“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher who was the Nobel Prize laureate for literature in 1964 (a prize which Sartre refused, explaining: “A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution.”) “The Nouvel Observateur today has a large dossier of links to Sartre material available on-line, and the “Sartre Archive” (in English) has a number of Sartre’s writings on-line. America’s leading interpreter of Sartre’s thought and life, Wayne State University Prof. Ronald Aronson — author of many books on Sartre, and whose work I’ve long admired — has an op-ed in today’s International Herald-Tribune explaining why Sartre is still relevant today, and why his birthday is being marked with such extensive public commemoration in France.
Aronson writes of the
“enormous breadth of Sartre’s work. His 50 volumes reveal a polyvalent genius who wrote significant philosophical, literary and political works, including plays, screenplays, stories, novels, essays, biographies and newspaper articles. We find a breathtaking determination to make his mark on one field after another — students today may study Sartre on art, music, jazz, fiction, sculpture, colonialism, the working class, violence — on dozens of major topics.
“…Sartre’s sweeping assertions turn out not to have been so one-sided after all. As he deepened his extravagant claims, Sartre embarked on a great adventure of the human spirit, aiming at solving one of our greatest perplexities: Do we make ourselves, or are we determined by conditions beyond our control, including those within our own psyche?
“One response, often associated with the political right, claims that we are completely responsible for virtually everything that befalls us. Another, the most conventional of left-wing replies, is that social conditions shape and determine who we become. After beginning by contributing the strongest argument of the 20th century to the side of the dilemma stressing total human freedom, Sartre went on to explore the social, economic and psychic conditions under which we exercise our freedom. Yes, he would say, we do make ourselves — but the situation within which we do, and even the terms in which we do so, are imposed on us and generally remain beyond our control.
“Sartre made clear that the whole truth lies with both sides taken together. And then, in works like his biography of Gustave Flaubert, he went on to demonstrate precisely how an individual creates himself from what his social class and family situation have made him to be. Like no one else, he gave their due both to freedom and to determinism. Like no one else, he sought to understand exactly what it means to be responsible.
“This suggests another reason for Sartre’s continued salience — his irritating and annoying claims themselves. Sartre teaches that we are constantly tempted to escape our responsibility for creating ourselves from what we have been made — there is something comforting, after all, in feeling that things are beyond our control. But, as he also teaches, to accept this is to enter into complicity with the powers that would dominate us. Sartre demands that we see ourselves as active agents, even when we might prefer the irresponsibility of seeing ourselves as victims.
“Today Sartre is still as troubling and annoying as ever. He demands that we see a world seemingly out of control as made up of human choices and the structures these create. When he demands that we take responsibility for our lives, for the shape of our world, for the situation of the least favored — for others as well as ourselves — he is expressing decisively important conditions for learning to live as responsible citizens in this globalized world. This is no outmoded radicalism, but the message of one of the most challenging and contemporary philosophies.”
For a fine biography of Sartre, read Annie Cohen-Solal’s definitive Jean-Paul Sartre: A Life, published last month in the U.S. (in translation) by The New Press. Also essential reading is Ronald Aronson’s superb “Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It,” published last year by the University of Chicago Press, and just released in paperback. If you have never read anything by Sartre, a very good place to begin is his entirely accessible, brilliantly written memoir of his childhood encounter with literature, Words (Les Mots), a classic which belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who cares about writing, literature, and ideas.
In explaining the meaning of existentialism — the philosophical school of thought of which Sartre was the modern progenitor — Sartre once wrote: “If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence.” (From his 1946 lecture, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” available online.) This encapsulation of Sartre’s multi-faceted philosophy helps explain why Sartre is still so admirable, and so acutely relevant to today.