National Catholic Register


‘Hell is Other People’

The dead end of Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialism

BY Jim Cosgrove

November 04-11, 2001 Issue | Posted 11/4/01 at 2:00 PM


Concerning the early separation Jean Paul Sartre experienced from both his parents—his father died, his mother doted on him before remarrying, which he experienced as a betrayal—the influential French philosopher and author wrote that he had “benefited from the situation.” With regard to his mother, he would not be exposed to the “difficulties of a late weaning.” He expressed even greater gratitude for the early demise of his father. “[His] death was the great event in my life: It returned my mother to her chains and it gave me my freedom.”

“I was lucky,” he wrote, “to belong to a dead man: a dead man had poured out the few drops of sperm which are the normal price for a child.”

Sartre's adventures in existentialism would culminate in his embracing Marxism and declining the 1964 Nobel Prize for literature (in protest against the values of “bourgeois society”). For him, the rupture between biology and morality (between siring a child and raising him responsibly, for example) formed a prototype for the irreconcilable rift he would describe philosophically between the world of matter and the world of consciousness. Biology is mere fact, “facticity,” as he called it, something that stood over and against us. But the world of consciousness, he maintained, is one of freedom.

Sartre's commitment to unfettered freedom was sometimes accompanied by a weak temptation to accept his place in the family. It was a temptation, however, that he found easy to resist. How could he resign himself to his position in the family? As he wrote in his autobiography, he was “made feminine through the fondness of my mother, flavourless through the absence of the severe Moses who had begotten me, and eaten up with conceit through my grandfather's adoration. I was pure object, doomed above all to masochism, had I been able to believe in the family comedy. But I would not.”

Sartre's rejection of the father, as a condition for personal liberty, necessarily extends to his rejection of God. His atheism is not philosophically derived as much as it is a logical consequence of his upbringing. “I was led to unbelief not through conflicting dogma but through my grandparents’ indifference.” He saw in his elders a form of hypocrisy that was only too transparent. They displayed virtues as the alibi for vices, preached one thing and practiced another. There was no substance or true religious meaning to their lives. “In our circle, in my family,” he wrote, “faith was nothing but an official name for sweet French liberty.”


Fourth in an occasional series

Atheism is at the core of Sartre's philosophy. But it is a postulate that he assumes rather than proves. Moreover, it seems to spring from his personal background more than it does from his powers of reason. Whatever the case, it is harmonious with his notion of absolute personal freedom. If there is no God, then there are no rules or commandments; hence, no restrictions placed on human liberty.

Sartre's principal philosophical work is Being and Nothingness, published in 1943. In the introduction of this massive work, he makes a crucial distinction that functions as the bedrock of his philosophical thinking. There are things, material entities, that are simply there, fixed and determined—“dumb-packed-togetherness.” This is the realm of the “being-in-itself” (e⁁treen-soi). Such things are the object of our consciousness.

We, as conscious beings, are not fixed. We are incomplete, dynamic, ever-changing. We are in process, capable of choosing what we are to become. We are transitional beings, guiding what we will become by our freedom. Therefore, we are not a “being-in-itself,” but a “being-for-itself” (e⁁tre-pour-soi). We do not as yet have an essence or a definable or intelligible nature. We really are not human beings at all, but are in the process of choosing what we are to become. In Sartre's celebrated phrase, which springs from the heart of his philosophy, “existence precedes essence.”

‘I was intoxicated with death because I did not like life.’

The contention that we are not human beings or possessors of any particular nature is derived from, and reinforces, his atheism. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, God makes us in his image. God endows us with a particular nature or essence the way an artist imbues his work with a formative idea. If God exists, for Sartre, he would create us with a particular nature and, as a consequence, deny us the freedom to be ourselves. If God does not exist, then there is no one to saddle us with any particular nature. As a result, we are free beings whose existence precedes our essence: “There is no human nature because there is no God to have a conception of it.”

Absolute freedom, however, is not easy to bear. Throughout his life, Sartre was haunted by the Holy Ghost. Finally, he states, at the end of his autobiography, “I have caught the Holy Ghost in the cellars and flung him out of them. Atheism is a cruel, long-term business: I believe I have gone through it to the end.”

Absurdist Angst

To be alone in a Godless universe, without a nature, without guidance—without hope—can be torturous. “Life is absurd,” Sartre concludes, but we must make something of ourselves even though that something does not amount to anything. Indeed, life is brutal. In this regard, it is not surprising to discover Sartre telling us, “I was intoxicated with death because I did not like life.”

But what should this atheistic existentialist become? He does not want to be absorbed into the “obscene paste” of matter and become a mere “being-in-itself.” Nor does he want to involve himself in relationships with others who are impelled to turn him into an object for their own individual use. Even less does he want to remain an indeterminate entity, floating pointlessly throughout the cosmos, awaiting his inevitable extinction. What is left? The answer is the simple utterance we find inscribed in the title of his life's story—Words.

Sartre must write in order “to be forgiven for being alive.” Yet, in finding refuge in abstract words, he must deny the significance of his body, his incarnate reality, as well as the life-affirming relationships he might have cultivated with others. “Chance had made me a man; generosity would make me a book,” he wrote. Thus, in some way, he would escape from the misery of himself. “The mirror had told me what I had always known: I was horribly ordinary. I have never gotten over it.”

The gap that Sartre creates between his own plane of consciousness and the external world was so wide as to prove uncrossable. The fundamental mode of all human relationships, for Sartre, therefore becomes conflict. As he states through the character Garcin in his play No Exit: “Hell is other people” (L‘Enfer c‘est l‘Autrui).

In his book The Gods of Atheism, Father Vincent Miceli concludes that Sartre's philosophy leads logically and directly to despair and suicide: “His world of atheism is a kingdom of nothingness plunged into intellectual darkness, convulsed with spiritual hate and peopled by inhabitants who curse God and destroy each other in their vain attempt to seize his vacant throne.” This is not hyperbole, but the inevitable consequence of Sartre's thinking, which is congruent with the culture of death that presently surrounds us.

Yet Sartre himself could not be at peace with his own, bleak philosophy. On the last page of Words, he leaves us with a conundrum. “I depend only on those who depend only on God, and I do not believe in God.” Like his life itself, Sartre's philosophy, however carefully thought out, was internally contradictory. Where his frustration ends, the Christian's hope begins.

Donald DeMarco is a philosophy professor at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario.