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Monday, September 10, 2018

Existence Precedes Essence–Sartre’s Philosophical Socialism

“A man is nothing but a series of enterprises, and that he is the sum, organization and aggregate of the relations that constitute such enterprises”

That statement was at the core of Existentialism, a conviction that one is simply made up of an aggregate of acquired parts rather than an essence – a unique, genetically-determined or even spiritual being.  One’s destiny was not determined by any genetic configuration, but by the the random events of history and environment.

Image result for images jean paul sartre

Tolstoy anticipated Sartre by 100 years, and in his Epilogue to War and Peace he expounded on his theory of determinism.  Napoleon, he said, was not the unique, once-in-generations genius he has been made out to be, but a product of the most mundane, irrelevant, and random events that make up anyone’s life.  He lost the Battle of Borodino because he had an obfuscating cold – that because his valet, distracted by a wayward wife and her rumored bedding of a Lieutenant in the Third Hussars, forgot to bring the Emperor’s boots to battle.  The weather was foul, Napoleon’s feet got wet and cold, and he came down with the flu just before one of the most decisive battles of the war against the Russians. 

Tolstoy granted Napoleon a certain special insight, but dismissed it as insignificant considered within the spectrum of history.  Not only was his familiarity with military stratagems, Russian history, and battlefield experience relevant to the prosecution of the battle, but so were the exploits of his valet, his valet’s wife, her lover, and their lovers.

Image result for images david napoleon

Determinism is not new, and philosophers from Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard among others have sought to rationalize what their religion taught – that every human being was endowed with a unique, God-given soul – with what they and historians had observed.  History repeats itself in the most predictable ways.  How could one square essence with existence?

The debate continues today although confined to academic quarters, themselves under pressure to yield to the ‘overwhelming evidence’ of social determinism.  If history is no more than a series of experiential events, then despite their reoccurrence, one might be able to alter its course. 

Of course, this is only half an argument regardless of its currency.  History has remained perennial – wars, civil strife, territorialism, aggression, and hegemony – because human nature has not changed.  The battles fought in the Paleolithic over a jawbone of an mastodon are no different than the War of the Roses, fought over names, titles, and family legitimacy.

So what is to be made of the individual in all this? Nietzsche famously said that in a meaningless world the expression of pure will is the only validation of the individual; and despite this last-ditch, futile attempt to assert some meaning in life despite his pessimistic appraisal of history, individualism as a philosophy is under siege.  It is no longer acceptable to assert the premise of genetic predisposition – that geniuses, regardless of Tolstoy, do exist, unexplainably beyond the parameters of the bell curve; unique, distinct, and existing with no known antecedents.   There must be socio-cultural and economic reasons for such emergence.  Progressivism relies on them.  If nature is given precedence over nurture, than what hope do we have for a better world?  Social intervention, disrupting familiarly patterned behavior has no chance whatsoever.

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The mantra of progressivism is Race, Gender, and Ethnicity.  One is and should only be described within these socially-determined characteristics.  The individual per se is meaningless, no more than an archaic construct of former, less enlightened times.  Such identity is not only important for self-realization, but for political solidarity.  Black people who understand that blackness defines them most; or women who see that gender trumps social, economic, or cultural status; and Latinos who understand that the nature of oppression is racial in origin, are at the vanguard of revolution and progressive change.

Christians disagree.  Each person is endowed with a unique, immortal soul answerable only to God; and secular attempts to limit that particular spiritual individuality are misguided.  Spiritual engineering – attempts to confine a divine soul within a temporal context – can never succeed.

The Founding Fathers understood better than most how to configure a new republic to accommodate spiritual individualism and social communalism.  Society was to be fair, just, tolerant, and judicious so that the individual could thrive in an environment that was no longer hostile.  The ‘pursuit of happiness’ was written into law not because Jefferson wanted every new American to be satisfied and happy; but because such individual pursuits carried out only within a larger social context would benefit both the individual and the society in which he lived.

Image result for images thomas jefferson

The current debate between conservatives and progressives is far more fundamental than commonly thought.  The difference between the two is philosophical and spiritual.  Either one believes in the existence of a God-given soul – i.e. sacred, unique identity – or one does not.  Either the expression of this individuality and identity is primary, or it is not.  There is no in between, no sitting on the fence.

Even Tolstoy admitted that Napoleon was a genius; that despite the incalculable millions of antecedents to action, the Emperor defied history and the odds.  So did Tolstoy himself; or Dostoevsky, or Mozart or the thousands of artists, philosophers, and scientists who have changed or influenced the course of history.  Was Einstein only a  product of the past? or Planck, or Darwin?  They were all certainly influenced by history and were products of their own socio-cultural milieu; but if that were all there was to it then we would have Einsteins on every corner.

In the case of genius – Einstein, Leonardo, Bach, Shakespeare – essence precedes existence.  These men were hors de série, unexpected, surprising, and unique.  How can one posit existence over essence when considering genius?

Post-modernism and deconstructionism have tried their best to dismiss any notion of individual genius –for to acknowledge it is to undermine all progressive reasoning.  If there is no such thing as individual genius, insight, and creativity, then man can be molded according to political theory.   The denial of post-modernism and deconstructionism is not simply an academic exercise but an ‘existential’ one.   The restoration of the individual as the center of society, culture, and being is essential.  Fortunately there are signs that the intellectual tide is indeed turning.  The populist movements in the United States and Europe, while political at first sight, are not as superficial as they seem.  They insist on revalidating the individual, rejecting progressive assumptions of right, wrong, and universal morality, and replacing secularism with millennia-old principles of theology and religious faith.

Sartre should be recognized for postulating the philosophical premise; but recognized as the forerunner of academic movements which have infected intellectual activists and set back the cause of individual rights, the primacy of spiritual identity, and the validation of individual expression.

There are no modern-day philosophers which have become the advocates for this new Restoration.  For the time being the debate rests with the people, increasingly disaffected by government interventionism, a priori assumptions about right and wrong, and intemperate demand for ‘change’.  Change is the nature of history; but history itself teaches that it is best left alone.

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