Iwas a teenage existentialist. I became one at 16 after spending birthday money from my granny on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. It was the cover that attracted me, with its Dalí painting of a dripping watch and sickly green rock formation, plus a blurb describing it as “a novel of the alienation of personality and the mystery of being”. I didn’t know what was mysterious about being, or what alienation meant – although I was a perfect example of it at the time. I just guessed that it would be my kind of book. Indeed it was: I bonded at once with its protagonist Antoine Roquentin, who drifts around his provincial seaside town staring at tree trunks and beach pebbles, feeling physical disgust at their sheer blobbish reality, and making scornful remarks about the bourgeoisie. The book inspired me: I played truant from school and tried drifting around my own provincial town of Reading. I even went to a park and tried to see the Being of a Tree. I didn’t quite glimpse it, but I did decide that I wanted to study philosophy, and especially this strange philosophy of Sartre’s, which I learned was “existentialism”.
No one can be completely sure what existentialism is, since its own chief thinkers disagreed about its tenets and many of them denied being existentialists at all. Among the few exceptions were the two most famous, Sartre and his companion Simone de Beauvoir, who accepted the label mainly because they grew tired of telling people not to call them it.
They worked their philosophy out carefully, but their followers often treated existentialism more as a style or attitude than a set of beliefs. Several generations of disaffected youngsters before me had sat in cafes with slim volumes of Sartre or Albert Camus on the table in front of them, smoking strong cigarettes from blue packages and talking of nothingness and anxiety. In the 1940s, when the existentialist fashions began, the men wore raincoats and plaid shirts, and women let their hair grow long and loose in what one journalist termed the “drowning-victim” look. Later, the black woollen turtleneck took over – which must have made everybody severely sweaty in the subterranean jazz clubs of Paris’s Left Bank, where they went dancing. By day, they hoped for a sighting of the legendary writers – Camus with his movie-star looks, De Beauvoir with her turban and attractively hooded eyes, and Sartre with his pipe, his dumpy form and his comb-over. Today, the whole scene seems drenched in nostalgia. Meanwhile, existentialist ideas about freedom and youthful rebellion have become so much a part of popular culture that we hardly remember how scandalous they once were.
I am convinced that existentialism should be seen as more than a fad, however, and that it still has something to offer us today. In a spirit of experiment, here are 10 possible reasons to be an existentialist – or at least to read their books with a fresh sense of curiosity.
1 Existentialists are philosophers of living
The philosophy that Sartre, De Beauvoir and many of their friends studied at school and university was an arcane discipline, much preoccupied with the question of how we can be 100% certain of anything. It’s an important job, and someone has to do it. But Sartre and De Beauvoir tired of it and were more drawn to the 19th-century mavericks Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard, with their philosophies of individual existence and “life”. They also discovered a new German method called “phenomenology”, which tried to start with immediate experience rather than abstract axioms. “You see,” said Sartre’s friend Raymond Aron, who introduced the couple to the idea over cocktails in a bar during the winter break of 1932-33, “if you are a phenomenologist you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!”
Sartre was so excited when he heard this that he literally turned pale, according to De Beauvoir. He went to study philosophy in Berlin for a year, then came back to work out a philosophy based on his own very Parisian experiences. He created a philosophy not just of cocktails but of cafes and jazz songs; of the movements of waiters as they glided across the floor to top up his glass; of sleazy hotels and public gardens; of the passion for a desired lover or the revulsion from an unwanted one; of tiredness, apprehensiveness, excitement, vertigo, shame, war, revolution, music and sex. Especially sex.
2 Existentialists really care about freedom
Existentialists think that what makes humans different from all other beings is the fact that we can choose what to do. In fact, we must choose: the only thing we are not free to do is not to be free. Other entities have some predefined nature: a rock, a penknife or even a beetle just is what it is. But as a human, there is no blueprint for producing me. I may be influenced by biology, culture and personal background, but at each moment I am making myself up as I go along, depending on what I choose to do next. As Sartre put it: “There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.” It is terrifying, but exhilarating.
What would it mean for us today, if we truly believed this idea? For a start, we might be more sceptical about the simplified popular-science arguments suggesting that we are out of control of ourselves – that, when we speak, click on a button, or vote, we are only following unconscious and statistically predictable forces rather than deciding freely. What intrigues me is the eagerness with which we seem to seize on this idea; it is as though we find it more comforting than disturbing. It lets us off the hook, taking away the existential anxiety that comes with making a genuine choice. It may be dangerous: other research suggests that people who have been convinced that they are not free tend to make less ethical choices.
Then there is the question of social freedom. After the 1960s, the battle for personal liberty seemed to be mostly won. The achievements have been great – and yet, in the 21st century, we find ourselves less sure than ever about how far our freedom includes the right to offend or transgress, and how much of it we want to compromise in return for convenience, entertainment or an illusion of total security. Freedom may become one of the great enigmas of our time, and the existentialists’ radical take on it may be worth a second look.
3 (Some) existentialists have interesting sex lives
Sartre and De Beauvoir applied their principle of freedom, above all, to their own partnership, a magnificently successful one that lasted half a century from its beginning in 1929 to Sartre’s death in 1980. They wanted to share their lives but didn’t want to accept conventional limitations, so they agreed to remain primary partners while indulging in polyamory with others.
This did lead to some unpalatable behaviour, as when De Beauvoir became involved with her own young students before apparently passing them on to Sartre. He was a serial seducer: one scurrilous journalist in 1945 chortled over rumours of him tempting women up to his bedroom by offering them a sniff of his Camembert cheese (well, good cheese was hard to get in 1945).
One has to remember that their way of life was motivated by vehement rejection of the “bourgeois” conventions with which they had grown up, in a world that expected people to get married, acquire property and children, and observe traditional gender roles, while having hushed-up affairs on the side. Sartre and De Beauvoir instead chose to live by their own philosophy of honesty and free choice.
De Beauvoir’s desire to break with received ideas about sexuality helped inspire her pioneering 1949 work of feminism, The Second Sex – the most widely influential existentialist text ever produced. She marshalled evidence to show, on an epic scale, how women grow up to be more hesitant and self-doubting than men, and less inclined to pursue the basic existentialist goal of taking responsibility for their lives. Many women, reading the book, decided to shake off their inhibitions and have a go after all.
The chapter that most shocked contemporaries concerned lesbianism – and Sartre, too, was a supporter of gay rights, although he remained convinced that sexuality was a matter of existential choice rather than a given reality such as blue eyes or dark hair. Either way, Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s philosophies of self-determination encouraged gay people to live freely and forthrightly, rather than trying to fit in with other people’s ideas of how they should be.
Thus, if Sartre’s and De Beauvoir’s attitudes to sexuality led them to behave badly at times, it also led them to feminism and to bold declarations of LGBT rights at a time when few dared even to speak of such things.
4 Existentialists tackle painful realities
Not all existentialism is about jolly sex romps. It also confronts aspects of the human condition that we might prefer not to think about, but that will not go away.
One is anxiety. Today, we often approach this as a disorder in need of treatment, but the existentialists saw it as an essential part of human experience, and one particularly revealing of our situation in the world. Heidegger described moments of “uncanniness”, when everyday things turn unfamiliar or disturbing, and we cease to take them for granted. Camus, too, wrote about the times when, in a sudden “weariness tinged with amazement”, we abandon our daily habits and ask the most basic question: why exactly do I go on living?
For Heidegger, we also run up against the horrifying realisation that, whatever I do, I will die one day. I am mortal, and this limitation is part of what I am. If I embrace the truth of this, I can achieve a superior form of what he cheerily calls “Being-towards-Death”. Sartre and De Beauvoir wrote about death too, but for them it cannot be embraced so positively. Death is an outrage that comes to us from outside our lives and wipes them out. What we can do, at least, is to resist the false consolations of belief in immortality. Some existentialists did have religious faith, but Sartre and De Beauvoir were radical humanist atheists; Sartre said that he had lost his faith at the age of 11 while standing at a bus stop. They stuck to their conviction that this is the life we have, and that our task is to live it in the fullest and most honest way.
5 Existentialists try to be authentic
However tough it is, existentialists generally strive to be “authentic”. They take this to mean being less self-deceiving, more decisive, more committed, and more willing to take on responsibility for the world.
Most of the time, we don’t do this very well. Why? For Heidegger, the fault lies with our bewitchment by a non-entity called das Man, often translated as “the they” – as in “they say it will all be over by Christmas” (or the “one” in the phrase “one doesn’t do that”). We can’t say who exactly this “they” is, but it is everywhere, and it steals the decisions I should be making by myself.
For Sartre, the problem is mauvaise foi, or bad faith. To avoid facing up to how free I am, I pretend not to be free at all. If I haven’t managed to write my great book, I convince myself that there were too many unavoidable demands on my time, rather than admitting that I freely chose to spend that time watching cat videos on the internet.
We all indulge in bad faith. It is sometimes even beneficial, since it makes life livable. I can’t be staring into the abyss of freedom all the time – I have a train to catch. So I set my alarm clock, and when it goes off I roll out of bed unquestioningly as though the clock were controlling me like a marionette (so said Sartre; I find my own response to alarm clocks is less predictable). A fully authentic life is probably impossible, but trying for an authentic moment now and then does us good.
Authenticity has become something of a commodity now. We are sold authentic-sounding recordings on vinyl records, authentic breakfast cereal, authentic floorboards, and authentic prepackaged holiday experiences. The existentialists remind us that authentic authenticity has more to do with honesty and alertness. Another existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, said that the distinctive task of a philosopher was to remain ever-vigilant so that, when seductive political delusions or lies crept over our minds, he or she could ring like an alarm clock and wake everybody up.
6 Existentialists think it matters what we do (and may stay up all night arguing about it)
Most existentialists were in favour of getting out into the world and making a difference, rather than being authentic all by themselves in a room. Sartre and De Beauvoir made a point of being “engaged” or “committed” in their political lives. It was not just talk: they campaigned for many causes, notably on the side of independence fighters during the Algerian war of 1954 to 1962. This made them many enemies. On 7 January 1962, someone planted a bomb in the apartment above the one Sartre shared with his mother. By sheer luck, no one was hurt, though both flats were damaged. He and his mother moved out, but he did not let the attack stop his activism. The belief in the importance of commitment had roots in an idea borrowed from the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant: that even small decisions should be made as though we were deciding for all humanity, not just for our paltry selves. This belief in the mattering of everything made the Parisian existentialists passionate debaters: it seemed so important to get everything right. They stayed up all hours arguing with friends – who were not always friends any more by the time morning came.
What principles could be worth losing friends over? Well, some decisions really do matter in that life-or-death way. After the A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Sartre wrote an essay pointing out how this changed everything. From now on, he said, we know we can destroy ourselves, so we must decide every day whether we want to keep living. Camus also saw humanity as being confronted by a choice between collective suicide and learning a more intelligent use of its technology – “between hell and reason”. They are still right about this.
7 Existentialists are not conformists
Contrary to general belief, Sartre and De Beauvoir did not generally toe a party line, although they kicked a few around. Sartre briefly considered himself a communist convert in the early 1950s, especially after a bizarre incident in which the French Communist party leader, Jacques Duclos, was arrested and held for a month after being caught in a car containing two dead pigeons. The authorities thought the birds had been intended for taking messages to Moscow; Duclos said he was taking them home to cook for dinner. Sartre wrote, “after 10 years of ruminating, I had come to the breaking point”: this absurd affair capped years of petty harassment of communists in France. He defended the party by writing articles, but even now he did not sign up. He later rejected the Soviet model and experimented with Maoism, but Sartre’s politics are probably best summed up by a remark he made in 1968: “If one rereads all my books, one will realise that I have not changed profoundly, and that I have always remained an anarchist.”
On their side, the communists never accepted existentialism. They disliked its insistence on freedom: how could a load of haywire existentialists ever contribute to a properly organised collective revolution? One leftist dismissed existentialism as “an introspective embryo that one would take distinct pleasure in crushing”. Rightwingers hated it just as much, and so did the Catholic church, which in 1948 put Sartre’s entire works on the Index of Prohibited Books, followed later by De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. They feared that reading atheist existentialists would lead people to doubt their faith and church authority – which it did. Existentialism inclines people to doubt and challenge almost everything – even if its own practitioners sometimes took a while to see this.
8 Existentialists can be fun to read
A rarely noted fact about existentialists and their allies is that they wrote some wonderful books – along with some dreadful ones.
Camus is famously readable: he deliberately modelled his novel The Outsider on jagged American crime stories, rather than on the poised elegance of high French literature. De Beauvoir created gripping psychological fiction out of the real-life dramas and discussions raging among her friends, and she encouraged Sartre to make his Nausea more like a whodunnit than a treatise. Actually, even his treatises had novelistic qualities. He incorporated many personal experiences into his masterwork Being and Nothingness, often to startling effect, since his perspective included peculiar hangups about trees, ski tracks, honey and slimy things, and terrifying post-mescaline flashbacks in which he was pursued by imaginary lobsters.
As for Heidegger, his writing affords different kind of pleasure – although that word is not often mentioned in relation to his books. He wrote them in a style filled with idiosyncratic coinages. Instead of talking about human beings or conscious minds, for example, he talks about Dasein, literally meaning “being-there”. The idea is to keep us from slipping lazily into traditional habits and errors of thought. After reading a few dozen pages, you find his language becoming seductive and contagious – at least until you come across a phrase such as “ahead-of-itself-already-being-in (a world) as being-together-with (beings encountered within the world)”, at which point you either swoon in delight or collapse in despair.
Besides writing in unconventional styles …
9 Existentialists also write about unconventional subjects
They and their phenomenological friends often took topics previously considered on the fringes of philosophy, such as the body, gender, sexuality, social life, child development and our relationship with technology, and brought them into the very centre of their thought.
Take technology. Heidegger was a pioneer in noticing how much it has changed the very nature of human experience. In a lecture on the subject in 1953 (attended by Werner Heisenberg, among others), he said that the essence of technology is not itself anything “technological”. That is, it has nothing to do with making machines more user-friendly or efficient or productive. The real question is about our own way of being: investigating technology takes us into deep questions about how we work, how we occupy the Earth and who we are. He also warned against our endless desire to make everything on the planet more exploitable and storable. Ultimately, we even challenge and store ourselves, as is evident in the phrase “human resources”.
Heidegger was mainly thinking of 1950s contraptions such as combine harvesters, hydroelectric dams, typewriters and cinema projectors, to name just a few things he didn’t like, but one can’t read this today without thinking of our online lives, and computerised surveillance. One prescient German commentator, Friedrich Heinemann, remarked in his 1954 book Existentialism and the Modern Predicament that the coming “ultra-rapid computing machine” would raise the most “truly existential question” of all: that of how we can remain free. In 2001, the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus described the internet as the ultimate Heideggerian device: one that sought to convert everything (including the stuff of our own lives) into a smooth network of stored “resources”, instantly available but stripped of depth and privacy.
Fifteen years after these words were published, many of us are already so immersed in that network that we can hardly find a separate vantage point from which to think critically about it. Heidegger is there to remind us not just to question the technology itself, but to question ourselves.
This whole issue makes a good example of the final reason:
10 Existentialists think big
Unlike some later continental philosophers, besotted with the play of meanings in texts and uninterested in real people, the existentialists went directly for the biggest and most personal questions. What are we? What makes us different from other animals? What is freedom? How do we interact? How, if we don’t believe in God, can we still live meaningfully and purposefully? What world do we want to create for the future? What responsibilities do we have? What do we do?
The existentialists won’t give us easy solutions, and as individuals they do not even make good personal examples: they are too flawed. Sartre was self-indulgent and demanding, and he defended odious regimes, if only fleetingly. Heidegger, as is now well documented, was a nationalist and Nazi sympathiser who probably remained one long after the war. Almost everyone in the existentialist story displayed some qualities that should make us uncomfortable.
But they do offer something more useful: they were interesting thinkers. They remind us that existence is difficult and that people behave appallingly, but at the same time they point out how vast our human possibilities are. That is why we might pick up some inspiring ideas from reading them again – and why we might even try being just a little more existentialist ourselves.