Is Eric Cantona an Existentialist?


‘King’ Eric Cantona, the most philosophical of football players, scored 64 goals for Manchester United, many of them beautiful. In an away match in 1995, he’d had just been sent off, when a Crystal Palace fan ran down the stairs of the stands to shout abuse at him. Cantona’s swift and unexpected reaction involved a combination of a high kick and several punches.

Cantona received opprobrium, a long ban from professional football, and 120 hours of community service for that assault. He then explained at a press conference:

‘When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.’

You might expect some contrition from him now in retrospect – for the kick, not the opaque comment about seagulls and sardines. But when asked about the assault last week for Newsnight he replied:

‘I love it and I don’t regret it…I am not a role model. I am not an example…I am just a human being with emotion.’

So, that leaves us with the important question: is Eric Cantona an existentialist? Many have labelled him that in the past. But in his 1945 lecture ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, Jean Paul Sartre, the best-known existentialist, declared that the anguish of the human condition arises from the fact that if we act authentically it’s as if the whole of humanity is watching us; ‘in fashioning myself I fashion man’ (and woman too, presumably). For Sartre, at least in that phase of his thought, there was no way out of being a role model.

Yet Cantona’s remarks are truer to the earlier Sartre, the Sartre of Being and Nothingness. There the philosopher wrote about the Bad Faith of accepting roles others assign to us, taking the example of a café waiter who seemed condemned to play a part. In rejecting the role of footballer-as-role-model, Cantona demonstrated his freedom to define himself. True existential freedom is deciding who you are, and not being defined by what others think you are or should be… even, perhaps, rejecting someone else labelling you as an existentialist.


Nigel Warburton