Re: [OPE-L] "The Greatest Philosopher (fwd)

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Wed Jun 08 2005 - 08:17:11 EDT

Hi Paul Z:

Are you going to vote for Sartre?   :-)

In solidarity, Jerry


11 June 2005


Jean-Paul Sartre - philosophy of freedom

Rebecca Pitt celebrates the life, politics and ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre

What do you imagine when you think of a
philosopher? Someone who spends his or her time
pondering the meaning of existence, but never
reaching any conclusion? Or someone far removed
from the real world?

Or are you reminded of Karl Marx's famous words,
"Philosophers have only interpreted the world in
various ways - the point is to change it"?

The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who was
born 100 years ago this month, tried not only to
write about and understand the events of his
life, but also use his fame to further a range of
left wing causes.

Sartre was born in Paris and, following his
father's death, spent his early childhood in the
French provinces.

He spent a lot of time in his grandfather's
library and was encouraged to write by his mother.

The young Sartre saw reading and writing as the
main way of receiving and expressing knowledge
about the world.

From this fervent belief Sartre would develop
what he later described as a "neurosis of
literature", which he explored in his
autobiography, Words.

Although Sartre would later claim he was cured of
his "neurosis", he continued to have an immense
capacity for reading and writing until he went
totally blind in the 1970s.

Sartre studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale
Supérieure in Paris. His interest in this subject
had been sparked by the idea that, like
literature, it offered "truths", or knowledge of
the world.

While studying at university Sartre met fellow
philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir, who
became his lifelong companion.

After the Second World War they launched a left
wing, intellectual magazine, Les Temps Modernes
(Modern Times), whose aim, according to de
Beauvoir, was to offer "an ideology for the
post-war age".

The journal also involved the philosopher Maurice
Merleau-Ponty and the writer Albert Camus.

Sartre also expressed ideas through his novels
and plays. He produced several major
philosophical works and wrote biographies of the
writers Genet, Flaubert and Baudelaire.

By the time he died in 1980, he had established
himself as a major figure in French life, through
his ideas, his writing and his association with a
number of left wing causes.

Thousands thronged the streets of Paris at his
funeral to pay their last respects. Montparnasse
cemetery became so packed that someone even fell
into his open grave.

What was Sartre saying that captured the
imagination of so many people, and why should
Sartre's ideas be of interest to us 25 years
after his death?

In the 1972 film, Sartre by Himself, Sartre
reveals that in his youth he developed a lifelong
interest in "freedom and responsibility". This
idea of freedom motivated Sartre's political
decisions and guided his written work.

At the age of 16, Sartre already viewed
colonialism "as an anti-human brutality" because
it tried to suppress others' freedom.

He strongly opposed fascism and racism for the same reason.

Today, Sartre is best known as a "philosopher of
freedom" and for this reason his ideas have
continuing appeal.

His major work, Being and Nothingness, written in
1943, set out this philosophy, known as

Existentialism argues that there is no reason or
meaning for existence - we are born without
specific purpose and we do not exist because of
god or some abstract cause.

We are not fated to behave in certain ways, or to
accomplish certain things. Instead, we are born
free of meaning. This idea is summed up by Sartre
in the phrase - "Existence precedes essence."

For Sartre, because we are free in every
situation, we are also responsible for our own
"essence", or the choices that we make. However,
the weight of our own freedom, or the
"nothingness of being", can also lead to "bad

"Bad faith" is a form of self-denial in which one
tries to avoid the awesome responsibility of
one's own total freedom.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre gives examples
taken from everyday life, showing how we interact
with the world and other people.

These examples reveal the ease with which we slip
into complacency and "bad faith", and how we
cannot escape our own freedom.

Sartre claimed that certain circumstances
revealed one's total freedom as more obvious and
demanding than it might have previously seemed.

In 1944 he declared, "Never were we more free
than under the Germans  The cruelty of the enemy
drove us to the extreme limits of this situation
by forcing us to ask those questions which in
times of peace can be avoided."

Nazi repression of France posed a difficult
question for its inhabitants - would they accept
the occupation or resist it? Sartre delivered a
message of resistance to his fellow citizens, in
the guise of Greek tragedy, with his 1943 play
The Flies.

He also organised a loose resistance collective
called Socialisme et Liberté (Socialism and

Existentialism's emphasis on freedom was to prove
a popular theory in post-war France and it
propelled Sartre to fame. It was also a
philosophy that he made accessible through novels
such as Nausea.

Existentialism gained its own popularised media
image - the stereotype of the black-clad,
chain-smoking intellectual writing in a Parisian

It also became connected with jazz and dancing.

Indeed, Sartre did all of these things - though
not necessarily all at once. The current French
National Library exhibition of Sartre's
manuscripts and correspondence decided to remove
a cigarette from their poster of Sartre following
concerns that it would put off commercial

Later, Sartre developed existentialism alongside a growing interest in

In 1960 his Critique of Dialectical Reason, an
amphetamine-fuelled attempt to synthesise
existentialism and Marxism, Sartre argued that
Marxism was "the one philosophy of our time which
we cannot go beyond".

Marxism would become irrelevant only after a
revolution that resulted in the genuine freedom
of all human beings. It would then be replaced by
a "philosophy of freedom".

Sartre himself cites two reasons for his shift towards Marxism.

First, his serious study of dialectics - the
philosophy that underpins Marx's ideas. Second,
the changing political climate post-1945 and the
influence repressive Cold War politics had on the

Sartre never committed himself to one political
party, looking instead for the best way to
represent his desire for "socialism and freedom".

In practice this meant aligning himself with
different groups during different periods. In the
1940s Sartre had been involved with the
anti-capitalist, anti-Stalinist RDR.

In the 1970s he would align himself with the Maoists.

In the early 1950s he was, by his own admission,
a "fellow traveller" of the French Communist
Party (PCF), supporting some of their campaigns
and writing favourably on the USSR following a
visit in 1954.

Sartre's relationship with the PCF would end when
the USSR invaded Hungary in 1956.

In the introduction to his Critique of
Dialectical Reason, Sartre made his views on the
PCF clear - Stalinism's determinism, which
downplayed the importance of the individual in
consciously shaping history, was indefensible.

The same philosophical work also showed Sartre
moving on from the formulations of Being and

He now argued that freedom had to be placed in a
historical context, which places limits on
individual freedom.

As he later acknowledged, "Historical
conditioning exists every minute of our lives."

Sartre did not simply express his radical views
through his philosophical writings. He spoke out
on the key political events of his time. From the
1940s onwards was a vocal opponent of French

Both he and de Beauvoir signed the "Manifesto of
the 121" demanding liberation for the French
colony of Algeria. His anti-colonialism nearly
cost him his life when nationalist groups
attempted to blow up his apartment.

His writings on colonialism, including an
introduction to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of
the Earth, marked Sartre out as an exception in
the philosophical world - a philosopher prepared
to engage with issues of Third World oppression.

Because of the "war on terror", current interest
in Sartre's work focuses on his support for the
right of the oppressed to use violence to
liberate themselves.

He also supported striking workers, anti-Vietnam
protesters and students in revolt. He was led to
question his own role as an intellectual during
the French revolt of 1968.

He would speak at rallies, attend demonstrations
and sell revolutionary papers. He refused the
Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 because "a
writer must refuse to allow himself to be
transformed into an institution".

Sartre was many things - an intellectual,
philosopher, biographer, writer, activist and
even a pianist, singer and boxer.

He wrote on all facets of human experience and
dedicated his work to the fight for genuine

He urged his philosophy students in the 1930s "to
approach the world with a critical mind, to
question constantly every acquired notion".

His philosophy of freedom stresses that the world
we live in can be changed and that we are free
and responsible for fighting for that change. It
is for these reasons that Sartre's work needs to
be read.

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