Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), A Perspective

Who was he? He was a French philosopher and very important speaker for the existentialist movement in post-war France. His monumental work, ‘Being and Nothingness’ had a lot to do with the writings of Kierkegaard and Heidegger and many who had gone before him. They say he misunderstood Heidegger’s philosophy as a result which he came up with spectacular philosophy of his own. Whereas Heidegger avoided Cartesian dualism of mind and body, he went back to Descartes’ thought and distinction between the two. Nonetheless, his philosophy has a clarity and power, which captured the spirit of his times more than his predecessors or his existentialist contemporaries like Camus, Merleau-Ponty and Simone de Beauvoir with whom he had a close association but they were not married.

The fundamental meaning of all existentialist philosophies is   that ‘existence precedes essence’. What does this mean? Well, if you recall, Plato talked about the realm of Essences, Archetypes, Universals, Paradigms and Forms. This is the place of perfection and Being. I’m a man and let us say you’re a man too. We’re not perfect. Therefore, we participate in the Form of manhood that is perfect. We have a perfect man between us. This man is in the realm of perfection. In other words, there’s a third Reality, which cannot be seen, heard, touched, etc. He is neither tall nor short fat or skinny old or young. We’re nothing but the reflections of this perfect and ideal man. This man is with other Forms of perfection like humanity, honesty, beauty and generosity. I’m potentially that man but not actually, using Aristotle’s language. Sartre, however, believes we make our own essences and our existence comes before that. This is happening in time. Any before and after is the story of time just like the cause and effect. This denial of the third man is basically what Bishop Berkeley held against John Locke. So it is not something new. I’m first then I create my own essence or who or what I’m. This was what Sartre was all about. He was for absolute freedom and against determinism. If you accept Plato’s third man, then you’re determined. But there’s a logical problem here. When you say you’re already determined, this means the element of time is a factor here. Plato never spoke of Forms this way, because they’re transcendent Realities. To deny the existence of Forms of perfection means you’re also denying the existence of imperfect world. Let us think for a moment, to accept that this world is relative requires the fact that there must logically be an absolute Reality. The same thing is true about the existence of the third man. Since us two men are not perfect, there must be a perfect man somewhere. Nevertheless, we don’t have to think about the third man as existing the way we do. It is not subject to logical scrutiny when it comes to its existence. Let us say, it just doesn’t exist, namely standing out there. This is very much like the Ultimate Reality in contrast to personal God. Ultimate Reality is beyond being and non-being, existence and non-existence or any duality you could possible imagine. I believe Plato’s Forms are no exception. We don’t have to prove their existence. They’re not in time, because they’re perfect. If this man is my essence, then I’m only potentially it not actually. Plato knew that they don’t exist. Thus, their existence doesn’t have to be proven. They’re transcendent Realities. They’re special and not temporal. They’re in sacred space not what we normally know about the space.

When Sartre argues that I’m first, and then I create my own destiny, he couldn’t have meant the latter is Plato’s essence.

The issue of destiny was discussed in the movie, ‘Forest Gump’ between his mother and him and his Lieutenant Dan in Vietnam. He was not the captain but argued that it was his destiny to have been killed with his platoon. Later he realized his destiny was something else and had finally had his peace with God.

No matter what we do in life, we’re somehow determined. When Sartre said ‘I’m condemned to be free’, we can easily see that he is saying I’m determined to be free. Adam and Eve were determined to have the free choice to either eat the fruits from the tree or not.

By ‘essence’ Sartre couldn’t have meant Plato’s Form.

Remember, He returned to what Descartes had said when he argued that ‘I think, therefore I’m’. Descartes was reaching for certainty. He said he could doubt everything except the fact that he doubted. If he doubted, then he must have been thinking. And if he were thinking, then he should have existed. However, he was criticized for his statement. Descartes couldn’t have been able to make such a statement, if he were not or existed in the first place. Prior to ‘cogito, ergo sum’ or ‘I think, therefore I’m’ he must have been. So have ‘being’ at the end doesn’t make any sense.

Sartre seems to have been aware of what Descartes was criticized for. Therefore, he tried to avoid falling into the trap set up for him philosophically. So he came up with, ‘existence precedes essence’. He brings existence first and then essence later, that is ‘I’m, therefore I doubt, and since I do, I think’. I’m, and then I make my own destiny’. I can say, I’m a human, thus I decide where I’m going to go in my life. As you notice, my Platonic determinism is already stated when I say, ‘I’m a human’. This flirting with the absolute freedom came to an end under the pressure by the Marxists. As a result, he wrote his second famous work accepting the fact that there’s a truth in determinism. The book was translated into English shortly after. He finally became a Marxist existentialist. However, remember he had criticized Freud’s determinism some time back. But whether he changed his mind about it is beyond the scope of this humble article. I personally believe he must have considered it.

When he says, ‘It is up to the individual to choose the life they think best’ he should have thought that we’re not always to make our choices, because circumstances sometimes determine what our decisions will be. Did we ask to be created or come into this world? The answer is simply ‘No’. Just as we don’t make a decision as to what our names or Religions are going to be, we don’t decide where we are to be born and which country will be our land.

If Sartre thinks we exist first and then we can define the meaning of our life, I believe, he is simply wrong. We have been on this planet for thousands of years and still have no idea why we’re here. We’re still wondering about the meaning of life. We still don’t know where we’re going. In his ‘Ethics’ Aristotle tells us man is created to satisfy some purpose or aim and that very fulfillment of life is but striving towards that end. So far Aristotle has not made any sense whatsoever. Sartre, on the other hand, argues that in the absence of God or designer, who would let us know regarding our goal in this world? It is up to people to make choices concerning the life they deem the best. It sounds very much like what Nietzsche’s proposition was.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), the British philosopher, mathematician, and logician was once called an atheist in a debate on the existence of God. This was on BBC London radio where Father Frederick Copleston told him he was an atheist. Of course, Russell immediately disagreed with him and said to him he was not an atheist but an agnostic.  Think for a moment and ask has Sartre provided us with the knowledge why we’re here? Let us not forget that personal God created by humans has to be refuted as Buddha did 2600 years ago. Then as Philo, the Jewish philosopher of the first century argued, we ought to take the stories of the Bible symbolically. If we decided to think about this subject on a different level, then the Ultimate Reality is what we need. Tetrahedron could be a good model for Christianity where God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are in a flat triangle at the bottom and the Ultimate Reality at the pick or apex. By the way despite of the common belief in Christianity, we can see in one of Raffaello Santi’s paintings on a ceiling God the Father is way above God the Son, which is Christ. Under Jesus is a dove symbolizing God the Holy Spirit. Is it possible that Raphael (1483-1520) went against the Church Fathers in the 13th century? Who knows?

Sartre said that when God is absent, then we have to create our own purpose in life and choose what is best for us. If the true God not people’s perceptions stand for the presence of absolute, then without it there’s no relative. But we know that this world is imperfect and relative, thus there must be a perfect Reality which is absolute at least as far as our mind is concerned. Let us remember we’re determined by our language. It is not so easy to deny the Ultimate Reality, because it doesn’t even exist. So then how are we to just brush aside what is there, here, everywhere, and no where?

By saying there’s no personal God, we have already comfirmed its existence. How can we deny what is there? By negating its existence we’re affirming it. If God doesn’t exist, then what are we negating? You might say this is all a play with words. Fine, we have no argument with you here. However, when it comes to the Ultimate Reality, it just doesn’t exist at all, because it is beyond all dualities. I’m sorry that Sartre’s atheism cannot help him to prove the existential premise and he knows it too. Russell was aware of that too. A belief in God is also a personal decision, namely it is a life and goal chosen. A belief in gods or God cannot be imposed upon individuals. Just as you cannot coerce a woman to love you, we are unable to coerce individuals to believe in God. But if God has been a creation of human beings, there’s no reason to believe in Him. After all Russell told Father Copleston he was not an atheist but agnostic, because he was well aware of the difficulties involved with atheism. He knew the problems with believing in God or denying His existence.

Sartre knew even if we had a vision like St. Theresa of Avila (1515-82), the Spanish Carmelite mystic, it would still depends on her to interpret the vision. When she didn’t know what to think of her vision, she sought the help of a Holy man. She just didn’t know what to make of it. Was it the divine voice or lunatic hallucination? According to Kierkegaard this must have been on Abraham’s mind when he was told to sacrifice his son. Only the person with a vision is able to interpret it not God.

It is a real doctrine of Sartre that man is never forced. He is confronted with a choice at every where he turns. Even if a person is put in jail or at a gun point, it is his decision to accept or reject what he is asked to do. The results do not exempt the person from making that choice. We’re here reminded of Kant’s categorical imperative.

When the Nazi criminals, who were responsible for the death of millions of people, were asked why they did what they did, they said they were ordered to do so. Sartre verbally attacked them by saying that you were still morally responsible for what you did. Regardless of the order, you had to do what is right.

Sartre was aware of this radical freedom, which had very heavy consequences. In other word, we’re responsible for whatever we do no matter what it may be. In his form of existentialism one is unable to come up with excuses or shrug off responsibility. We cannot waive or give up our moral duty when it comes to a divine being or human nature. If we got involved with such a situation, it would mean nothing but being in a self-deception, he called it ‘bad faith’. This results in three, related impediments for the person. The first one is ‘anguish ‘or distress coming from knowing the pressure of responsibility each one of us carry. Whatever we do transfers not only ourselves, but through our choices and behaviors we set example for the rest of humanity. Such responsibility is a result of the fact that we define our own meaning of life, which is shown in our actions. When we decide to do something it is not only an individual preference, but a statement to the whole world that this is the way life ought to be lived. I’m reminded of Kant’s first principle in his categorical imperative.

The second impediment is ‘abandonment’. To existentialists it is ‘extremely embarrassing’ that God doesn’t exist. Here it is Nietzsche’s influence on Sartre. Russell would have asked what is it that doesn’t exist? They would have to say, God. Then there’s no problem, because you guys just affirmed its existence. By refuting the existence of something, we’re also admitting it exists. Play with words? Why not, this is logic. By saying God doesn’t exist, we’re actually stating that He is not stand out or He is not outstanding in a negative way. We’re not admiring but rejecting.

Why should I feel I’m left alone and helpless, without guidance in moral matters? After all, aren’t we denying the existence of a God, who is but a creation of People’s perceptions? Why Buddha didn’t feel abandoned?  When my father and mother, sister and brother have left this world, I feel lonely. However, they were not gods or deities. Why should I let this perception play with my life?

Nietzsche told us all we have is thousands years of interpretations. Temples and people have given me what God and gods are all about. Have I found that out for myself? The joke in the British comedy was ‘God is dead’ signed Nietzsche. Then under it we read, ‘Nietzsche is dead’ signed God. I’m again reminded of the movie, ‘six sense’ where this little boy was seeing dead people. We really don’t exist, meaning we’re outstanding in our own imagination. We shouldn’t be there but here and now, to smell the perfume of transcendence. ‘

‘Why have you forsaken me’ was what Jesus asked on the cross? Prophet of Islam had a moment like this and felt the same way and God’s answer was I never left you. God is not in time.

Philosophically we’re abandoning ourselves while putting the blame on someone else. But, is not this exactly what the existentialists have tried to make us stay away from? Why are we putting the blame on God when we live in an imperfect world? Those so called God fearing individuals are showing their real colors left and right when knowing the truth they still live in denial. For profit they step on the truth in the name of truth right before our own eyes. They tell thousands lies every day of their lives and still believe in God. The video cameras show what they have denied. Who is this God they worship except what they have made for themselves? Are we blind? Even Pontius Pilate’s eyes opened while standing in front of Christ. ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ (Jesus on the cross)

The third one is ‘despair’. We should act without hope by giving up the instinct to have trust that things will turn out fine. There’s no guidance of God or what is called providence. We ought to depend only on what we’re capable to affect through our will and action. Buddha always taught his followers to stand on their own two feet and rely only on themselves.

When Sartre argues we’re ‘condemned to be free’ he is telling us we’re determined to be free. This is the story of Genesis in which God expected Adam and Eve to make choices. We were given the freedom to either eat from the fruits of that tree or not. Nonetheless, this must not become the reason for being pessimistic despite of criticisms given to him by his detractors. Sartre argues that existentialism, on the contrary, manifests ‘a sternness of optimism’. Sartre maintains that man creates his or her own destiny, which means it is not decided for him ahead of time. But what if my choices are already determined? Even Sartre couldn’t deny the fact that we’re determined up to certain point. Forest Gump was blamed by his lieutenant for saving his life and not letting him be killed with the rest of his platoon. He argued with Gump that you ruined what was my destiny. But how can you call it your destiny when was interrupted by one of your soldiers? Mamma, why are you dying? Honey it is my time. She says this is my destiny. Mama, what is my destiny? You’ll make your own destiny. One didn’t get killed in the battle and the other one has to succumb to what is determined for her. In the latest Cinderella movie the prince comes to his father’s death bed and says to him don’t go and he hears the answer, I must. Didn’t Sartre succumb to death when it was time? What was on his mind then? This is inevitable succession of events. Fate is the force determining the outcome of events (Webster’s New World Dictionary) Marxists fought with him for almost 20 years and finally he gave up and wrote his second remarkable book in which he expressed his feelings about determinism as we mentioned before.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers by Philip Stokes, page.152)