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Sunday, December 30th, 2007
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Existentialism Is a Humanism (07 Edition)

by Jean Paul Sartre

An Evening with the Professor

A review by Nicholas Hengen

Thirteen years ago in a New York Times book review, Anthony Gottlieb wrote "It is almost as if Sartre the philosopher had never existed." Since then, the Times has supported this assertion: its only examination of Sartre since 1994 focused on the philosopher's love life, comparing him to "Hugh Hefner -- without the bathrobe, but with a more highly evolved line of patter."

Not long ago, Sartre did matter. He mattered so much that he found himself under constant attack from both left and right -- that is, from communists and Christians. Remembering the protagonists of Sartre's novels, it's easy to grasp his power to enrage. Consider Antoine Roquentin of Nausea (1938), whose solitary travails compensate for what they lack in action with angst. Or think of Mathieu in The Age of Reason (1945), who compares his girlfriend's pregnancy to "a blister, growing slowly larger." These unpleasant men were, for communists, passive bourgeois subjects mucked up in meaningless metaphysics, while Christians found them to be cold, godless amoralists.

In October 1945, Sartre set out to defend himself against such attacks. Four months after the Allied armies arrived in Berlin and just a month after the United States dropped its atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki he delivered the lecture "Existentialism is a Humanism" to a "restless and packed" room in Paris. The defensive posture seems to have suited. Sartre manages to offer a brief summary of his thinking in a cogent argument about how an existentialist might live in a post-Holocaust, post-Bomb world.

His fundamental theme is responsibility. Rebutting attacks from the left, Sartre argues that, for existentialists, "reality exists only in action." We only know the world through our own subjectivities, so we must define ourselves through our actions. Sartre affirms the Cartesian Cogito -- I think therefore I am -- but again returns to action as our only access to the thoughts of others. It is our responsibility, then, not to live in our heads (like Roquentin), but in actions that evince where we stand. This argument -- with subtle echoes of "do unto others" -- works, at least in part, to squelch Christian objections as well.

Sartre thus turns a philosophy caricatured as one of passive anguish and abandonment into what he calls "a humanism." One shouldn't miss -- as some earlier translations have -- the definite article. This isn't a cuddly affirmation of essential human goodness. Rather, it reminds us that we are alone and purports that only "by constantly seeking a goal outside of himself in the form of liberation...that man will realize himself as truly human."

In the discussion that followed Sartre's lecture, reproduced in this volume, it is clear that Sartre hasn't won everyone over. He faces questioners seeking clarifications and definitions, not to mention accusations of -- gasp! -- "liberalism." Pierre Naville, the communist sociologist, asks a blistering question that runs almost eleven pages, leaving Sartre with little to say but "It is rather difficult to answer you fully, because you have said so many things."

Like the questioners, the book's preface asserts doubts about the value of the lecture. Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre, the philosopher's adoptive daughter and literary executor, calls it "clear but simplistic"; indeed, however fascinating, it is not the best evidence of Sartre's philosophy. So why should we bother to read this little lecture?

Partly, I would suggest, as a model. This scene -- a philosopher fielding questions from an audience of non-specialists -- is not one most of us are likely to recognize, since philosophers have largely turned away from the public. In Sartre's lecture, we might hear some shrill philosophical chords, but we also see a bravura performance by the man of what Annie Cohen-Solal calls, in her introduction, "the first global public intellectual." Sartre isn't just defending his ideas, his reputation, and himself; he is trying to offer a workable approach to life in a world shattered by war. He doesn't speak with the smoothly convincing patter of a politician -- his tone, in fact, feels rushed. The lecture reads as the work of an impassioned citizen explaining how he lives under painful conditions.

What we might call the central anecdote of "Existentialism is a Humanism" clarifies Sartre's position. The philosopher returns, three times, to the story of a young student who visits his professor with a quandary. The student's father has abandoned his mother and begun to collaborate with the Nazis; the student's brother had been killed in the fighting. "The young man had the choice of going to England to join the Free French Forces -- which would mean abandoning his mother -- or remaining by her side to help her go on with her life." The bigger question, Sartre elaborates, is how to express commitment. Will the student opt for the simple, immediate good of staying with his mother? Or risk abandonment -- not to mention capture and death -- for the larger good?

Sartre, of course, is the professor in the story, and his response is brutal: he refuses to give advice. The choice belongs to the student -- this is, after all, the fundamental existential position. We cannot tell others how to live.

Yet here we have Sartre helping the public to answer precisely that question. How to live? "Existentialism is a Humanism" doesn't answer by preaching, but by example. Rather than retreating behind university walls to write more plays, novels, and philosophical treatises, Sartre dedicates himself to a broader sort of revolution in thinking. This, as Cohen-Solal suggests, marks a turning point in his life. Sartre would give up his professorship and earn his living through editing and writing. He would -- far ahead of most thinkers -- turn his attention to global struggles. He would begin to write and speak in a decidedly less ambiguous public voice than that found in his earlier novels or plays.

In this small book, we discover Sartre as more than the café existentialist or the playboy. Here we see the committed philosopher working in public, with many of its evident hazards. Despite its flaws, in Existentialism is a Humanism we have a model for a committed philosophy -- one that is sorely needed today.

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