The contention which has been put forth by several writers that there are no human beings will seem rather startling to most people. After all, such claims are made by those whom we usually refer to precisely as human beings. Nonetheless, although most people would agree that there are human beings, the consequences of this strange philosophy are very much with us today and will be difficult to expel without a clear understanding of their roots. The flowers and the trees are eminently visible; it is their roots that remain in hiding.
Jean-Paul Sartre argued, insistently and consistently, that there are no human beings (“Il n’y a pas de nature humaine”, as he stated in his major work, Being and Nothingness). This total negation of human nature, for Sartre, derives from his radical atheism. If there is no God, he maintained, then there is no one to conceptualize human nature. Therefore, when we are born, we only exist. It is through our life’s choices that we obtain an essence, though it has no name and belongs uniquely and exclusively to the individual. Consequently, existence precedes essence.
Sartre accorded absolute value to choice, since it is through choice that we obtain an essence. As a result, we cannot be held responsible for our choices. We do what we do through our freedom in determining who we become, for our bare existence to gain an essence. On this premise, Sartre can write sentences that should shock most people: “The most atrocious situations in war, the worst tortures do not create an inhuman state of affairs; an inhuman situation does not exist.” If there is no human nature, there cannot be anything which is inhuman. Absolute freedom prevails.
Sartre is by no means alone in this kind of thinking. Walter Kaufman, a German-American philosopher who taught at Princeton University for more than 30 years (1947-1980), firmly agrees with the fundamental principle of existentialism, laid down by Sartre, that “existence precedes essence.” Accordingly, he writes the following: “Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. . . . Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the fundamental principle of existentialism. . . . We define man only in relation to his commitments; it is absurd to reproach us for irresponsibility in our choice.”
This type of freewheeling moral philosophy that entitles a person to choose anything he wills without reproach or recrimination is cheerfully accepted by those who advocate abortion on demand, the unqualified right to euthanasia, sex without regulation, and marriage without structure. But its range of enthusiasts is ever-widening. If there is no human nature, how can there be sexual natures? The eradication of human nature leads logically to the eradication of all natures within the individual. Consequently, even one’s sex is something to be chosen. Humanity, sexuality, and marriage are all assumed to be nature-less. But a world without natures is a world without guidance.
Existentialism, it should be noted, is not restricted to atheistic thinkers. Soren Kierkeaard, a Christian existentialist, affirms that whoever has not God has no Self, and who has no Self, is in despair.” F. H. Heinemann, in his work, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, claims that “A society adopting this attitude [that of Sartre and Kaufman] would be ripe for the rubbish-heap.” Dostoevsky stated that “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted.” And that “everything” would include war, famine, and pestilence. And let us not forget G. K. Chesterton’s bon mot that “if there were no God, there would be no atheists.”
We read in Jeremiah 1:5 that “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart.” And in Psalm 139:16: “Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them.” In his encyclical, Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII condemned atheistic existentialism because of its irrationalism, subjectivism, pessimism, and because of its degradation of human reason.”
God is telling us through Scripture that that our essence, that is, our human nature, is something that He has endowed us with. In other words, it is God, not the individual, Who accounts for essence. Existence does not precede essence, it is coterminous with it. Our duty in life, therefore, is not to choose anything we like, since there are no essences and consequently no moral guidelines, but to choose in a way that is consistent with the human nature that God has given us. This makes it possible for people to live together in peace and harmony.
According to William James, a new theory goes through three stages. In the first stage it is attacked as absurd. Next, it is regarded as true, but obvious and insignificant. Finally, it is heralded as so important that even its adversaries claimed that they themselves discovered it. It is hoped that the idea that neither God nor human nature exist will be returned to the first stage and recognized for the absurdity that it is. Meanwhile, many people are searching for a basis of morality that all can share and a way to accept their natures not as some arbitrary thing to be chosen, but as God-given treasures to be honored and cultivated.