The story of my life – as it is for most of us – is a quest for meaning and purpose on my journey toward inevitable death. Like every one of us, I was born with a one-way ticket, stamped non-refundable. Destination is, in a certain sense, unknown, but in another sense, known all too well.
Ever since my high school years, when I read Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” for the first time, the existentialists have been contributing to the story of my life; they have been valued company on my quest for past and future. While these writers have not provided me with answers to the questions that I keep asking, they have reassured me that I am asking the right questions: How can we learn to be free in the face of all that limits and restricts our ability to choose? What are our duties to ourselves and to others? What must we do to become and remain authentic human beings? How can we come to terms with the undeniable fact that we must die?
The term existentialism is elusive, exceedingly difficult to pin down. Some would argue that existentialism is a mood of rebellion and alienation, a profound dissatisfaction with the status quo rather than a definable philosophy. Nevertheless, Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the prominent French existentialist writer and political activist, does attempt to express the core of existentialist philosophy in a three-word formula: Existence precedes essence.
That is to say, the existentialists, despite their considerable differences of approach, are concerned with life as we live it – with all our tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, seeing –before we submit our lived experience to the tyranny of intellectual analysis, to an orderly examination of how we go about the chaotic business of moving through each day as it comes. The existentialists, then, are not concerned with abstract ideas, with logical arguments, but with ongoing questions that both press and oppress us as human beings.
In her recently published book, “At the Existentialist Café” (New York: Other Press, 2016), Sarah Bakewell explores the different ways in which 20th-century existentialists address such questions. While she comments on the lives and thoughts of dozens of individuals, she concentrates on Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Carl Jaspers, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. As Bakewell clarifies the obscure and contradictory positions taken by these men and women, she provides a wealth of biographical detail that places their written words within the context of their often confused and messy lives.
In discussing the thinking of Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), Bakewell points to what is perhaps the central paradox of the existentialist stance: “It acknowledges the radical and terrifying scope of our freedom in life, but also the concrete influences that other philosophies tend to ignore: history, the body, social relationships and the environment.” To formulate this paradox as a question: How can we be free to choose the way we live within the context of all those external – and internal – influences that necessarily limit our choice?
Sartre, de Beauvoir’s long-term companion and lover, approaches this question by drawing a distinction between bad faith and good faith: “For Sartre, we show bad faith whenever we portray ourselves as passive creations of our race, class, job, history, nation, family, heredity, childhood influences, events, or even hidden drives in our subconscious which we claim are out of our control.” Sartre does admit that all of these factors impinge upon our freedom; nevertheless, it is bad faith to call upon such limiting conditions as an excuse for not exercising our freedom to choose. By way of contrast, “... for each of us – for me – to be in good faith means not making excuses for myself.”
The 20th-century existentialists are by no means the first individuals to wrestle with the ongoing tug-of-war between freedom and necessity; this tension is as old as the dawn of human consciousness. The question of how we can make free choices while being restricted by a host of internal and external constraints is addressed in a variety of ways in our Hebrew Bible; in particular, the rebellious tone of many of our Psalms as well as Job and Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) seems to reflect a proto-existentialist treatment of this complex issue.
Our rabbis of old were well aware of this conundrum. Some 1,900 years ago, Rabbi Akiba gives voice to the paradox: “Everything is foreseen, and free will is given” (Avot 3.19). Rabbi Akiba leaves it to us to live with and act within the parameters of this contradiction.
Moving to the 20th century, the existentialists Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig – both Jewish, in contrast to Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s atheism – approached the paradox of freedom and necessity from within their relationship with God.
Our ability to make choices is central to what it means to be a person. The 20th-century existentialists, despite their diversity, are one in their insistence that our task is to attempt to choose wisely and choose well. In subtle ways, their writings echo the words of Deuteronomy that are read on the morning of Yom Kippur in Reform synagogues throughout the world: “... life and death have I set before you on this day, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life that you may live, you and your offspring” (Deut. 30:19).
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.