Wednesday Quotes
If Sartre is Right
November 12, 2014


“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.

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  1. […] Originally posted at Bacon from Acorns […]

  2. So do you believe that our “lives” or “paths” are predetermined, and we are just acting them out?

  3. Important question, Crystel. I concur with Aristotle’s conviction that the fundamental aspects of human excellence are given; or in other words, there is a human nature and a corresponding human flourishing. At the same time, each person must freely live out, or respond to, the given natural order, and each of our stories or paths will have real differences. There is room for real creativity in the human drama.
    That the human path to fulfillment or happiness has a fundamental objectivity is the ground for our traveling this path TOGETHER with other human persons,especially our friends and loved ones. Thanks for asking.

  4. I, too, am on the side of Aristotle. For me the answer is in experience—I know there’s the possibility of getting “it” wrong, whatever “it” is…and Aristotle leaves this vague, a golden mean that’s somewhat relative. How can there be real improvement if we create ourselves ex nihilo? It doesn’t seem comprehensible to me. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be comprehensible?

    1. I think you have very good point about improvement. We naturally have a sense that we can and should do better than we are now. The ‘better’ is not simply of our own determination–though it is very much up to us to do it. Existentialists have a profound sense of human responsibility; what they often miss is the given context of that responsibility.

  5. I have been thinking about this for a little while now and I cannot quite figure out where I stand on it. Part of me seems to be leaning towards the idea that we are pre-determined in our “nature” as humans as in we are all born with some traits that bound us to repeat the same patterns as a specie.

    1. Thank you Crystel for sharing your dilemma. I think that Aristotle is right in this: that there is a given human nature and thus an objective standard for human greatness, while at the same time there is profound responsibility in the individual to respond freely to that truth. And surely we need to support one another in our efforts to live well, and to be true to the gift that is human existence.