I suffered a horrible moment of self truth today: I am not an existentialist. I’m reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Existentialism Is a Humanism and while so much of it affirms my terrible sense of despair and abandonment (despite Sartre’s defense that those two things are not necessarily negative perspectives (how horrible to have a life perspective called ‘despair’)), I can’t accept the fundamental doctrine of “existence preceding essence” in regards to human nature. Sartre says that if there is human nature than there is a predetermined guideline over human action and essence precedes existence in the same way the function of a kitchen knife is conceived before it is created. If the knife cuts someone, it is because a knife is sharp and used to cut. That is its nature, so to speak. But “man,” Sartre says, “first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself. If man...cannot be defined, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature since there is no God to conceive of it.” While I agree that God is not the designer of humanity or its nature, I still can’t shake my understanding of biology. Genetically, if mother and father have blue eyes, baby probably will too. That is neither human nature nor essence preceding existence, but if we apply the same mechanics to genetic variation, we can assign certain behavior to specific genes and actually know what this person’s personality could potentially be like, like separated twins with the same mannerisms. Is that not predefined, at least biologically? So much of my despicable behavior, I’ve happily excused as the dominant cocktail of animalisms from my mother and father, but I’ve also held firmly to the understanding that intrinsic good or bad is my choice. In so many ways, I am man, I am beast, but in so many more, I simply am.
The more I reflect on this, counter-argue myself, and discover new questions, I can’t help but know, as I am alive, that there is no solution; I’m left alone to watch from the windows of my personal train wreck and know that I steered it there for lack of guidance and understanding of the human condition. We are alone, and humanity is doomed to always bloody its fingers, scratching at the high walls of hope.
Existentialism: “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.”
It's painful, but it embodies my quietism and despair. I guess I’m existential after all.
Existentialism Is a Humanism pp. 1-7
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