“Man is a useless passion.” These words penned by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre provide the model of modem existentialism. In this simple statement are found the most basic elements of a modern theory of man. It is a bottom-line judgment, a grim conclusion to the question, “What’s it all about?”
In its most basic definition existentialism is a philosophy about human existence. It views man not so much in terms of his mind or his soul, but of his will, his feelings. Man is a creature of passion. He feels strongly. He cares about life. He cries, he sings, he yearns, he curses. Human life cannot be reduced to elementary structures of biology. Man cannot be understood simply by his intellectual activity. It is his passion that makes him a man.
In former days when we wanted to know a person’s views on a particular topic, we would pose the question like this: “What do you think about that?” Now the question is usually stated differently: “What do you feel about that?” The accent has changed from thinking to feeling. Feelings have become the new standard of human “truth.” Even our ethics are decided by the litmus test of passion. Our moral creed is “If it feels good, it is good.” Or, to state it in musical terms that light up our lives, “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right.”
To test objective truth by subjective feelings seems at first glance as a rather bizarre way of going about things. But think (or feel) about it for a moment. If man is a passion, then his passion must be his most important standard. A man lives every moment with his feelings. We respond to life from a feeling level. Our guts lead our minds more often than our minds lead our guts.
Sartre was not suggesting that man no longer has a mind or that man never thinks. He knew better than that. Rather, it is a matter of accent. Paul Tillich spoke of God in terms of “Ultimate Concern.” Concern or caring is central to an existential view of the world.
To understand the philosophy of existentialism we must know a little bit of its background and what provoked it. In the past some philosophers were fond of creating massive systems or theories about man and his world. The goal was to achieve an objective view of the essence of humanness. Man sought to stand aloof from his own concerns to reflect on who he is. But there is something terribly dry and dull about the concept of humanness. What is humanness? Are you a humanness?
Even if we consider a more common term such as humanity we are left with the same problem. Humanity is a kind of “man-in-general.” Does anybody want to be a “man-in-general”? We know men, particularly colonels, who want to be generals, but there are few who desire to be general men.
Words like humanness, humanity, or man-in-general are abstractions. They lack life. When we seek to define man in “objective terms” we often overlook the sense in which man is a subject. Even the very term man can provoke an allergic reaction. The reaction comes not only from women who are angry about being subsumed under the broader category of “man,” but also from males who are existentialists. The protest of the existentialist is this: There is no such thing as man, only men and women.
The words man and mankind are what philosophers call “universals.” Again, they are abstract concepts about a group or a class. When societies place the stress on groups or classes usually the individual person gets lost or eclipsed. In our society we speak, for example, of corporations as if they were living creatures. We say that corporations pay taxes. We sometimes forget that corporations are people. The personal element is obscured by abstract universals.
An abstract universal is an attempt to get at what we call the essence of a thing. We know that there are men. But why do we call men, “men”? There are only individuals, and each individual person is different from every other individual person. Yet there are similarities among individuals. Most of us have two arms and two legs, a nose, a mouth, and ears. But so do baboons. What happens if we lose a leg? Do we stop being men?
When we try to define a human being, we try to isolate the unique factors that make us human rather than baboons or daffodils. We are looking for the “essence” that makes us human rather than something else. What is this common essence that we share as human beings?
Plato wrestled with this problem in the ancient world. He sought for a definition of man that would set him apart from all other creatures. He thought he had discovered an acceptable definition when he called man a “featherless biped.” The definition worked fine until one of Plato’s enterprising students threw a plucked chicken over the wall with a sign attached to it that read, “Plato’s man.”
Existential philosophers are not satisfied with defining man as a plucked chicken. They are not fond of any definition of man that leaves us in the realm of abstract “essences.” The axiom set forth by Sartre was that existence precedes essence. It is the existence of man (or more properly, “men”) that matters, not some abstract essence.
Of course existential philosophers still speak of man-in-general. It is difficult to escape it altogether. Our opening quotation from Sartre bears witness to that. Remember the quote? “Man is a useless passion.” Sartre did not say, “Men are useless passions.” In this quotation Sartre began with essence rather than existence. But again, the accent, the point of concern is with concrete existence rather than with abstract essence.
There are different types of existential philosophers. We will examine later those who have tried to combine existential philosophy with Christianity in an optimistic way. Our concern for the moment, however, is with the pessimistic variety. Sartre does not rest with saying that man is a passion. He stresses the morbid conclusion that he is a useless passion. Here is the crux of pessimistic existentialism.
The term useless is ominous. It rivals its synonym futile for being one of the most terrifying words in the English language. That my passions should be useless or futile is to force me to despair. It is not by accident that the word despair is a much used term in existential literature.
Useless passions are passions that are futile. They have no meaning. Sartre’s grim conclusion is that all of our caring, our concerns, our deepest aspirations are empty of significance. Human life is meaningless. It is a cosmic joke and the cold, impersonal, indifferent universe is the comedian. It would be better for us if the universe were hostile. At least we could be involved with an enemy that might possibly be vanquished or persuaded to be more friendly. But an indifferent universe is a universe that doesn’t care. It doesn’t care, because it cannot care; it is impersonal.