Why Sartre Matters

Meeting chaired by Victor Suchar

Dr Benedict O’Donohoe

University of the West of England

7 February 2006

The speaker holds an MA & DPhil from Oxford University, is a Principal Lecturer at the University of the West of England & the Secretary of the UK Sartre Studies Society. He is the author of several papers on Sartre & of a recently published monograph, ‘Sartre's Theatre: Acts for Life’.

Why Sartre Matters

21June 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 in 1905. And the 15 April 2005 marked twenty-five years since Sartre’s death in 1980. These two dates are worthy of note because, in the intervening seventy-five years, Sartre created a legacy that is not only memorable but also, and more importantly, an appeal to an unconventional worldview and, by implication, to action. In the course of this paper, I shall contend that Sartre’s unorthodox arguments have the force of good logic grounded upon empirical common-sense, and that his good faith or ‘authenticity’ – to use terms that were dear to him – are such that he can confront with confidence his own rigorous moral stricture that you are nothing more than your life, ‘rien d’autre que ta vie’.

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, Pascal, Corneille, Molière or Racine in the 17th century; Voltaire, Diderot or Rousseau in the 18th; Chateaubriand, Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Hugo or Zola in the 19th – Sartre set out to forge a reputation equal to any of these giants, his ‘little friends’ as he called them, 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 genres – the novel, La Nausée (Nausea, 1938); the short story, Le Mur (The Wall, 1939); the theatre, Huis clos (In Camera or No Exit, 1944); philosophy, L’Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness, 1943); criticism, Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (What is Literature?, 1948); biography, Saint Genet, comédien et martyr (Jean Genet, Actor and Martyr, 1951); the polemical essay and reportage, the stock-in-trade of numerous issues of the cultural review Les Temps modernes founded by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 1946, and titled in homage to Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times. Moreover, Sartre’s autobiography of his childhood, Les Mots (Words, 1964), is widely regarded as his finest literary achievement, prompting the award of the Nobel Prize (which he promptly declined!). 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: throughout his life he was a prolific and frequently entertaining letter-writer. 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 last section of Les Mots, ‘une machine à faire des livres’, 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 diverse styles and discourses expertly complements his missionary purpose. In my view, 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 ‘engagement’, 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 purveyor of the indispensable word. So, I propose to focus on some of the most basic and important of Sartre’s insights and assertions, propositions and analyses concerning the human condition, and to say what their practical consequences might be.

Existentialism is the philosophical label associated most closely with Sartre’s name. It is not a term he coined – that distinction is variously attributed to the Catholic philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, or the French critic Marc Beigbeder, or the Hungarian thinker Georg Lukács – 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: L’Existentialisme est un humanisme. 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 crucially important 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, in which everything has its essential being and of which the phenomenal world, including ourselves, is merely an imperfect replica; it dispenses also with the Judeo-Christian creator God, in whose mind there is supposedly a perfect conception of the creature made in his own image and likeness, personified by Adam and Eve in the Old Testament, and by Jesus Christ in the New; equally, it contradicts the Hegelian notion of the Absolute Idea as the Whole of Reality. 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, soul or animus 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, or spirit, and ‘extension’, immanence or matter, summarised in the celebrated aphorism: Cogito ergo sum. In effect, Sartre inverts this premiss to say: Sum ergo cogito, I am therefore I think, which is for Sartre the natural, i.e. arbitrary but actual, order of things.

Descartes argued that, because we can infer our existence from the activity of thinking – in other words, that mental activity takes chronological precedence over the postulation of our being – we could therefore conceive of the mind and its activity as existing apart from, and independently of, our physical body in the material realm. In order to support his contention, Descartes adduced the analogy of the dream as an instantiation of mental activity in which experience and matter both appear to be real, yet are in fact illusory. This strikes me as an absurd argument because it overlooks the fact that we all know from empirical experience, and almost daily repetition, that we enter into this kind of mental activity only when our bodies are already in a certain state of altered consciousness, which we call sleep. In other words, the mental activity of our dreamworld is evidently contingent upon a prior state of our physiological condition. When we awaken, precisely, we quickly realise that our immediately preceding consciousness was ‘just a dream’, as we frequently say, made possible only by our particular bodily disposition in sleep.

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 the interim – during the ‘light that gleams an instant’, in Samuel Beckett’s phrase – consciousness is nothing (le néant), except insofar as it is consciousness of something. In other words, the concept of pure mind or consciousness as a state of total abstraction from the material realm – accessible, for example, by the practice of meditation in the Buddhist tradition – is completely nonsensical for Sartre. Take away all the things of which consciousness is conscious, and you would have nothing left. Whereas, for Sartre, 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: this is what Sartre means by our being ‘situated’. We might well have the impression that the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter (or indeed the Judeo-Christian dichotomy of body and soul) are truthful analyses of our condition, because our mind is sufficiently subtle not only to be conscious of things in the world, but also to be conscious of being conscious. Moreover, although our minds never actually go anywhere without us – except in dreams and other altered states, such as drug-induced hallucinations – they have a quality of discreteness which permits us to observe our body as though it were an object in the world much like other objects. But this impression is a delusion. We know, in fact, from our own experience, and perhaps vicariously also from having watched babies develop through infancy, that our faculty of self-reflexiveness – the capacity to stand outside ourselves, which is the etymological sense of ‘ex-istence’ – is gradually acquired only alongside the growth of the body. The understanding of ourselves as individuated is an empirical process of learning over time, not an innate awareness.

Here again, it seems to me self-evidently true that I was nothing at all until the particular historical moment when a certain sperm fertilised a certain egg, early- September 1950, in my case, resulting in the birth of a certain baby – whose parents called him Benedict Paul – on 3 June 1951. The mind that enables me to call myself ‘I’ is clearly a function of the brain cells – embodied matter – that continued to develop from 4 June 1951, and enabled a degree of self-awareness to dawn during the years 1953-54, for the sake of argument. It is equally obvious to me that my mind – or, more properly, the mind that is ‘I’ – will cease to function when these same brain cells pack up, for want of blood and oxygen – i.e. for lack of physical sustenance – some time in the present century, and very probably before 3rd June 2001! My body (the body that is me) will decay – bits of it have already made a start – and the illusory ego of which it is the host will unquestionably revert to the oblivion from which it emerged. ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’: this liturgical nostrum applies to the whole organism, including the mind which the organism makes possible. Like any cat, dog, flower or insect, when I die the biological and historical life-cycle of the fertilised egg that became known as Ben O’Donohoe, will be definitively concluded – except insofar as some of my own sperm, having fertilised at least four eggs that I know of, perpetuates fragments of me (i.e. genes, physical components) in my four children, and then in their children, and so on.

So far, I have tried to unpack what is meant by the postulate ‘existence precedes essence’, and to explain briefly why and how it sweeps away the western metaphysical tradition of dualism, whether Platonic, Cartesian or Judeo-Christian. I have also tried to track its consequences for the mind / body relationship, and our understanding of consciousness. Sartre’s project in L’Etre et le néant was an ‘essay in phenomenological ontology’ (its sub-title), namely an attempt to describe the real nature of human being in a material world of which we are (qua 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 his best-known and possibly most profoundly true paradox, that ‘a man is that being which is not what it is, and is what it is not’. But, of course, Sartre also wants to go beyond mere description by drawing out the ethical implications of his ontological analysis, and this enquiry leads him naturally 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 is not 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 then 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 and the well-spring of human dignity: 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 many memorable formulations, ‘condemned to be free’: every time we act, we are perpetually destined to discriminate anew between various possible courses of action in pursuit of our present project to modify our situation in the world. Whether we like it or not (and many of us do not like it, much of the time, Sartre argues), 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 anxiety in the face of our freedom, and we are naturally inclined to flee from that anxiety.

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 – I do not believe that I choose to say ‘ouch!’ when I accidentally hit my thumb with a hammer, for instance – it seems to me that Sartre’s general assertion of the inevitability of moral autonomy holds good, and that he is right to be concerned by the fact that, very commonly, we tend to deny or to disguise our freedom – to lie to ourselves, and to others, about it – 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, and which short-circuits our moral discretion as we indiscriminately pursue a prescribed path. He exemplifies this kind of conduct in Being and Nothingness with his memorable portrait of the garçon de café qui est trop garçon de café, the waiter who is too much a waiter, a man who eludes the angst of his freedom by enacting the exaggerated gestures of a cultural stereotype.

Another common evasive strategy, especially in situations of stress and conflict, is to claim that one was ‘following orders’, an excuse advanced in order to exonerate all manner of abominable behaviour, ranging from torture and murder on an industrial scale – the Holocaust – to more modest but equally reprehensible atrocities, such as the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by British and American troops. These are well-documented crimes, whose perpetrators habitually defend their actions on the grounds that they were ‘only following orders’ – a defence that we might reprove, yet one which, I suggest, we frequently deploy ourselves, and in less exacting circumstances. Sartre insists – rightly in my view – 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. In our daily lives, we say things like: ‘I must get up because the alarm clock has gone off!’ But, first, the alarm has only gone off because you set it; and, second, it cannot possibly cause you to get out of bed – in other words, it is an imperative that you give yourself, and the same is true, in less trivial situations, with all orders: the agent always chooses to assent or dissent, 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 very definition of ‘bad faith’.

The authentic person, by contrast, acknowledges that all his actions flow from his inherent freedom and necessary exercise of choice; he accepts that every action is an implicit assertion of moral value, and realises that our actions are the only basis on which others can – and indeed are entitled to – judge us. (Sartre somewhat severely asserts that our intentions are neither here nor there, but that it is always consequences that count.) 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, even if – and all the more so – we have tried to conceal that fact from ourselves as well as from others. Another common-sense entailment of this ethical analysis of our conduct, says Sartre, is that ‘all human life is human’. This superficially tautological maxim, which he adopts from 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 – accounting for it by invoking evil, for example – 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 Ghraib.

So, it flows from Sartre’s first principle – ‘existence precedes essence’ – 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 premiss strikes me as common-sensed and true, and whose complements derive from it logically and persuasively. However, there is a problem, which we might call – as a timely Einsteinian commemoration – ‘relativity’: that is, 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 or situation, 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) Sartre wrote: ‘If war breaks out, it is in my image, it is my war and I deserve it…’ By contrast, Frantz, the anti-hero of his play Les Séquestrés d’Altona (1960), says: ‘It is not we who make war, but war that makes us.’ To which, if either, of these perspectives did Sartre finally adhere – or how did he harmonise them?

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 and contextualised: ‘We are what we make of what others have made of us’. (This slide works better in French because of the ambiguity of the verb ‘faire’, to do and to make: from ‘On est ce qu’on fait’, to ‘On est ce qu’on fait de ce qu’on a fait de nous’.) This is a pragmatic recognition that our freedom – albeit inherent and inexorable – is necessarily conditioned by time and place. As Sartre once rebuked Camus, in their dispute over the latter’s book L’Homme révolté (The Rebel, 1951), ‘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 celebrity, and the relentless struggle to be a critical travelling companion of communism during the 1950s – resulted not only in a more realistic and arguably humane analysis of the human agent (articulated in his studies of Baudelaire, Genet, Flaubert and himself), but also to a political insight that led to his highly controversial preface to Frantz Fanon’s book, The Wretched of the Earth (1961). This is a groundbreaking analysis of colonial oppression that provoked 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 to me 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 (in name) have 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 of course the ever-present threat of American military might – in short, 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 – much more so, indeed, than most god-fearing folk, in my experience, and notably than the ‘neo-con’ fundamentalists of Republican America, whose allegedly Jesus-inspired agenda is translated by all the panoply of war, and focused overwhelmingly upon sustaining its own wealth and comfort at all costs.

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. This hysteria was inaugurated by the pathological 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 naïve about the Soviet experiment of socialism, and to be slow to comprehend the delirious extent to which the Stalinist régime relied upon torture, deportation and murder. Nevertheless, Sartre and his colleagues 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 was determined to hang on to his self-styled status as a ‘critical travelling companion’, so jealous was he of his intellectual independence and moral autonomy. Thus, when Soviet tanks crushed Hungary in 1956, Sartre, like so many other intellectuals on the international left, was cured of his 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 those of working people to refuse exploitation by big business; or those of refugees to be rescued and given asylum – notably in the case of South Vietnamese escapees 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 invariably underpinned by profoundly humane moral instincts that remained radically faithful to his original 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 the free person (that is, every person) could be integrated into a socialist collectivity in which respect for individual freedom would not only be enshrined in law, but would also be the overarching and, as it were, inspirational value informing all praxis, or real action in the world. In other words, that interpersonal relations, inherently grounded on competition and conflict and articulated by mutual threat and violence – as he had evoked them more or less in Being and Nothingness – might in fact be mediated instead by consensually established 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’ – a motto which had been disposed of by Pétain and Vichy and re-adopted, but in Sartre’s view subverted, by Gaullism. His optimism was dealt a severe blow when the tyrannical nature and moral bankruptcy of the Soviet system were laid bare, and his response to that disillusionment took the form of the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960), in which his avowed aspiration was to ‘rediscover the real individual reduced to an idea by the Marxian dialectic’ and to ‘pursue him through the praxis of his projects in the world’ – an admirably ambitious but ultimately doomed enterprise.

Yet I maintain that 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 system of values and governance that privileges the collective good above the individual advantage. Democratic governments notoriously 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 avaricious, self-interested and egocentric elector. None of this is Sartre’s fault, and it is greatly to his credit not only that his anatomisation of the human reality is so transparently honest and fundamentally accurate; but also that he courageously drew out the consequences of his analysis, placing equal emphasis upon the twin foci of freedom and responsibility. Not least, we should applaud him for never ceasing 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.

Benedict O’Donohue