Anyone who has studied a smattering of modern philosophy in college has probably heard the misanthropic utterance of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) from No Exit, “Hell is other people” (L’enfer, c’est les autres). As with Friedrich Nietzsche’s “God is dead,” this pithy little impiety has been scrawled as graffiti on bathroom walls (where it arguably belongs), and blazoned on t-shirts, stickers, and now, on Internet “memes.” And just as some clever wag humorously inverted the declamation of Nietzsche (“Nietzsche is dead. —God”), another did the job for Sartre: “Hell is Sartre. —Other People.”
That quotable quote from No Exit, a popular expression of its author’s miserable philosophy, is quoted by fashionable atheists and libertines to give themselves an air of sophistication. Familiarity with the works of Sartre is marked as an accomplishment in their circles — perhaps as reading Saint Augustine or Saint Thomas Aquinas would be in other circles.
If his contempt for others, as expressed in L’enfer, c’est les autres, were Sartre’s only sin, the damage, though real, might have been confined to himself. (Of course, the damage could have been considerable, as one of history’s greatest non-self-fulfilling prophesies.) But Sartre was an existentialist who fully embraced the central doctrine of that loose philosophical school: “Existence precedes essence.”
It sounds innocently erudite, doesn’t it? But from there to moral anarchy, a proliferation of fictitious genders, and that signal legislative reality of 2016 — the bathroom bill — is not a very long trip.
As the sage editors of Wikipedia tell us:
Jean-Paul Sartre, the author of Being and Nothingness, wrote in his essay “Existentialism and Humanism,” “What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.”
The existentialist philosopher is contrasted with the “essentialist” philosopher (e.g., Saint Thomas Aquinas), for whom universal natures and essences have great importance. Essence is “that by which a thing is what it is.” It is the quiddity, or whatness of a thing. Nature is essence considered in more concrete terms: according to what it can do and what can be done to it. Thanks to the realities of essence and nature, we can know, and intelligently speak about, what are conveyed by the words “cat,” “man,” “heavy,” “tree,” “soul,” and every other reality we observe and name. Each of these words is attached to concrete realities in existence, and each of them invokes a concept in the mind that corresponds to these realities. The concepts in the mind are important, because they are how reality is knowable to an intelligent creature. Against the idealists like Kant, we affirm the existence and knowability of concrete existing things, and against the nominalists like the medieval Roscelin or the modern John Stuart Mill, we affirm the reality of universal concepts.
But for the more radical of the existentialists, essence is not so much denied outright as it is rendered fluid, to be given concreteness only by the existing thing. So, we “define ourselves.” Again, to quote Sartre: “We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” For Sartre the atheist, things simply exist with no reason, no cause, no necessity. Being simply is. Consciousness is all. Autonomy is all. There is no God, and no moral order.
Maybe Rachel Dolezal (“I acknowledge that I was biologically born white to white parents, but I identify as black.”) would have been embarrassingly vulgar for Sartre, but he could not have denied her claims as following from his principles.
Sartre’s ontology is nonsense, but ontology does not seem to be his real interest. No, his real interest appears to be writing cynical apologias for libertinism, the sort of libertinism he expressed by his “open” sexual relationship with fellow existentialist and pioneer feminist, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986); and the kind of libertinism she expressed when she romanticized a fictitious ménage à trois between herself, Sartre, and a younger woman in her own 1943 novel, She Came to Stay.
Sartre had a complex relationship with communists (he cannot strictly be called a communist or a Marxist), but he admired the murderous revolutionary Che Guevara as “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age,” and as the “era’s most perfect man.” Presumably, Che “defined himself” very well.
On the other hand, our moral anarchist was critical of Castro’s Cuba for persecuting homosexuals, whom he compared to Jews suffering under Nazi persecution: “In Cuba there are no Jews, but there are homosexuals.”
Brother Francis said of notable modern philosophers in general that they were not just harmless fools, but very influential fools. Inasmuch as Sartre’s legacy is with us still, he remains an influential fool.
But in spite of what that fool might say, there is an exit. It is natural being, knowing, and doing elevated by grace. In a word, it is holiness, which God puts frighteningly close to each one of us who seeks it.