Existentialism Is a Humanism

by Jean-Paul Sartre | 128 pages

Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher, novelist, playwright, and critic. He was a leading intellectual of the 20th century and the leading proponent of existentialism. This short book is a transcript of a speech Sartre gave in 1945 to address many of the critics of existentialism. It’s a *remarkably* lucid, concise exposition on the primary tenets of existentialism—even more remarkable given the fact that Sartre gave this lecture without notes. Big Ideas we explore: Anguish + its antidote, passion vs. choice, quietism vs. commitment, the stern optimism of existentialism and moral choices as a work of art.


“What do we mean here by ‘existence precedes essence’? We mean that man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterward defines himself. 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. Man is not that which he conceives himself to be, but that which he wills himself to be, and since he conceives of himself only after he exists, man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. This is the first principle of existentialism.”

~ Jean-Paul Sartre from Existentialism Is a Humanism

Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher, novelist, playwright, and critic. He was a leading intellectual of the 20th century and the leading proponent of existentialism.

While reading Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, I saw that James Stockdale included this book in his course syllabus on moral philosophy. So, of course, I immediately picked it up along with a bunch of the other titles. (We’ll be systematically working through that syllabus.)

Interestingly, both Stockdale and Sartre were prisoners of war. Sartre spent a year in a Nazi prison camp while Stockdale spent eight years in a North Vietnamese prison. In addition to sharing that experience, the two also share a FIERCE commitment to personal responsibility—which is, at the core, what both Stoicism and existentialism are all about.

(On that note, Viktor Frankl comes to mind—another man who suffered the indignities of war and wrote about the last freedom we each have: the freedom to choose our response to any given situation he describes in Man’s Search for Meaning.)

This short book is a transcript of a speech Sartre gave in 1945 to address many of the critics of existentialism. It’s a *remarkably* lucid, concise exposition on the primary tenets of existentialism—even more remarkable given the fact that Sartre gave this lecture without notes. (Get a copy here.)

As you can imagine, the book is not a leisurely read. I’m going to do my best to pull out some of my favorite Big Ideas we can apply to our lives today, so let’s jump straight in!

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About the author

Authors

Jean-Paul Sartre

Philosopher, novelist, playwright, and literary critic.