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Our responsibility is much greater than we might have supposed, because it involves all mankind.  Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre Properly Understood

Madame would you be able to recognize one?

Man is condemned to be free;
 because once thrown into the world,
 he is responsible for everything he does.

The question is often posed: Why does a conservative use the nom de plume of a Communist? Embedded within this query is the need to clarify the significance, positions and actions of the most famous designate for Existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) the French novelist, playwright, existentialist philosopher, and literary critic was always certain of his own value to society as a philosopher and writer, never avoiding an opportunity to demonstrate his superior mind. The audacity of his own worth should not be confused with pomposity of conceit. Sartre resisted fatigue, treated pain as if it were a challenge, repudiated personal vanity and took immeasurable pride in his intellect. He was an original, as Ronald Hayman said in his biography of Sartre - A Life "I've got a golden brain."

To comprehend the man, one does not have to fully master his classic Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, but one needs to understand his basic viewpoint of our conscious choice - to live one's life "authentically" and in a unified fashion, or not - this is the fundamental freedom of our lives. Nor do we have to agree with the situation ethic conclusions that flow from his Existentialism and Human Emotions, but we need to appreciate his concept that - Existence precedes Essence. Sartre claims that we have no predetermined nature or essence that controls what we are, what we do; which gives rise to absolute individuality and absolute freedom. Nevertheless, what we should admire is his precept that: in order to be free ourselves, we must desire the freedom of other people.

Though Existentialism and Humanism and Sartre's 1947 notebooks Cahiers pour une morale (now published) reveal his broad intentions, the crucial point that emerges from them is that Sartre maintains that although our metaphysical freedom does not depend upon others, there is another kind of freedom, moral freedom, which does depend upon others; as he puts it in the 1947 notebooks, 'morality is only possible if everyone is moral'.

This convergence that molds moral conduct with our ultimate fate and curse to be FREE, proceeds to his enormous contribution to detect - The Search for Method. The value of the Existential approach to inquiry and moral responsibility, stems from the process of confronting our own uniqueness and need to be free.

In, the Dogmatic Dialectic and the Critical Dialectic, Jean-Paul Sartre states:

"Everything we established in The Search for Method follows from our fundamental agreement with historical materialism. But as long as we present this agreement merely as one option among others we shall have achieved nothing, and our conclusions will remain conjectural. I have proposed certain methodological rules; but they cannot be valid, in fact they cannot even be discussed, unless the materialist dialectic can be assumed to be true . . . "

Marxist dialectic - Communism failure

While Sartre insists that his techniques must be placed within the context of Marxism, we would submit that the broad Existential approach does not suffer from such constraints. But for our purposes, we need to concede the appeal of the intellectual efficacy of the dialectic, while rejecting its validity as the correct world political view. No one should diminish the attraction that Marx has during an age of cultural upheaval. The abuses and inequality of his era and ours makes for many eager recruits. In a 1957 essay, Existentialism and Marxism, Sartre said that Marxism was "the one philosophy of our times which we cannot go beyond."

His declaration was incorporated into his magnum opus, Critique de la raison dialectique. Sartre's self-inflicted reductionism of Existentialism to the role of a "parasite" on the all-embracing Marxian philosophy seemed to complete his conversion to Marxism. This was most succinctly expressed by Simone de Beauvoir when she wrote: "He had been converted to the dialectic method and was attempting to reconcile it with his basic Existentialism." Which is exactly why Sartre not only retitled as Question de methode his long essay Existentialism and Marxism, but also wrote in a prefatory note that "logically" this introduction to the Critique really belonged at the end, as its conclusion. As a philosopher Sartre was acutely aware that methodology is the most concentrated expression of theory, a result of a complex interaction of the spirit of the times, class base, theoretical analysis, practical activity, including a struggle with rival theories, rival praxis, rival methodologies. To use an expression most favoured by Sartre, it is a "totalisation."

However, Sartre was a wavering convert. A central mark of 'dialectical reason' is the involvement of holistic explanations. The holistic theme is underpinned by an assumption basic to all Sartre's later work, that all human affairs are conducted under conditions of relative scarcity. For this implies that humans always confront each other as potential competitors, and, according to Sartre, it is this threat which both motivates all social and economic structures, and, in the end, unifies human history. This assumption of scarcity also provides one basis for the alienation which Sartre, like Marx, regards as an endemic feature of human history up to the present. But Sartre differs significantly from Marx in holding that alienation also arises from the fact that the realization of human purposes creates material structures (houses, machines, etc. - the 'practico-inert') that are inherently liable themselves to place further demands on people and, in some cases, to subvert the very purposes they were intended to promote. A central theme of Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason is, indeed, one of the attempt to overcome the constraints of the practico-inert through social institutions, and then of the failure of this attempt as social institutions themselves ossify and join the practico-inert.

The Critique bears witness to Sartre's disillusionment with the fate of communist states (though not with Marxism), and in it he returns to the pessimism of Being and Nothingness. The kind of moral freedom that he had envisaged in Existentialism and Humanism is now presented as entirely utopian.

While Sartre was the embodiment of contradiction, Marxist political philosopher Herbert Marcuse said of him, "He may not want to be the world's conscience, but he is." [Hayman, 458]  His first solid ethical stand was that freedom must exist, and stood by free choice as the highest - the only - ethical imperative. His final stand advocated violence, in which one man must deny freedom to another. Even if a proletariat is rebelling against unjust slavery, she is still denying the bourgeois’ freedom.

Our respect for his legacy is not based upon his inaccuracy in political theory. Above all he was a prototype for individual freedom and universal justice. Many conservatives and libertarians are strong advocates on the former, but fail to extend that reality to the latter. His gravity lies within his contributions to provide an Existential process of inquiry and reflection. He was a man of many talents, moods and idiosyncrasies. Concluding he was just a Communist is simplistic and silly. Our own advocacy of proactive bourgeois individual independence, differs with Jean-Paul. But we ardently accept the process and method of intellectual encounter, with ourselves and cultural traditions. The distinction that makes all the difference is the acceptance that we are all created beings and that our purpose lies within the admission of that reality.

Sartre's approach sought to create his own supreme being within himself:

"To be man means to reach toward being G-d. Or if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be G-d.... Every human reality is a passion in that it projects losing itself so as to found being and by the same stroke to constitute the In-Itself which escapes contingency by being its own foundation, the "Ens causa sui," which religions call G-d."

This error along with his strain of the Hegelian dialectic and Marxist politics should not exclude him from your deliberation. Our human condition deserves honest scrutiny and prudent intercourse to raise the level of society for both individual freedom and social justice. As it now stands, who can disprove Sartre?  "Hell is other people." No Exit, Garcin, in scene 5.

SARTRE - July 4, 2002

Every age has its own poetry; in every age the circumstances of history choose a nation, a race, a class to take up the torch by creating situations that can be expressed or transcended only through poetry.
 Jean-Paul Sartre

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