Existing in Hope
"MAN is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism," wrote Sartre while explaining his doctrine. With this he meant that man having a subjective life "primarily exists -- that is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so". For Sartre' existence is embroiled in conscious living. He is certainly talking about the "self" and its claim to alertness. He holds man responsible for what he is and places the entire responsibility for one's existence squarely upon one's own shoulders. But is the "self" an entity that a man is in full control of, is he the master of his mind and his destiny? Is it possible for him to be so while he is not even in control of all his actions? What Sartre envisioned was a self that resolutely formulates and follows its goals and is ready to accept the consequences as if nothing made any difference. That happens only in the Sartrian world. In real life when any man spurs into action he does so without knowing the consequences fully, but with the hope that things would go in his favour.
Though we often profess the belief that man has the ability to mould his own destination, we also know that there are occasions when the individual man fails in his stride. Because there are times when circumstances push the individual off one's feet and carry one off to destinations that one did not intend to reach. What would Sartre have said about such circumstances? He is of the opinion that man must act without hope. With that man's woes certainly evaporate. Being without hope means being without despair. If man's expectations are shorn off in its root, what remains is a disinterested self that may never find itself in insurmountable gloom.
As for Sartre he did not worry too much about despair. In fact his philosophy says that man is in eternal anguish. And he obliged us with an explanation. He said that this anxiety is born out of man's inability to escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. With this Sartre did strike the bull's eye. This is one enclosure from which the individual man can never escape. He is bound to feel responsible for all his actions, even if these actions were in response to certain situations that he had no control over. Man may or may not be aware of the fact that he is not in control of the situations, he is destined to feel responsible.
If this sense of responsibility makes one overburdened with despair, the belief that an individual can mould one's own destiny helps make one look beyond the gloom. No matter how Sartre would have felt about the common man's predilection to direct his attention to a better, progressive future, we certainly thrive on hope. We cannot do without the dream of a better day; we are driven only by the lure of a tomorrow when we would be able to leave the darker ones behind us.
For us, hope gain currency in the shadow of despair only when we look beyond our situations, only when we make an effort to transcend the reality. Reality is something that one cannot mould to one's own liking. Yet, it is the conviction of being in control of the real situations that makes a man want to go on with his life. The flicker of hope that makes life meaningful is born out of the belief that we can control our own situations as well as shape our destinies.
Sartre too considered man as an active being. He too took a strong stance against passivity and quietism. Perhaps this is the reason for which he overstated the fact that man is responsible for all his actions. The same man also went on to add that we should act without hope. This is also akin to a religious dictum, as making do without hope is a proposition, which in reality is a state of mind that an individual would have to achieve. Natural man cannot do without hope. Whether it is for better or for worse, as natural or common man, we do not live within the existentialist system. We operate on a whole different level, where we are at the mercy of hope and despair. Sartre might have vented his dissatisfaction over such phrasing as being at the mercy of hope and despair. We all know that hope and despair are the products of the mind. They are our emotional responses to situations. But as common men we cannot but recognise them as forces that intermittently engulf us. And at the time of despair we cannot but hope that there are brighter days ahead even if we lack the energy to spur into action and work towards it. And when we do act, we cannot act without hope. Acting without hope may have the potential to rescue us forever from the despair of not reaching a destination to which we strove to, there certainly has no room for it in our human system.
For an existentialist there is less despair. An existentialist does not consider man as the end, it dispenses with the notion of floundering man who is struggling inside to adjust to the realities outside, realities that are not particularly sympathetic to his goals or aspirations. An existentialist, according to Sartre, pursues transcendent aims. He declares man as self-surpassing by placing man at the "heart and centre of his transcendence". "There is no legislator but himself," this declaration makes him an abandoned man, one who is left to decide for himself. Thus, an existentialist cannot afford to look back and rue over the missteps that he took, he is in full control of himself if not his situations. He cannot even fall into utter despair by which common man are so afflicted. All this certainly makes an existentialist a super human. Sartre himself declares that it is liberating to abandon hope; it is liberating to look beyond oneself. Alas, for common man looking beyond the very eye of the storm, -- the self, is the hardest of all tasks.
Unlike the rock hard fortitude of an existentialist, the common man's core is soft. So, as natural humans we need our daily dose of self-deception, which Sartre so vehemently opposed. A common man's self, cannot help but feed on self-deception. Common man lays his faith in future even when he is faced with the fact that the end is nigh. For him the wait for tomorrow is never-ending, and this is the only antidote of despair. Like any other common man, we have the ability to deceive ourselves and to hope against hope. Without this deceptive belief all would have ended in hopelessness, without it our existence would have fallen further into that pit of anguish, a kind of anguish that no existentialist would be able to fathom.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005