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Jean-Paul Sartre at 100

Why Sartre Matters

Benedict O’Donohoe introduces our Sartre centenary issue.

The 21st June 2005 was an auspicious date – the summer solstice, the tipping point of Gemini into Cancer, and the centenary of the birth of Jean-Paul Sartre. And on 15th April 1980 – just 25 years ago – Sartre died. These two dates are worthy of note because, in the intervening 75 years, Sartre created a legacy that is not only memorable but is also, and more importantly, an appeal to an unconventional worldview and, by implication, to action.

Sartre’s attainments as writer and intellectual suffice in themselves to ensure his eminence in the canon of French literature. He is probably the most significant representative of 20th century French letters, whose accomplishments, by their breadth and their depth, their quality and their quantity, surpass those of Gide, Proust or Camus – and he arguably dominates the world stage too. In any case, he is, by various accounts, the most written-about writer of the last century. He also bears comparison with the great names of previous French generations, against whom he measured himself from an early age, surrounded by the leather-bound tomes of his grandfather’s library: whether Descartes or Pascal in the 17th century; Voltaire or Rousseau in the 18th; Balzac, Hugo or Zola in the 19th – Sartre set out to forge a reputation equal to any of these giants, and only the most grudging critics deny that he realised that lofty ambition.

For both the range and the merit of Sartre’s opus are quite amazing: he is the author of modern classics in several fields – the novel, Nausea 1938; the short story, The Wall 1939; the play, No Exit 1944; philosophy, Being and Nothingness 1943; criticism, What is Literature? 1948; biography, Saint Genet, Comedian and Martyr 1952; the polemical essay and reportage – numerous issues of his periodical Les Temps modernes, founded 1946 – and ten volumes of Situations; and, not least, autobiography, Words 1964, widely regarded as his finest literary achievement. As if this body of work were not enough, he also wrote screenplays, journalism, art criticism, theses on theoretical psychology – notably the emotions and the imagination – and copious correspondence. Moreover, he made (admittedly, ill-fated) forays into radio and television. In short, Sartre was, in the phrase he borrowed from Chateaubriand as an epigraph to the final section of Words, ‘a book-making machine’, and the products of his ‘machinery’ had an impact across the spectrum of the arts, media and social sciences.

However, Sartre does not matter simply because he was a great writer, nor even primarily so, although his exceptional command of styles and genres expertly complements his missionary purpose. No, Sartre matters because so many fundamental points of his analysis of the human reality are right and true, and because their accuracy and veracity entail real consequences for our lives as individuals and in social groups. His distinction is to have obeyed his own injunction of ‘commitment’, and to have persisted in trying to convey his messages to as wide an audience as possible, by exploiting every medium available to the writer.

Existentialism is the philosophical label associated most closely with Sartre’s name. It is not a term he coined – that was done by the Catholic philosopher, playwright and critic, Gabriel Marcel – nor one that he particularly liked, but he nevertheless used it and gave it wide currency through a lecture in the immediate post-war period (given at the Club Maintenant, Paris, in October 1945), entitled: ‘Existentialism is a humanism’. Published as a slim volume in 1946, this little book became the sacred text of the fashionable followers of the Left Bank vogue, which is one reason why Sartre regretted its publication. However, it contains a handy definition that underpins the whole of his philosophy, and that is: ‘Existence precedes essence’. This is a crucial principle because it runs counter to the main thrust of western thought from Plato to Hegel, via Judaism, Christianity and Descartes. What it claims is that there is no a priori conception of humankind, whether as species or individual. It therefore disposes at one stroke with the Platonic realm of the ideal, with the Judeo-Christian creator God, and with the Hegelian notion of the Absolute Idea. It is axiomatic for Sartre, as it was for Nietzsche, that we inhabit a godless universe – a common-sense view, given the paucity and poor quality of any evidence for his existence – so that there is no god-given spirit that is distinct from our corporeal selves, and can exist before or after or outside of our earthly lives. Existentialism is therefore also a counterblast to the capital Cartesian notion of the duality of mind and ‘extension’, or matter, summarised in the famous aphorism: Cogito ergo sum. In effect, Sartre inverts this premise to say: Sum ergo cogito, I am therefore I think, which is for Sartre the natural (arbitrary but actual) order of things.

For Sartre, by contrast with Descartes, consciousness is necessarily embodied: it comes into being only with our advent in the world at birth, and goes out of being with our exit from the world in death. In life, however, consciousness itself is nothing, except insofar as it is consciousness of something. Take away all the things of which consciousness is conscious, and you would have nothing left. Whereas, Sartre argues, consciousness can seize itself as conscious of something, it cannot seize itself as conscious exclusively of itself, without being grounded in some material object of which it is conscious. We might well have the impression that the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter is an accurate summary of our condition, but this impression is a delusion. The understanding of ourselves as individuated is an empirical process of learning over time, not an innate awareness.

Sartre’s project in Being and Nothingness was to try to describe the real nature of human existence in a material world of which we are (as bodies) constituent parts, and yet of which we are simultaneously conscious as though we were, in some sense, not a part of it. This insight produces what is perhaps his most profoundly true paradox, that “a human is that being which is not what it is, and is what it is not.” But, of course, he also wants to go beyond mere description by drawing out the ethical implications of his ontological analysis, and this enquiry leads him to the moral concepts of freedom, responsibility, authenticity and bad faith, which he discusses at some length in Being and Nothingness, and promises to return to in a later book of ethics.

Obviously, Sartre wasn’t the first western philosopher to dispose of God, and then find himself wrestling with the consequences. Nietzsche notoriously declared the demise of the deity, then confronted the corollary that humans are the sole source of moral values, which had necessarily to be ‘re-valued, beyond good and evil’. For Sartre, however, it is not so much the absence of God (which he postulates a priori) as the nature of consciousness that makes humans the authors of all moral value. The discriminating power of self-consciousness, enabling us to stand outside ourselves as if we were things in the world much like other things, also enables us to discern that any present situation could be different, and that we could make it so: we can always (ought always, Sartre implies) have a project to amend the status quo. Moreover, in most situations, we can conceive of more than one way to change things: in short, we can – indeed, we have to – choose. What Kierkegaard identified as the inescapable ‘Either/Or’, the source of all anguish, is, for Sartre, the defining characteristic of human being: freedom.

Freedom is not itself a matter of choice, Sartre insists; it is the ineluctable, inherent and foundational quality of human being. We are, as he puts it in one of his pithy formulations, ‘condemned to be free’: every time we act, we are destined to discriminate anew between various possible courses of action in pursuit of our project to modify our situation in the world. Whether we like it or not, we are responsible for the actions we commit, and we are therefore, on the evidence of these, amenable to moral judgment: “You are nothing but the sum of your acts.” Another way of saying that existence precedes essence, is to say that ‘doing precedes being’, or that ‘to be is to act’. Because we are conscious of our moral responsibility, we feel anguish in the face of our freedom, and we are naturally inclined to flee from that anguish.

Sartre says in his early philosophy that we always choose how to act, whatever the circumstances might be. The exhausted athlete chooses the moment at which she is too tired to continue; the terrified victim chooses to faint in order to blot out the insufferable situation. He even goes so far as to say that the tortured man chooses when to cry out in pain – and so on. Despite the extreme quality of some of his examples, it seems to me that Sartre is right to be concerned by the fact that, very commonly, we tend to deny or to disguise our freedom in order to evade responsibility for our actions. This tendency he calls ‘inauthenticity’ or ‘bad faith’. A typical strategy is role-playing, behaving in a way that we feel is dictated or required by the functions we fulfil. He exemplifies this kind of conduct in Being and Nothingness with his caricature of the ‘waiter who is too much a waiter’, a man who escapes the anguish of his freedom by enacting the exaggerated gestures of a cultural stereotype.

Another common evasive strategy, is to claim that one was ‘only following orders’, an excuse advanced in order to exonerate all manner of abominable behaviour, ranging from the Holocaust to the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners. These are well-documented crimes, whose perpetrators defend their actions on the grounds that they were ‘only following orders’. Sartre insists that orders can never cause us to act against our will: they only ever have the force or authority with which the agent himself invests them. The agent always chooses to assent or disobey, to resist or to acquiesce. Several of Sartre’s protagonists in his novels and plays struggle with the dilemma that they chose to obey orders which they felt they ought to disobey, and yet to which they freely and culpably assented. To lie to oneself about the exercise of one’s own freedom and moral discretion is Sartre’s definition of bad faith.

The authentic person, by contrast, agrees that all his actions flow from his inherent freedom, accepts that every action is an implicit assertion of moral value, and realises that our actions are the only basis on which others are entitled to judge us. Action is our dimension-for-the-other in the world, and we have a right of mutual moral scrutiny as if all our actions are committed quite freely. Another entailment of this ethical analysis is that ‘all human life is human’. This tautological maxim, adapted from Nietzsche and Heidegger, is deployed by Sartre to undercut inauthentic interpretations of actions as being, for example, bestial, diabolical, or inhuman. The more apt we become to attribute inhuman or supernatural epithets to our behaviour, the more likely we are to be talking about conduct that is, in fact, exclusively or even characteristically human: no other species could conceive, much less enact, Bergen Belsen or Abu Graib.

So, it flows from Sartre’s first principles that we are embodied consciousnesses, alone in a godless universe, characterised by freedom, destined to act autonomously and by our own lights, and to be wholly responsible for our actions and therefore open to moral judgment on the basis of them. Sartrean existentialism, then, is an ontology that entails an exigent, unrelenting and burdensome deontology, or ethics, whose premises are grounded in empirical good sense, and whose complements derive from it logically and persuasively. Yet there is a problem, which we might call ‘relativity’: the individual’s relation to his situation, or the interface of subjectivity and objectivity, the confrontation of person and history. How does Sartre account for the historical moment, which he calls ‘facticity’ and which is axiomatically contingent? How does facticity impact upon the agent? To what extent is my freedom circumscribed by my conditioning? In Being and Nothingness (1943) he wrote: ‘If war breaks out, it is in my image, it is my war and I deserve it…’ But Frantz, the anti-hero of his play The Condemned of Altona (1960), says: ‘It is not we who make war, but war that makes us.’ To which of these opposing perspectives did Sartre finally adhere?

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Sartre moved away from what he called the analytical and apolitical phase of his thought – enshrined in Being and Nothingness which is subjectivist, individualistic and asocial – towards a dialectical conceptualisation, culminating in Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), which is objectivist, collectivist, and socially focused. This is another distinctive element of Sartre’s legacy: the attempt to reconcile, without renouncing them, the main tenets of his phenomenological ontology and ethics with a more comprehensive and inclusive worldview that would take account of the historical moment in the narrative of the individual; that is, to incorporate the ideology of existentialism into what he called the “unsurpassable philosophy of our time”, Marxism. This evolution can be encapsulated as a shift from the uncompromising analytical dictum, ‘We are what we do’, to the more subtle dialectical statement: ‘We are what we make of what others have made of us’. This is a pragmatic acknowledgment that our freedom, albeit inherent and ineluctable, is necessarily conditioned by time and place. As Sartre once rebuked Camus, in their dispute over the latter’s book The Rebel, “the facts of life are not the same in Passy and in Billancourt” – respectively, affluent middle-class and poor working-class quarters of Paris.

This progressive realisation on Sartre’s part – stemming successively from his war-time experience of relative constraint and impotence, the random intoxication of post-war notoriety, and the relentless struggle to be a critical travelling companion of communism during the 1950s – led not only to a more realistic and humane analysis of the human agent, but also to a political insight articulated in his highly controversial preface to Frantz Fanon’s book, The Wretched of the Earth (1961). This is a ground-breaking analysis of colonial oppression that prompted opponents to denounce Sartre as an apostle of violence, and sympathisers to hail him as ‘the first third-worldist’. Sartre was clearly ahead of his time in declaring that the first world (the erstwhile imperial powers) was rich at the expense of the third world (the erstwhile colonies), and he inaugurated a new discourse which legitimised the counter-violence of national liberation and decolonisation as an authentic response to hegemonic, western European domination.

Here again, it seems clear that Sartre’s analysis is spot-on and his moral intuitions are sound. The depredations perpetrated by the imperialist powers against the peoples they enslaved and the lands they expropriated, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries, were nothing less than institutionalised violence on a massive scale, justified broadly speaking on the same grounds as slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries, namely those of inherent racial and moral superiority. And although the colonies have in name been emancipated, they remain in thrall to their former imperialist masters through such control mechanisms as the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the ever-present threat of American military might. This is the potent infrastructure of globalisation, which ensures that the third world remains poor enough to underwrite the wealth of the first. Sartre’s unshakeable commitment to freedom meant that he was always on the side of the oppressed and dispossessed.

With hindsight, Sartre’s deep suspicion of American intentions in the post-war period looks extraordinarily prescient, and well justified in light of the annexation of western Europe through the Marshall Plan, and the Manichean demonisation of the USSR as the ‘Empire of Evil’ over a 40-year time frame, inaugurated by the manic McCarthyite witch-hunts of the early 1950s (which Sartre parodied brilliantly in his satirical farce, Nekrassov, 1955). It is true that his distrust of the USA led him on occasion to be over-optimistic about the Soviet experiment of socialism, and to be slow to acknowledge the delirious extent to which the Stalinist régime relied upon torture, deportation and murder. Nevertheless, Sartre denounced the Gulags in Les Temps modernes as early as 1950, and he remained aloof from the French Communist Party, by whose apparatchiks he was reviled as a ‘demagogue of the third way’ (which New Labour fondly imagines it has invented!), because he obstinately and admirably adhered to his self-styled status as a ‘critical travelling companion’. When Soviet tanks crushed Hungary in 1956, Sartre was cured of any lingering illusions about the Soviet model of socialism, and concentrated his verbal fire all the more fiercely against colonialism and imperialism, a tirade in whose sights was now the empire-building USSR itself.

Certainly, some of Sartre’s later political forays were naïve and wrong-headed, and arguably informed by anachronistic (mis)conceptions of ‘the people, the masses, direct democracy, revolutionary action’, and so on. Yet, whenever he defended the right of the oppressed to meet violence with violence; or that of working people to refuse exploitation by big business; or that of refugees to be saved and given asylum – notably in the case of escapees from South Vietnam after the American debacle, known as the ‘boat people’, whom he championed as one of his last public acts – Sartre’s social or political interventions were underpinned by profoundly humane moral instincts that remained faithful to his radical analysis of the inalienability of human freedom.

Why, then, did Sartre never complete the book of ethics that he promised in Being and Nothingness, his notebooks for which were published posthumously in 1983? In the immediate post-war period, Sartre was optimistic that free human beings (i.e. everyone) could be integrated into a socialist collectivity in which respect for individual freedom would be the overarching and inspirational value informing all real action in the world. In other words, that personal relations, inevitably grounded in competition and articulated in conflict – much as he had evoked them in Being and Nothingness – might be mediated instead by consensual norms of reciprocal respect and free commitment to a common good. In short, he was a believer in the French revolutionary mantra of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. His optimism was dealt severe blows, however, by the tyranny of the Soviet system, and by what he saw as De Gaulle’s subversion of cherished republican principles. His response to these disillusionments took the form of Critique of Dialectical Reason, in which his aspiration was to “rediscover the real individual reduced to an idea by the Marxian dialectic” and to “trace him through the praxis of his projects in the world” – an ambitious but ultimately doomed enterprise.

Yet Sartre was right to try. It is not his fault that democratic socialism hides a crippling self-contradiction at its very core: people will not freely subscribe to a scale of values and governance that privileges the collective good above the individual advantage. Democratic governments famously cannot get elected on platforms to increase personal taxation in order to improve the common weal – still less on undertakings to cancel third-world debt! On the contrary, democratic political parties feel constrained to vie with each other in a reverse fiscal auction in order to sue for the support of the greedy, self-interested, egocentric voter. None of this is Sartre’s fault, and it is greatly to his credit not only that his analysis of human reality is so transparently honest and, I suggest, accurate; but also that he courageously drew out the consequences of that analysis, placing equal emphasis upon the twin foci of freedom and responsibility; and that he never ceased to wrestle with the profound paradox of the individual / social dichotomy, the oxymoron of the man / history dialectic, in every aspect of his vivid life and eclectic work.

© Dr Benedict O’Donohoe 2005

Benedict O’Donohoe is Secretary of the UK Society for Sartrean Studies, and lectures at the University of the West of England in Bristol.

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