“At the Existentialist Cafe”, by Sarah Bakewell – Freedom and Responsibility as Defined by the Greatest Existentialist Philosophers of the 20th Century

On my way to reading 1,000 books before I turn 30, this was number 388.

I take notes on everything I read, with my notes organized by book and by year. I also have a single word document containing my most important notes from each book, and I use these to raise money for Doctors Without Borders, the international human rights and disaster relief organization.

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If you think about something all day every day, then you just have to write about it. That’s how I feel about books and literature, so here are some of my notes and thoughts on the book, “At the Existentialist Cafe”, by Sarah Bakewell. All quotes below are either from my notes, or from the book itself, unless otherwise indicated. Enjoy!

“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.”

— At the Existentialist Cafe

“The way to live is to throw ourselves, not into faith, but into our own lives, conducting them in affirmation of every moment, exactly as it is, without wishing that anything was different, and without harboring resentment against others or against our fate.”

— At the Existentialist Cafe

FROM AMAZON: From the best-selling author of How to Live, a spirited account of one of the twentieth century’s major intellectual movements and
the revolutionary thinkers who came to shape it.

Featuring not only philosophers, but also playwrights, anthropologists, convicts, and revolutionaries, At the Existentialist Café follows the existentialists’ story, from the first rebellious spark through the Second World War, to its role in postwar liberation movements such as anti-colonialism, feminism, and gay rights. Interweaving biography and philosophy, it is the epic account of passionate encounters—fights, love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, and long partnerships—and a vital investigation into what the existentialists have to offer us today, at a moment when we are once again confronting the major questions of freedom, global responsibility, and human authenticity in a fractious and technology-driven world.


Where do I begin? Existentialism means so much to me, and rarely does a book come along that’s as exciting as the movement itself.

“At the Existentialist Cafe” is now one of my favorite books of all time, and it brought back all the feelings that came over me when I was first introduced to the larger-than-life philosophers of the period during my years at Dalhousie University.

Existentialism is ultimately about life. It’s about being immersed in it, letting it wash over you, and at the same time, actively engaging with it.

There’s so much passion here, and I feel as if the corporate masses are just flatly missing out on life itself. When you watch people walking around all day with their heads down, complaining about trivial nothings, bored with life but not wanting to die, you get the feeling as though the zombie apocalypse has already happened.

“It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards. And if one thinks over that proposition, it becomes more and more evident that life can never really be understood in time because at no particular moment can I find the necessary resting-place from which to understand it.” — Soren Kierkegaard

But, there are bright lights.

Albert Camus remains one of my favorite philosophers of all time, and his dictum, to “live to the point of tears” is something I think about constantly. It is, one could say, one of the guiding principles of my entire life.

There is just so much going on here, speaking of this wild and crazy ride called “life” and the existentialist philosophers are entirely consumed with the idea of uncovering what it is and how it should be lived.

We’re literally having breakfast, playing sports, falling in love, and drinking coffee beneath billions of stars. That’s something incredible to think about, and for me, it pushes apathy completely away.

I share Sarah Bakewell’s belief that ideas are interesting, but that people are even more interesting than the ideas themselves. However, some background information I believe is in order.


If you’ve never studied existentialism or haven’t encountered some of its more foundational ideas, it can be broken down relatively simply. There’s  no need to be intimidated by how the philosophy might sound, and it basically comes down to ruminations concerning two basic questions:

#1: “What are we?”


#2: “What should we do?”

Even its close cousin, phenomenology, isn’t as complicated as it sounds. That movement is basically all about uncovering the fundamental nature of “the things themselves”. It’s concerned with perception, the way things appear to our senses, and the fundamental nature of reality.

Sarah Bakewell lays out a very handy description of the philosophy of existentialism, and it’s a great introduction to what it’s all about:

-Existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete human existence

-They consider human existence different from the kind of ‘being’ other things have. Other entities are what they are, but as a human I am whatever I choose to make of myself at every moment. I am free –

-and therefore I am responsible for everything I do, a dizzying fact which causes

-an anxiety inseparable from human existence itself

-On the other hand, I am only free within situations, which can include factors in my own biology and psychology as well as physical, historical, and social variables of the world into which I have been thrown.

-Despite the limitations, I always want more: I am passionately involved in personal projects of all kinds.

-Human existence is thus ambiguous: at once boxed in by borders and yet transcendent and exhilarating.

-An existentialist who is also phenomenological provides no easy rules for dealing with this condition, but instead concentrates on describing lived experience as it presents itself

-By describing this experience well, he or she hopes to understand this existence and awaken us to ways of living more authentic lives

Authenticity is my highest virtue and my most strongly held ideal.

I want only to live free and uncommitted, to be freely and unapologetically myself, alive in a world of edifying experiences, exhilarating friendships, and unrestrained laughter and dancing.

That’s where existentialism intersects with my daily life.

Existentialism is sometimes serious, sometimes fun, at other times depressing and melancholy. But it’s real, and once you lift your head above the walls that are closing you in, you find it very difficult to step back into the comfortable and wasteful life that you’ve been living before.

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Hanging out with the existentialists is one of the best ways to shake yourself up. It’s true that you become like the people you spend the most time with, and people like Camus and Nietzsche have shown me how to create my own future.

Philosophy becomes even more interesting when it examines how real lives are lived, and likewise, personal experience is more interesting when thought about philosophically.

And there are so many fascinating real lives to read about and discover!

Bakewell relates the story of how Hannah Arendt escaped Germany in the thirties by being invited to dinner with a family whose front door was in Germany and back door was in Czechoslovakia.

How goddamn cool is that?!?!?

The brilliant Jean-Paul Sartre had himself injected with mescaline and for months afterward would have lobsters following him just out of the corners of his field of vision and houses would look at him with human eyes. Scary!

Sartre also escaped from a POW camp in world war 2 after he procured a medical pass, left one day, and never went back!

Sartre: “On my first night of freedom, a stranger in my native city, not having yet reached my friends of former days, I pushed open the door of a cafe. Suddenly, I experienced a feeling of fear – or something close to fear. I could not understand how these squat, bulging buildings could conceal such deserts. I was lost; the few drinkers seemed more distant than the stars. Each of them was entitled to a huge section of bench, to a whole marble table…If these men, shimmering comfortably within their tubes of rarefied gas, seemed inaccessible to me, it was because I no longer had the right to place my hand on their shoulder or thigh, or to call one of them ‘fat-head’. I had rejoined bourgeois society.”

Emmanuel Levinas, while held in a concentration camp, had a dog greet him every day with more friendliness than he ever received from any of the guards. I mean, no wonder, but still!

The radical humanism displayed by some of these real live people astounded me and has been the cause of some real deep thinking since I first read about them.

Camus: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

For example, Simone Weil, recognizing that some people in the world weren’t fortunate enough to sleep on a bed, refused to do so also, and thus slept on the floor. She eventually died of malnutrition after starving herself for so many years. She couldn’t eat while others were forced to starve. Maybe that’s going too far, but it’s a thought-provoking attitude to say the least.

And this, from my notes about Merleau-Ponty: “While being the most academically eminent of the Left Bank thinkers, he was also their best dancer.” Haha!

Merleau-Ponty, inscribing books to his daughter: “To Marianne, my favorite philosopher.”

Perhaps the most famous couple in philosophy is Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. They had an open relationship for more than half a century and it’s overwhelming even to think about the quantity of written and spoken words that flowed between them for half of the twentieth century.

They were so active and vibrant that it’s difficult to imagine that Sartre and Beauvoir are completely still now.

But I guess people are just like butterflies, who float for a day and think that it’s forever.


Freedom is so intimately bound up with existentialism that it’s impossible to separate the two. It’s just so much a part of our lives that we can never step away from it.

Simply, I create myself constantly through action, and this is so fundamental to my human condition that, for Sartre, it IS the human condition, from the moment of first consciousness to the moment when death wipes it out. I am my own freedom: no more, no less.

Nobody can relieve you of the burden of freedom, and this is what leads Sartre to say,famously, that we are condemned to be free.

Sartre: “My life and my philosophy are one and the same.”

Simone de Beauvoir about Sartre’s death: “His death does separate us. My death will not bring us together again.”

The existentialist movement just exploded with huge ideas at a time when most people were hungry for them. “At the Existentialist Cafe” just captures all that excitement so well, and I can say that it was one of the most exciting books that I’ve ever read in my entire life up to this point.

The profusion of big ideas just kept rolling…

For example, Simone Weil wrote that perhaps none of us have rights, but instead we have a near-infinite degree of duty and obligation to one another.

So instead of having the right to free speech, perhaps we have an obligation to allow others to express themselves without trying to shut them down and drown out their voice.

Instead of the right to remain free from persecution, we have an obligation to respect the basic human dignity of others. I can’t stop thinking about that idea, and it’s worth dwelling on for some time before reaching a conclusion. I still haven’t reached a conclusion, and maybe that’s the point.

Sartre’s morality, for his part, involved looking through “the eyes of the least favored” when looking for moral guidance.

He basically looked at who was getting the rawest deal and sought to reduce their suffering. This of course brings up big questions like, How do we know who is the least favored? How do  we decide? And, What if two groups with opposing interests are both the least favored? How do we choose among their interests?

Sartre: “Humanity now has the power to wipe itself out, and it must decide every day that it wants to live”

As you can plainly see, the business of living is inherently complicated. The question of how to live is far more nuanced than at first one might believe, and it lends itself to ceaseless questioning.

Nietzsche’s ideas of willing everything to be as it is, and to critically evaluate every cherished assumption are difficult to wrestle with. Simone Weil’s ideal of radical asceticism is difficult to live up to as well.

But, an ideal does not become any less inspiring just because it’s impossible to stick to.

And we can’t even be sure that these are the “right” ideals to stick to anyway.

Everything is endlessly fascinating and almost completely unknown. Really, even the slightest thing contains a little that is unknown. The existentialists respond: We must find it.


There’s more to life than mowing the lawn and waving to the neighbors; that’s one conclusion that Sarah and I come to together. Most people are simply sleepwalking through life, and existentialism can wake them up if they so choose.

“Each individual is an infinite universe in his or her own eyes, and one cannot compare one infinity with another.”

— “At the Existentialist Cafe”

Really, to choose life is the only sensible option, and one that’s not going to be around forever. Too many people choose not to choose, or choose to lead a life of emotional numbness and unconscious listlessness. This does NOT have to be you. You have choices in every moment, and what you decide to do matters in the here and now.

One cannot have a relationship with death, only with life, and so it’s pointless to let the subconscious fear of the death or the CONSCIOUS fear of death delude you into wasting your one and only life. 

Staring into the abyss of death is terrifying to almost everyone, and life seems to have been given to us just so that it could be taken away. In fact, the only consolation is to have had something, rather than nothing.

The existentialists remind us that human existence is difficult and that people often behave appallingly, yet they also show how great our possibilities are. For whatever reason, we have been thrown into this world, as rational agents, and we have the ability to choose our own destiny.

All the best,

Matt Karamazov

“At the Existentialist Cafe”, by Sarah Bakewell: Complement it with “How to Live”, by Sarah Bakewell, “The Perennial Philosophy”, by Aldous Huxley, Being Comfortable Is Actually Killing Your Spirit, and The Greatest Books of All Time.



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Matt Karamazov is a human rights activist, nightclub bouncer, and hardcore reader. He writes about books, self-discipline, and human rights at Godlike Discipline, and you can get his free ebook on how to radically improve your own levels of self-discipline. Between workouts, Matt is trying to read 1,000 books before he turns 30, and start a non-profit that allows volunteers to earn money just by tracking the hours they already spend volunteering. He would be straight-up honored if you would support the life-saving work of Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch. Here he is on a horse.


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