The life and Works of Jean-Paul Sartre -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida
Jean-Paul Sartre was born in 1905 in Paris. He was the only child of Jean-Baptiste Sartre, who was an officer in the French navy, and Anne-Marie Schweitzer, who was a first cousin to Albert Schweitzer. Jean-Paul parents were nominal Christians (a Catholic-Protestant mix).] When the child was only one year of age, his father died. This resulted in the child and his mother moving back into the home of her parents. He was then raised by his mother and maternal grandfather who was a professor of German. Jean-Paul was taught mathematics and was introduced to classical literature by this grandfather. His mother remarried when he was twelve years of age. The family then moved to La Rochelle.
When Jean-Paul was a teenager, he became interested in philosophy after reading a work by Henri Bergson (1859—1941), an influential 20th century French philosopher who promoted intuition over rationalism and science for understanding reality. He studied at the Ecole Nomale Superieure (ENS) from 1924 through 1928, earning a doctorate in philosophy. ENS was an institution known for turning out many French intellectuals. After 1929, he taught several students between the ninth and twelfth grades in Paris and elsewhere. From 1933 to 1935, he was a research student at the Institut Francais in Berlin and at the University of Freiburg. His first work of notoriety was La Nausea (Nausea). From 1936 on, he published a philosophical novel called La Nausee (1938) and a collection of stories called The Wall (1939, English trans.), in addition to several philosophical studies. Sartre was influenced by several Western philosophers including Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Husserl (where he learned the phenomenological method), Heidegger (where he learned metaphysics), and Nietzsche (where he learned about atheism). One of the biggest influence on Sartre came from Alexandre Kojeve (1904—1968) Russian born French philosopher who integrated Hegelian concepts into continental philosophy. Moreover, Sartre does not seem to have any regards
for empiricism, positivism, or materialism. The primary focus that runs through his work is his passionate interest in human beings—understanding them and viewing the other Christian, Cartesian, and Hegelian theories of human beings. Though he rejected these theories, he did see a common thread of some sort of human aspiration that ran through these ideas. Sartre’s philosophy can be seen as a focus on the mode of being human, rejecting all forms of rationalism, theistic or otherwise. It was through his writings and plays that he attempted to show his philosophical views.
While at ENS, Sartre met Simone, de Beauvoir who later became a well-known philosopher, writer, and feminist. The two formed a life-long relationship. At the outbreak of the war in 1939, Sartre was called to duty by the French army. He was later captured by the German opposition. After his release, he returned to Paris to teach philosophy until 1944. After the war effort, he wrote a number of novels and plays which ultimately made him famous.
The early period of his career was dominated by phenomenological psychology under the influence of Husserl. Here he produces Transcendence of the Ego (1936 French, 1937 English), The Emotions: Outline of a Theory (1939, 1948), and The Psychology of Imaginations (1940, 1948). The middle period focused on ontology of human existence with influence from Heidegger. It was during this time that he produced Being and Nothingness (1943, 1956) and Existentialism and Humanism (1946, 1948). In a latter period, his concerns turned toward Marxism. He wrote Questions de methode (1960) and Critique de la raison dialectique (1960).
His Initiation into Atheism
Sartre wrote in his autobiography titled The Words, the following in regards to his religious upbringing: “I was taught . . . the Gospel, and catechism without being given the means for believing” (The Words, 249). He later added the following concerning his family and the influence of the Christian culture. “My family had been affected by the slow movement of dechristianization that started among the Voltairian upper bourgeoisie and took a century to spread to all levels. . . . Good Society believed in God in order to speak of Him. How tolerant religion seemed! How comfortable it was” (Ibid., 97, 98). He saw in his grandparents showed traits of mysticism and indifference, leaving
him with further aversions to things religious. Though he outwardly showed that he believed in God, inwardly he became continued to dismiss thought of God (Ibid., 100–101). Sartre wrote of his atheism: “Only once did I have the feeling that He existed. I had been playing with the matches and burned a small rug. I was in the process of covering up my crime when suddenly God saw me. I felt his gaze inside my head and on my hand. . . . I flew into a rage against so crude an indiscretion, I blasphemed. . . . He never looked at me again” (Ibid., 102).
Sartre’s conversion to atheism was confirmed one day when he was twelve years of age. He made an attempt to think of God, but could not. From then on, he considered the matter settled, however, the notion of things relating to God was not completed abandoned. He writes, “Never have I had the slightest temptation to bring Him back to life. But the other One remained, the Invisible One, the Holy Ghost. . . . I had all the more difficulty getting rid of Him in that he had installed himself at the back of my head. . . . I collared the Holy Ghost in the cellar and threw him out; atheism is a cruel and long-range affair: I think I’ve carried it through. I see clearly, I’ve lost my illusions” (Ibid., 252– 53).
Sartre’s Atheistic View of God and Man
Sartre believed God’s existence was impossible. God, by his very nature, is a self-caused being. However, one would have to be ontologically prior to himself in order to cause himself. This is impossible. In Sartre’s terms, the “being-for-itself” can never become the “being-in-itself” (Being and Nothingness, 755–68). In other words, the contingent cannot become the necessary. Nothing cannot produce something. Therefore, God, a self-caused being, cannot exist.
Sartre viewed humanity as an empty bubble on the sea of nothingness. The basic plan for the human being is to become God. But it is impossible for the contingent to become a necessary being, for the subjective to become objective, or for freedom to become determined. The human being is a conscious being, one who can ask questions and one who can receive negative answers. This idea of negation is more than just a logical function of some judgment. To Sartre, this opportunity of negation through negative judgments requires some counter ontological status considered nonbeing. Now, the question is, What is the source of this nonbeing? Being, that is human consciousness, is in contrast with everything else in the physical world. This nonmaterial being (consciousness) is self-detaching and surrounds negation (nonbeing). Consciousness projects being-in-itself against the background of
nonbeing. It also bridges the gap between the actual and the possible to thus determine which of these two are to be realized. This makes human consciousness free because it can think of itself other than itself. According to Sartre, this is demonstrated by anguish.
Human beings then can adopt one of two fundamental attitudes: responsible freedom or psychological determinism. Determinism, justified by a variety of devises, is a way to concealfreedom from one’s self. The antithesis is the acceptance of one’s personal freedom and that they are responsible for their own acts. Though there may seem to be some internal duality, it is this reasoning pointing towards determinism that is certainly doomed for failure. Therefore, the individual person is a free agent who defines the moral world. The individual is, in fact, condemned to freedom. If one were to attempt to escape his destiny, he would still be freely fleeing it. Even suicide is an act of freedom by which one would vainly attempt to eliminate his freedom. So the human “essence” is absolute freedom, but absolute freedom has no objective or definable nature. The “I” (subject) always transcends the “me” or “it” (object).
The World and Man’s Destiny
According to Sartre, the world is real but is contingent—it is simply there. The world, like human life, is a given. Philosophically, the world is uncaused and is the field where subjective choices are performed. The world really has no objective meaning whereby each person creates personal meaning. The fact that several people may choose the same subjective projects (like Marxism for Sartre) makes no difference whatsoever. Each person is still objectively the one who is making personal choices. For example, Sartre said, “I am my books.” Yet each person transcends the world that has been personally created. However, the ‘author’ is more than mere words. He or she is the “Nothing” (freedom) out of which it was created.
Sartre’s View of Ethics
Sartre thought that there were no absolute or objective moral prescriptions. He writes, “No sooner had you [Zeus] created me than I ceased to be yours.” He continues, “I was like a man who’s lost his shadow. And there was nothing left in heaven, no right or wrong, nor anyone to give me orders. . . . For I, Zeus, am a man, and every man must find out his own way” (No Exit, 121–123).
Not only are there no divine imperatives or moral prescriptions, but there neither are objective values. In the last lines of Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote, “it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations.” For all human activities are equivalent. We must, in fact, repudiate this “spirit of seriousness” which assumes there are absolute or objective values and accept the basic absurdity and subjectivity of life (see S. de Beavoir, 10, 16–18, 156).
What then should one do? Literally, he should do “his own thing.” Since there are no ultimate and objective values, man must create them. A person can act for personal good or for the good of all humanity. But there is no ethical obligation to think about others. In the final analysis, each is responsible only for the use of personal, unavoidable freedom.
An Evaluation of Sartre
Rather than addressing the typical arguments posed by the atheist, there is a part of Sartre’s atheism that is peculiar to him that should be discussed. Critics have noted the following:
First of all, God is not a self-caused Being. Self-causation is impossible. God is the only uncaused Being in existence. When Sartre concocted a false meaning of God’s initiation (coming into being), he was able to then dismiss the existence of God. Thus, he set up a straw man—a wrong view of God—to subsequently knock it down attempting to prove his point.
Second, Sartre proposes that God is a contradiction to human freedom and creativity. But God is the Supreme Creator and man is the sub- or co-creator of good and value. God is the Prime Cause and human freedom is the secondary cause. In addition, human free will and determinism are not logically contradictory since God can pre-determine that human beings are to be free actors.
Third, Sartre makes an unjustified bifurcation between subjectivity and objectivity, between fact and value. However, in the human being, this disjunction is without a real difference. I (the subject) am me (the object). An attack upon the body is an attack upon the person. Therefore, a person’s subjectivity and objectivity are not separable.
Fourth, if there are no objective values and each person is fully responsible only for themselves, then there is no meaningfully ethical sense in which one ought to choose responsibly for others. This leads to there being no moral obligation to do anything. Atheistic existentialists do what they do only because they choose to do it. Atheistic existentialism reduces to antinomianism— freedom from all laws of God.
Closing Comments: Back to God
Despite Sartre’s autobiographical comments against the existence of God, he was unable to completely dismiss God. Before his death in 1980 at the age of seventy-five, he turned back to the God. It was reported in a French magazine that Sartre embraced Christian theism before he died. In his own words (Spring 1980): “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.” Sartre’s mistress, Simone de Beavoir, reacted to Sartre’s apparent recantation, complaining, “How should one explain this senile act of a turncoat?” She adds, “All my friends, all the Sartrians, and the editorial team of Les Temps Modernes supported me in my consternation” (cited in National Review, 677). (See also other confessions below in The Failure of Post-modernism). In view of Sartre’s conversion, it might not be surprising that his existential colleagues reacted as they did to his comments. It seems to be a tacit self-condemnation of Sartrian Humanism by Sartre himself. Two men, Alain Larrey and Michael Viguier, who lived in Paris in 1980, reported that two months before Sartre’s death, he complained to his Catholic doctor that he “regretted the impact his writings had on youth,” that so many had “taken them so seriously.”
The life and Works of Jean-Paul Sartre -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida