Learning from Sartre

John T. Mullen

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 44 (June/July 1994):

Jean-Paul Sartre is not, to put it mildly, very high on the reading list of those seeking to grow in Christian piety. Indeed, most would express mild shock at the suggestion that his writings could ever make such a list. His atheism would unsettle the tremulous soul, his contradictions would both confuse and infuriate the logical, and his unrestrained verbosity would bore everybody. Yet, while it is true that the greater part of his work is a terrible wasteland, curiously enough, there is a particular element in his thought that is valuable to believers-and in an area where help is greatly needed. This need is one that often goes unperceived by Christian writers, who, ironically, have let it fall to an unwitting atheist to address in depth. Allow me to explain.

Anyone who has ever seriously committed himself to following Christ and conforming to His character quickly discovers how difficult it is to do. There are hindrances everywhere, but the greatest of these is the sin within the disciple himself. Indeed, the motivation for following Christ in the first place is to be rid, eventually, of the sin that destroys life and offends God. Hence we are exhorted to turn from our sin, which we do by ceasing from various activities that we know to be sinful and by undertaking others that we know to be good. So far so good, but there remains a nagging uneasiness. Our behavior may be better, but how much real growth in holiness has taken place? The feeling that we have only scratched the surface of this problem creates a deep desire to get to the bottom of our sin, to start attacking it at its very core. But how? What exactly is the very core of sin? If we knew this, we would certainly be better equipped for the attack.

Christian theologians have often addressed this question. The most notable example is Augustine's description of his stealing pears in his youth, a passage that has long been widely read in the Western world. Augustine was struck that it was the very forbiddenness of the act that caused him to take such delight in it; the pears themselves were no attraction at all. His analysis is a chilling anticipation of Sartre:

So all men who put themselves far from [God] and set themselves up against [Him], are in fact attempting awkwardly to be like [Him]. And even in this imitating of [Him] they declare [Him] to be the creator of everything in existence and that consequently there can be no place in which one can in any way withdraw oneself from [Him]. . . . And was I thus, though a prisoner, making a show of a kind of truncated liberty, doing unpunished what I was not allowed to do and so producing a darkened image of omnipotence?
Augustine realized that the essence of sin is to place oneself in God's rightful place, to attempt to be like Him in ways impossible for one of His creatures. Usually, such attempts involve a denial of God's authority to command His creatures and to set limits on their behavior. Sometimes, all creaturely limitations are thrown off. Sartre, as we shall see, took the latter approach.

If the true nature of sin has been identified for so long, it might be asked, what can an atheist like Sartre possibly contribute to our understanding of it? His "contribution" consists in turning the very essence of sin into the foundation of a philosophical system. He concedes as much when he tells us that "Existentialism is nothing else than an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position." Or again, "Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism." As he develops his thought, we begin to see how sin has infected us in ways we are not even conscious of. This is handy information for anyone whose highest desire is to turn away from sin, and it keeps one focused on what sin really is. Sartre is, of course, perfectly oblivious to this assistance he is providing for the Christian church.

The cornerstone of his philosophy is the sovereignty of human freedom. He is quite frank about what he means by freedom. For Sartre, freedom is nothing less than the power to define one's own being, to determine what one is. Anything outside oneself that exerts any influence over one's being is by definition an obstacle to freedom. He explains: "It is therefore senseless to think of complaining since nothing foreign has decided what we feel, what we live, or what we are. Furthermore this absolute responsibility is not resignation: it is simply the logical requirement of the consequences of our freedom."

This leads Sartre to distinguish between being-in-itself, which lacks freedom and cannot choose what it will be, and being-for-itself, which is continuously determining itself and hence has no fixed essence of its own. Man, says Sartre, is the latter: "There is no human nature, since there is no God to have a conception of it." This means that Man is in a constant process of becoming what he now is not. Since Sartre cannot say that Man ever is anything at any particular time, he equates Man's being-for-itself with nothingness. It is amusing to note that those who begin by assuming the sovereignty of human freedom must go on to conclude that they are as nothing. But it is more important to note that Sartre's assumption is arbitrary. It is the starting point for his speculations, for which no defense is ever given.

The obvious objection at this point is that if Man always possesses such absolute existential freedom there should be no need to speak of obstacles to freedom. For, on the one hand, Sartre tells us "Man is condemned to be free," which implies that it is not possible to lose our freedom. Yet on the other hand he is forever lamenting Man's inability to overcome the things that deny him his freedom, such as his past, his surroundings, other people (more on this later), and especially death. This is precisely why Sartre uses the word "condemned." He is really saying that we must forever struggle to retain a freedom that we can never lose.

But no one should expect consistency to arise from atheism. What is remarkable is the unrestrained usurpation of divine attributes that constitutes Sartre's view of human freedom. S. U. Zuidema summarizes Sartre's position:

In fact this amounts to the self's "dis- realization" of its own contingency, and the incorporation of "reality" into the realm of the sovereign self; . . . to the actualization and realization of man's lordship and form-creating power over reality; to the cultural duty of man, in which he puts reality at his own service, takes possession of reality, incorporates it, governs it, rules it, makes himself its undisputed master.
This is pure sin, if these two words may be put together without contradiction or blasphemy. Most people who hold a similar position look for a way to talk around it to make it appear less rebellious. But Sartre doesn't mind coming right out and telling us that he wants to rule the world: "The best way to conceive of the fundamental project of human reality is to say that man is the being whose project is to be God. . . . [M]an fundamentally is the desire to be God." This is rather refreshing, in a convoluted way. It is a perfect articulation of Augustine's "darkened image of omnipotence." We don't have to guess what he's up to. But why, one might ask, shouldn't we at this point just lay Sartre aside and pick up the Sunday comics? The answer is, because he goes on to analyze how the desire for omnipotence is manifested in life, and his analysis is important for anyone willing to acknowledge that this desire to be God still dwells within. It serves as a catalog of the symptoms one may expect to find whenever this disease breaks out.

Sartre also wrote of a third category of being, the being-for-other. This may seem at first glance to be an improvement over the other two, since it seems to say that Man has some purpose outside himself. But in Sartre's world, being-for-other is a catastrophe. Sartre, remember, thinks he is omnipotent. The last thing such a person wants to be confronted with is something he has no control over, i.e., incontrovertible evidence of his own non-omnipotence. Sartre is never directly confronted with God, so he gets away with denying Him (for a while), but other people are all around him, and each one possesses his or her own sovereign freedom in competition with Sartre's. Intolerable! He becomes aware of other people when they look at him (though it is difficult to believe he is unaware of them otherwise). In any case, it is the glance of the other that so disturbs the delusion of omnipotence. Sartre is for himself pure subject; but the glance turns him into the object of another's subjectivity, and so robs him of his delusion. He now exists for another, and sovereignly free beings just cannot live this way. Sartre cries out in his distress:

With the Other's look the "situation" escapes me. To use an everyday expression which better expresses our thought, I am no longer master of my situation. . . . The appearance of the Other, on the contrary, causes the appearance in the situation of an aspect which I did not wish, of which I am not master, and which on principle escapes me since it is for the other.
What can be done about this? Stare back, of course, until one party wins the battle and becomes pure subject, while the loser becomes pure object. In Sartre's own words, "the objectivation of the Other . . . is a defense on the part of my being which, precisely by conferring on the other a being for-me, frees me from my being-for the Other." Though Sartre describes this action as a defense, it is really more of a counteroffensive. Zuidema gives another astute summary:

This all means, then, that the "world," including the world within myself, is a battlefield, on which the continual struggle between myself and everyone else is fought out. It is a struggle for unending mastery over this world.
This is the sort of thinking that prompted Sartre's famous quip, in his play No Exit, that "hell is other people."

The silliness of this analysis is easy to expose and ridicule, but it must be remembered that this constant struggle actually goes on, all over the world, all the time (not in the form of a staring game, of course, but as the clash of conflicting desires). It is the inevitable result of sin, and sin is everywhere. It even serves as its own provisional judgment, alerting us all to the folly of our desire for control. Sartre was saying more than he knew when he said we are condemned to freedom. If we rightly recognize how silly Sartre's analysis is, we also ought to recognize how accurately it identifies the root of all our own foolish and destructive behavior.

Sartre is also vaguely aware of the connection his philosophy has with sin, though his atheism precludes his holding any real concept of sin. He speaks of the feeling of shame as the immediate consequence of the other's glance. He writes, "Shame . . . is the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the Other is looking at and judging. I can be ashamed only as my freedom escapes me in order to become a given object." Now shame figures prominently in Scripture as the immediate consequence of sin (Genesis 2:25, 3:7). The two are indeed connected, but Sartre cannot make the connection between his own view of others and sin. Marjorie Grene explains his view:

It is the transformation of myself from free agent shaping my own world to body seen by another that is the source of shame. Hence Sartre's explanation . . . of original sin: it is the revelation of my body as a mere body that makes me ashamed; and that shame is at the root of the sense of sin.
Indeed, the revelation of the body is nakedness, and Scripture agrees that consciousness of nakedness was the original source of shame. If we didn't know better, we might say Sartre is trying to point us to the Bible, and he is not unaware of this odd agreement himself, for he writes:

Modesty and in particular the fear of being surprised in a state of nakedness are only a symbolic specification of original shame; the body symbolizes here our defenseless state as objects. To put on clothes is to hide one's object-state; it is to claim the right of seeing without being seen; that is, to be pure subject. This is why the biblical symbol of the fall after the original sin is the fact that Adam and Eve "know that they are naked." The reaction to shame will consist exactly in apprehending as an object the one who apprehended my own object state.
But Sartre is merely trying to account for the feeling of shame after having assumed that there is no real sin on which it might have been based. This is why he speaks only of a "sense" of sin. He seeks a cause elsewhere, and he thinks he has found it in the assault on his freedom. As Grene explains, "the existence of an onlooker implies shame. Fear and shame are, for [Sartre], the two proper and immediate reactions to the intrusion of another person into my world."

But rather than explaining shame, Sartre has explained it away. What is lacking in his argument is an adequate accounting for the sense of culpability that is essential to shame. A mere intrusion would only produce annoyance and a sense of mission: we must eliminate the intruder. When we are intruded upon, we do not feel ourselves to be culpable. But shame is not shame without just such a sense of culpability.

Sartre tries to deflect this objection by assuming that we do not feel shame until we are observed. He accepts it as a universal that "anyone may recognize . . . that immediate and burning presence of the Other's look which has so often filled him with shame." The implication is that solitary people know no shame. Wilfrid Desan explains: "The meaning of culpability arises through the Other: would culpability ever make sense without the existence of the Other? Is it not before the Other that I feel my abjectness, my nakedness?" The idea of culpability presupposes the existence of an "other" (i.e., a watcher), hence the "other," according to Sartre, must be the cause of the shame. Now, it may be conceded that an absolutely solitary person cannot know shame. If I were the only person in the entire universe (as Sartre would like to be), it would be impossible for shame ever to arise in me. This proves that an observer is necessary for shame. But not that an observer is sufficient for shame. It is possible to be observed shamelessly. The glance of the Other will not generate shame unless it falls upon some sin that exists objectively within the shamed one. This is a perfect example of the false cause fallacy.

Furthermore, Sartre's "observation" that shame implies an observer may be used against him. The only thing we must assume is that human beings can feel shame even when alone. Most people have had this experience, and would therefore not hesitate to grant our assumption. But who is the observer in such cases? He can only be the God Sartre denies. Yet his denial is also a concession: "God," he says, "is only the concept of the Other pushed to the limit." If Sartre were to admit that he even once experienced solitary shame, then his own philosophy would require him to become a theist. This might even constitute a new "proof" for the existence of God: the "proof from solitary shame," perhaps? And we would owe it all to Jean-Paul Sartre.

Mostly, however, we owe Sartre for exposing the dreadfully absurd consequences of denying God by setting ourselves in His place. Sartre ends with an echo of the life lived apart from God as described in the book of Ecclesiastes. Desan summarizes:

The For-itself is a failure in its conquest of the world: it will never be what it wants to be, the For- itself-in-itself: i.e., God. "Human being is useless passion . . . and to intoxicate yourself alone in a bar or to conduct the nations is equally vain."
The latter paraphrase is Sartre's own conclusion to his Being and Nothingness, where most of the foregoing rebellion is laid out. This world of vanity and endless conflict that results from Sartre's failed quest for sovereign freedom, however, is necessary only for those who insist upon embarking on it. Sad to say, this includes all of us. We can see reflections of Sartre's quest in our own conflicts. They are all due to our own, or someone else's, desire to rule the world. Yet understanding this gets us below the surface of our sinful behavior to that sinful core which so often haunts and disturbs us. The deepest repentance must include the acknowledgment of creaturely limitations and the acceptance of divinely appointed limits. Sartre has done us the favor of showing us how our refusal to accept our limits is the root of our tendency to treat others as objects and to hate others for the ways in which they limit us.

In our relations with others, a simple acknowledgment that the "other" has been created as a subject along with us will prevent us from seeking to squash his subjectivity beneath our own. And neither should the thought of being an object cause such distress. It simply goes along with creatureliness. Others will necessarily incorporate us into their view of the world, but it is understood that, as creatures themselves, their view will be incomplete. It is only God's view that need concern us, and for those who know that His glance comes with forgiveness and healing, all of Sartre's terrors are reduced to nonsense.

Augustine concluded his analysis of his own depravity with the following expression of revulsion. It should be read with Sartre's futile quest in mind:

Who can disentangle this most twisted and most inextricable knottiness? It is revolting: I hate to think of it; I hate to look at it. . . . I slipped from you and went astray, my God, in my youth, wandering too far from my upholder and my stay, and I became to myself a wasteland.
Ironically, those who, unlike Sartre, share Augustine's revulsion, may look to Sartre for unwitting help in untying the knot.

John Mullen is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He is currently teaching at the Geneva School in Maitland, Florida.