An Animated Introduction to the Existentialist Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre… and How It Can Open Our Eyes to Life’s Possibilities

Among the vogue names of mid­cen­tu­ry West­ern phi­los­o­phy, few ever rose to such cul­tur­al heights as that of Jean-Paul Sartre. Fans once dropped it when­ev­er they could, and made sure to be seen read­ing Being and Noth­ing­ness wher­ev­er they could. But why did his par­tic­u­lar ideas so cap­ti­vate his read­ers, and what — now that French phi­los­o­phy fever has, for the most part died down — do we still stand to gain from famil­iar­iz­ing our­selves with them? This six-and-a-half-minute ani­mat­ed Sartre primer from Alain de Bot­ton’s School of Life can get us start­ed under­stand­ing them.

Sartre’s entry in the accom­pa­ny­ing site The Book of Life breaks his exis­ten­tial­ist phi­los­o­phy down into four key insights: “Things are weird­er than we think,” “We are free,” “We shouldn’t live in ‘Bad faith’,” and “We’re free to dis­man­tle Cap­i­tal­ism.”

Or in oth­er words, every­day log­ic can give way to sheer absur­di­ty; that absur­di­ty pro­vides us glimpses of the vast and usu­al­ly unac­knowl­edged pos­si­bil­i­ties of life (which exist not least because noth­ing has any fixed pur­pose); we have an oblig­a­tion to acknowl­edge those pos­si­bil­i­ties and our free­dom to choose between them; and we need not live under a sys­tem that oper­ates to lim­it those pos­si­bil­i­ties. But how do we actu­al­ly act on any of this?

On the most basic lev­el, Sartre helps us real­ize that “things do not have to be the way they are.” He “urges us to accept the flu­id­i­ty of exis­tence and to cre­ate new insti­tu­tions, habits, out­looks and ideas. The admis­sion that life doesn’t have some pre­or­dained log­ic and is not inher­ent­ly mean­ing­ful can be a source of immense relief when we feel oppressed by the weight of tra­di­tion and the sta­tus quo.” That notion must have exud­ed a spe­cial appeal in the post­war West, when the enor­mous growth of large-scale indus­tri­al and cor­po­rate orga­ni­za­tions start­ed to make life seem fright­en­ing­ly reg­i­ment­ed.

Things may look quite dif­fer­ent here in the 21st cen­tu­ry, near­ly 40 years after Sartre’s death, but even after all our sup­posed enlight­en­ment and empow­er­ment since then, we’d do well to heed his insis­tence that noth­ing in our lives, or thoughts, or our econ­o­my real­ly has to be the way it is. And since none of it, in his view, came down to us divine­ly ordained, we can change any of it when­ev­er and how­ev­er we wish. We have that great pow­er, but with great pow­er, as the Spi­der-Man comics say, comes great respon­si­bil­i­ty. No won­der we so often pre­fer to pre­tend we have no choice.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Crash Course in Exis­ten­tial­ism: A Short Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Paul Sartre & Find­ing Mean­ing in a Mean­ing­less World

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Con­cepts of Free­dom & “Exis­ten­tial Choice” Explained in an Ani­mat­ed Video Nar­rat­ed by Stephen Fry

Jean-Paul Sartre on How Amer­i­can Jazz Lets You Expe­ri­ence Exis­ten­tial­ist Free­dom & Tran­scen­dence

Jean-Paul Sartre Breaks Down the Bad Faith of Intel­lec­tu­als

Le Blog de Jean-Paul Sartre Dis­cov­ered

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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