Existentialism Is a Humanism


Jean-Paul Sartre

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Sartre uses the anecdote of a former student’s moral dilemma during World War II to illustrate both the limits of making decisions based on a defined moral code and the erroneousness of blaming “passions” for people’s actions. The French student’s brother was killed in 1940 by the Germans, but his father nonetheless later abandoned the family to collaborate with the Germans. The student had to choose between staying in France with his mother, who “found her only comfort in him,” and leaving to fight with the Free French against the German occupation. After realizing he was caught between moral principles—family and nation, or the obligation to care for his mother and the obligation to avenge his brother’s death—he came to Sartre for advice. The philosopher told his student that there was no correct or incorrect decision. Neither moral codes nor the strength of his affections for one or the other party could determine what to do; rather, the student had to “invent” his own solution to the problem.
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Sartre’s Student Character Timeline in Existentialism Is a Humanism

The timeline below shows where the character Sartre’s Student appears in Existentialism Is a Humanism. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Existentialism Is a Humanism
Existence, Essence and the Human Condition Theme Icon
Abandonment and Atheism Theme Icon
Radical Freedom, Choice, and Responsibility Theme Icon
To illustrate his point about “passion,” Sartre tells the story of a student who was forced during World War II to choose between staying with his mother in... (full context)