The philosophy of existentialism has not been responsible for every social change in the past 100 years, but with its new insistence on people being free to take action it influenced liberation movements in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s, continued to have an impact with Occupy Wall Street, and today it’s just as relevant with Black Lives Matter and the onset of the Trump administration. Let me explain why.
Sarah Blackwell in her book At the Existentialist Cafe points out that the concept of existentialism can be traced back to Ecclesiastes and Job, the man who dared to question the game God was playing with him. Sound relevant today? Modern existentialism took root in the 1940’s during difficult times through the writings of Simone de Beauvoir, an early feminist, and her boyfriend Jean-Paul Sartre. For Sartre existentialism meant, “Having found myself thrown into this world, I go on to create my own definition. I create myself constantly through action.” By the last years of World War II it had made him a star. Rather than accepting the world as it it is, he proclaimed “You are free, therefore choose – that is to say invent.” In his day even if the situation was unbearable – sitting in a Gestapo prison – you were still free to make something of it. And in choosing, you chose to be free – both frightening and exhilarating.
Martin Luther King took an interest in Sartre’s writings, but in the years following, existentialism declined because of the liberation movements of the 1950’s and 1960’s which achieved so much in civil rights, decolonization, women’s equality and gay rights. It seemed then as though these campaigns had got what they wanted. However, Blackwell points out that today we are reminded that racial, sexual, religious, and ideological conflict are not closed cases at all. Sartre had supported gay rights and felt that situations should be judged according to how they appeared in the eyes of those most oppressed.
Sartre in his day accepted that moral authority often came from the church but that priests were sometimes collaborators. (The Catholic Church banned his writings.) He thought that Christian ethics could only tell him to love his neighbor and to do good to others but without much specificity. So he refined his thinking to:
“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 in him.”
Freedom for Sartre lay at the heart of all human experience, and this set human experience apart from all other kinds of objects which merely set in place, waiting to be pushed or pulled around. In the midst of a Trump storm we should not allow ourselves to be pushed or pulled around.
This turned philosophy into the stuff of real life, committing ourselves to political activity. These ideas emanated from lengthy conversations in French cafes and jazz joints sometimes over apricot cocktails, but today take place in Starbucks, union halls, immigration centers, town council meetings, policy debates, street rallies and the Internet. And such philosophy is needed now more than ever.
To learn more about existentialism and its impact you can read: At the Existential Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails – by Sarah Bakewell.