The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as a witness during the trial of French politician Alain Geismar. Palais de Justice de Paris. Paris. 20 October 1970. Photograph.
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Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) was once an extremely popular French philosopher and writer born in Paris. He’s best known for articulating his unique vision of existentialism. But he was also a successful novelist, playwright and man of letters.
Academics and intellectuals tend to champion certain thinkers for a decade or two. Some scholars become something of a fad—as we find, for instance, with Noam Chomsky.
When another luminary comes along saying the right things, the right way, and at the right time, the old star usually fades into the background with countless others who have illuminated minds through the centuries.
One could say this was the fate of the late, great Jean-Paul Sartre.
Somewhat out of fashion today, his unique version of existentialism as presented in Being and Nothingness (1943) was the calling card for 1960s and early 70s thinkers and beatniks alienated from industrial society and traditional religion.¹
Existentialism speaks to a void. It suggests that mankind is uprooted from nature and exists in an absurd and essentially meaningless world.
Until very recently most psychologists maintained that animals are bound by patterns of environmental “stimulus and response.” However, human beings apparently have a gap of nothingness between a stimulus and their response.
With this radical and potentially alienating human freedom, Sartre says we must create meaning through personal choices and commitments.
His concept of bad faith has little or nothing to do with being a naughty religious person and everything to do with being an inauthentic human being.
For Sartre, inauthenticity means we fool ourselves into thinking we are forced to do something when in fact we choose it. The familiar line of the exposed criminal, “I had no choice,” would be a good instance of Sartre’s understanding of bad faith. Sartre would say the criminal chose to be a criminal, no matter how bad the circumstances were leading up to his or her choice.²
The existential style was taken up by writers such as Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett. As mentioned, Sarte also wrote several novels, such as The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul. He was awarded but didn’t accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. Later, he asked if he could still get the money without receiving the award. No surprise: He was refused.
¹ Most likely a young, largely unknown David Bowie was adding his own satirical twist to Sartre’s vision in one of his earliest songs, “The Gang.”
Join The Gang
Let me introduce you to the gang
Johnny plays the sitar, he’s an existentialist
Once he had a name, now he plays our game
You won’t feel so good now that you’ve joined the gang
² I remember hearing a professor give another example, that of gays apparently choosing to be gay. That was back in the early 1980s. I think that professor would have met some serious resistance from those believing in the “genetic” theory of homosexuality, had he said that today.