“Fashionable philosophies in Europe came to be known as existentialism, as freedom to be that flows from the lack of any transcendental meaning to human life.”
France was occupied by the Nazi invasion in WWII. Some people collaborated and Jean Paul Sartre objected to this. He himself took part in the resistance. In his philosophy of existentialism, he used his war experience to illustrate the contrast between weak commitment or rationalization and the exacting and responsible consciousness he believed people to be capable of. He recounted a selection of excuses that some of his countrymen made:
- “What can I do about it?” Argument: I am powerless.
- “I didn’t start the war, did I?” Argument: I’m innocent.
- “Everyone else is doing it.” Argument: Spreading blame.
- “I’m just looking out for myself, the same as everybody else.” Argument: It’s about my instinct for self-preservation or self-defense.
- “I couldn’t help it, I had no choice.” Argument: I am helpless.
- “I couldn’t help it, I was afraid.” Argument: my feelings limit my choices.
Sartre believed we are “absolutely free”—not to do anything we want; but he does mean, “Our choices are always available.” Our motives and feelings do not control our behavior. We control what motives we will follow, and how we see the world through feelings. ( Sartre, J.P. (1943) Being and Nothingness. Part 4, Chapter 2, III.)
Sartre shocks us with another idea that is in sharp contrast to this faith in human agency and vitality: “L’homme est une passion inutile.” (“Man is a useless passion.”) He can be forgiven this paradoxical perspective, as it no doubt arises from the trauma that he felt from being enveloped in the horrors of the Second World War.
This essay is based on notes from Solomon, R. C., & Blandford, J. (2000). No excuses: Existentialism and the meaning of life. Teaching Company.