Is this the book that puts “self” back into “self help”?
Absolutely. Self-help needs reviving. We all need helping sometimes but too many people today think society has more responsibility to help them than they have responsibility to help themselves. In our blame everyone but myself culture it is taboo to suggest people are often responsible for their own failings. Existentialism encourages self-help by emphasising self-responsibility. Existentialism is as much about self-responsibility as personal freedom. The truth is we constantly have to make free choices for which we are responsible. Some people won’t face this truth. They resort to bad faith: pretending to be unfree. Others, however, find it empowering to discover they are so free and responsible. My book helps people help themselves by persuading them they are inalienably free.
Sartre is famous for explaining existentialism in terms of three key concepts: anguish, abandonment and despair. So how is it your book argues that it is a “positive and uplifting philosophy”?
Existentialism uncompromisingly details the hard truths of the human condition – anguish, abandonment and so on – but it does not promote despair. Rather, it says, this is how life is, now what are you going to do about it? Are you going to fool yourself that life is a fairytale where it is possible to live happily ever after, or are you going to get real, adopt a positive attitude and play life’s game to the max? Despair does not characterise existentialism, it characterises the person who builds his life on the shifting sands of cosy delusions because he lacks the courage to face reality. Existentialism is a positive and uplifting philosophy because it outlines how a person can live an honest and worthwhile life despite human existence being ultimately pointless and absurd. It counsels people to affirm what they are – free, responsible, abandoned, mortal – rather than deny it.
Do you think that Sartre overestimated the extent to which we are free? Aren’t many things – including our fundamental personality types – out of our control?
Sartre is a hard-liner who holds that we are radically free. Maybe he is not offering us a philosophy worked out in every tiny detail so much as an ideal to aspire to through sheer, unrelenting will power – a life of maximum responsibility and minimum excuses. Or would you rather aspire to be a whinging, irresponsible slob? Less hard-line existentialists argue pretty convincingly that there are some limits to our capacity to choose. They argue we have a “natural self” that disposes us to respond to certain situations in preset ways. Examining things like sexual preference, panic reactions and insanity reveals that not every conscious response is chosen. However, hard-line existentialists are surely right that responsibility can not be avoided or freedom limited by choosing not to choose (bad faith). Certainly helplessness in many situations in life is a sham.
Does telling people how to be an existentialist undermine the main point of existentialism – that we have to choose how to live for ourselves?
The title of the book is slightly ironic in that it is not actually possible to be an existentialist in a fixed way. We are in constant process of becoming and change and it is not possible for us to arrive at a fixed state. We can only ever aim at being what we are. Part of what it is to “be” an existentialist, to “be” authentic, is to realise this. A person is only authentic when he behaves authentically – asserts his freedom, takes responsibility, resists regret. Even to think he is authentic is to think he is an authentic-thing, which is bad faith. My book tells people how to be an existentialist only in so far as it explains that following the principles of existentialism requires a person to constantly take responsibility for his or her actions. It helps people to distinguish authentic from inauthentic responses, but it does not tell people what choices to make in their own personal circumstances. That is their problem. Above all, it emphasises that we have to choose how to live for ourselves and can’t avoid doing so.
You’re a serious Sartrean scholar, but this book clearly has a light touch. Do you think existentialism has historically lacked a sense of humour?
The existentialists are sombre because they are dealing with weighty matters. But then, if life is ultimately absurd why do they take it all so seriously? There is more black humour in existentialism than people think but it is hardly a laugh a minute. It is because existentialism takes itself so seriously that it is ripe for humour.
Should aspiring existentialists still wear black polo necks and smoke Gualoises?
It’s a matter of personal choice. If becoming an existentialist were as easy as following petty rules about clothing and consumption there would be millions of them rather than a handful hanging out in dingy cafés and garrets.
How to Be an Existentialist: Or How to Get Real, Get a Grip and Stop Making Excuses by Gary Cox is published by Continuum at £12.99/$19.55