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Sartre: Philosophy in an Hour

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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      Sartre: Philosophy in an Hour
Paul Strathern

Philosophy for busy people. Read a succinct account of the philosophy of Sartre in just one hour.Here is a concise, expert account of Jean-Paul Sartre’s life and philosophical ideas – entertainingly written and easy to understand. Also included are selections from Jean-Paul Sartre’s work, suggested further reading, and chronologies that place Sartre in the context of the broader scheme of philosophy.

Sartre

PHILOSOPHY IN AN HOUR

Paul Strathern

Table of Contents

Title Page (#u332f25ee-875c-5582-adf3-015809a6c060)

Introduction (#ulink_b6fce04b-b529-5bb1-bf73-4ebe1cb827f7)

Sartre’s Life and Works (#ulink_9d16b264-6506-5b6d-b0d6-36c5d1a09330)

Further Information (#litres_trial_promo)

From Sartre’s Writings (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Significant Philosophical Dates (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Sartre’s Life (#litres_trial_promo)

Recommended Reading (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher

Introduction (#ulink_072840fc-102a-5a9b-a49e-d1d6df472a04)

Jean-Paul Sartre was the most popular philosopher in history – during his lifetime. His work was known to students, intellectuals, revolutionaries, and even the general reading public the world over.

Two main reasons account for this unprecedented popularity, neither of which has to do with Sartre’s abilities as a philosopher. First, he became the spokesman for existentialism at the opportune moment – when this philosophy filled the spiritual gap left amidst the ruins of Europe, in the aftermath of World War II. And, second, his later adoption of a revolutionary stance against authority struck a chord in the era of Che Guevara, worldwide student unrest, and sentimental sympathy for the Cultural Revolution in Communist China. Where politics was concerned, Sartre wrote about almost everything. Alas, events proved him wrong about almost everything.

Sartre’s earlier philosophy is another matter. He may not have been the first existentialist, but he was the first publicly to accept this label. He was also one of its most able exponents. Sartre’s ability to develop philosophical ideas, and their implications, remained unrivaled in the twentieth century. But this was done with imaginative brilliance rather than analytic rigour. As a result, he was dismissed with contempt by many orthodox thinkers, who claimed that neither he nor existentialism had anything to do with ‘real’ philosophy.

Existentialism was the philosophy that showed the ultimate freedom of the individual, succinctly encapsulated by the night-club singer Juliette Greco: ‘Whatever you do, you become.’ Existentialism could be as shallow as this and (in the hands of Sartre) as profound as any contemporary philosophy. It was the exciting and personally involving ‘philosophy of action’ – or, to its critics, the ultimate theory of introspection, bordering on solipsism (the belief that only I exist). Yet all are agreed that in Sartre’s hands existentialism became a revolt against the European bourgeois values that lay in ruins after World War II. The bourgeoisie (essentially the middle class) came to stand for all that existentialism was not: it was impossible to be an existentialist and a bourgeois.

Sartre’s Life and Works (#ulink_2e82b15c-0e80-5922-92fe-5cdab897c970)

Jean-Paul Sartre was born a bourgeois. His father was a young naval officer who died of a fever in 1906, when Sartre was one year old. Sartre was to describe this as ‘the greatest event of my life… Had he lived, my father would have lain down on top of me and squashed me’. Having been denied this oedipal fantasy, Sartre claimed that he grew up with no sense of filial obedience – ‘no super-ego… no aggressivity’. He had no interest in authority nor any wish to exercise power over others. So it comes as something of a surprise that this saintly childhood gave rise to an undying hatred for the bourgeoisie (and any middle-class habits or values associated with this worthy section of the community), a lifelong need to combat any sort of authority, and a desire to establish psychological dominance over all who came into close contact with him. Sartre was to examine with the brilliance of genius the intricate workings of his mind, but more obvious points often eluded him.

Sartre’s mother Anne-Marie, along with her saintly infant, returned home to live on the outskirts of Paris with her father Karl Schweitzer (uncle of the African missionary Albert Schweitzer). Grand-père Schweitzer was a typical French patriarchal figure of the period. He dressed in elegant suits and a Panama hat; his word was law in the otherwise entirely female household; and he was constantly unfaithful to his wife. In his autobiography Les Mots (Words), Sartre remembered him as ‘a handsome man with a flowing white beard who was always waiting for the next opportunity to show off… He looked so much like God the Father that he was sometimes taken for him.’ Here surely was a superego straight out of central casting. But Sartre refused to acknowledge his grandfather in this vacant psychological role.

Young Jean-Paul and his mother were treated like the children of the household, and Sartre came to regard Anne-Marie more as a close sister than as a mother. Unlike the father figure that he claimed he didn’t need, this mother-sister figure was to become an essential requirement for the rest of his life.

Judging from all descriptions, including his own, Sartre appears to have had a blissfully happy childhood. Surrounded by doting females, young Jean-Paul’s ego quickly expanded to make up for its lack of a superior element. As if sanctity were not enough, the child-saint now declared to himself, ‘I am a genius.’ No one contradicted him – even grandfather swept him into his arms and called him ‘My little treasure!’ (With characteristic obtuseness, Sartre was later to declare: ‘I hate my childhood and everything that survives from it.’)

Unlike other conceited little brats who come to the conclusion that they are a genius, Sartre had the imagination, endurance, and exceptional mind necessary to fulfill this self-appointed role. Young Sartre was soon filling exercise book after exercise book with long tales of knightly adventure and heroism.

It was now that Sartre suffered from the accident that was to mark his appearance for life. While on a seaside vacation he caught a cold. In those days the medical profession had a respectability that far exceeded its actual ability, and the young boy’s cold was allowed to develop disastrous complications. As a result, Sartre suffered from leukoma in his right eye, which led to strabismus and a partial loss of vision. In brutal unmedical language, he now had a grotesque squint, with one all-but-blind eye left in a permanent oblique stare. But solipsism can soon overcome even such blemishes, and Jean-Paul’s childish idyll continued.

Then something really awful happened. His mother had the thoughtless effrontery to marry again. Jean-Paul was horrified. He was no longer the center of Anne-Marie’s attention, and the new Madame Mancy moved to faraway La Rochelle with her usurper-husband Joseph. At the age of twelve, the awkward, wall-eyed child traveled to the port of La Rochelle to live with his mother and Joseph Mancy. In Sartre’s autobiography (written in his fifties) his forty-three-year-old stepfather is remembered with a vividness that speaks of deep feeling. ‘My mother did not marry my stepfather for love… he was not very pleasant… a tall thin man with a black moustache… uneven complexion… very large nose.’ The authoritarian and utterly bourgeois Monsieur Mancy was ideally cast for the role of the wicked stepfather. He was rich, lived in an opulent mansion, and was an eminent citizen in a provincial city of impeccable provincial complacency. Joseph Mancy was president of the local Delaunay-Bellville shipyards. He ran his business efficiently, in old-fashioned capitalist style. (Any threat of a strike was preempted with a lockout, until hunger resolved the issue.) Every evening after work he would call his stepson into the glittering front salon where he would give him additional lessons in geometry and algebra. In keeping with his general demeanor Monsieur Mancy preferred the orthodox approach to teaching. Persistent failure to arrive at the correct answer would result in a slap.

Meanwhile the little prig in his smart Parisian knickerbockers was greeted with whistles of derision by his less fashionable fellow pupils at the lycée. This baptism of fire induced self-sufficiency and introversion. Sartre was not one to be cowed by bullies. His undefeated egoism developed into a full independence of mind.

The more perceptive among his classmates recognized that the short, puny dandy who had a face like a frog possessed an exceptional mind – despite the fact that he didn’t excel in exams. (Possibly as a direct result of his stepfather’s insistent tutoring, France’s best mind of his generation usually settled about a third of the way down from the top of his class.) Sartre occupied the traditional double role of resident genius and class scapegoat. He was the unpleasant spotty little character in glasses who knew everything (and made sure everyone knew this); but he had also developed the revealing habit of making blunders. One anecdote will suffice.(Characteristically the source is Sartre himself, forty years later.) Like all the other boys at the lycée, Sartre would fantasize about the women in the port’s red-light district. His exceptional imagination had soon outclassed the rather paltry exploits of his teenage classmates. ‘I told them that there was this woman with whom I went to the hotel, that I met her in the afternoon, and that we did what they said they did with their whores… I even asked my mother’s maid to write me a letter: ‘Dearest Jean-Paul… ’ They guessed my trick… I confessed… and became the laughing-stock of the class.’

These were tough times. World War I had broken out, and many of Sartre’s fellow pupils were living alone with their mothers, their fathers having been called to the front. The carnage in the trenches took its toll, and his bereaved classmates took out their grief-fueled aggression on anyone perceived to be in a position of weakness. Sartre developed a mental toughness as well as a certain ambivalence. He refused to conform just to join a gang of thoughtless idiots, but he longed to be accepted. He wanted to be popular, but on his own terms. This ambivalence too would remain lifelong.

But in the privacy of his room the little frog-face with the walleye would become a prince. Seated at his desk, the boy who kept consoling himself – ‘I am a genius’ – was already starting on the impossible task of becoming one. The exercise books filled with tales of romantic chivalry had given way to autobiographical texts. And now he began to write entire novels. By the age of fourteen he had completed his second novel, Goetz von Berlichingen, about a medieval German tyrant. This reaches its climax when the tyrant’s subjects rise up against him, destroying the local mills and weaving shops (some of which bear more than a passing resemblance to shipyards). The tyrant is finally put to death in ingenious and excruciating fashion. His head is shoved through a hole in a steeple clock, so that it emerges at the roman numeral XII. The tyrant sweats out his last moments of life in increasing anguish as the arm of the clock rises second by second toward the point where it will decapitate him at noon.

This combination of anguish, violence, and mortal extremity were to be hallmarks of the mature writer, in whose works they retain all the immediacy of adolescent angst. The intense teenage growing pains that Sartre now experienced were to leave an indelible mark. At this age such feelings are often inextricably mixed with awakening philosophical questioning. Part of Sartre’s genius was his ability to retain this combination and the emotional-intellectual force it generates in a young mind growing into awareness and bewilderment.

In 1919 Sartre began stealing money from his mother’s purse. This he used to curry favor with his classmates, buying them exotic cream cakes and rum babas at a smart local café. Sartre’s joy at his popularity, the sickly taste of the cakes, is undermined by guilt and uncertainty, an underlying sourness. Another poignant emotional combination that was to become a recurrent theme: sticky-sweet and nauseous.

Inevitably Sartre’s ruse was unmasked, involving him in further ridicule from his ungrateful school pals and the usual parental rumpus. Some sort of climax was reached, and Sartre volunteered to return to Paris, preferring to live under the iron rule of God the Grandfather rather than that of Mammon the cliché stepfather. Sartre the rebel was now learning to choose where to rebel: which circumstances were best suited to his particular form of rebellion – useful first steps in what was to turn into a lifelong campaign.

At fifteen Sartre became a weekly boarder at the prestigious Lycée Henri IV. He began reading voraciously, absorbing a huge range of literature, much of it beyond his emotional or intellectual comprehension. Meanwhile his writing branched out into notebooks of aphorisms and philosophical speculation. The standard of these pensées can be judged from his definition of love: ‘Desire consists of treating a woman as a means, not an end – love consists of treating a woman as an end, not a means.’ As with so much of this kind of quintessentially French wisdom, his remarks teetered between the spuriously epigrammatic and genuine insight. His philosophy teacher remarked perceptively of his ‘excessive elaboration of insufficiently clarified ideas’ (which remains to this day the orthodox Anglo-American position on Sartre’s entire philosophy).

Sartre passed his baccalauréat (the tough national school graduation exam) and secured a place at the École Normale Supérieur. Contrary to its name, there is nothing normal whatsoever about this school, which skims the cream of France’s university students. A selection of Sartre’s contemporaries here gives an indication of the standard. These included such future stars as the philosophers Raymond Aron and Maurice Merleau-Ponty; the leading anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss; the finest if most hysterical theologian-philosopher of her time, Simone Weil; the future great director of the École itself, Jean Hyppolyte; and the writer-philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.

Sartre thrived in this hothouse atmosphere. According to friends, his ugliness vanished the moment he spoke. The spotty little student in glasses shone at the café tables of the Left Bank. ‘Except when he’s asleep, he thinks all the time.’ ‘He was the best and most generous companion imaginable… Underneath the cynicism and self-disgust which he willingly displayed… his secret was indubitably a great softness which he managed neither to acknowledge nor to disclaim.’ According to Sartre himself, ‘I was a thousand Socrates.’ Emerging from his shell, he developed a prodigious thirst for beer and discovered to his delight that young women bamboozled by his intellect were capable of finding his ugliness attractive. His thirst for sexual conquests was soon second only to his thirst for beer. But neither of these could match his appetite for books, ideas, knowledge. He read everything – everything, it appears, except what he was required to read for his courses. To the astonishment of everyone, especially himself, Sartre failed his first attempt at the agrégation (graduation exam). As a result, during the following year his brilliance became a little more directional.

Despite his failure, Sartre remained the star pupil. By now he had acquired the scruffiness encouraged by student life in Paris, where running water was a rarity. Sartre soon dispensed with such bourgeois customs as bathing, and took up smoking a pipe – whose aroma was presumably strong enough to disguise any other emanating from a nearby source. He would be seen at cafés in the Latin Quarter engaged in intense intellectual discussion with his circle of cronies (which included Aron and briefly Merleau-Ponty). Philosophy was the usual topic of conversation. There was no point in joining this table unless you had something particularly intelligent to say and could say it with intellectual verve. One day the group was joined by a tall, serious-minded twenty-one-year-old girl who was interested in philosophy. Her name was Simone de Beauvoir, and she quickly demonstrated that she could hold her own in their philosophical discussions.

Simone de Beauvoir was of impeccable bourgeois background, much like Sartre. She had received an upper-class convent education, which she was now earnestly rebelling against. She quickly acquired the nickname ‘the Beaver’ – ‘a symbol of hard work and energy’, according to the member of the group who christened her. (Any salacious American associations with this name would have been viewed dimly, even by Sartre’s determinedly unbourgeois group, though the men were not above similar Rabelaisian witticisms when they were having a few beers on their own.)

‘Charming, pretty, dresses horribly… she was wearing a hideous little hat,’ was how the debonair twenty-four-year-old Sartre assessed de Beauvoir. It was ‘love at first sight’, according to de Beauvoir. Either way, Sartre and de Beauvoir became lovers. Sartre soon assumed the additional roles of mentor, exposer of bourgeois behavior, and clothes adviser. ‘From now on I’m going to take you under my wing’, he told her.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Despite her brilliance, he demolished her in argument. But the Beaver responded with honest and penetrating critiques of Sartre’s ideas. For the first time in his life he’d met his match: the Beaver’s critical pronouncements were received like holy writ. But it went deeper than this. Here was the ‘double’ which de Beauvoir had fantasized about during the long, lonely years of her adolescence. And Sartre, far from becoming her fashion adviser, soon found himself being ‘mothered’ (suggestions of baths, change of shirt, pimple cream, and so forth). De Beauvoir may have found her psychological double, but Sartre had also found someone who had slipped into the vacant role of sister-mother. These roles were embryonic and largely unconscious to begin with, but right from the start it was obvious that this was no casual passing relationship.

Yet there could be no question of them entering into any permanent relationship – that would have been bourgeois. Even the idea of regarding themselves as a couple was philosophically unthinkable. Bourgeois domesticity, cohabitation, ‘fiancé’, conventional affection – such dangerous elements had to be avoided at all cost. No, theirs would be an ‘open’ relationship, they decided. No strings attached.

The student lovers studied, ate at cheap Left Bank bistros, made love, discussed ideas in the cafés, in bed, walking in the Jardin de Luxembourg, and studied and read, and studied and read and explained, and studied again, during the hot summer weeks – and then they took their agrégation. When the results of the philosophy exam were posted, Sartre was first, de Beauvoir second, the cream of France’s coming intellectual generation left trailing in their wake.

Cosy university days over, the student lovers now had to face the real world: teaching for de Beauvoir, military service for Sartre. In true intellectual fashion, they decided to define their relationship. Sartre stated his position: the abiding passion of his life was writing. All else would always remain secondary. Apart from writing, he believed in ‘travel, polygamy and transparency’. After military service he had plans to become a lecturer in Japan. He wanted to preserve their special relationship but also enjoyed the company of other women. He refused to surrender his principle of personal liberty, therefore all notion of bourgeois fidelity was out. On the other hand, he did recognize that theirs was a special relationship. They would therefore agree to a ‘two-year lease’. They would have two years of intimacy together, and then they would separate for two or three years. They would remain extremely close, but their relationship wouldn’t grow stale and develop into a habit, like any bourgeois relationship. The two-year lease would ensure this.

Having defined their relationship in curiously bourgeois and capitalist terms, Sartre proceeded to elaborate on this in a more empathetic philosophical manner, drawing on Kant’s distinction between ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ truths. For Kant, a necessary truth was one whose denial involved a self-contradiction. For example: ‘Philosophers seek the truth.’ Truth-seeking is part of the definition of a philosopher, so to deny this statement involves a self-contradiction. On the other hand, to deny the statement ‘Philosophers often talk twaddle’ does not involve a self-contradiction. The statement is not necessarily true or untrue, in any logical sense. (Unless, that is, your definition of a philosopher includes the inability to talk twaddle.) The truth of the second statement is thus contingent.

Sartre proposed that throughout their two-year lease, and in the period after it, his relationship with the Beaver would be ‘necessary’; any other affairs he (or she) might embark upon would be considered ‘contingent’. Obtuse unphilosophical thinkers may be forgiven for jumping to the wrong conclusion here. What did Sartre really mean? When he had a contingent relationship, it was not necessary – even to tell her about it? On the contrary. This was where the third element of Sartre’s ‘travel, polygamy, transparency’ life plan came into play. He wished for his relationship with de Beauvoir to be utterly clear and truthful. They would tell each other everything
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