part 1 of 4
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
See The Ultimate Online Sartre resource: "have a coffee Break With Jean-Paul."
I have decided to flesh out several themes that are implicit in the piece I wrote in "Open Letter to John Loftus and the DC crowd."In so doing I will be speaking in a very general sense. Obviously I can't lay out the whole history of western civ. in a blog spot. I realize I will be painting with a broad brush. But this is an attempt to spell out the ideas that have always acted as under girding for my belief system and spur me on to faith. I don't claim to be making pronouncements from on high. I don't claim that I could prove all my beliefs. Rather I shall attempt to spell out some of the basic reasons for my world view.
Perhaps the most important underlying theme of that essay is that of meaning and transcendent truth. Meaning in life plays a big role in the playing out of my youthful formation; as a Sartian existentialist I bought into the line that "life is meaningless and absurd." It certainly seemed meaningless to me when I was young. This was what the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre was all about. I felt then and I still feel today that Sartre was entirely correct his assertion that his philosophy was the logical consequence of there being no God. If there is no God Sartre was basically right about life and meaning. Existentialism had its hay day in the 50's. It burst on the scene after the Second world war, the late 40's the major thinkers were turning to social ills, as the country tried to get back to civilian life. Hollywood began making "film noir" movies, and socially relevant films like "the Best Years of Our Lives." Films that either dealt with the dark side of human nature, or tried to expose social ills. In that context existentialism suddenly took center stage in cultural world and the world of letters, because it was seen as the way to put France back in the center as the culture leader it had been before Nazi occupation. Sartre had fought in the underground, escaped from a prisoner of war camp by just somehow dawning civilian clothes and just walking out and acting confident like he was supposed to be doing it!
Existentialism hit its stride in the 50's when many thinkers became famous for it, such as Gabriel Marcel with Christian existentialism, Niebuhr bothers (Reinhold and H. Richard) and Paul Tillich with existentially based theologies. Albert Camus hit his stride in that decade. In art Jackson Pollock represented existentialist themes, and in film Ingmar Bergman. By the 60s existentialism had become a cultural icon. The philosophy became fuzzy in people's minds. As with "Postmodernism" the exact meaning of the term was replaced with an image. People who didn't know what to call a painting or a film that seemed "edgy" or confusing called it "existential." The term conjured up images of people wearing berets and sipping espresso at a side walk cafe on the left bank and smoking Galloir cigarettes and saying things like "It is all absurd!" In the 90's this image worked its way into beer commercials. The clown of life and the slogan "why ask why" were parodies of this "existential" feeling. "why do you sit on the beach with the sad clown of life? why ask why?" That image and the feeling it evoked lent a je ne c'est qua to our adolescent rebellion and our lonely youthful striving. My brother and our best friend saw the Bergman film "Smiles of a Summer Night." The talk of "the yellow pavilion" in that film gave them the idea of speaking of our friend's garage as "the yellow pavilion," (because it has just been painted yellow). We did not want to be in Dallas, we wanted to be in Paris or New York, so we forged our own Texas version of existentialist image, sipping coffee in Ihop and smoking camel filters dipped in paragaric and saying "It's all so absurd!" Texas Rednecks in ear shot would say "whut are them bo-ahs talk'n about?" as we unabashedly and loudly discussed the metrical patterns of Keats, Marcuse, Joyce, Descartes, and of course Sartre. Once my brother and friend were were working on an atheist critique of the bible, with a bible present. A redneck who didn't know up from down thought they were Christian fundamentalists making apologetic notes and he came over to them and shouted, banging on the table, "a couple bible thumping bad ass boys!" I said to my brother when he told about this "why didn't you tell him what you were doing?" He said "I don't want that guy on my side!"
One of my favorite scenes in Woody Alan's filmAnnie Hall is a parody of this general image that existentialism had been stuck with by the 70's. Woody is in an art museum. A woman is gazing before a famous painting by Jackson Pollock. She says "can't you just feel the anxt, the deep respire, the black abyss of meaningless and nothingness." Long pause in which Woody contemplates what was said. He then says "what are you doing tonight?" The woman's reply: "committing suicide, at 12:00 midnight!" Wood says, "what are you doing at 11:45?"
Despite this romanticism, existentialism was a cogent philosophy, well thought out and based upon an older tradition that stretches back to the middle ages.
Sartre explains his philosophy most cogently and non technically in his essay
"Existentialism is a Humanism." The essay was first published in 1956, the year of my birth. But its most available incarnation is in Walter Kauffmann's book Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre 1989, however the original lecture was given in 1946. Sartre begins his discussion in defining existentialism as the belief that "being proceeds essence." This will have a profound bearing upon the concept of both meaning and truth because it is a direct attack upon age old theistic notions of the meaning of truth. The age old idea says that essence proceeds being. In other words, first there is an idea in the mind of God, then God creates that idea in concrete existent form. This stems from the thinking of the scholastics and Thomas Aquinas. But there are other themes that might challenge this notion. Aquinas was an Aristotelian. In his day he was greatly despised for brining novelty into theology. Theology was supposed to be set in stone, the really true truth that you didn't mess with. Thus Augustine was the philosopher of the Church. He was a Platonist. Aristotle was the philosopher of the Arabs, they saved his ideas. Plato was the intellectual bedrock of the church, and all the language of the creeds, with its incidents and accidents, was shaped by Plato. To bring Aristotle into it, especially after he was identified with the Arabs, who were infidels, this was a scandal.
The roots of existentialism have long been seen as stretching back to Augustine, but more so to Aquinas. The major difference in Plato and Aristotle is what they do with the forms. Plato said the world we know is the reflection, like a reflection of an object in a pool of water. The reflection (the "real" world) participates in the forms thus has it's being. Augustine said the forms are in the mind of God. So the participation in the forms is that of a thought in a mind; like the idea of an art work in the mind of the artist, or of an object such as a piece of furniture in the mind of the artisan who makes it. Aristotle said "there is no form without essence." This means there is no world of the forms "out there," the forms themselves appear with and in the concrete examples of them. Thus there is no form of mud, there is mud right here and that mud contains the form of mud, there is no general universal ideal mud that it participates in.
The idea of the forms in the mind of God gave life meaning, it meant that it is an expression of what God had conceived for it in his mind. Now Aquinas obviously believed that God created the world. But taking Aristotle's view of no form without essence he left open the possibility for individual "particulars" (the things in the world, in the concrete examples) to be shaped by "incidents and accidents." These ideas already existed. The major aspect of Platonic thought that played upon the Christian notion of Trinity was the concept of "essence." This comes from the concept of substance (really the same ideas); the Greek term is hamosios. This means the aspect of something that makes it what it is. So the Platonic Augustinians are saying a thing is what it is because it is first held in the mind of God. But the Aristotelian scholastics were saying that the from, the substance that defines it is in the individual event not in some pre set concept. The third view was Nominalism that comes form the followers of Duns Scottus. They said "a rose is a rose is a rose." Meaning there is no special form that defines a thing, it's just what it is. Even though they were Christians too, they are the forerunners of modern reductionism. Well The particulars of this story get pretty complex. I have to skip over the rest to get tot he point. Suffice to say Sartre came into it and said "there is not only no form without essence but being proceeds essence." That is first a thing exists. Then, in the case of a thinking thing such as a human, it's up to that thinking individual to shape it's own ends and determine its own meaning.
This is a radical jump from the previous stage. I am not saying Sartre was the first to say that. But he took it and made it his own. The idea is that there is no pre set formula or concept for things in the world, they are just what they are becasue they just happen by accident and random chance. The upshot of all of this is humanity; what is humanity? Because the themes of the past said humanity is a creature of God, thus as humans we have a duty to God. Unfortunately time does not permit a exploration of this concept of "accident." Because the scholastic notion of accident is much like our modern random chance notion, and that's where it comes from. All of our modern concepts of cause and effect, occurrence (incident) and random "accident" have their origins in the scholastic notion of cause and effect. The modern world just cut off the bits that pertain to first cause and the other forms of causes and left sufficient cause as our modern notion of c/e. Thus c/e comes out of the concept of necessity and contingency.
Sartre just moves it over one. It's not that the essence is within the form, essence is following form. For humanity that means we first exist. We exist for no particular reason except the c/e reason that science uses to explain the random event that led to life on earth, and then it is up to us to us to make ourselves what we will. In other words we are free to become what we wish to become. This is a principle concept for Sartre, radical freedom. We are free, we are condemned to be free. This means we can't avoid making decisions, we can't rest upon being shaped by prior forces. Sartre would have none of the modern determinism stuff of chemical determinism. We are radically free, we have to choose what we will become. He re shapes the concept of essence. It first meant (substance, hamousios)the quality that defines what a thing is. Thus the substance of a horse is long nose, mane, tail, four legs with hoofs, and so forth. But for the scholastics it was like a special unseen quality that pervades things. For Plato there was a special realm somewhere beyond the world we know where the universal ideals exist (forms) and the particular instances of these things participate in these ideals in a way that is mediated through the spend el of necessity. But For Aquinas the substance was actual in the particular. For Sartre substance boils down to an abstract definition of what something is. This is very crucial. This must be understood, because it is up to us to decide for ourselves what we are, we determine our own essence. If I want to be brave, I want to be a brave man, I define brave for myself. "I am brave because I go to the store by myself." I am brave because I'm not worried about McCain winning. We set a value and we define if we live up to that value. Thus in a sense we are making truth for ourselves. We making meaning for ourselves.
Meaning is the whole point. For Sartre life is meaningless and absurd. This has a particular meaning. I am not doing justice to the complexity of Sartre's philosophy. He was a brilliant thinker, and his most technical philosophical treaties is hard to read and requires a real background in Philosophy. It is called Being and Nothingness. That book is widely known throughout the academy to have been a "ripoff" of Heidegger's Being and Time. Sartre was influenced by Heidegger and did attend some lectures by him. It is true that he was greatly influenced by Heidegger. I see Being and Nothingness as an attempt to translate the ideas of Heidegger into French thinking, not as out and out theft. Sartre does ad his own original slant to the ideas. But the necessity of baptizing into French culture ideas of a German philosopher was a very real problem. So Sartre was doing a service to Heidegger not just stealing his work. Within less than a decade they would be enemies in the war. Heidegger was an actual Nazi, but he resigned form the party when they demanded certain things from which he thought were unfair to others.
For Sartre "meaningless" means there is no pre set essence, there is no predetermined value or ideal or definition for life. We are free we are not shaped by any duty or obligation to God or any higher power. We just are organisms and we are here. Then it is up to us to decide what our lives mean, what value there is in them, to define for ourselves the meaning we wish to put on it. The most crucial step, humanity becomes what it wishes to become. Humanity is that thing whatever it is. We are not creatures, we were not created, we are not creatures of God, we are creatures of ourselves because we crate for ourselves our own meaning. We create our own truth because truth, if defined as "that which is" is a function of essence. We shape our own essence by the force of our own being, then we are defining truth according to what we have become. That which we are is a function of that which we chose to be. This should all have real resonance with atheists. Even atheists of today who have no background in existentialism should find kinship with these ideas.
So I believe that Sartre has one of the best readings of meaning of life, if there is no God! If there is no God then there is Jean-Paul Sartre! But the problems in Sartre's views then become for me problems in being an atheist. They become reasons to assume the reverse of Sartre's view. Sartre was explicating the consequences of philosophically of a world with no God, thus if these consequences prove to be false, that would be a reason to assume there is a God. Of course we can't think of it as proof. But I tend to think of it as a good reason to assume God in understanding what we should do about civilization.
There's one more step before I cover, self authentication. One determines one's own essence, that means we attach our own meaning to our lives by deciding upon our own values. When we do this in such a way as to act in freedom for ourselves to define ourselves, we make ourselves who we are, this Sartre calls "self authentication." It is in a sense the Sartian alternative to salvation. A Sartian existentialist doesn't die and go to heaven, he lives out his/her life on earth, enjoys it, and that is called self-authentication. Of course I'm leaving out a lot; good faith, bad faith, shrinking under the gave of the other, nausea, the state that arises from realizing the meaninglessness and absurdity of it all. Also this is connected to anxiety, in existentialist terms "anxt." This is most important but I have no time to cover it. Now lest one think there is none of this in Christian existentialism, all of these moves are found in Kierkegaard in one form or another, and certainly in Gabriel Marcel.Of course Kierkegaard lived over fifty years before Sartre was born, while Marcel was a big fan of Sartre's (even though he was a Christian and Sartre an atheist). Christian existentialism proceeds not from the move "being proceeds essence" but form the move that the point of life is find connection with our source and thus become "more ourselves," (Kierkegaard).
Time and space does not permit more. This is only a blog but I will do part 2 of 1 next time. In that essay I will show why all of this really can be reversed and indicates a fine justification for belief in God.
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part 1 of 4