Title: At the Existentialist Cafe
Author: Sarah Bakewell
Goodreads Rating: 4.23
“There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.”
In At the Existentialist Cafe, we are introduced to many philosophers who were credited with establishing a type of philosophy known as existentialism during the tense years surrounding WWII. From Beauvoir to Sartre, Camus to Jaspers, we read about their views on some of life’s fundamental questions that they considered leading up to, during, and after the war.
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
While views varied on the best approach, the primary debate among the philosophers was about what it means to be free and how we ought to live. A shared opinion for many of them was that existence precedes essence. You are always a work in progress, constantly creating yourself. “From the moment of first consciousness to the moment when death wipes it out”, you choose who you will be. This pressure to make decisions can lead to a heightened anxiety as you accept your responsibility, freedom, and authenticity. You are an example for humanity through your actions. “Sartre’s big question in the mid-1940s was: given that we are free, how can we use our freedom well in such challenging times?” We are once again in challenging times. Considering the current state of the world, there is no better moment to read this book and gain some perspective on how to continue to be a free, authentic individual while being captured by large-scale historical forces.
“If life is revealed to be as futile as the labour of Sisyphus, how should we respond?”
WWII had a significant impact on the existentialists as it molded and shaped their views. With life seeming to be more and more meaningless, how did they bring back a feeling of purpose and responsibility? Sartre’s answer to this was the awakened individual… someone who does something purposeful with full confidence that it means something. And though you may not always be able to choose what happens to you, you can choose your response to it. Taking responsibility for your life and finding something that provides you with a sense of purpose became a critical point for these philosophers and they each took on their own challenge related to the shared themes surrounding life’s fundamental questions.
“When reading Sartre on freedom, Beauvoir on the subtle mechanisms of oppression, Kierkegaard on anxiety, Camus on rebellion, Heidegger on technology, or Merleau-Ponty on cognitive science, one sometimes feels one is reading the latest news. Their philosophies remain of interest … because they concern life, and because they take on the two biggest human questions: what are we? and what should we do?”
At the Existentialist Cafe shares a type of philosophy that is as relevant now as it was then. As we continue to struggle with life’s challenges and finding meaning in all of it, existentialism provides a needed perspective. Having some background or interest in existentialism or philosophy helps when reading this book; however, Bakewell writes in a way that is accessible for anyone. If you are looking for an honest and deep conversation surrounding some of life’s hardest questions and you’re not necessarily looking for answers but a way to move forward authentically, this is the book for you.