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Jean-Paul Sartre

Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you.
A Sartre quote found in Robin Wright's Dreams and Shadows.

Rather than proclaiming there was an existing purpose outside of people to which they were supposed to fit or adopt, Jean-Paul Sartre began with the existence of people and claimed they had to create their own meaning and purpose. This is has been described as a basic aspect of his existentialism.

Sartre has been described as the best known philosopher of the twentieth century. After Sartre was arrested for civil disobedience during the student strike in Paris in 1968, President de Gaulle pardoned him, commenting that "You don't arrest Voltaire."

A precocious child, Sartre was introduced to classical literature at an early age. He received a doctorate in philosophy from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in 1929 at the age of 24. He was a professor until 1939, when he was drafted into the army. He was taken prisoner by the Germans and in 1941 released. He began working against the German occupation and was disappointed with the behavior of some of France's prestigious intellectuals, André Gide and André Malraux among them.

Like Camus, Sartre favored active commitment against the German occupation. He saw pacifism regarding the evil of Hitler's policies and Germany's occupation of France as collaboration.

Sartre believed that everyone, believer and non-believer, had to make choices as best they could, that taking direction from authority was itself a decision and no escape from responsibility. Emotions, he held, are more than mere "inner states;" they are ways of relating to the world.

During the German occupation, France's police worked for the collaboration government – the police on the side of criminality a frightening situation. All established authority including the clergy tended to support the collaborationist Pétain regime. The target of the regime were Jews and the Marxists, and Sartre sided with both. He was a rebel and that made him a man of the Left.

Sartre saw people as having to protect themselves rather than calling on godly interventions. And he saw people as responsible for their politics and individual acts. He did not accept the argument that "the devil made me do it" or the explanation that "I was following the word of God." He did not accept the excuse of being "only human" or unloved by one's mother. And for Sartre following the crowd was no excuse. People, he held, create their own morality through the choices they make, through the lines they themselves draw as to what they will and will not do.

Sartre acknowledged that we are social animals and that society matters. A character in one of Sartre's plays, The Devil and the Good Lord, says,

I know only one Church: it is the society of men.

In emphasizing the interconnectedness of individuals, Sartre claimed that if one makes liberty his aim he must make the liberty of others equally his aim. "Our responsibility is much greater than we might have supposed," he wrote, "because it involves all mankind." "Nothing can be good for us without being good for all."

Life has a priori meaning, he wrote in 1943. In other words, it is not religion that delivers the meaning of life, "It is up to you to give it a meaning." "Value," he added, "is nothing but the meaning that you choose."

He expressed the complexIty of humanity's relations with their gods by mentioning the ambiguity of those gods. In Act One of The Flies a character says, "Ah! Do not judge the gods, young man, they have painful secrets."

Sartre addressed the trouble that people create for each other. "It is certain that we cannot escape anguish," he wrote, "for we are anguish." In his play No Exit, a character says, "[We are] among murderers. We are in hell, my dear, there is never a mistake and people are not damned for nothing." And, referring to the pain the people inflict on each other, the character Garcin says,

So that is what hell is. I would never have believed it. You remember: the fire and brimstone, the torture. Ah! the farce. There is no need for torture: Hell is other people.

Sartre's philosophical opponents jumped on the line "Hell is other people" in an effort to trash Sartre's attempt at humanism. In 1946, Sartre complained:

... we are reproached for having underlined all that is ignominious in the human situation, for depicting what is mean, sordid or base to the neglect of certain things that possess charm and beauty and belong to the brighter side of human nature: for example, according to the Catholic critic, Mlle. Mercier, we forget how an infant smiles.

In this speech, Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre described his intention as "not the plunging of men into despair." The real problem, said Sartre, is not whether God exists, it is that "man needs to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself." He added also that his existentialism is "not atheist in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God."

The Church held to the position that God gives humanity its dignity, that God associates humanity with Himself in the task of co-creating ourselves. And there was the claim that Sartre left out the freedom to say "yes" regarding their belief in God and devotion to the Church.

In 1948, the Roman Catholic Church moved to restrict Sartre's influence and their flock's deciding for themselves the value of Sartre's works. The Church placed Sartre's complete works on its Index of prohibited books.

Regarding communists, Sartre became what was called a "fellow traveler." After the war, he retained his devotion to leftist political struggle in collaboration with Marxists. He saw communist revolutionaries as bound by the same burden of making choices as others, not just pawns of the socio-economic forces of an over-simplified Marxism. Sartre's emphasis on the humanist values in the early works of Marx led to a dispute with the leading Communist intellectual in France in the 1960s. Sartre concluded that Marx's notion of "class" as an objective entity was fallacious. And there were Marxist intellectuals who criticized him for being subjective and for putting his existentialism above his Marxism.

In 1964, Sartre was offered a Nobel Prize for literature, but he turned it down, stating that he had always refused official honors and didn't wish to align himself with institutions.

Sartre's angst remained as an exaggeration in the public mind. In Woody Allen's 1972 movie Play it again Sam the following scene occurs:

WOODY ALLEN:  That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn't it?

GIRL IN MUSEUM:  Yes it is.

WOODY ALLEN:  What does it say to you?

GIRL IN MUSEUM:  It restates the negativeness of the universe, the hideous lonely emptiness of existence, nothingness, the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.

WOODY ALLEN:  What are you doing Saturday night?

GIRL IN MUSEUM:  Committing suicide.

WOODY ALLEN:  What about Friday night?

GIRL IN MUSEUM: [leaves silently]

Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.