This week, a retelling of a classic double-dilemma which online classes have been finding engaging. A young man in occupied France in 1940 has to decide whether to flee to England to join the fight, or stay with his already-bereaved mother. He also has to decide how he should decide… 

The young man’s thoughts had come to a stop. Not to rest, but to the defeated stillness of an animal in a trap. 

Should he flee to England and fight? His brother had been killed in the German attack, and should be revenged? His mother, living only for her surviving son, must not be left to despair. Far and wide, there was the world-sized tangle of the war, to which he might or might not be useful – perhaps he would never get to England, or once there, fester in some office job. Near at hand was the simple certainty of the little woman to whom he was the whole world. 

What could help him choose?  

Religion? That told him to love his neighbour, sacrifice himself, choose the hardest path. But which was the hardest path – the peril of war, or the slow, dull duty of care?   

Philosophy? That said to always treat each person as valuable for their own sake; not to use one person up for the sake of another. But whether he left it to the fighters to seek freedom for him and his mother, or left his mother to join the fighters, would he not be using one for the benefit of the other?  

Should he just follow his feelings? But how could you weigh feelings as different as anger, pity and gratitude? How could you know which was stronger until you chose one or the other? And then you would be in a vicious circle, using what you did to prove how you had felt. 

He felt abandoned, without map or signs. 

You can explore this in three parts. First, what should he do? Second, given that he can’t decide what to do, how should he decide? And what, in general, is the best way to decide when you feel pulled in two different directions? 

The story is a retelling of part of Jean-Paul Sartre’s lecture, “Existentialism is a Humanism”. One of his pupils came to him with this dilemma. Does it change how they feel about the story once they know it is true? 

Best wishes, 


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