“If man…is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he will himself have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature…” Jean-Paul Sartre, in ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’
A man will be what he will have made himself to be.
Aristotle would concur. But for Aristotle all the drama of this statement is rooted in the fact that there is a human nature. A man can choose to respond to the ‘given’—or we could say the gift—of human nature. Will I put first things first, according to the order that I discover? It is up to me; nobody can walk the walk for me.
But if Sartre is right, the only walk there is, is the walk I or others will choose to walk. I am master not only of my own actions, but of good and evil itself.
A sign that Sartre is wrong is not that he has pointed out too great a burden. Rather, he has not comprehended something yet greater. The greatness of a good that is for man, but not designed by man.
Aristotle: “[the distinction of good and evil] may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature.” Indeed such may be thought.
But when we lay our head on our pillow tonight, we should rest assured: the true goal of our self-making-through-action is already written, and it is something we could never have conceived. Our glorious burden is to transcribe it, to make it a reality in our lives.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is a major figure in the philosophy of existentialism.