A Crash Course on an Influencer of Unbelief: Jean-Paul Sartre

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This is the last entry in a series on some influential modern thinkers who influenced the world of unbelief. (For previous entries, see FreudMarx, MachiavelliNietzsche, and Kant.)

These are notes based on an essay by Peter Kreeft; Kreeft is the author of Socrates Meets Sartre: The Father of Philosophy Cross-Examines the Father of Existentialism (St. Augustine’s Press, 2012).

Who was Jean-Paul Sartre?

A French playwright, novelist, and existentialist philosopher.

How do you pronounce his name?

This French name is Anglicized in different ways, but probably the most common pronunciation is to say his first name like “ZAHN-Paul,” with the beginning as a soft “j” and the “ah” sound more through you nose, and then his last name like “SAR-truh,” though sometimes you’ll hear “Sart” as well.

When did he live?

1905-1980.

What is his significance?

Jean-Paul Sartre may be the most famous atheist of the 20th century.

Why does he make atheists uncomfortable?

Sartre made atheism such a demanding, almost unendurable, experience that few can bear it.

Comfortable atheists who read him become uncomfortable atheists, and uncomfortable atheism is a giant step closer to God.

He wrote, “Existentialism is nothing else than an attempt to draw all the consequences of a coherent atheistic position.” For this we should be grateful to him.

Why did he call his philosophy “existentialism”?

His thesis was that “existence precedes essence.”

What does this mean?

It means that “man is nothing else than what he makes of himself.”

Since there is no God to design man, then man has no blueprint, no essence. His essence or nature comes not from God as Creator but from his own free choice.

Why does he think that human freedom and dignity require atheism?

If there were a God, man would be reduced to a mere artifact of God, and thus would not be free.

What is Sartre’s legitimate concern and insight here?

Human freedom is a legitimate concern, and it is a correct insight to note that freedom makes persons fundamentally different from mere things.

How did he get to atheism from this perspective?

  1. Sartre confuses freedom with independence.
  2. He can conceive of God only as one who would take away human freedom rather than creating and maintaining it—a sort of cosmic fascist.
  3. Sartre makes the adolescent mistake of equating freedom with rebellion.

What does Sartre think of freedom?

He says freedom is only “the freedom to say no.”

He thinks we compromise our freedom when we say yes (when we choose to affirm the values we’ve been taught by our parents, our society, or our Church). So for Sartre, freedom is very close to “doing your own thing,” or “looking out for No. 1.”

What does Sartre make of responsibility?

This is another concept he takes seriously but misuses. He thinks belief in God would necessarily compromise human responsibility, because we would then blame God rather than ourselves for what we are.

What’s wrong with this argument?

The fact of my responsibility no more disproves the existence of my heavenly Father than it disproves the existence of my earthly father.

What does Sartre think about evil and human perversity?

Sartre has a keen awareness of evil. He says, “We have learned to take Evil seriously. . . . Evil is not an appearance. . . . Knowing its causes does not dispel it. Evil cannot be redeemed.”

Why does he deny, then, that we can choose evil?

He says that (1) since there is no God and (2) since we therefore create our own values and laws, then (3) there really is no evil: “To choose to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil.”

So Sartre gives both too much reality to evil (“Evil cannot be redeemed”) and too little (“We can never choose evil”).

What does Sartre mean when he says that God not only is non-existent but impossible?

He calls the biblical notion of God as “I Am” the most self-contradictory idea ever imagined—“the impossible synthesis” of being-for-itself (subjective personality, the “I”) with being-in-itself (objective eternal perfection, the “Am”).

Why does he says this?

God means the perfect person, and this is for Sartre a contradiction of terms.

  • Perfect things or ideas, like Justice or Truth, are possible
  • Imperfect persons, like Zeus or Apollo, are possible.
  • But the perfect person is impossible. Zeus is possible but not real. God is unique among gods: not only unreal but impossible.

How does this lead to his view of the impossible of love?

  1. God is impossible.
  2. God is love.
  3. Therefore, love is impossible.

The is probably the most shocking thing in Sartre’s philosophy: the denial of the possibility of genuine, altruistic love. In place of God, most atheists substitute human love as the thing they believe in. But Sartre argues that this is impossible.

  1. If there is no God, each individual is God.
  2. But there can be only one God, one absolute.
  3. Thus, all interpersonal relationships are fundamentally relationships of rivalry.

Here, Sartre echoes Machiavelli. Each of us necessarily plays God to others; each of us, as the author of the play of his own life, necessarily reduces others to characters in his drama.

How does this destroy the concept of community?

There can be no “we-subject,” no community, no self-forgetful love if each of us is always trying to be God, the one single unique I-subject.

What is his most famous play No Exit (1944) about?

Sartre’s  puts three dead people in a room and watches them make hell for each other simply by playing God to each other—not in the sense of exerting external power over each other but simply by knowing each other as objects.

The shocking lesson of the play is that “hell is other people.”

Why is this wrong?

In truth, hell is precisely the absence of other people, human and divine. Hell is total loneliness.

Heaven is other people, because heaven is where God is, and God is Trinity. God is love, God is “other persons.”

What should we make of Sartre’s brutally honest approach?

Sartre’s tough-minded honesty makes him almost attractive, despite his repellant conclusions like the meaninglessness of life, the arbitrariness of values, and the impossibility of love.

But his honesty, however deep it may have lodged in his character, was made trivial and meaningless because of his denial of God and thus of objective Truth. If there is no divine mind, there is no truth except the truth each of us makes of himself. So if there’s nothing for me to be honest about except me, what meaning does honesty have?

What is the subject of Sartre’s first novel, Nausea (1938)?

“Nausea” is the story of a man who, after arduous searching, finds the terrible truth that life has no meaning, that it’s simply nauseating excess, like vomit or excrement.

Sartre deliberately tends toward obscene images because he feels life itself is obscene)

How should we view Sartre?

We cannot help rendering a mixed verdict on Sartre. We can be gratified, in a sense, by his very repulsiveness—for it flows from his consistency. He shows us the true face of atheism:

  • absurdity (that’s the abstract word) and
  • nausea (that’s the concrete image he uses, and the title of his first and greatest novel)

Kreeft:

Sartre’s importance is like that of Ecclesiastes: He asks the greatest of all questions, courageously and unswervingly, and we can admire him for that.

Unfortunately, he also gives the worst possible answer to it, as Ecclesiastes did: “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.”

We can only pity him for that, and with him the many other atheists who are clear-headed enough to see as he did that “without God all things are permissible”—but nothing has meaning.

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