view which relies on morality being sanctioned by something external to the world. This is in accordance with the technical paradigm implied by ‘skilfulness’. This does not mean we have to see ethical behaviour as ‘calculating’ (a term which often seems to be derisory when applied to human motives and behaviour). Rather we can conceive of Buddhist ethics as the development of a way of thinking, and acting, free from the shackles of the Self-delusion, leaving us to respond out of an insightful compassion. This is an ethic of fluidity, a broadened moral horizon which opens a vista beyond the narrow confines of both utilitarianism’s hedonism and deontology’s unsustainable metaphysical dualism. In this sense Buddhist ethics do go ‘beyond good and evil’, not in that they transcend morality, but in that they propose a moral outlook which can only make sense in a holistic context of the Dhamma. Morality is then not partitioned off from psychology or from analytic philosophical analysis; it really is part of the path. It is on this basis that I retain the translation of ‘skilful’ for kusala. Another possible option might have been to translate kusala as ‘wise’, and while this seems fairly reasonable, it does not, for me, have quite the ethical register, and seems not to capture much that ‘skilful’ does.

  2. I don’t think it’s correct to tie atheism with a denial of human nature. I have many atheist friends and colleagues who disagree with me about theism but who have arrived at comparable conclusions about human nature. (One book laying out an atheist-friendly version of the traditional understanding of human nature of man as a fallen, flawed creature is Howard Bloom’s The Lucifer Principle.

    I think Sartre’s rejection of human nature stems from the religion that he did embrace and practice — Marxism.

    1. Thanks for the reply..

      I vaguely know Bloom (Howard) in the book you mention- with its macro-level claims about memes and human drives. As a work of sociology, it perhaps has to be judged in that context- which I’m not sure I’m entirely qualified to do without reading it..

      However- I am not sure it really says much that illuminates regarding Sartre’s approach to human nature: his phenomenological ontology. It is largely this approach – at the level of the individual- that echoes the early Buddhist approach to anatta. While Sartre does acknowledge our facticity, it never comes close to imperilling our freedom. Which is the key consequence of his account of the nothingness at the heart of our being…

      [That Marxism is a religion requires a very broad, but not wholly unused, definition of religion.. But I think we may never agree on that one..]

      1. We disagree in our interpretation of the origins of Sartre’s approach to human nature. You’re focusing on Sartre as the Existentialist whereas I see him in the context of his life and the other ideas he advocated. So when you talk about Sartre and freedom imperiled I think of when he described the Stalinist executioner Che Guevara as “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age” and then wonder how valuable his Existentialism could be if it led him to such a bad conclusion.

        I regard Marxism as a religion because it was for me. That was the faith that filled the void after the Evangelical Christianity of my teen years fell apart. During my college and initial post-college years I pursued that political faith with the same drive as my religious proselytizing. My ex-Marxist colleagues and mentors will tell you the same thing. Just because you’re not kneeling in a church it doesn’t mean you’re not worshipping something.

      2. mott

        I don’t know if categorizing Marxism as a religion requires a broad definition. All it requires is that religion is not defined by beliefs in otherworldly beings or phenomena, but by the insistence that there is one true view of the world which is absolutely true, for everyone, at any time and place, from any perspective. This definition just focuses on a different aspect of religion.

  3. [quick reply – it’s late here..]

    Second point first – it is perfectly possible to treat Marxism as a religion – and you are right that many have. Doesn’t mean its inevitable..

    Broader reading of Sartre’s life (especially his later life) does lead us into the (rightly troubling) areas you note. I would not say, though, that his (to a large extent failed) attempts to synthesize his politics and philosophy mean that his philosophy is wrong, or that this invalidates what he proposes in it.

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