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Existentialism Is a Humanism

It was to correct common misconceptions about his thought that Sartre accepted an invitation to speak on October 29, 1945, at the Club Maintenant in Paris. The unstated objective of his lecture (“Existentialism Is a Humanism”) was to expound his philosophy as a form of “existentialism,” a term much bandied about at the time. Sartre asserted that existentialism was essentially a doctrine for philosophers, though, ironically, he was about to make it accessible to a general audience. The published text of his lecture quickly became one of the bibles of existentialism and made Sartre an international celebrity.The idea of freedom occupies the center of Sartre’s doctrine. Man, born into an empty, godless universe, is nothing to begin with. He creates his essence—his self, his being—through the choices he freely makes (“existence precedes essence”). Were it not for the contingency of his death, he would never end. Choosing to be this or that is to affirm the value of what we choose. In choosing, therefore, we commit not only ourselves but all of mankind.This edition of Existentialism Is a Humanism is a translation of the 1996 French edition, which includes Arlette Elka?m-Sartre’s introduction and a Q&A with Sartre about his lecture. Paired with “Existentialism Is a Humanism” is another seminal Sartre text, his commentary on Camus’s The Stranger. In her foreword, intended for an American audience, acclaimed Sartre biographer Annie Cohen-Solal offers an assessment of both works.
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Is a Humanism

Is a Humanism
(L'Existentialisme est un humanisme)

Commentary on

The St?-anger

(Explication de L ' E w ~ F z ~ ~ . ~ ~ )

'Itanslated by CAROL hlACOMBER
Lnaoducuon by ANNlE COHEN-SOLAL
Notes and Preface $ARI.EI"TF


Edlted by JOHN KULW


English-language translation rapFight D 2007 hp Yale University
Introtluction copyright O 2007 hy h111ieCohen-Solal.
L'Ezu-trntralirnze ert irn humaizrriire D ~ d i t i o n Crallimard,
Parrs, 1'196.
"Explication de .L@ti.'angm"O ~dimonsGallrmard, Paris, 1947,
in Sitriatrow, vol. 1.
A1 riglit5 reserved. This hook ]nay not be reproduced, in whole or in part,
including ~llustrations,In any form (beyond that copying per~nittedbp
Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyfight 1,aw and except by reviewers for
the pulilic press), without wniten permission from the publishers.


Designerl by Mary Valencia.
Set in Janson type by I<eystone Typesetting, Iilc
Plrl~tedin the United States ofkntnca.

L~brnryof Congr-essCatirlqging-m-Publrcatim Dntn
Sartre,Jem-Paul, 1905-19RO.
[Existential~snieest un l~umanisme.Engl~sh]
Existentialism is a humanism ; includmg, A commentary on the stranger l
Jeao-Paul Sartre ;translated by Cald Macomber ; introduction by Annie
Cohen-Solal ; notes and preface by Arlette ElLiitu-Sartrr.
lndudes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-300-11546-8 (alk. paper)
I. Exisrential~sm.2. Camus, hlbzrt, 1 91 3 1 960.Etranger. 1. Macomber, Ca~rd.
11. Elkim-Sarue,Arlette. 111. Sartre,Jean-Paul, 1905-1980. Explication de
L!Btr-anger. E~iglish.I\.! Tide.
R819.S32 2007

Prefu~eto the 1996 French Edition
by Arlette Elkutm-Sa~t~-ev11
Introduction by Amlie Cohen-Solal 3

Is a EIumanistn

h Commentary on The Strenge? 73
Noter 95,

A ca~alogusrecord for this bookis avarlalle froin ths Bnt~shLibrary
T h e paper m this book ~lleetsthe guidelines f; or pemlanence and durability
of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longer~ltyof
the Council on Library Resources.


About theAuthor



Preface to the 1996 French Edition

"Existentialism Is a Humanism" is a stenographer's uanscript, originally written in shorthand and scarcely altered by
Sartre, of a lecture he gave in Paris on Monday, October 29,
1945. H e was invited to speak by the Club Maintenant,
which was founded during the Liberation by Jacques Caltny
and Marc Beigbeder to promote "literary and intellectual
discussion." T h e text of the lecture was published the follouring year by ~ d i t i o n NageI.
Why was the author of Beirzgnnd
Nothingness (1943) so determined to convince people of the
humanistic nature of his doctrine?
I t should be remembered that the publication of the first
two volumes of The Roads to F.rredo?z earlier the same year
had been marred by scandal. R e need not delve into all the
reasons why these two novels, The Age of Reason and The
Reprieve, so shocked the conformists of the day. The main
character was perceived to be either spineless or cynical.

Sartre wrote, "I think what bothers people most about my
characters is their lucidity. Thcy h o w what they are, and
that is what they choose to be." Without moorings and lacking confidence, his character Mathieu obviously has little in
cornlnon with an epic ligure or a positive hero; his sole asset
in his obstinate search for a genuinely free life - echoed by
the philosophical quest of Being arzd NiithPngnessis his own
particular brand of (try lucidity, which is also a sourcc of
anguish. What happens to him, or what he does, matters very
little, for he has not yet begun to really live. What people did
not fully grasp is that the first of these books merely set the
stage for the intellectual and moral draina of an emerging
consciousness not yet fully mature by the end of the second
volume. The reason for this may be that these two novelswhich, indeed, had their share of staunch defenders-were
easier to read than the author's philosophical works, and that
their publication had the effect of amplifying and distorting
Sartrean existentialism.
T h e controversies surrounding Sartre's assertiu~~s
intensified arld rnuddled by what we would call today a rnedia
circus -hype and misunderstanding met by open or latent
hostility and priggishness. T h e result of it all was a quasimutual invasion: of the writer by a notoriety that dumbfounded him, and of the public by existentialism. Expressions taken out of context, such as "Hell is other people,"
"Existence precedes esse~~ce,"
or "Man is a useless passion,"

wandered into the tabloids and were bandied about like so
many sinister slogans.
As for the criticisms voiced by intellecttials, who were not
above casting insults, these were not yet based on a very
thorough study of Being ualzd ATotbinpzcss.' Christians chastised Sarn-enot only for his atheism but for being a materialist, while Conmunists reproached him for not being one.
The former charged him with "arbitrarily making a ailt of
Being-in-itself"; the latter accused him of subjectivism. His
ideas on contingency, abandonment, and anguish repelled
both sides. Could it be that the violent expression of this
rejection, which Sartre experienced as hatred, had everything to do with the fact that the nation -- after the cataclysm
of war-was (as one of his detractors put it) "preocalpied
with defining man in accordance with l~istoricalcontingencies, in a way that would allow man to overcome the current
crisis"? In actuality, these objections were more often moral
-even ultimately utilitarian -than purely philosophical.
No one was tliat interested in a debate over how the ideas in
his ~vorlcwere orchestratetl, or in the relevance of his arguments. "Not everyone can read ReinganilNothing~zess,"wrote
the same critic.*Nonetheless, in many people's minds, Sartre
was heconling the anti-humanist par excellence: be demoralized the French at a time when France, lying in ruins, most
needed hope.
Itwas therefore to present the public with a consistent and

more accurate perspective on his philosophy that Sarve
agreed to give the lecture reproduced 11ere.~The event was
attended by a large and overzealous crowd that pushed its
way into the lecture hall, and Sartre was certain it included at
least as many ~ ~ ~ r ionlookers
drawn by the nefarious reputation of existentialis~nand its author as listeners who had a
sincere interest in
Disconcerted, he declared exjstentialism to be a doctrine strictly reserved for philosophers - even though he was about to make it more or less
accessible to the general public. Beyond a public he understood poorly, he was addressing his remarks to the Co~nmunists, with whom he wished to establish a closer relationship.
In fact, just a few months earlier, he had beellwriting in their
underground newspapers, but now those ties were severed
and their hostility seemed to be increasing with the growing
popularity of existentialism.
It was not, however, theoretical reasoning that had led
Sartre to seek a reconciliation. Being and Nothinpesr, a rigorously written and dense text, improperly understood and
often distorted, had become sometlung beyond his control,
although he still assumed responsibility for it. He had been
worlcing on the book for years, composing it in a kind of
solitary euphoria during a period of involuntary idleness
brought about by the "phony war" of 1939-1940 and then
by the year he spent in a German prisoner-of-war camp. But
all of his intellectual energies bent on discovering a truth
about the state of Being and man's purpose in the worltl did

nothing to prevent the feeling of po\verless under the Nazi
occupation nf France. If he aspired to collective action, it is
because he felt the weight of history and acknowledged the
importance of social matters.
In the same ruonth as Sartre's lectxre, Octoher 1945, the
first issue of Les Temps modernes appeared. The aim of this
review, founded by Sartre, was to support the social and economic struggles of the Left-which was represented, primarily, by the "Party of Firing Squad Victims" (the name
assumed by the French Comtnunist Party) - and, through its
columns, feature articles, and studies, to promote the liberation of mankind. Nonetheless, the editors of LPST e v z p ~modernes reserved the right to criticize: "We are siding with those
who want to change both the social condition of mankind
and its conception of itself. Furthermore, as far as future
political and social events are concerned, our publicatio~lwill
take a position on a case-by-case basis. I t will not do sopolitically, which means that it will not serve any party."4
This freedom of judgment was sotnething the Communist
Party's theorists wanted no part of; it "is playing into the
hands oftl~ereactionaries,"was L'Huvza~zzte"sstockphrase for
it.' T h e idea of freedom posed a problem on the theoretical
plane aswell. In his lecture, andat this pointin hisphilosophical search, Sartre would have liked to be able to convince the
Communist Party's Marxists that freedom did not coi~tratlict
the Marxist idea that man is determined by his economic
cotlditions. "A man who is free and one who is enslaved

Re perceived from the same perspective," lie protested
in Miztel-inlimn 1172d Revol~ttion,wherein he uninhi bitedly expressed his differences of opinion wit11 the
After reading BeZPlgand Nothiagie~s~
critics insisted that he
morally justifjr his commim~ent;worse still, they reached
some rather negative moral conclusions that they then i n mediately reproached him witl~.'In the hope of dispelling
such misconceptions, Sartre felt compelled in his lecture to
simplify his own theories, stressing only those that people
were likely to understand. In the process, he resorted to toiling down the rlralnatic aspect of the indissoluble link between human reality and Being: his personal co~lceptof
angiusb, for example, derived from IGerkegaard and Heidegger, is reduced here to the ethical anguish of a military
leader sending troops into battle. This reconciliation effort
would fail miserably: the Marxists refused to give in.
But had there really been a misunderstanding? Perhaps
not, if we heed what Sartre's Marxist critic Pierre Naville said
during the discussion that followed the lecture: "I choose to
ignore ally particular questiolis about philosophical teclln i q ~ e . "It~is not easy for a philosopher to carry on a dialog if
the person he is tallung with gives no credence to his doctrine while refiising to engage in philosophical discussion!
Naville also wrote a review of the event that paid tribute to
this vague discussion: "Pierre Naville pointed out the contradiction. . . . Even vtzore clearly than in denser discowrses, we can
see here what distinguishes Marxisin horn existentialism a l ~ d

from any other philosopby.':"~~ reali~y,Sartrean existerltialism, which appealed to young peoplc, was being refi~tednot
so inuch for any of its theories hot above all else to keep it
frnm stirring up conft~sionand hesitation. "You are keeping
people front joining our ranks," Roger hrauciy told hlm; and
Elsa Triolet said: "You are a philosopher, therefore an antiMarxist." Indeed, if the Corn~nunisttheorists felt that debating Mamisrn weakened the certitude indispensable to militants in order to fight (pointlessly, moreover, since Marxism
contained all tile truths necessary to change the world), then
they had failed to grasp the substance of the philosophical
approach that Sartre would reaftinn in 19LtS: "To seekTruth
is to prefer Being above all else, even in a catastrophic forin,
si~riplybecause it exists. "ln
Later, he endeilvored to show that
the cxistentialist concept of man tl~athe proposed-expanded on, in the interim, in his biographical essays -is not,
unlike Maixism, an excessive philosopliy.J1
In any case, it is hardly surprising chat Sartre very soon
regretted permitting the publicatioll of "Exisrencialisln Is a
IIuinanisin." Many have read this text and though it is often
considered an adequate introduction to Being and Nothi~zg.ness, it is not: the lecture is a clear but simplistic discourse
that reflects the conaadictiolls Sartre was struggli~~g
with in
1945. I-le passionately wanted to be involved in collective life
alongside the Com~iiunistParty, which was bringing hope to
millions of people in that first postwar year, when even the
most radical social changes seemed possible; but this stance


was not philosophically informed. Marxists hastily criticized
his work wirhout having read it, and there was the issue of
accounting for hlarx himself whose work Sartre had not
seriously studied; he had only just begun to furmulate his
thoughts on the social and historic dimension of man. Moreover, was phenomenological eidetics the right tool for thinking about collective existence? "One essential factor in philosopl~yis time," m o t e Sartre in "Search for a Method." "A
great deal of it is required to write a theoretical work." That
particular year, he was caught at an inopportune moment.
"Existentialism Is a Humanism," timely though it was in
many ways, reveals - to those fanuliar m t h Sartre's earller
literary and phllosoph~calwork-a turnlng polnt in the authori intellectual life. A new cycle of p h ~ l o s o ~ h ~mqmry
was about to begin. As vet ~nuddledand hosule as criuclsIns
of hls w o ~ kwere (whrch he tried to answer in tl11s lecture),
they raised new philosophs~alquestions that he would address in h15 Cntzque ofDzalectzcnlReasun, following an nnhmdered process of maturation ev~denced,among o h e r ways,
in his posrhumous works.

Existentialism Is a Humanism
A Commentary on The Stranger



In 1943, when Jean-Paul Sartl-eb "A Commentary on The
S~arjgev"appeared in La Cahzersdz~sild,Frenchwiters stifled
by Nazi censorship for the past three years were e n d ~ ~ r i none

of the most diflicult periods ul their lives. "We hacl lost all our
rights, beginning with OIU right to speak," explained Sartre.
"Because Nazivenom had seepedinto our very thoughts, every
true thought was avict~ry."~
Prlblislled in u ~ l o c ~ u ~Fraiice,
1,es Cahicvl du n ~ escaped
Nazi venonl, and it was from w1th111
the c~mmmscribedfreedom of its pages that Sartse first saluted
Five years earlier, with the debut of Nausea and The mll
and Other. Stories only lnontlls apart, Sartre made his own
noted entry into the world of French literature. "Who is this
new Jean-Paul?" Andri Gide asked, iilvoking praise like
"splendor" and "masterpiece." Members of the old guard of
French letters -Jean Cassou, Gabriel Afarcel, Manrice

Rlanchot-each in turn participated in the rite of greeting
the newcomer. And from Algiers, ille twenty-six-year-old
journalist and playwright Albert Camus expressed his unconditional admiratio~rfor Nausea; he called it "philosophy put
into images" and "the first novel by a writer . . . of livnitless
talent from whom we can expect everything." After reading
The Wall nnJ Other Stories, he further asserted: "A great
writer always brings with him his world and his preaching.
Sartre's preacl~ingconverts us to nothingness, but to lucidity
as well. The image he imnlortalizes through his creations that of a man sitting among the ruins of his life - expresses
. . . the greatness and the truth of this work."'
But theunanimous acclaim did not last. A cooler response
greeted Sartre's first sallies into literary criticism. Beginning
in 1937, in twenty or so devastating articles, he set up his own
pantheon, showering some writers with praise, demolishing
others, rising up against the sadly outdated France of Fran~ o i Mauriac
while celebrating the modernity of Dos Passos
and Faullner; this he did wit11 mordant sayings like "God is
not an artist; nor is Mr. Mauriac," and "I hold John Dos
Passos to he the greatest writer of our time." For some,
Sartre was an executioner; for others, a providential discoverer; for all concerned, in any exrent,he was the one critic in
French letters whose judgment was absolute and inescapable. At twenty years of age, as a student at the ~ c o l eNationale Supirieure, Sartre already stood apart from his peers
for his maturity and the power of his own systematic think-

ing. A great fan of cinema, jazz, the Anl~ericannovel, and
Gerinan phenomennlogy, he sl~atteredthe rigid framework
of traditional nniversity teaching and set ORa few legendary
scandals. Thanks to his vast learning and curiosity for everything new, Sartre's talent as a literary critic was established
early on. A pioneer who ignored tlie boundaries hetween
genres and cultures, he developed his tastes and judgments
with supreme self-confidence.
When he encountered Camus's The Strarzger,however, his
intellecttral machinery jammed. Disconcerted in the face of
the novel's "ambiguity," he confesses his perplexity -a singular admission from a writer later described as a radicalinnovator and an all-encompassing thinker.3 "Amo~lgthe literary
productions ofits time," Sartre writes, "the llovel was itself a
stranger. It came to us froin the other side of the horizon, the
other side of the sea; it spoke to us of the sun in that bitter
spring without coal." Sartre beckons the reader to enter his
analysis of The Strange5 to proceed with him through the
awkward, blind advances ofhis hypotheses and this first, hesitant encounter with Camus. flow astonishing to watch unfold this early, open interaction between two postwar literary
"What are we to m a h of this character?" "How can we
convey the unthinkable and disorderly succession of present
moments?" "What is this new technique?" "How are we to
categorize this clear-cut work. . . so obvious once you have
the key?" Sartre considers 7be S~xz~zg~runclassifiable;
he ex-

anlines it closely, ol~scrvesit, analyzes it, prods it, and calls
npon the amazing reserves of his own readings. And bp recourse to Camus's Tbc Myth of S19phus-that is, hy using his
own strong point, philosophy-Sartre at last manages to
penetrate the work and suggest a way to decode it."
Another successful strategy allows Sartre to place Canlus
in a literary tradition that includes Kaflra, Dostoyevsky,
Gide, Heminpay, Soriierset Maugham, Nietzsche, and
Iilierkegard-with whom Sartre elsewhere acknowledges
his own kinship.' 1,ittle by little, Sartrek viewpoint in "A
Co~nrnentaryon Tbe Stranger" becomes clear - literary
and philosophical references, themes, the tensions he perceives in Camus's work, along with the deft enunciation of
philosophy at the very heart of fiction, all echo the problems
Sartre faced during the slow and painful elaboration of his
own first novel, Nausea, five years earlier. Indeed, Sartre recognized in Can~usa brother, a literary twin with whom he
shared the same reasoning, the same pessisnistic radicalism,
the same rejection of niystical or moral values, the same
technique of constructing iiction around a particular philosophical theme-the absurd for Camus; contingency for
Already in his commentary on The St~-mzgerwe see him
acting as a mediator between the literary past and present: so
nmch of h s crsucal worksets out to expla~nthe genesis of the
great French literary works of the nineteenth century (Baudela~re,Mallarm&,Flaabert); and the ~naiiyprefaces he wrote

(to urorks,by contenlporaries like Jean Genet, Nadlalie Sarsaute, Roger StCphane, Paul Nizan, Franz Fanon, Albert
hl[emnii, hi1116 Ctsaire, L ~ o p o l dStdar Sengl~or)amount to a
kind of scorecard. Efe continned to champion Canus when,
reigning supreme, he carved out the literary landscape of his
era: "The contemporary novel-with American writers,
with Kaflia, and wit11 Camus in France -has fowld its style."
Introducing existentialist theater in the United States, Sartre
affirmed that "Camus's style in Caligz~lais . . . n~agnificently
sober and taut." And in an article on the new writers emerging from the French Resistance, he referred to Leiris, Cassou, and Malraux, and then went on to devote the rest of the
piece to Camus, because he represented the possibjlity of 'a
new classicisni in France.""
Pursuing his analysis of The St>-arzger,Sartre addresses and
so~netirneslectures the reader, calling on him as a witness.
"The shock you felt when you lirst opened the book and
read, 'It occurred to me that anyway one Illore Sunday was
over, that Mama was buried now, that I would go back to
work and that, really, nothing had changed,' was intentional.
It was the result of your first encounter with the absurd."
Fascinated by Camusk talent, Sartre conducts a twenty-page
stylistic examination of the work: a precise, thorough, didactic, and lnminons essay. '"The sentences in The Stl-anger are
islands," he observes. "We t l ~ ~ n bfrom
l e sentence to sentence, from nothing~~ess
to nothingness. In order to emphasize the isolation of each sentence unit, Ca~ilushas choscn to


tell his story in the present perfect tense." At the end of his
analysis, an exhausted and serene Sartre declares Camus's
work a veritable tour de force. And in one of those brilliant,
typically Sartrean formulations, he stabs at a definition of the
work: "a short ~noralisticnovel-one with ironic portraits
and a hint of satire-a novel that, despite the influence of
German existentialists and American novelists, ultimately
remains reminiscent of a tale by Voltaire."
In June 1943, four months afcer the appearance of "A
Com~nentaryon Tl~eSwangez" Camus, recently arrived in
Paris, introduced himself to Sartre at the premiitre of Sartre's
play The Flits. There ensued between the hvo men a remarkable friendship. Camus proposed to Sartre that he travel to
the United States as a reporter for Le figam and Combat, in
effect pushing Sartre into the real world, showing him a way
to escape his teaching duties and allowing hiin to explore a
couitly that since childhood had held for him powerful fantasies abont modernity. But Sartre's trip to the United States
in 1945 brought unexpected consequences: it resulted in
Sarrre's first con~mniunentto the concrete, and gave birth to
his calling as an ethical militant, which would find its expression in the postwar years and in the extraordinary undertaking of the journal Les Te~apsnzodemes.
Literature, philosophy, theater, literary criticism, journalism, politics, cinema: Sartre and Calnus were involved in
every intellectual sphere, at the same time and using similar
means. But nothing really swayed their political positions or

their convictions. Each followetl h i s own path without influencing the other in the least. It was later; in the iilidst of the
cold war, that their political dib~ergenceswould surface, at
first behind the scenes and then publicly, finally bursting into
the open in the bitterest of public confrontations in 1952
during the Algerian wrr. I t was a qlrarrel that brought to
mind other famous duels of French literature: Corneille
versus Racine, Voltaire versus Rausseau, Rreton versus Aragon. Sartre, the writer from men-opolitan France, became
the apostle of anticolonialism and took a radical, global position as prophet of every third-world cause. Canius, the Algerian, withdrew into an attitude of consensus-seelung, developing his mythology of fraternity and reconciliation:
Sartre, the well-to-do bourgeois, the arrogant holder of the
ag~igatioain pl~ilosophy,against Camus, the autodidact, son
of Catherine Sintks, cleaning woman. It was a bloody battle
that only a single, small sentence hidden in the otherwise
very laudatory "Cominentary on The Swonger" had foreshadowed: "Camus seems to pride hirnself on quoting Jaspers, Hcidegger, and Kerkegaard, whoni he seems n o t always to have understood."
Change of scenery. Aliberated Paris; two and a half years
later. Sartre had just published The Roails to Frecrlonz ancl
launched Les Temps modenzes. After years of censorship, as the
French press began to come alive again, Sartre becane simulta~leouslyone of its key players and one of its least expected products. O n Monday, October 29, 1945, a t the invi-

I N 7 R O D U L I TON

tation of the Cluh Maitltenant, he delivered a lecture with
the sufficiently daunting title "Existentialism Is a Humanism." Its content was extremely technical; n o t h g could
have foretold its impact.
Same spoke witliout notes in front of a restless and. packed
room. l l e began by defending exiaentialisn~against its detractors - against Con~~nunists,
who accused it of being "conternplative," "a lux~~t-y,"
a "bourgeois philosophy"; against Catholics, who condemned it "for emphasizing what is despicable
about lmmanity, for exposing all that is sordid, suspicious, or
base" - and he responded to their objectiolls one by one. He
thenwent on to lnap out existentialism'sterritory, defining it as
a kind of "optimism," and a "doctrine of action," and man as
sotlleone who "first exists: he materializes in the worlci, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself. . . . H e
will not be allything until later, and then he will be what he
nulies of hnlself. . , . Man is nothing other than his own
project. Hc exists only to the extent that he realizes himself,
therefore he is notling Illore than the sum of his actions . . .
responsible forwhat he is. . . free. . . condemned to be free.. .
corni~iit[ing]himself to life." After criticizing the theories of
Marx, F-Ieidegger, IGerkegaard, Descartes, and Kant, and afcer
citing Gide, Racine, Proust, Stendhal, Cocteau, and Picasso,
Sartre again astounds his audience by returning to those ideas
that marked out Ius worldvision and nourished his entire work:
"project," "freedo~n,""action," "indivjdnal,"


'Kis lecture beca~lieone of the mythical moments clithe
postwar era, the iirst media event of its time, giving rise to
the "Sartre phenomenon." ("Existentialism Is a H~[manism"
was immortalized a few ~nonthslater in Boris Vian's novel
I'rzlth on the Da-ydre(tmrw, which descrilres "Jean-Sol Partre"
clearing his
with an axe.) Already sensing during the
lecture that his public image was moving beyond him, Sartre
anticipates this rnedia phenomenon: "In the past, philosophers were attaclced only by other philosophers. The general
public clid not understand philosophy a t all, nor did they
care. l%ese days, philosophy is shot down in the public
square." "Celebrity, for me, equaled hatred," Ile explained
shortly afterward.
In fact, in 1945, the influence of Sartre's thought rvould
contrihuce to the making, and even the mythologizing, of the
Saint Gerrnain ties Pi-& neighbol-hood, vr~ith its chul-ch
tower, its square, and its cafis - of which Sartre rapidly hecame the intellectual embodiment. His literary endeavors
followeti a pyramidal structure, with pl-liiosophy occupying
the summit and Ixinging legitimacy to the other six spheres
of his influence: critical essays, lechires, plays, movies, novels, and journalism. Such a vast enterprise inevitably touched
e v e ~ ~ ~ ofrom
n e , the general public to the educated elite; little
by little, his reach spread across the rest of Europe and the
IF today we call state unequivocally that Sartre became,
aro~ind1960, the first global pu11lic intellectual, a few sen-

tences froin "Existendalisnr Is a Wu~nanism"allow us to date
the origin of liis "uni.i7ersalnproject to 1945: "Every project,
however individual, has a universal value. Every projecteven one helo~~giilg
to a Chinese, an Indian, or an African can be understood by a European. 7'0 say it can he understooil means tllat the European of 1945, though his situation
is different, must deal U-ith his own lirnitations in the sallie
way, and so can reinvent within himself the project undertaken by the Chinese, Indian, or black African. There is universality in every project, inasmuch as any nlan is capable of
understanding. any human project." In the context of a postwar France caught up in its recent past and llaunted by the
denlolls of its Nazi occupiers and its collaboration with
them, such statenlents are doggedly sobversive: indeed, from
this period on, Sartre would follow the path of cultural interrelations, foresee the change in the balance of world power,
predict the end of E,u~ropeani~r.~perialist
legitimacy, and discern the emergence of postcolo~lialpolitics in a prophetic
world vision that was radically dilferent from that of the
prewar era.
Here, then, we have Sartre, one of the lnostprolific writers of
the twentieth century, presented in this American edition as a
1ite1-ary critic and philosopher-lecturer, and seen through
two texts produced more than sixty years ago in very different historical contexts. T h e essays are strikingly dissiti~ilar: ''A Corn~nentaryon The Strmzge~"polished, intricate,

inspired, finely written, even brilliant, a i d one of tlre rare
instances wl~enSartre appears disconcerted, perplexed; ''histentialism Is a liumanisrn," on the other hand, a didactic
and graceless transcription of a lecture given in the specific
context of the postwar era, and in -very polcmical circl~mstances. Can we reduce Sartre to these nvo roles? On evidence of hvo short pieces produced some twenty months
apart, can we account for an enornlous body of work written
over a period of more than sixty years? Yes, it's true these
essays deal with literature and philosopl~y,the two poles
Sartre traveled between his entire life. Rut urha~about Sartre
the intellectnal? 'The playwright? 'lie editor of Les E ~ a p s
nzoile~-nes?The political activist ancl his disputes with the
Conununist Party? The prophet of the third world? The
friend of Maoist groups? T h e brilliant writer of The 1E'o~~k?
T h e man who refused the Nobel Prize in literature? T h e
executive president of the Russell Tribunal? flow can we
account for all of Sartre? How can we summarize hiin in this
snlall portion of his work? And, as we contenlplate such a
diverse career, what can these two docmnents, taken out of
context, convey to us today?
Many readers find themselves disoriented by a writer
whose protean ~ r a r kremains unfinished, and whose numerous ways of critically questioning everything escape tratiitional categories. Yet the different strands of Sartre's thinking, his various preoccupations, can be traced through his
work from beginning to end: ho\zfledge through explora-

IN1 R O U U C 1 ION

tion ancl advenri~re,the need to travel, passion for the mod-

of ~11et~i-enty-firstcentury. Isn't lie alrcady connecting with

ern allcl the new, interest in the cu1ultlir.e of the otller, the

them about the culttire of i ~ ~ t e l ~ c i e l ~ e ~the
~ c universality

settliiig of scores with colonial France and imperialist Anerica, as well ss his iritcrest in the Flauhertian France of the

of the individual project, the duty to act, the critical stanceSartre, the eternal rebellious teeniiger, their contemporay?
Let's give him the opporn~llnityto address this new audience,
who will surely then go on to discover Nailsea, Tire Itl'or~h,The
62611 and Other Stones, The Fiimih Idiot, 7Be Co>zilev~nedof
Altona, Thr Rods t o Freedmuz, and so many more of his writings. Let him act with them as lie did with his own students,
shocking inany of them when he declared one day at the
Sorhonne: "The only way to learn is to question."

nineteenth centlily, with which he never ceased to struggle.

l i i t l his
~ all-out criticism of the nineteenth century, with his
mchorage in the French tradition of the eighteenth century
and the cosrnopolitanisrn of Voltaire and Diderot, and with
his finger on die pulse of issues that vrrould he raised by the
society to come, Sartre defies historical reference points.
Sartre7sperlnanence resides above all else in his uneqoivocal subversiveness. One sees it on display already in his insolence at t w e n t y the scandalous sturlellt anci dissident mentioned above- tile Inan who wo~lldrebel against all forms of
authority. In the l95Os, he declared liirnself the acfversary of
de Gaulle; in the 1960s, the adversa y of the United States; in
the 1970s, the protector of Maoist groups. Sartre's body of

work is allything but a closed, satisfying, reassuring system of
thought. It is located in a philosophy of lived experience, in
an attitude of rcbelliousiiess in coiilplete accord with llis theoretical model, in a stlibborn irreverence, in a rejection of
seriousness, and in a very keen ability to perceive new culhlral trends.
In truth, all of Sartre-writer, philosopher, co~nrnitteil
intellectual-is concentrated, compressed into tliese two
short, p n ~ l ~ l ~ eworks.
t i c Freed of their cultural ancl historical
baggage, these essays speak po~verfullyto young .Americans

Translated by i\LYS\iSONiVt17'PRS

Existentialism Is a Hurnanism

My purpose here is to defend existentialism against some
charges that have been brought against it.
First, it has been blamed for encouraging people to remain in a state of quietism and despair. For if all solutions are
barred, we have to regard any action in this world as futile,
and so at last we arrive at a coiite~nplativephilosophy. And
inasmuch as contemplation is a luxury, we are only espotising
yet another kind of bourgeois philosophy. These are the
main reproaches made by the C o n m i s t s .
Othershave condemned us for eil~~l~asizingwhat
is despicable about humanity, for exposing all that is sordid, suspicious,
or base, while ignoring beauty and the brighter side of human
nature. For example, according to Miss Mercier, a Catholic
critic,we have forgotten t l ~ innocence
of a child's smile.
One g-roup after another censures us for overlooking-humanity's solidarity, and for considering man as a n isolated

tteing. Tliis, contend the Cornmlmists, is
we base our doctrine on pure subjectivity-that is, on the
Cartesian I think-on the very rnoment in ilrhich man fully
comprehends his isolation, rendering us incapable of reestablishing solidarity with tllose who exist outside of the
self, anti who are inaccessible to us through the cogto.
Christians, on the other hand, reproach us for denying the
reality and validity of human enterprise, for inas~liuchas we
clroose to ignore Cod's command~iie~its
ar~dall values thought
to be eternal, all that remains is the strictly gratuitous; everyone
can do whatever he pleases and is incapable, froni his o u srnall
~ ~
vanuge point, of finding faultwith the point5 ofview or actions
of others.
It is these various charges that I want to address today,
which is why I have entitled this brief discourse "Existentialism Is a Bumanisn~."Manywill be surprised bywhat I have to
say here about h~unanisn~.
We shall attempt to discover in
wllatsenseweunclerstandit. In any case, letus begin by saying
that what are mean by "existentialism" is a doctrine that
rnakes human life possible and also affirms that evely truth
and every action imply an environment and a human suhjectivity. It is public knowledge that the funciarnental reproach
brought against us is that we stress the dark side of h~iinanlife.
Recently someone told rile about a lady who, whenever she
inadvertently utters some vulgar exl~ressionin a moment of
anger, excuses herself by saying: "I think I'm becoming an
existentialist." So itwould appear that existentialism is associ-

ated with something ugly, which is why seine people call us
naturalists. If we are, it is strange that we should frighten or
shock people far more than naturalism per se frightens or
offends thern.'l'hose who easily stoniiacha Zola nuvellike The
Eal-th are siclcened when they open an existentialist novel.
'Those who find solace in the wisdoni of the people -which is
a sad, depressing thing- find us even sadder. Yet, what could
bemore disillusioning than such sayings as "Charity begins at
l~wne,"or even "Appoint a rogue and he'll do you datnage,
knock him down and he'll do you l~on~age."
We all know
countless such popular sayings, all of which always point to
the same thing: one should not tty to fight against the establishment; one should not be Inore royalist than the king, or
meddle in matters that exceed one's station in life; any action
not in keeping with tradition is rnere roman ticism; any effort
not based on proven experience is doomed; since experience
shows that men are invariably inclined to tlo evil, there must
he strict niles to restrain them, otherwise anarchy erlsues.
However, since it is the very same people who are forever
spouting these dreary old proverbs -the ones who say "It is
so human!" whenever sorlie repupant act is pointed out to
them, the ones who are always harping on realistic litanies who also accuse existentialism of being too gloomy, it lnalies
me wonder if what they are really annoyecl about is not its
pessimism, hut rather its optiniism. For when all is said and
done, could it be that what frightens them about the doctrine
that I shall try to present to you here is that it offers m;m the

E 7 i l S T E N 7 1 4 L I S h I I!, it H U h f A N i b h 4

possibility of individual choice? T o verify this, we need to
reconsitler the whole issue on a strictly philosophical plane.
What, then, is "existentialism"?
Alost people who use this word would be at a loss to explain what it means. For now that it has become fiishionable,
people like to call this musician or that painter an "existentialist." A columnist in Claee's goes by the pen name "The
Existentialist." Indeed, the word is being so loosely applied
to so many things that it has come to mean nothing at all. It
would appear that, for lack of an avant-garde doctrine analogous to surrealism, those who thrive on the latest scandal or
fad have seized upon a philosophy that hardly suits their
purpose. T h e truth is that of all doctrines, this is the least
scandalous and the most austere: it is strictly intended for
specialists and philosophers. Yet it can be easily defined.
What complicates the matter is that there are two kinds of
existentialists: on one hand, the Christians, among whom I
would include ICarl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, both professed Catholics; and, on the other, the atheistic existentialists, among whoni we should place Heidegger, as well as the
French existentialists and myself.' What they have in conllnon is simply their belief that existence precedes essence; or,
if you prefer, that subjectivity must be our point of departure.
What exactly do we mean hy that? If we consider a manufactured object, such as a book or a paper knife, we note that this
object was produced by a craftsman who drew his inspiration
from a concept: he referred both to the concept of what a

paper knife is, and to a Imowli production technique that is a
part of that concepr and is,
and large, a formula. 'l'he
paper knife is thus both an object produced in a certain way
and one that, on the other hand, serves a definite purpose.
We cannot suppose that a mnn would produce a paper knife
without knowing what purpose it would serve. Let us say,
therefore, that the essence of the paper knife-that is, the
sum of formulae and properties that enable it to be produced
anci defined-precedes its existence. Thus the presence before my eyes of that paper knife or bookis deter~~iined.
then, we are viewing the world from a technical standpoint,
u.hereby we can say "production precedes essence."
When we think of God the Creator, we usually conceive
ofhim as a superlative artisan. Whatever doctrine we may be
considering, say Descartes's or Leihniz's, we always agree
that the will more or less follows understanding, or at the
very least accompanies it, so that when God creates he knows
exactly what he is creating. Tlms the concept of man, in the
nind of God, is comparable to the concept of the paper knife
in the mind of the manufacnirer: God produces ~ n a nfollowing certain techniques and a coilception, just as the craftsman, following a definition and a technique, produces a paper knife. Thus each individual Inan is h e realization of a
certain concept within the divine intelligence. Eighteenthcentury atheistic philosophers suppressed the idea of God,
bnt not, for all that, the idea that essence precedes existence.
We encounter this idea nearly everywhere: in the works of

LPidcrot, Voltaire, and even Kant. Man possesses a l~urnan
natnre; this "hunran natl~re,"which is the concept of that
nrhicl~is human, is found in a11 men, which means that each
lnan is a particular example of a ~liiiversalconcept-man. In
Kant's works, this universality extends so far as to encompass
forest dwellers -man in a state of nature - and the bourgeois, meaning that they all possess the sanie basic qualities.
Here again, the essence of rnan precedes his historically
primitive existence in nature.
Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more collsistent. It states that if God does not exist, there is at least one
being in whom existence precedes essence -a being ~vliose
existcnce comes before its essence, a being who exists before
he can be defined by any concept of it. That being is man, or,
as Heideg-gerput it, the humanreality.T411atdo we Iueanhere
by "existence precedes essence"? We mean that rnan first
exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and
only afterward cfcfines himself. If nran as existentialists conceive ofhim cannot be defined, it is because to beginwithhe is
nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will
he what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature
since there is no God to conceive of it. Man is not only that
which he conceives himself to be, hut that which he wills
himself to be, and since he conceives of hitnself only after lie
exists, just as he wills himself to be after being thrown into
existetlce, man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. This is the first principle of existentialism.

It is also what is referred to as "sulijectivity," the w r y word
used as a reproach againstus. But what tlo itreniean by that, if
not that inan has more dignity than a stone or a table? What
we Incan to say is that man first exists; that is, that mall
prin~arilyexists -that man is, before all else, something-that
projects itselfinto a future, and is conscious of doing so. Man
is indeed a project that has a subjective existence, rather unlike that of a patch of moss, a spreading fungus, or a cauliflower. Prior to that projection of the self, notliing exists,
not even in divine intelligence, ant1 man shall attain existence
only when he is what he projects himself to be -not what he
would like to be. XVhat we usually understand by "will" is a
coi~sciousdecision that ~ n o s of
t us take after we have made
ourselves what we are. I Inay want to join a party, write a
hook, or get married - but all of drat is only a manifestation
of an earlier and more spontaneous choice than what is
known as "will." If, however, existence truly does precede
essence, inan is responsible for what he is. Tl~ns,the first
effect of existentialism is to make eveiy man conscious of
what he is, and to i ~ ~ a khim
e solely responsible for his own
existence. And when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is respollsible only for his own
individuality, but that h e is responsible for all men.
The word "subjectivism" has two possible interlwetations,
and our opponents play with hot11 of thern, at our expense.
Subjectivisni means, on the one hand, the freedorn of the
individual subject to choose what he will be, and, 011 the

other, man's inability to transcend human subjecwvity. T h e
fundamental meaning of existelitialis~nresides in the latter.
When we say that man chooses himself, not only do we mean
that each of us must choose himself, but also that in choosing
himself, he is choosi~~g
for all men. In fact, in creating the
inan each of us wills ourselves to be, there is not a single one
of our actions that does not at the same time create an image
of man as we think he ought to be. Choosing to be this or that
is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose,
because we can never choose evil. We always choose the
good, and nothing can he good for any of us nnless it is good
for all. If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will
to exist at the same time as we fashion our imag-e,that inlage
is valid for all and for our whole era. Our responsibility is
thus much greater than we might have supposed, because it
concerns all mankind. If l am a worker ancl I choose to join a
Christian trade union rather than to become a Communist,
and if, by that membership, I choose to signify that resignation is, after all, the most suitable solution for man, and that
the kingdom of rnan is not on this earth, I am not com~nitting
myself alone-I am choosing to be resigned on behalf of
all- consequently my action commits all mankind. Or, to
use a more personal example, if J decide to marry and have
children - granted such a marriage proceeds solely from my
own circutnstances, my passion, or nly desire-I am nonetheless commitling not only myself, but all of humanity, to
the practice of monogamy. I atn therefore responsible for

myself and for everyone else, anci I am fashiorling a certain
irnage of nlan as I choose him to be. In choosing myself, I
choose man.
This allows us t o understalld the meaning behind some
rather lofty-sounding words such as "anguish," "abandonment," and "despair." As you are about to see, it is all quite
simple. First, what do we mean 1)y anguish? Existentialists
like to say that man is in anguish. This is what they mean: a
man who commits himself, and u ~ h orealizes that he is not
only the individual that he chooses to be, but also a legislator
choosing at the same time what humanity as a whole should
be, cannot help hut be aware of his own fill1 and profound
responsibility. True, many people do not appear especially
anguished, but we maintain that they are merely hiding their
anguish or trying not to face it. Certainly, many believe that
their actions involve no one b11t themselves, and were we to
ask them, "But what if everyone acted that ~vay?"they would
shrug their shoulders and reply, "But everyone does not act
that way." In truth, however, one should always ask oneself,
"Whatwould happen if everyone did what I am doing?" 'The
only way to evade t h a t disturbing thought is through some
kind of had faith. Someoile who lies to himself and excuses
himself by saying "Everyone does not act that way" is struggling with a bad conscience, for the act of lying implies attrihuting a u~iiversalvalue to lies.
Anguish can be seen even when concealed. This is the
anguish IGerliegaard called the anguish of Ahraham. You

h o w the story: au angel orders Ahraha111tcr sacrifice his son.

This would he ol;ay provided it is really an angel who appears
to him and says, "Thon, Abraham, shalt sacrifice thy son."
But ally sane person may wonder first whether it is truly an
angel, and second, whether I am really Abraharn. What proof
do I have? There was once a mad wornall suffering from
l~allucinationswho claimed tlut people were phoniilg her
and giving her orders. T h e doctor asked her, "But who exactly speaks to you?" She replied, "EIe says it is God." How
did she actually know for certain that it was God? If an angel
appears t o me, what proof do I have that it is an angel? Or if I
hear voices, what proof is there that they come from heaven
and not from hell, or from my own subconscious, or some
pathological condition? \%%at proof is there that they are
intended for me? 6Iillat proof is there that l am the proper
person t o impose 111yconception of man on humanity? I will
never find any proof at all, nor any convincing sign of it. If a
voice speaks to me, it is always I who rnust decide whether or
not tlus is the voice of an angel; if I regard a certain course of
action as good, it is I who will choose to say that it is good,
rather than bad. There is nothing to show that I am Abraham, and yet I am constantly compelled to perform exemplary deeds. Everything happens to every rnan as if the entire
huinan race were staring at him and irleasuring itself by what
hc does. So every man ought to be aslung hhnself, "Am I
really a man who is entitled to act in such a way that the en-

itsell l ~ ymy actions?"
ure hunxln race shoulil be nleasuri~~g
Ancl if Ile does not aslrhimself that, Ire n~aslishis aliguish.
The anguish we are concernet1 with is not the hiid that
codd lead to quietism or inactiou. It is anguish pure and
simple, of the kind experienced by all ~7110have borne responsil~ilities.For exa~nple,when a niilitarp leader takes i t
upon hiinselfto launch an attack and sends 3 number of men
to their deaths, he chooses to do so, and, ultimately, males
that choice alone. Some orders may come fro111 his superiors,
but their scope is so broad that he is obliged to interpret
&em, and it is 011 his interpretation that the lives of ten,
fourteen, or twenty rnen depentl. In maldng such a tiecision,
lie is ho~mitto feel some anguish. ,411 l e ~ d c r shave experienced that anguish, but it does not prevent thetn fro111actiilg.
To the contrary, it is the very cootlition of their action, for
they tirst contemplate several options, and, in choosing one
of thern, realize that ie only value lies in the f:ict that i t was
chosen. It is this kind ofangaish that existentialistn describes,
and as we shall see it can be made explicit ~hrougha sense of
direct responsil~ilitytoward the other men who will t ~ eaffected by it. I t is riot a screen that separates us from action,
but a condition of action itself.
Ancl when we speak of "abandoninent"- one of IIeidegger's favorite expressions-we merely mean to say that God
does not exist, and that we must benr the full consequences o l
that assertion. Existentialists are strongly opposed to a cer-


vain type of secular morality that seeks to eliminate God as
painlessly as possible. Around 1880, when some French professors attempted to formulate a secular morality, they expressed it more or less in these words: God is a useless and
costly hypothesis, so we will do without it. However, ifwe are
to have a morality, a civil society, and a law-abiding world, it
is essential that certain values be taken seriously; they must
have anapriori existence ascribed to them. It must be considered mandatory a priori for people to be honest, not to lie,
not to beat their wives, to raise children, and so forth. We
therefore will need to do a little more thinlung on this subject
in order to show that such values exist all the same, and that
they are inscribed in an intelligible heaven, even though God
does not exist. In other words- and I think this is the gist of
everything that we in France call "radjcalism" -nothing will
have changed if God does not exist; we will encounter the
same standards of honesty, progress, and humanism, and we
will have mrned God into an obsolete hypothesis that will die
out quietly on its own.
Existentialists, on the other hand, find it extremely disturbing that God no longer exists, for along with his disappearance goes the possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There could no longer be any apriorz good, since
there would be no infinite and perfect consciousness to co11ceive of it. Nowhere is it written that good exists, that we
must be honest or must not lie, since we are on a plane shared
only by men. Dostoyevsky once wrote: "If God does not

exist, everything is permissible." This is the starting p o i n ~of
existentialism.Indeed, everything is permissible if God does
not exist, and man is consequently abandoned, for he cannot
find anytling to rely on -neither within nor without. First,
he finds there are no excuses. For if it is true that existence
precedes essence, we can never explain our actions by reference to a given and immutable human nature. h other
words, there is no determinism-man is free, man is freedom. If, however, God does not exist, we will encounter no
values or orders that can legitimize our conduct. Thus, we
have neither behind us, nor before us, in the lu~ninousrealm
of values, any means of justification or excuse. We are left
alone and without excuse. T l ~ a is
t what I mean when I say
that man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he
did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once
cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.
Existentialists do not believe in the power of passion. They
will never regard a great passioil as a devastating torrent that
inevitably con~pelsman to commit certain acts and which,
therefore, is an excuse. They think that man is responsible
for his own passion. Neither do existentialists believe that
man can find refuge in some given sign that will guide him on
earth; they think that man interprets the sign as he pleases
and that man is therefore without any support or help, condemned at all times to invent man. In an excellent artlcle,
Franns Ponge once wrote: "Man is the future of n ~ a n . "This
is absolutely true. However, if we were to interpret this to


mean that such a future is inscribed in heaven, and that God
knows what it is, that would be false, for then it would no
longer even be a future. If, on the other l~antl,it means that
whatever man may appear to be, there is a future waiting to
be created - a virgin future -then the saying is mie. But for
now, we are abandoned.
T o give you an example that will help you to better understand what we rnean by abandonment, I will mention the case
of one of my students, who sought me out under the following circumstances: his father had broken off with his inother
and, moreover, was inclined to be a "collaborator." His older
brother had been lulled in the Gennan offensive of 1940,and
this young man, with primitive but noble feelings, wanted to
avenge him. His mother, living alone with him and deeply
hurt by the partial betrayal of his father and the death of her
oldest son, found her only comfort in him. At the time, the
young man had the choice of going to England to join the
Free French Forces-which would mean abandoning his
mother - or remaining by her side to help her go on with her
life. He realized that his mother lived only for him and that
his absence -perhaps his death -would plunge her into
utter despair. I-Ie also realized that, ultimately, any action he
might take on her behalf would provide tile concrete benefit
of helping her to live, while any action he might take to leave
and fight would be of uncertain outcome and could disappear
pointlessly like water in sand. f i r instance, in t ~ y i n gto reach
England, he might pass through Spain and be detained there

indefinitely in a camp; or after arriving in England 01-Algiel.s,
he might he assigned to an office to do paperwork. H e was
therefore confronted hy two totally different modes of action: one concrete and immediate, but directed toward oilly
one individual; the other involvi~lgan infinitely vaster group
-a national corps -yet more ambignous for that very reason and which could be interrupted before being carried out.
And, at the same time, he was vacillating between two kinds
of morality: a morality motivated by sympathy and indivitiual
devotion, and another morality with a broader scope, but less
likely to be fruithrl. H e had to choose between the two.
What could help him rnalce that choice? The Christian
doctrine? No. The Christian doctrine tells us we must be
charitable, love our neighbor, sacrifice ourselves for others,
choose the " n a ~ ~ oway,"
w et cetera. Rut what is h e narrow
way? Whom should we love like a brother- the soldier or
the mother? Which is the more useful aim- the vague one
of fighting as part of a group, or the Inore concrete one of
helping one particular person keep on living? Who can decide that apriwi? N o one. No code of ethics on record answers that question. Kantian ~noralityinstructs us to never
treat another as a means, but always as an end. Very well;
therefore, if I stay with my mother, I will trcat her as an end,
not as a means. But by the same token, I will be treating those
who are fighting on my behalf as a means. Conversely, if 1
join those who are fighting; I will treat them as an end, and,
in so doing, risk treating my mother as a means.


If values are vague and if they are always too broad in
scope t o apply to the specific and concrete case under consideration, we have no choice but to rely on our instincts. That
is what this young man tried to do, and when I last saw him,
he was saying: "All things considered, it is feelings that matter; I should choose what truly compels me to follow a certain p t h . If I feel that I love my mother enough to sacrifice
everything else for her -my desire for vengeance, my desire
for action, my desire for adventure - then I should stay by
her side. If, to the contraly, I feel that my love for my mother
is not strong enough, I should go." But how can we measure
the strength of a feeling? What gave any value to the young
man's feeljngs for his mother? Precisely the fair that he chose
to stay with her. I may say that I love a friend well enough to
sacrifice a certain sum of money for his sake, but I can claim
that only if I have done so. I can say that I love my mother
enough to stay by her side only if I actually stayed with her.
T h e only way I can measure the strength of this affection is
precisely by performing an action that confirms and defines
it. However, since I am depending on this affection to justify
my action, I find myself caught in a Vicious circle.
Moreover, as Gide once pointed out, it is almost impossible to distinguish between playacting and true feelings. T o
decide that I love my mother and will stay with her, or to stay
with her by putting on a charade, amount to the same thing.
In other words, feelings are developed through the actions
we take; therefore I cannot use them as guidelines for action.

E X I S T E N ' I ' I A L I S M IS A I l U R f , \ N I S M

This means that 1shouldn't seek within myself some authentic state that wiil conlpel me to act, any inore than I call
expect any morality to provide the concepts that will enahle
me to act. You may say, "Well, he went to see a professor for
advice." But if you consult a priest, for instance, it's you who
has chosen to consult Ilim, and you already know ill your
heart, more or less, what advice he is likely to give. In other
words, to choose one's adviser is only another way to commit
oneself. This is demonstrated by the fact that, if you are
Christian, you will say "consult a priest." But there are collaborating priests, temporizing priests, and priests connected
to the Resistance: which do you choose? Had this youl~gman
chosen to consult a priest connected to the Resistance, or a
collaborating priest, he would have decided beforehand what
kind of advice he was to receive. Therefore, in seeking me
out, he knew what my answer would be, and there was only
one answer I could give him: "You are free, so choose; in
other words, invent. No general code of etliics can tell yon
what you ought to do; there are no signs in tlus world."
Catholics will reply: "But there are signs!" Be that as it
may, it is I who chooses what those signs mean. When I was
in a German prisoll camp, I met a rather remal.kahle man,
who happened to be a Jesuit. This is how he came to join the
order: he had experienced several frustrating setbacks in his
life. His father died while he was still a child, leaving him in
poverty, but he was awarded a scholarship to a religious institution where he was constantly reminded that he had been

L X I S T E N T I 1LIShl 15 4 H U b l \ N l S h l

accepted only out of charity. H e was subsequently denied a
numher of distinctiol~sand honors that would have pleased
any child. Then, when he was about eighteen years old, he
had an unfortunate love affdir that broke his heart. Finally, at
the age of twenty-two, what should have been a trifle was
actually the last straw: he flunked out of military training
school. This young man had every right to believe he was a
total failure. I t was a sign - but a sign ofwhat? H e could have
sought refuge in bitterness or despair. Instead - and it was
very clever of him - he chose to take it as a sign that he was
not destined for secular success, and that his achievements
would be attained only in the realms of religion, sanctity, and
faith. He saw in all of this a message from God, and so he
joined the order. Who can doubt that the meaning of the
sign was determined by him, and by him alone? Mre might
have conclrtded something quite different from this set of
reversals -for example, that he might have been better off
training to be a carpenter or a revolutionary. H e therefore
bears the h l l responsibility for his interpretation of the sign.
This is what "abandonment" implies: it is we, ourselves, who
decide who we are to he. Such abandonment entails anguish.
h for "despair,'j it has a very simple meaning. It means
that we must limit ourselves to reckoning only with those
things that depend on our will, or on the set of probabilities
that enable action. Whenever we desire something, there are
always elements of
If I am counting on a visit
from a friend who is traveling by train or trolley, then I

assume that the train mill arrive on time, or that the trolley
will not derail. I operate within a rca1111 of possibilities. Rut
we credit such possibilities only to the strict extent that our
action encompasses tlie~n.Fro111 the moment that tlie possibilities I arn oonsitlering cease to he rigorously engaged by
my action, I must no longer take interest in them, for no God
or greater design can bend the world and its possil~ilitiesto
my will. In the final analysis, when Descartes said "Conquer
yourself lather tllan the worltl," he actually meant the sallie
thing: we should act without hope. Marxists, witi~urllon~I
have discussed this, reply: "Obviousl~i,your action will be
limited by your death; but you can rely 011 the help of others.
You can count both on what others are doing elsewhere, in
China, in Russia, to help you, and on what they will do later,
that is, after your death, to carry on your work and bring it to
fruitiun, which will be the revolution. What is more, you
must rely on it; not to do so would he in~moral."
A4y initial response to this is that I will always depend on
my co~nrades-in-armsin the struggle, inasmuch as they are
committed, as I am, to a definite common cause, in the solidarity of a party or a group that I can more or less controlthat is to say, that T joined the group as a militant and so its
every move is familiar to me. In that context, counting o n the
solidarity and will of this party is exactly like counting on the
fact that the train will arrive on time, or that the trolley will
not derail. But I cannot count on men wboni I do not know
based on Faith in the goodness of humanity or in man's iriter-


est in society's weliare, given that man is free and there is no
human nature in which I can place my tnlst. I do not lmow
where the Russian Revolution might lead. I can admire it and
hold it up as an example to the extent that it is clear, to date,
that the proletariat plays a part in Russia that it has attained
in no other nation. But I cannot assert that this Revolution
will necessarily lead to the triumph of the proletariat; I must
confine myself to what I can see. Nor can I be certain that
comrades-in-arms will carly on my work after my death and
bring it to completion, seeing that those men are free and
will freely choose, tomorrow, what man is to become. Tomorrow, after my death, inen may choose to impose fascism,
while others may be cowardly or distraught enough to let
them get away with it. Fascism will then become humanity's
truth,and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be
what men have chosen them to be. Does that mean that I
must resort to quietism? No. First, I must commit myself,
and then act according to the old adage: "No hope is necessary to undertake anything." This does not mean that I cannot belong to a party, just that I should have no illusions and
do whatever I can. For instance, if 1were to askmyself: "Will
collectivization ever be a reality?" I have no idea. All I know
is that 1will do everything in my power to make it happen.
Beyond that, I cannot count on anything.
Quietism is the attitude of people who say: "Others can do
what I can~lotdo." T h e doctrine that I am presenting to you
is precisely the opposite of quietism, since it declares that

reality exists only in action. It ventures even furl-her than
that, since it adds: "Man is nothing other than his own project. H e exists only to the extent that he realizes himself,
therefore he is nothing more than the sun1 of his actions,
nothing 111ore than his life." In view of this, we can clearly
understand why our doctrine horrifies many people. For
they often have no other way of putting up with their misery
than to think: "Circumstances have been against me, I deserve a much better life than the one l have. Admittedly, I
have never experienced a great love or extraordinary friendship, but that is because I never Inet a snan or woman worthy
ofit; if I have written no great boolrs, it is because I never had
the leisure to do so; if I have had no children to whom I could
devote myself, it is because I did not find a inan with whom I
could sliare my life. So J have within me a host of untried but
perfectly viable abilities, inclinations, and possibilities that
endow me with worthiness not evident from any examination of my past actions." In reality, howevel; for existentialists there is no love other than the deeds of love; no potential
for love other tllan that which is manifested in loving. T l ~ e r e
is no genius other than h a t which is expressed in works of
art; the genius of Proust resides in the totality of his works;
the genius of Racine is found in the series of his tragedies,
outside ofwhich there is nothing. Why should we attribute
to Racine the ability to write yet another tragedy when tl~atis
precisely what he did not do? In life, a man commits himself
and draws his own portrait, outside of which there is nothing.

No doubt this thought may seen1 harsh to someone who has
not made a success of his life. But on the other hand, it helps
people to understand that reality alone counts, and that
dreams, expectations, and hopes only serve to define a manas
a brolen dream, aborted hopes, and futile expectations; ill
other words, they define him negatively, not positively.
I\Jonetheless, saying "You are nothing but your life" does not
imply that the artist will be judged solely by his works of art,
for a thousand other things also help to define him. m a t we
mean to say is that a man is nothing hut a series of cnterprises, and that he is the sum, organization, and aggregate of
the relations that constitute such enterprises.
In light of all tlus, what people reproach us for is not
essentially our pessimisin, but the sternness of our optimism.
If people criticize our works of fiction, in which we describe
characters who are spineless, weak, cowardly, and sometimes
even fralskly evil, it is not just because these characters are
spineless, weak, cowardly, or evil. For if, like Zola, we were to
blame their behavior on their heredity, or envirollmental influenccs, their society, or factors of an orgallic or psychological nature, people would be reassured and would say, ' T h a t is
the way we are. N o one can do anything about it." But when
an existentialist describes a coward, he says that the coward is
responsible for his own cowardice. H e is not the way he is
because he has a cowardly heart, hmg, or brain. H e is not like
that as the result of his physiological makeup; he is like that
because he has made himself a coward through his actions.

There is no such thing as a cowardly temperamlent; there are
nervous temperaments, or "poor blooil," as ordina~yfolks
call it, or "rich temperaments," but just because a man has
poor blood does not make him a coward, for what produces
cowartlice is the act of giving up, or giving in. A temperanlent is not an action; a coward is defined by the action lie has
taken. What people are obscurely feeling, and what horrifies
them, is that the coward, as we present him, is guilty of his
cowardice. People would prefer to he horn a coward or be
born a hero. One of the most frecpe~ltcriticjslns ofRoah to
fierdom Inay be expressed as follows: "Frankly, how can you
make heroes out of people as spineless as this?" This objection is really quite comical, for it inlplies that people are born
heroes. Essentially, that is what people woulci like to think. If
you are horn a coward, you need not let it concern you, for
you will he a coward your whole life, regardless of what you
do, through no fault of your own. Ifyou are bonl a hero, you
need not let it concern you cither, for you will be a hero your
whole life, and eat and drink like one. M%at the existentialist
says is that the cowartl inakes himself cowardly and the hero
makes himself heroic; there is always the possibility that one
day the coward illay no longer he cowardly and the hero rnay
cease to be a hero. Wlsat matters is the total commitnl~ent,
but there is no one particular situation or action that hilly
you, one way or the other.
We have now, I think,dispensed with a numf~erof charges
brought against existentialism. You have seen that it cannot

be considered a philosophy of quietiscn, since it defines man
by his actions, nor can it be called a pessimistic description of
man, for no doctrine is more optimistic, since it declares that
man's destiny lies witllin himself. Nor is existentialism an
attempt to discourage man from taking action, since it tells
him that the only hope resides in his actions and that the only
thing that allows hirn to live is action. Consequently we are
dealing with a morality of action and commitment. Nevertheless, on the basis ofa few wrongheaded notions, we are also
charged with ilnprisoning man within his individual subjectivity. In this regard, too, we are exceedingly ~nisunderstood.
For strictly philosophical reasons, our point of departure is,
indeed, the subjectivityof the individual-not because we are
bourgeois, but because we seek to base our doctrine on tnlth,
not on comforting theories full of hope but witl~outany real
foundation. h our point of departure there can be no other
truth than this: Zthink therefoiv lam.This is the absolute truth
of consciousnessconfronting itself. Any theory that considers
man outside of this moment of self-awarenessis, at the outset,
a theory that suppresses the truth, for outside of this Cartesian cogito, all objects are merely probable, and a doctrine of
probabilities not rooted in any truth crumbles into nothing.
In order to define the probable, one must possess what is true.
Therefore, in order for any truth to exist, there must first be
an absolute truth. The latter is simple, easy to attain, and
within everyone's reach: one need only seize it directly.

Jn tile second place, this is che oiily theory that e~idt~ws
man with any dignity, and the only one that does not turn
him into an object. The effect of any form of materialism is
to treat all men-including oneself--as objects, which is to
say as a set of precletermined reactions indistinguishable
from the properties and phenorneaa that constimte, say, a
table, a chair, or a stone. Our aim is exactly to establish the
human kingdom as a set of values distinct from the n~aterial
world. But the subjectivity that we thereby attain as a standard of m ~ t his not strictly individual in nature, for ure have
denlonstrated that it is not only oneself that one discovers in
the cogito, but also the existence of others. Contrary to the
philosophy of Descartes, or of Kant, when we say "I think,"
we each attain ourselves in the presence of the other, and we
are just as certain of the other as we are of ourselves. 'Therefore, the nlan who becomes aware of himself directly in the
cogita also perceives all others, and he does so as the condition
of his own existence. H e realizes that he cannot be anything
(in the sense in which we say solneone is spiritual, or cmel, or
jealous) unless others acknowledge him as such. T cannot
discover any truth whatsoever about rl~yselfexcept through
the mediation of another. T h e other is essential to nly existence, as well as to the knowledge 1 have of myelf. Under
these conditions, my intillrate discovery of myself is at the
same time a revelation of the other as a freedom that confronts my own and that cannot think or will without doing so

for or against me. We are tluxs immediately thrust into a
world that we may call "intersubjectivity." It is in this world
&dt man decides what he is and what others are.
E'urtl~ermore,although it is impossible to find in every
Inan a ~lniversalessence that could be said to co~npriseI n man nature, there is nonetheless a universal human condition.
It is no accident that today's thinkers are more liliely to speak
of the condition of man rather than of his nature. By "condition" they refer, more or less clearly, to all limitatiolis that n
prior-i define man's fi~ndamelltalsituation in the universe.
Historical situations vary: a man nlay be born a slave in a
pagan society or a feudal lord or a member of the proletariat.
What never varies is the necessity for him to be in the world,
to work in it, to live out his life in it anlong others, and,
eventually, to die in it. These limitations are neither subjective nor objective; rather they have an objective as well as a
subjective dimension: objective, because they affect everyone
and are evident everywhere; subjective because the57 are expe~ienccdand are meaningless if man does not experience them
-that is to say, if man does not freely determine himself and
his existence in relation to them. And, as diverse as man's
projects may be, at least none of then1 seem wholly foreigl to
me since each presents itself as an attempt to surpass such
limitations, to postpone, deny, or to come to terms with
them. Consequently, every project, however individual, has a
utliversal valne. Every project-even one belonging to a
Chinese, an Indian, or an African-can be understood by a

European. To say it can be umtlerstood means that the European of 1945,though his situation is dift'erent, r l l ~ ~dcal
s t with
his o ~ m
li~mitationsin the same way, and so can reinvent
within hinlself the project undertaken by the Chinese, Indian, or black African. There is universality in evelypl-oject,
jnasrnuch as any man is capablz ofunderstanding any human
project. This should not be taken to mean that a certain
project defines Inan forever, but that it can be rcinventeed
again and again. Given sufic.ient information, one can always find a way to understand an idiot, a child, a person froin
a so-called primitive culture, or a foreigner.
In this sense, we can cl
a t hunlall ulliversality exists,
but it is not a given; it is i
.I chaosehyAlcol~stmctio~l.
ing. myself, I collstruct U
lity; I c o ~ ~ s t mitc t understanding every other ma
cct, regardless of the era jn
which he lives. This a b
of choice does
alter the relativity of eac
of the free cominitnlen
in realizing a type of
ways understa~~dable,
tivity of the cult~~ral
choice. Vi7e IIIIIS~ also

colllmitlnent that is alany era -and the relaay rewllt fro*n sllcl~a
of Cartesianisin 2nd

free being--being as a project, being as existence choosing
its essence-and absolute heing. Nor is there any difference
between being as an ahsoltlte ten~porarilylocalized - that is,
localized in histoiy - and universally intelligible being.
'This does not entirely refute the charge of subjectivism; in
fact, that criticism is still being made in several ways. The
most cotnmon instance is when people tellus, "So you call do
whatever you like." This is expressed in various ways. First,
they tax us with anarchy; then they say, "You cannot jndge
others, for there is no reason to prefer one project to another." Finally, they say, "Since all of your choices are arbitrary, you receive into one hand what you grant with the
other." These three objections should not be taken too seriously. T h e first objection, that you can choose whatever
you lilte, is simply incorrect. In one sense, choice is possible;
what is impossible is not to choose. I can always choose, but I
must also realize that, if I decide not to choose, that still
constitutes a choice. This may seem a purely technical difference, but it is veiy important since it limits whim and caprice.
Although it is true t h a t in confronting any real situation, for
example that I am capable of having sexual intercourse with a
nlernber of t l ~ eopposite sex and of having children, I am
obliged to choose an attitude toward the situation, and in any
case I bear the responsibility of a choice that, in committing
irlyself, also comtnits humanity as a whole. Even if no apriovi
value can influence my choice, the latter has nothing to do
with caprice; and, if anyone thinks this is just another exam-

ple of Gide's theory of die gratuitous act, he has Riled to
grasp the vast difference between our theory and Gidek.
Gide does nrJt kxow wl~ata situation is; he acts merely by
caprice. Our view, on the other hand, is that Inan finds himself in a complex social situation in ~vhichhe hiinself is cornmitted, and by his choices commits all mankind, ant1 lle cannot avoid choosing. IIe will choose to abstaitl froin sex, or
marry without having children, or inarry and have children.
Whatever he does, he cannot avoid bearing full responsibility- for his situation. He must choose witl~outreference
to any preestablishedvalues, but itwould be unfiair to t a him
with capriciousness. Rather, let us say that inoral choice is
like constructing a work of art.
At this point, we need to digress a rnoment to make it clear
that we are not espousing an aesthetic morality, for our adversaries have shown such bad fiaith that they even reproach
us for that. I invoke the example of artistic ende;~vorsolely as
a means of comparison. I-Iaving said that, has anyone ever
blamed an artist for not following rules of painting estahlished a prio7-i? Has anyone ever told an artist what sort of
picture he should paint? It is obvious that there is no yredefined picture to be made, and that the artist commits himself in painting his own picture, and that the picture that
ought to be painted is precisely the one h a t he w~llhaye
painted. As we all know, there are no aestbet-icvalues a priori,
but there are values that will subsequently be reflected in the
coherence of the painting, in the relationslrip between the


will to create and the finished urork. N o one can say what
tomol-row's painting will look like; we cannot judge a painting ~nltilit is finished. What does that have to do with morality? We are in the same creative situation. We never speak of
the gran~itorlsnessof a work of art. When we discuss one of
Picasso's paintings, we never say that it is gratuitous; we
Itnow full well that his composition became what it is while
he was painting it, and that the body of his work is part and
parcel of his life.
T h e same applies to the n>oralplane. What art and morality have in common is creation and invention. We cannot
decide a p~io-ioriwhat ought to be done. I believe I made that
clear enough when discussing the case of tlie student who
caiiie to see me: regardless of whatever ethical system he
might attempt to follow, whether Kantian or any other, none
~ r o u l doffer any guidance. H e was obliged to invent his own
laws. Certainly we cannot claim that this young man-who
chose to remain wit11 his mother, taking as his &+ding moral
prtnciples his feelings, individual action, and concrete charity (or who could have chosen sacrifice by going to England)
m a d e a gratuitous choice. Man makes himself; he does not
come into the world fully made, he rnakes hiniself by choosing his own morality, and his circumstances are such that he
has n o option other than to choose a morality. We can define
man only in relation to his cominiunents. It is therefore Indicrons to blame us for the gratuitousness of our choices. In
the second place, people tell us: "You cannot judge others."

In one sense this is m e , in anotlier not. It is true in the sense
that whenever man chooses his co~nrnimentand his project
in a totally sincere and lucid way, it is iiupossihle for him to
preier another. It is also true in the sense that we tlo not
believe in tlie idea of progress. Pi-ogress i~n~llics
i~nprovement, but mall is always the satne, confronting a situation
that is forever changing, while choice always remains a
choice in any sirnation. T h e moral dilemnla has not changed
from the days of the American Civil War, whcn Inany were
forced to choose between taking sides for or against slavery,
to our own time, when one is faced widi the choirc between
the Popular Republican Movement [a Christiali democratic
party founded is1 19441 and the Conlmmiists.
Nevertheless we can pass judgment, for as 1 said, we
choose in the presence of others, and rarechoose ourselves in
the presence of others. First, we may judge (and this rnay be a
logical rather than a value jttdgs~ient)that certain choices are
based 013 error and otliers on truth. IVe may also judge a tnan
when we assert that he is acting in bad fiaitll. If we define
man's situation as one of free choice, in which he has no
recourse to excuses or outside aid, then any man who talies
refuge behind his passions, any man r~<liofabricates some
deterministic theory, is operating in bad faith. One tnight
object by saying: "But why shouldn't he choose bad faith?"
My answer is that I do not pass moral jndgtnent against him,
but I call his bad f ~ i t han error. Here, we callnot avoid making a judgme~itof truth. Bad faith is obviously a lie 1)ecauseit

E X 1 5 1 k2NTIALJShI I S A H U M A N I S M

is a dissimulation of man's full freedom of comrnitnleilt. 011
the same grounds, I would say that I am also acting in bad
faith if I dedare that I am bound to uphold certain values,
because it is a contradiction to embrace these d u e s while at
the same time affirming that I am bound by them. If someone were to ask Ine: "What if I want to be in bad fiaith?" I
would reply, "There is no reason why you should not be, but
I declare that you are, and that a strictly consistent attitude
alone de~nonsvatesgood faith." What is more, I am able to
bring a moral judgment to bear. When I affirm that freedom,
under any concrete circumstance, can have no other aim
than itself, and once a man realizes, in his state of abandonment, that it is he who imposes values, he can will but one
thing: freedom as the foundation of all values.
That doesnot meanthat he wills it in theabstract; itsimply
means that the ultimate significance of the actions of men of
good faith is the quest of freedom in itself. A man who joins a
communist or revolutionaqr group wills certain concrete
a i r ~ that
~ s imply an abstract will to freedom, yet that freedom
must always be exercised in a concrete manner. We will freedo111 for freedom's sake through our individual circumstances. And in thus willing freedom, we discover that it
depends entirely on the freedom of others, and t l ~ athe
t freedom of others depends on our own. Of course, freedom as the
definitiosl of man does not depend on others, but as soon as
there is commitment, I am obliged to will the freedom of

E X I S T E N T I A L I S M IS A tIUhlAfi~rSh1

others at the sarne tirne as I will my o~tm.I cannot szt ~ n own
freedom as a goal witliout also setting the freedom of others
as a goal. Consequently, when, operating on the level of coinplete authenticity, I have acknowledged that existence precedes essence, and that man is a free being who, uuder any
circumstances, can only ever will his freedom, I have at the
same time acknowledged that I lrlust will the freedom of
others. Therefore, in the name of this will to freedom, iinplied by freedomitself, 1can pass judgment on those who seek
to conceal from thenlselves the complete arbitrariness of
their existence, and their total freectom. Those who conceal
from tl~emselvesthis total freedom, under the p s e ofsolenlnity, or by maliing determinist excuses, I will call cowards.
Others, who try to prove their existence is necessary, when
man's appearance on earth is merely coiltingent, I will call
bastards. Butwhether cowards or bastards, they can he judged
only on the grounds of strict authenticity. .13hus, although the
contentofnloralitymay vary, a certain form of that~noralit~is
universal. ICant states that freedom wills itself anti the freedom of others. Agreed. But he believes tliatthe formal and tlre
universal are adeq~rateto constitute a morality LVe, to the
contrary, believe that principles that are too abstract fail to
define action. Consider again the case of the student: in the
name o f w h a t wl~atinviolablemoral maxim -could he possibly have decided, with perfect peace of mind, whether he
should abandon or remain with his mother? Tl~ereis no way

of judgillg. The colltellt is always specific; inventiveness is
always part of the process. T11e only thing that counts is
whether or not invention is made in the name of freedoin.
Consider, for example, the following two cases and you
will see to what extent they are similar, despite their obvious
differences. 'Take Ceorge Eliot's 11ovel The lWill on the Floss.
In that story, we encounter a yo~mgwoman, Alaggic Tulliver,
who is t h e ~ e r ~ i n c a n l a t i oofnpassion and is aware of the fact.
She falls in love with a young. man, Stepben, who is already
engaged to a very ordinary young girl. Instead of recklessly
pursuing her own happiness, h/laggie chooses, in the name of
hnrnan solidarity, self-sacrifice, giving up the man she loves.
O n the other hand, in Stendhal's The Charterhmse ofPartna,
La Sanseverina, who believes that passion is the measure of
man, would sap tlrat a great love justifies any sacrifice, and
must be preferred to the banality of a conjugal love like the
one that would bind Stephen to his silly goose of a fiancCe. It
is the latter she \vould have chosen to sacrifice for her own
happiness and, as Stendhal shows, she is even willing to make
the ~dtimatesacrifice for passion's sake if life demands it.
Here, we confront two diametrically opposed moralities, yet
I maintain they are equivalent, inasmuch as the ultimate aim
in both cases is freedom. Let us now imagine two different
attitudes with strikingly similar effects: one glrl, out of resignation, prefers to give up her lover, while the other, to fulfil1
her sexual desires, prefers to overlook the previous engagement of the man she loves. On the surfiace both cases seem to

niirror tlrose we have just described. 1 lowever, they are conpletely different. La Sanseveri~ra'sattitude has more in con]moll nith Maggie Tulliver's than it does with careless greed.
So, you can see that this second oL)jection i s both trne and
false. One can choose anything, so long as ic involves free
The third objection, which aTesaid can he stated as "You
receive into one hand what you grant with the other," means,
at bottom, our values need not he taken veiy seriously, since
we choose them ourselves. 111response, 1can say that I very
much regret it should be so, but if I l~aveeliminated God the
Father, there has to be solneone to inventvalues. Things must
be accepted as they are. What is more, to say that we invent
valnes means neither rilore nor less than this: life has no
meaning nprior-i. Life itself is 11or11inguntil it is li\,ed, it is we
who give it ineaning, and value is nodling more than the
meaning that we give it. You can see, then, that it is possible to
create a hunlall conzmuniqz Sorrie have Llarned me for postulating that existentialisn~is a form of hurnanis~n.~
have said to me, "Rut in Nausea you wrote that hunla~listsare
wrong; you even ridiculed a certain type ofhumanism, so why
are you reversing your opinion noxv?" Act~~ally,
the word
"hurnanism" has two very different meanings. By "huma11ism" we rllight mean a theory that taltes man as an end and as
the supreruevalue. For example, in his storyA~o~mi1
the Wor-Id
in 80 HOZCTS,
Cocteau gives expression to this idea when one of
his characters, flying over some inountains in a piane, pro-


claims: "Man is amazing!" This means: even though I myself
mq never have built a plane, I nevertheless still benefit froin
the plane's invention and, as a man, I should consider myself

responsible for, and honored by, what certain other men have
achieved.This presupposes that we can assign a value to man
based on the most admirable deeds of certain men. But that
lund of humanism is absurd, for only a dog-or a horse would be
in a position to form an overall judgment about man and
declare that he is amazing, which animals scarcely seemlikely
to do-atleast, as far asIknow. Nor is it acceptable that aman
should pronounce judgment on manlund. Existentialism dispenses with any judgment of this sort: existentialism will
never consider man as an end, because man is constantly in
the making. And ure have no right to believe that humanity
is something we could worship, in the manner of Auguste
Comte. T h e cult of humanity leads ultimately to an insular
Comteian humanism and -this needs to be said - to Fascism. We do notwant that type of humanism.
But there is another meaning to the word "humanism." It
is basically this: man is always outside of himself, and it is in
projecting and losing himself beyond himself that man is
realized; and, on the other hand, it is in pursuing transcendent
goals that he is able to exist. Since man is this transcendence,
and grasps objects oilly in relation to such transcendence, he
is himself the core and focus of this transcendence. T h e only
universe that exists is the human one - the universe of human
subjectivity.This link between transcel~denceas constitutive

of IUII ( n ~int tile sense that Gotl is transcendent, hut-in the
sense that man passes beyond hiinself) 2nd subjectivity(i11zhe
sense that rnanis not an islandunto hiinselfhut always present
in a human universe) is what we call "existentialist hnmanism." This is humanism because urerernind man that there is
no legislator other than himself and that he must, in his
abandoned state, make his own choices, and also because we
show that it is not by turning inward, but by constantly seeking a goal outside of himself in the form of liberation, or of
some special achievement, that man will realize himself as
truly human.
From these Few comments, it is evident that nothing is
more unjust than the objections people have brought against
us. Existentialis~nis merely an attempt to draw all of the
conclusiol~sinferred by a consistently atheistic point ofview.
Its purpose is not at all to plunge nlanlcind into despair. But if
we label any attitude of ut~helief"despair," as Christians do,
then our notion of despair is vastly different from its original
Existentialism is not so mn~ichan atheism in the sense that
it would exllaust itself attempting to demonstrate the nonexistence of God; rather, it affirnls that even if God were to
exist, itwould make no difference - that is our point of view.
It is not that we believe that God exists, butwe tl~itlkthat the
real problem is not one of his existence;what man needs is to
rediscover hiinself and to comprehe~tdthat nothing can save
him from himself, not even valid proof of the existence of

God. In this sense, existentialism is optimistic. I t is a doctrine
of action, and it is only in bad faith- in confi~singtheir owl1
despail. with ours - that Christiatls are able to assert that we
are "without hope."


This disr~asiontook place riwi~zgthe pcrtiow-nnd-answer cxcha?ge
.following Sartrek lecture on existentinli.~~.
Thefiat cries of/~~lestions came from an zi~zirlentifiedmenzbw of the uz~dic?zce.Piervt.
NaviNe was n Frckzcb mmenlist author and I@ist.
Q U E S T I o N : I don't know if this current effort to explain
existentialism will make you better or less well understood,
but I think that the clarification in Action makes your position
somewhat harder to understand.+ "Despair" and "abandonment" have an even greater resonallce in an existe~~tialist
than they usually do. And it seems to me that your understanding of "despair" or "anguish" is something more filndamental than a simple choice made by a man who realizes that
he is alone and so must make his own choices. I t is an awareness of the human condition that does not occur all the time.
That we must choose ourselves at all times is e\idcnt, but
anguish and despair are hardly convnlon emotions.
S A K T R E : Ol~viously,I do not mean that when I choose
between a cream pastry and a chocolate &clair,I an1 choosing
in anguish. T h e anguish is constant i11 the sense that my

initial choice is il constant thing. Indeed, in iny opinion, anguish is the total absence of justification accompanied, at the
sallie tirne, by responsibility toivard all.
Q U E S T I O N : I was spealung about the clarification offered in Action, and it seems to me that J ~ O Lvicur1laint,
L ~
as it
was expressed there, was slightly wealtened.
S A R T B E : In all sincerity, it is possible that the article in
Actio~zdid somewhat dilute my argyments. Atany of the people who intervieu~me are not qlvalified to do so. 'This leaves
me with two alternatives: refuse to answer their questions, or
agree to allow discussion to take place on a simplified level. I
chose the second because, when all is said and done, whenever we present our theories in the classroom, we agree to
dilute our thinking in order to male it understood, and that
doesn't seem like such a bad thing. If we have a theory of
commionent, we il~usthe conl~nittetlto the vei-y end. If existentialist pl~ilosophyis, first and foremost, a philosophy that
says "existence precedes essence," it tnust be experienced if it
is to be sincere. To live as an existentialist means to accept
the consequences of this doctrine and not nlerely to irnpose
it on others in books. Ifyou truly want this philosophy to be a
commitrnent, you have an obligation to tnake it comprehensible to those who are discussing it on a political or rnoral
I am reproached for using the word "l~umanism."That is
because the problem poses itself as follows: either we n~ust
convey the doctrine on a strictly philosophicol plane and


then leave it to luck as to whether or not it will have any
in~pact,or -since people are asking something else from it,
and since it is intended to be a commitment-we must agree
to popularize it on the condition that we don't deform it.
Q u E S T I o W : Those who want to understand will do so,
and those who do11't want to understand won't.
S A R TR E : YOUseem to conceive the role of philosophy
in the polity in an outmoded way. In the past, philosophers
were attacked only by other philosophers. T h e general puhlic did not understand philosophy at all, nor did they care.
These days, philosophy is shot down in the public square.
Marx himself never stopped trying to popularize his thought;
the ColrwnzlnistMarzifsto represents the popularization of his
Q u E s T I o N : Marx's initial choice was a revolutionary
S AR T R E :Anyone who could say whether Marx first
chose to be a revolutionaly and then a philosopher - or first
chose philosophy and then became a revolutiona~y-would
be clever, indeed. I l e is a philosopher a7zd a revolutionary:
the two things are inseparable. H e first chose to be a revolutionary- what can that possibly mean?
Q u E S T I o N : I do not consider the Commz~nist&fanif'e.~to
a popularization, but a combat weapon. I cannot imagine
that writing it was not an act of commitment.
Once Marx the philosopher concluded that revolution
was necessary, his first action was to write his Communist

hfm$esto, which was a political act. The I:o71rilcz~nistn/laizifesto is the link between Marxls philosophy and Corntuu-

nism. Whatever your morality may be, it isn't likely t o have
the kind of close, logcal connection to your philosophy as
the one that exists between the Cwm~~~mist
A"lanjfisto and
Marx's pllilosopl~~.
S A R T R E : RTeare dealing with a freedom-based philosophy. If there is no contradiction between our morality and
our philosophy, we callnot wish for anything more. The
types of commitment differ in accordance with the times. 111
an era when an act of c o ~ n ~ ~ l i t ~was
n e nperceived
as revolutionary, writing the Manfesto was a necessity. In a n era such
as ours, when various parties are each calling for revolution,
n~aliinga commitn~entdoes not mea:: joining one cif them,
but trying to clarify concepts in order to both identiEy respective positions and attempt to influence the various revolutionary parties.
P I E R R E N A V I L LTEh:e question that we ought to be
asking ourselves, based on the viewpoints that you ha\Te j ust
expressed, is whether or not yom doctrine is not going to be
perceived (in the period to come) as a revival of radicalsocialism. That Inay seem strange, but it is the way in which this
question should be asked. As a matter o f f ~ c tyou
, are taking a
position open to all sorts of perspectives. 13ut if we were to
look for a point of convergence between these various viewpoints and all these facets of existentialist ideas, I suspect that
we would discover it was some l;ind of revival of libcralism.

very special con-

Man is defined as the choices he nu~stmake. Very well.

ditions, that is to say, our current historical conditions -what
once constituted the essential tenets of radical socialis~nand

Above ail else, he exists in the presetit motnent, and beyond

Your philvsoplly attempts to revive

humanist liberalism. What makes the current situation differentis the factthat the world'ssocial crisis no longer permits
the old liberalism; it denlands a tormented and anguished
fomx of liheralism. I think that we can probahly isolate a
number of rather profound explanatioils for this belief, even if
we limit ourselves to your own terms. Your presentatioll
makes clear that existentialism should be seen as a humanism
and a freedom-based philosopl~ythat is essentially a precommitment, a project that cannot be defined. Like many other
people, you stress the dignity of mankind and the eminent

nattrl-al determinism; he does not define himself prior to his
existence, but does so according to his individual present.

Tliere is no humannanure superior to his, hut he is endowed
with a specific existence at a particular moment. I wonder
whether existence, tulderstood in these terms, is not yet another fonn of the concept of human nature that has taken on
a new expression for historical reasons, and whether it is not
very siinilar-more so than it inay seen1 at first glance-to
liun~annature as it was defined in the eighteenth century, and
whose concept you say you reject because traces of it can be
found, to a large extent, behind the expression "the hurnan

which, by and large, are

condition," employed by existentialists. Yonr conception of

not so distant from old liberal themes. To justify them, you

the human condinoil is a substitute for hurnan nature, just as

distinguish between the two meanings ofhutnanism, between

you substitute real-life experience for conimon or scientific

the two lneanings of humanity, between the two meanings of
the "human condition," and betweell the two meanings of a


digtuty of t l ~ eindividual-themes

numlier of outdated terms that also have a significant history,
and whose ambiguous nature is not coincidental. Th justify
them, you endow thein with a new meaning. I will not be
discussiilg all the special questions dealingwith philosoplucal

If we consider Ilurnan conditions as those deiined by "X,"
in whicl~"X" is the subject, rather than by their naix~ralcontext, or hy their affirmative determination, we are confronting another for111of hunlari naturc - a "nature-conditiol~,"if
you will, meaning that it is not simply defined as an abstract

technique -despite their interest and importance- and will

type of nature, but n~anifestsitself through something much

focus instead on the terms that I have heard. I will stress a
Pundamental point which shows tlxat, despite the fact you

more tlifficult to formn~llate,for what I consider historical

distil~guishtwo meanings of "humanism," you basically cling

reasons. Today, human nature is defined in social contexts
characterized by a general breakdown of the social system,

to the original one.

by classes, by conflicts that the latter experience, ancl I)y an

E X I S T E N ' T I ~ L I S I MI S h H U M A N T S M

intermixing of races and nations, as a result ofwhich the very
idea o f a uniform and schematic hurnan nature can n o longer
be perceived as having the sane general character, or the
same type of universality as it did in the eighteenth century
-in an era that seemed to express itself in terms of continuous progress. l n our own time, we confront an expression of
human nature that thinkers, or those who speak naively
about this issue, call "the human condition." They express
this chaotically, vaguely, and most frequently in some dramatic fashion, if you will, dictated by the cira~lnstances.And,
to the extent that people prefer not to exchange the broad
tern1 for this condition for the determinist assessnlent of
what conditions really are, they repain the type and outline of
an abstract expression analogous to that of human nature.
Thus, existentialism clings to the idea of a hurnan nature,
hut in t h s case it is not a self-congratulatory nature, but
rather a fearful, uncertain, and forlorn condition. Indeed,
when existentialism speaks of the human coudition, it means
a condition that