Written by Jordan Beamer
The idea of existentialism is commonly misunderstood in society, and it is important to look back at its initial intentions to fully understand what it is meant to convey. Jean-Paul Sartre believes that “existence precedes essence,” meaning we are what we make ourselves, and that this idea of defining oneself motivates man to action (Sartre, 114). Sartre believes that human reality exists when a being with an existence defines his essence, then acts on it. He defends existentialism against criticism, saying that it gives man a choice in his life, because man becomes “solely what he chooses,” (Sartre, 116). He argues against ideas that existentialism promotes “hopelessness because it rules out final solutions” and “human ignominy,” both of which find humans to be isolated from others under the weight of life’s meaninglessness (Sartre, 114-115). However, he goes on to claim that when dealing with the subjectivism of each man choosing for himself who he shall be, one cannot forget that “he is not only choosing his own being, but he is simultaneously choosing what he wants all humanity to be,” and this creates a certain responsibility for himself that draws him to be ‘good’ (Sartre, 117). Basically, man must realize that he not only defines himself, but all men around him. This burden of responsibility creates a sense of anguish within man, because he realizes that his decisions weigh heavier if he considers how they might affect mankind if everyone made the same decision. Finally, Sartre argues that mankind is “condemned to be free,” because he is alone with free choice to do whatever he wishes, however, he holds responsibility for all his actions; therefore he is without excuse for any decision (Sartre, 118).
Sartre’s philosophy can be seen in many aspects of the world, for example, in literature. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, faces a difficult decision regarding the being he has created, and his internal struggle reveals the responsibility he holds for past and future choices. After being created, abandoned by his creator and hated by man as an outcast, Frankenstein’s monster returns, having killed many people Frankenstein cares about, and demands Frankenstein create for him a partner so he will not be alone in the world. Frankenstein denies him, saying, “Shall I create another like yourself, whose joint wickedness might desolate the world? Begone!” (Shelley, 446). This shows how Frankenstein realizes his responsibility towards others in relation to his creation: he created life to prove his own abilities, but seeing how his creature has killed so many, he feels the anguish Sartre talks about towards the rest of mankind when making a personal decision. Though his original decision was made in selfish ambition, Frankenstein now knows to make another creature would be to doom man to his death. However, the creature argues back, saying, “You, my creator, would tear me to pieces, and triumph… tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me… Shall I respect man, when he contemns me?” (Shelley, 447). Like Frankenstein and the rest of man, the creature has an existence, which he has defined the essence of. In this case, he sees himself as an outcast, and his essence becomes bent upon revenge and desire for unachievable acceptance. However, the creature falls short of Sartre’s ideals of existentialism, because he does not consider the rest of mankind in his decisions, only his own suffering and desires. Despite this, Frankenstein begins to recognize his duty towards his creation as an equal, saying “did I not, as his maker, owe him all the portions of happiness… in my power,” (Shelley, 447). Feeling remorse, Frankenstein goes to work on his creation’s mate, but during the process, feels conviction that he is condemning mankind to another monster for his own safety. He says, “Had I a right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?” (Shelley, 449). Frankenstein realizes his decisions would go beyond himself, and trying to save his own skin from the creature he created would be fateful for mankind. This shows Sartre’s idea behind existentialism: that man would be good because of the responsibility behind his decisions for all of mankind. Just as Frankenstein realized that his actions would determine other’s lives, man should realize that there is a weight behind the decisions he makes, and choosing selfishly, such as Frankenstein did earlier on by creating monster in the first place, can have negative affects on not just the self, but on all those around. This also shows the contrast between Frankenstein and his creature: while Frankenstein’s experience has helped him come to a point where he can consider others in his decision making, the creature has not, therefore thinks only of himself and his own miseries.
In the post comparing Frankenstein to the philosophy of Kierkegaard, it states that had Frankenstein considered how alone and isolated his creation would be, “maybe Dr. Frankenstein, along with many others, would still be alive,” (ndevs). The post states that had Frankenstein realized the responsibility behind his initial decision to create a new being, he could have stopped himself and avoided all the destruction caused, because “not even he was able to handle the responsibility of the choices he made,” (ndevs). Though focusing on a different philosopher, this post deals with the same issues Sartre focused on: man’s responsibility behind his choices, and how they affect others. Had Frankenstein realized his responsibility to the rest of mankind, he would have not made his creature, and had he realized his responsibility to his creature the moment it came to life, Frankenstein could have saved him from loneliness and saved others in his life from death because of the creature’s extreme hatred towards man.