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.
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.