French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre has a not-unearned reputation for gloominess. But that doesn’t mean the 20th-century thinker’s writings aren’t great source documents for figuring out your path in life. What’s the best decision, say, when deciding your professional course?
An example from public life is that of American actor Natalie Portman. Portman achieved success in film at a young age but, as an undergraduate at Harvard, also excelled at psychology. “We talked a lot about her career,” law school professor Alan Dershowitz told The Harvard Crimson. “It’s all about choice. She would be a great psychologist, and she’s a great actor.”
Sartre puts forward just such a crossroads scenario in his 1946 lecture “Existentialism is a humanism,” where he describes a pupil torn between looking after his ailing mother and joining the French resistance. There’s no moral law to determining the solution, says Sartre. Instead, the pupil may only confer value by making the choice.
“Sartre is saying that you choose your criteria, and then act consistently with that choice,” explains Thomas Flynn, philosophy professor at Emory College. Even if you ask people for advice or draw up a list of arguments, you’re still choosing whose advice to take, and which arguments to prioritize.
“Sartre thinks you are self-moving,” says Flynn. “You’re radically free.”
Sartre’s thoughts on how to make a life decision aren’t just a handy addendum to his philosophy, but a reflection of one of his core beliefs: that existence precedes essence. Or, as one character put it in“No Exit,” Sartre’s oft-cited play, “A man is what he wills himself to be.”
“If I’m deciding to become a writer or businessman, there’s no essence in me that’s either businessman or writer,” says Robert Harrison, professor at Stanford University who teaches on Sartre. “It’s by choosing one or the other that I make myself the way I am.”
Sartre believed absolutely in freedom. Rather than moralizing the particular result of a choice, he thought the very freedom to choose had inherent value.
But this freedom, and the responsibility of being able to choose one’s own life and being through existence, can cause great angst (that well-known existentialist phenomenon). This anxiety may cause some people to let institutions or society make their decisions for them, says Harrison.
Though responsibility can be a burden, there’s also a certain comfort to Sartre’s belief that there is no intrinsic right choice. When you’re making a major life decision, there’s no clue in your past or soul, no watertight argument, that will unveil the correct answer.
Instead, it’s by making the choice, by looking forward and committing to the person you want to be and the life you want to live, that you determine who you are.