Few members of our cabinet have had a good Corona-war. Credit: Simon Dawson - WPA Pool/Getty Images

August 27, 2020   3 mins

Next week, the nation’s leaders will head back to Westminster, to put the country back together again after lockdown. In preparation, we asked our contributors: what should be on the cabinet’s reading list? What book should our politicians bear in mind, in confronting the next term’s challenges? Timandra Harkness recommends Existentialism and Humanism, by Jean Paul Sartre.

My recommendation is a slim book that fits in a pocket, and speaks of “anguish, abandonment and despair”. It’s not exactly holiday reading, but summer’s over, and many Brits will be feeling a combination of all three as the end of the furlough scheme looms and whispers of a second wave proliferate.

In Existentialism and Humanism, Sartre’s subject is not the anguish of ordinary citizens, though, but the anguish of leadership: of taking on responsibility, in the knowledge that every choice you make will lead to suffering or death. At a time when our politicians have to decide between reducing the risk of more deaths from Covid-19, or reducing the society-wide destruction caused by anti-Covid policies, they need reminding that this anguish is inescapable. Hard choices must be made, and inaction is itself a choice.

But there’s far more for our Government to learn from Sartre than simply how to grasp the nettle of leadership. If Twitter is anything to go by, lockdown left many of us grappling with the existential — wondering how to give meaning to our closed-off worlds — and Sartre was the man who first popularised the philosophy. “Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or cauliflower,” he writes. Contrasting existentialism to mechanistic philosophies of human behaviour, Sartre casts a harsh light on theories which “make man into an object”:

All kinds of materialism lead one to treat every man including oneself as an object — that is, as a set of pre-determined reactions, in no way different from the patterns of qualities and phenomena which constitute a table, or a chair or a stone.

Does this remind you of discussions about how best to nudge the population into following government guidelines to prevent infection? It should. Politicians took advice from behavioural psychologists — as Sartre notes, to seek advice, and from whom, is itself a choice — and decided to use fear as a motivating force. The psychologists even warned that fear for personal safety might, in the long run, backfire. Having galloped into lockdown with an air of “we have no choice, people will die!” the Cabinet must now choose the path out, knowing that there is no easy option, and accepting responsibility for their decisions. Could this little book help?

Existentialism is often criticised as individualistic and abstract; Sartre wrote Existentialism and Humanism as a corrective to these claims. Yes, each person is condemned to be free, to make their own choices and find their own meaning, but we must also recognise that humanity in everyone else. Writing in 1945, with the war against Nazism still ringing in his ears, Sartre spells out that recognising the existential freedom of each individual human must also mean defending the freedom of all humans. “We will freedom for freedom’s sake, and in and through particular circumstances. And in thus willing freedom, we discover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others and that the freedom of others depends on our own.”

Before you rip off your mask and put your foot down in a 20mph zone, read on. This principled stand, inconveniently, does not imply any specific course of action. The actions you choose in the real world are still your own responsibility. You might decide that wearing a little piece of cloth is preferable to rising infection and consequent lockdown, or that mask-wearing contributes to a culture of fear which constrains us all psychologically.

How do you weigh the value of every human life that might be cut short by Covid (or by another cause while Covid dominates health provision and government attention) against the value, to each and all of us, of living life as fully as possible? “Life is nothing until it is lived;” says Sartre, “but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose.”

Staying alive is not enough. We also need sense, purpose and value in our shared human life. Our leaders must protect not just our lives, but our freedom to live. That is the anguish of leadership. It is the anguish of being human, and therefore free.

Timandra Harkness presents the BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and How To Disagree. Her book, Big Data: Does Size Matter? is published by Bloomsbury Sigma.