Make America Existentialist Again

French philosophy came to define the postwar era. As U.S. politics get ever more absurd, it’s time for a comeback.

Foreign Policy illustration/Zach Gibson/Dominique Berretty/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Foreign Policy illustration/Zach Gibson/Dominique Berretty/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

In the summer of 1940, an extraordinary event took place. Attacked by Nazi Germany, France’s military forces, along with its republican institutions, collapsed within a matter of weeks. By summer’s end, an authoritarian French state had—with the assent of the great majority of France’s political and military leaders, and the relief of the great majority of French citizens—launched a policy of active collaboration with the Third Reich. Everything that had once seemed solid—civil laws, liberal values, democratic practices, revolutionary traditions—had, from one day to the next, evaporated into thin air.

Many adjectives can be used to describe this turn of events and the subsequent four years of occupation—“cruel” and “dishonorable” come to mind—but for a group of philosophers based in Paris, one term stands out for its aptness: “absurd.” This month marks the 75th anniversary of the moment not only that France was freed from German occupation and the authoritarian Vichy regime, but also that a group of Parisian thinkers, formed by the experience of wartime absurdity, unofficially launched—with a seminal essay by the group’s figurehead, Sartre—the most famous philosophical movement of modern times: existentialism.

Indeed, existentialism loomed larger than a mere movement. Its founding figures—including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus—had launched nothing less than an “existential offensive.” Scarcely more than a year after the Americans landed on the beaches of Normandy, the French—Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir—landed in New York, enveloped in dense tobacco. Articles about and by them appeared in magazines ranging from Vogue through Life to the New Yorker, introducing Americans to an Old World suddenly become new, peopled by youths wearing black turtlenecks and bearing obscure tomes.

While existentialism is no longer the rage it was in the immediate postwar era, it is neither a historical curiosity nor a philosophical afterthought. Just as existentialist thinkers wrote in response to the unprecedented events of the 1930s and 1940s—the rise of totalitarian states in Central and Eastern Europe, the burgeoning of illiberal movements in Western Europe, the proliferation of state propaganda, and the building of concentration and death camps—their writings might help us make moral sense of similar trends in our own post-truth and post-fact era. What drove Camus to write The Myth of Sisyphus is what should drive us today: the absurd condition that results from the clash between our demand for reason and the world’s indifference to this demand.

Like most isms, existentialism is a supremely elastic term—one that, since the 1940s, has been stretched to cover a seemingly endless array of ideas and individuals, events and encounters. Hardly a day passes that the media do not warn that certain people, policies, or politics represent existential threats to our country, even to our world. (A Google search of “existential threat” lights up nearly 1.7 million links—itself an existential threat to the meaning of the word “existential.”) What the French founders of existentialism meant, albeit not always in unison, by this term was quite different. And for intellectuals like Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir, occupied France was, in effect, a laboratory for the testing of their claims.

Sartre catapulted himself into global fame by reporting on Paris’s occupation and liberation through the prism of existentialism. He did so at the request of Camus, who was not just the author of the existential works The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus, but also the influential editor of the underground paper Combat. During the so-called “années noires” between 1940 and 1944, the French were, as Sartre declared, “condemned to freedom.” By this, Sartre and Camus meant that they and their fellow French, though not free to choose their situation, were nevertheless free to respond to it.

In the famously paradoxical opening line of “The Republic of Silence”—an article that Sartre wrote in September 1944 for another underground newspaper—he captured the existential nature of everyday life in occupied Paris: “Never were we more free than under the Germans.” It was precisely because of foreign rulers and local collaborators, official censorship and unofficial denunciations, immoral laws and moral impasses that the French were forced to reflect on what they had always taken for granted. Their predicament was an unending provocation—that is, if one dwelt on it. “The often frightful circumstances of our struggle enabled us finally to live, undisguised and fully revealed, that awful, unbearable situation that we call the human condition,” Sartre wrote.

One year later, Sartre offered a personal example of that awful and unbearable situation. In his celebrated public lecture “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” he recounted a meeting with one of his philosophy students who had approached him with a dilemma. The student wished to join the Free French and help liberate his country, but he also wanted to stay close to his mother and help keep her safe. What should he do? Sartre’s reply managed to be both concise and confusing: “You are free, therefore choose—that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world.”

No doubt most political theorists, not to mention most people in this same predicament, would find Sartre’s words unhelpful. After all, he appears to claim not only that there are no grounds for moral judgment, but also that there cannot be any such grounds. In essence, one act is just as good, or bad, as another act. Indeed, why bother making a choice at all?

But this was not Sartre’s point. Instead, he insisted that the student confronted two options that, from a moral perspective, were equally compelling. Neither Sartre nor anyone else could offer him a rational or ethic calculus—a transcendental and universal set of rules—to help him make the right choice. This was tantamount to magical thinking. Instead, the student alone was in a position to do this, because he alone was in that situation. But, Sartre warned, the student must not think this was a reason for not choosing. To do so allows one, wrongly, to refuse responsibility for whatever follows, just as it prevents one, tragically, from shouldering those duties that make us truly human.

This claim leads us to ground zero of existentialism. Though Sartre and Camus came to disagree violently on many things—and, moreover, though Camus denied he was an existentialist—they nevertheless agreed on certain key issues. Most importantly, they both defended a certain kind of humanism. Unlike the humanism of liberal thinkers from John Locke to John Rawls, however, in which the individual is condemned to remain an abstraction, existentialists insist upon the individual as a flesh and blood human confronting history. As Dr. Bernard Rieux, the narrator of Camus’s allegory of the occupation and resistance, The Plague, declares, “Man isn’t an idea.”

For this reason, Camus and Sartre held, we must act all the while fully conscious of our obligations to others. In existential parlance, this is the mark of our authenticity. It is as if existentialists tailored Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative to fit our shambolic and scattershot lives, and not the life of a neurotically punctual Prussian philosopher. For Kant, we must act according to the maxim by which we would also will that act become universal law, as we wish all of humankind to act in the same situation. The existentialists, however, attach a crucial rider: We must also accept that other choices by other people in the same situation can be equally good and equally defensible.

Needless to say, the distance is great between the situation of France between 1940 and 1944 and the situation today of the United States, or any other Western democracy, with the rise of populist movements and illiberal governments. But while, with apologies to George Santayana, history by its very nature never repeats itself, it does tend to stutter. No less obviously, an American does not need an advanced degree in phenomenology to grasp the human cost exacted by the domestic and foreign policies pursued by President Donald Trump’s administration. But existentialism reminds us of our responsibility toward not just those lives, but our own life as well—at least, that is, if we want to believe that absurdity is a description, but not our fate.

Existentialism, ultimately, teaches a form of philosophical and political modesty. This claim sounds odd, given the histrionic and heroic posturing in which Camus and Sartre sometimes indulged. It also sounds odd, given the reality that both men often failed to live up to their demanding ideals. But the personal failings of these existentialists do not invalidate their philosophical claims. Seventy-five years after the launching of existentialism, it continues to speak to the human situation—especially today, with the rise of authoritarian leaders and illiberal democracies on both sides of the Atlantic that deny the humanity of those who do not resemble them. As Jean Tarrou, another character in The Plague, concludes, “there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.