Ignatius Press, 2005.
Existentialism was a leading expression of Western philosophy in the 20th century. And Jean-Paul Sartre was a major figure in the existentialist movement. His non-fiction was influential, but his fiction impacted millions.
A solid Christian introduction to his life and thought is certainly needed, and this volume admirably does the job. Boston College Professor of Philosophy Peter Kreeft writes in the form of an imaginary dialogue between Socrates and Sartre, set in the afterlife. This technique Kreeft has used before with great success, in a series of books on the great thinkers and the great books.
In this volume he introduces us to the main tenets of Sartre’s existentialism, critiquing the man and his philosophy by means of the Socratic method in particular, and the biblical worldview in general. From both vantage points, Sartre and his thinking are found to be seriously wanting.
Sartre was of course a French philosopher who along with Albert Camus and others championed the movement known as existentialism, which emphasised choice and freedom, but in Sartre’s case, denied God and value. (There is such a beast as Christian existentialism, as best represented by Kierkegaard.)
Sartre was a fairly consistent atheist, who recognised that if God does not exist, then neither does good and evil, or love, or truth, or value. Life in the end is absurd and meaningless. Yet Sartre was happy to champion certain left-wing causes, not because they were true or right, but simply because choosing to do so validated them.
Such inconsistencies of course did not bother Sartre. Nor did the very grim consequences of his worldview. But most people would be bothered. Sartre may have been consistent, but his consistency demonstrates that atheism so lived is really unlivable.
For example, Sartre famously said that “hell is other people”. Well, if one really believes that and tries to live that, then life becomes unlivable. Certainly society, relationships, community, love and commitment become unlivable. Not many people really want to live in a world like that.
Of course as Kreeft rightly notes, it will only be in hell that Sartre will find what he really seems to be looking for: the eternal loneliness and absence of love. Indeed, he would not be able to enjoy heaven even if he did make it there: it would be the polar opposite of everything his philosophy stands for.
Kreeft also notes that while Sartre loved his loveless philosophy, another leading existentialist, Camus, did not. If Sartre’s existentialism began with and continued to follow, atheism, Camus at least was open to theism, and his search was leading him to God, but cut short by an early death.
Sartre in contrast died an old, embittered and twisted figure. One never finds a photograph of him smiling, for example. He seemed incapable of it. And his morose philosophy would have made it quite difficult to do or be otherwise.
Kreeft notes that this consistent but repulsive atheism is perhaps only matched in Nietzsche, whose life was equally tragic. The fact that many Frenchmen adored him – especially women – may say more about the French than about humanity. While he never had a lasting male friend, he did have legions of admiring female fans. This is really quite ironic given how poorly he treated women, including his various mistresses.
But men and women alike suffer from his worldview. For his creed was really quite ugly. If choice is the highest good (if one can speak of goods in his worldview), and the act of choosing, not the object of choosing, is all that matters, then to choose to be a Hitler as opposed to a Mother Teresa matters not at all. What does matter is that choice was exercised.
For Sartre fighting with the Nazis or against them is all of a piece. Try telling that to a Jew in Auschwitz, Kreeft (through Socrates) reminds Sartre. Of course Sartre did take up various (leftwing) causes, but there was certainly no ethical justification for doing so, according to his own system.
Man is condemned to his freedom, argues Sartre. His life is nothing more than his actions, his choices. He can neither blame nor praise another, only himself. In such a world, argues Kreeft, the one thing that almost all people – be they poet or saint, mystic or sage – agree to as the basic source of wisdom and happiness just does not exist: gratitude.
The arrogance of such a position puts him at odds with most moralists, religionists, sages and artists, all of whom admit to a universe that is bigger than they, and to which they may be accountable to some extent, or to which they may owe something. But the bare freedom of choice that Sartre subscribes to makes any gratitude, humility or circumspection not just unnecessary but pointless. And in such a world if any two people can find common ground and get along, it would just be dumb luck.
In the end, the life-denying worldview of Sartre leads to isolation, fragmentation and death. It does not lead to life, community, love or anything that makes life worthwhile.
Kreeft has done a very good job of not just analysing the worldview of Sartre, but of showing its many and profound deficiencies as well. One eagerly awaits his cross-examination of other great thinkers and their thoughts.