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Sartre for Starters

by Rick Lewis

The quintessential – I love that word, let me type it again – quintessential French intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre, was 100 years old on June 21st this year. Sadly he no longer celebrates birthdays, having shuffled off this mortal coil in 1980, but that hasn’t stopped his legions of admirers from partying anyway. There have been conferences and seminars, in Rochester, NY, there was a birthday party complete with a cake (see here), and now we bring you an issue of Philosophy Now dedicated to the sage.

This special issue was suggested by Debbie Evans and I’d like to thank the members of the UK Society for Sartrean Studies for their enthusiastic participation. Their Secretary, Benedict O’Donohoe, contributed our opening piece, to ask “Why Study Sartre?” and then supply the answer. Jean-Paul wrote plays, novels, and major philosophical tomes, pervading French culture for a generation. He was at different times a teacher, resistance worker, newspaper editor, writer, philosopher and political activist. He spent much time sitting in the Deux Magots café in Paris talking and writing. His intake of coffee, nicotine and harder drugs was prodigious, and may have contributed to his one-time delusion that he was being stalked by a giant lobster (I’m not making this up! It’s in his autobiography). but it is his contribution to our understanding of human beings and their place in the world that draws people today to examine his ideas. The articles about Sartre in this issue focus mainly on the work he did during and immediately after the Second World War. Gerald Jones writes about the successes and shortcomings of Sartre’s famous lecture on existentialism and humanism. Christine Daigle explains the key concepts Sartre employed in his masterwork, the massive and intimidating Being and Nothingness. And in our philosophical theatre column, Tim Madigan takes in a performance of Sartre’s most famous play – No Exit.

I recently heard another French intellectual – this one a London-based friend of mine – remark how frustrating and puzzling he found it that Sartre, having constructed an uncompromising philosophy of personal freedom, had then spent many years entangled to varying degrees with the French Communist Party – stalwart defenders of Stalin’s gulags. This apparent contradiction was, indeed, one of the causes of Sartre’s monumental falling-out with his old friend Albert Camus. Ian Birchall’s article examines how Sartre’s ethics and politics were intertwined, and how the latter led to his involvement in, and later his alienation from, the Communist Party. Willie Thompson takes a more biographical approach, looking at Sartre through the eyes and diaries of his longtime lover, philosophical soulmate and significant other, Simone de Beauvoir.

Essential to understanding Sartre is that he was an atheist (unlike earlier existentialists such as Kierkegaard). Sartre therefore believed in no heaven and no pre-given moral order. As you will read, Sartre failed to develop a fully-worked out moral system of his own. However, certain strong ideas about how we should live permeate his writings. He believed that you should strive to live without self-deception. You should live ‘authentically’, aware of your own freedom and your inescapable responsibility for all of your actions. To deny your own freedom is a way of being in ‘bad faith’, which was one of his key concepts. For example, if your friends ask you to ride with them on a rollercoaster, and you say “No, I can’t – I’m a coward!”, then you are in bad faith. Of course you could ride on the rollercoaster – you are simply choosing not to. And someone who thought that his role as a magazine editor compelled him to finish writing an editorial would similarly be in bad faith – denying his inescapable freedom to either continue or stop writing the editorial. In fact he wo


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