I decided to throw Jean-Paul Sartre a surprise birthday party just because I knew he would hate it. Surprise! He doesn’t look amused, and this amuses me.
One of the 20th century’s great thinkers, the strabismus-suffering Sartre was one of existentialism’s pathfinders, exploring the philosophy in a variety of novels, essays and plays including Being and Nothingness, Nausea, and No Exit. Sartre sought to resolve the conflict of the individual responding to the machinations of what he believed was a meaningless and absurd world. In Existentialism, the individual and only the individual is responsible for creating meaning in his or her own life, a life without the existence of God. There are no afterlife punishments or rewards. There are no good people and there are no bad people. Sartre says, “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.”
Existence precedes essence, one of the catchphrases of existentialism, means that the individual has a responsibility to himself or herself first and foremost. The individual through conscious choice develops his or her own values, and his or her actions are the mark of that individual’s existence. Each person then is responsible, and solely responsible, for their actions, ignoring any social or genetic predispositions. As Sartre says, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give a meaning.” Or perhaps more simply put, “We are our choices.”
Sartre further says of mankind, “He was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this death weight about with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he thought them into being.”
Perhaps owing to its association with black turtlenecks, black coffee, and cigarettes chain-smoked on damp fall days, existentialism is sometimes criticized as an angst-ridden “philosophy of despair.” As Albert Camus, Sartre’s existential peer, said in his novel The Myth of Sisyphus “There is only one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” Indeed, Existentialism can be a lonely place, what with the responsibility of the weight of all your choices in a world that is unfair, amoral, and absurd, where anything could happen to anyone at any time for any reason. But really that’s the fun. Right or wrong, there is a courageousness to existentialism and its brave self reliance, a willingness to go at it alone, and truly alone.
Speaking of which, Sartre now sits alone at the kitchen table staring at a single candle that melts on a lonely cupcake that silently acknowledges that he was born. He takes a breath and chooses not to wish as he blows, while meanwhile, 80’s, New Zealand pop band, the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, who I have reunited for this occasion, launch into one of their sugary audio confections. Sartre is not amused. And this amuses me.
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