He said, “You are already involved even if you don’t think you are. You have a role to play in a society and you do not recognize it”
TITLE: Jean Paul Sartre
EDITOR: Stephen Priest
PUBLISHER: Verso, London
AVAILABLE Vanguard Books Lahore
Freedom, for Sartre, is not an end in itself. It is a perpetual action that has to reinvent itself every time. The important thing is not in the freedom, but the road we take to get it. Sartre was an ethical compass for those who want freedom from their social order, from state and its violence and from the traditional values of religion. Sartre radically says that if man is free God does not exist and if God exists, man is not free. His naked atheism invited wrath of the right wing press and state institutions. He gave a damn about them embodying a true spirit of public intellectual by sitting in café houses, writing books, discussing philosophy and flirting with the beauty to make freedom a real choice of his life.
Sartre’s noble philosophy, in words of Bernard Henry Levy, can be described as “the philosophy of ‘NO’”—no to everything. Throughout his life, he enjoyed a tremendous prestige for being a philosopher of higher order. It, partly, is due to his prominent role in highlighting and, then, applying the theory of existentialism in the European society to overcome mass disenchantment with the meaninglessness of human life in the aftermath of World War II. Meaninglessness of life, according to Sartre, gives human beings a chance to inject a meaning into their lives. This freedom to attain meaning of human lives gave birth to ideas of existentialism, which was a philosophy of praxis. In Sartre's creative mind, it became a protest against dominant cultural and economic values imposed by the bourgeoisie.
Sartre went on to challenge every assumption about the way Europeans lived in the search for the meaning of freedom as Levy said about his notion of freedom as psychological, physiological freedom; he by himself was a body of freedom. His ideas about freedom later on became the basis of philosophy of existentialism which fundamentally transformed the mental landscape of post-war Europe. His ideas were so important that they turned the Sartre into cult figure. He tried to tell everyone that they were all in the charge of their own lives. Our making of ourselves is our own work of art.
In the aftermath of the Great War, the future of France was unpredictable and moral values were collapsing rapidly—family structure was in ruination and social authority patterns were in doldrums. It was, therefore, not surprising that his ideas began to grip the mind of the students and the intelligentsia of France. Sartre told people that they were responsible for the period of history they were living in and they had not only the right to choose, but the duty to choose. He made them forcefully realize that war, poverty and violence were rampant because they had chosen that path. This idea, like Champaign, was quite bubbly and lively: an idea of exhilaration because it gave masses a sense of tremendous power. It implies that everyone is going to make his or her future. Sartre’s ideas enthralled the newly re-invigorated France’s ‘jazz generation’ with a sense of their own making of self with the instinctive rejection of the past. Existentialism propounded by Sartre hated everything that had something to do with order in a society.
The effect of Hussler on his mind further deepened his intellectual outlook. After that he found totally a new way to study human existence out of consciousness. According to Sartre, to be conscious of something is to relate to some item in the world rather than to relate to some inner representation of it within our head. What we think of our self consciousness is, in fact, our consciousness of the world which is simply a myth in the philosophy of Sartre. It certainly gives rise to moral torpor in a society. There is no inner pre-determined character that makes us who we are. Sartre writes in La Nausea, “Here we all are; all of us eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence and there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing.”
The fact that life is meaningless gives us the opportunity to give it a meaning. It is precisely because it has no meaning in advance so we are justified in creating a meaning. Nothing is fixed. We are born by chance. Our existence makes no sense at all. So it is up to us to give our lives a real meaning. Human actions and their perception of self based on their actions give their lives a true meaning. Sartre’s major philosophical work ‘Being and Nothingness’, written under the influence of Martin Heidegger, touched upon these themes of our ‘being-ness’ and ‘nothing-ness’ to demarcate between these two metaphysical questions of human existence.
Uptil WW II, Sartre’s writings were dense with extreme form of individualism and individual freedom. After becoming a prisoner of the Great War by Nazis, he realized the severe limitations of his philosophy. In prison, he had an astonishing experience of meeting men who had been thrown there by the cruelty of war. It was a real turning point for Sartre. He suddenly realized that he had to link his ideas about individual freedom to society as a whole. He, then, turned to action, to political praxis. At this point he took a radical stance. “Once freedom explodes in humanity’s soul, God can do nothing against man”, wrote Sartre gallantly to explore into the collective freedom of humanity. One always has a choice, no matter how small, even in the face of inevitable. Sartre was convinced of that.
With the liberation of France after WW II, came the freedom of press and Sartre used it to build a new society. Sartre did not said, “You must get involved or be involved.” He said, “You are already involved even if you don’t think you are. You have a role to play in a society and you do not recognize it.” So his point was “be aware of the significance of your situation.” He started a magazine, Les Temps Modernes, which he thought would drive a social change in the French society. It included politics, the lives of ordinary people and social conditions, but the accent was on commitment. At this juncture he appeared as a writer ‘on the scene.’ The dilemma of existentialism began to get solution as he broadened the horizon of his intellect from individualism to society.
Sartre tried to build the idea of freedom taken out of the question of culture and to get rid of the power of God on human life. He came to conclusion that if God exists, man is not free and vice versa. Freedom is, indeed, extremely fluid. Everything is possible in it. God is dead and with it died, what we called as, traditional morality—bourgeoisie morality. So anything is possible in Sartre’s thought. However, Sartre convinced himself that he could not convince with his idea of existentialists making decisions of their own. To overcome this problem he then tried to reconcile individualistic philosophy of existentialism with the collective vision of Marxism. Throughout the 1960s, he became much less interested in individual beings than he ever was. He began to believe in collective freedom of human beings. To meet that end he stressed the need for creating strong links between intellectuals and masses to make masses something new.
The book under review has underlined the basic theme of Sartre’s writings which spanned over a period of forty years. It also covers his philosophical writings and political framework, which he framed for advanced industrial societies to free them from shackles of bourgeoisie ideals. But on philosophical plank, Sartre does not prove to be a, in the words of Jacques Derrida, strong philosopher, as he moved from philosophical quest to political struggle through mass mobilization making himself a celebrity philosopher of his times.
|Hammad Raza works as Project Report Writer with Center for Research and Innovation UK. He holds a M.Sc degree in International Relation. He is also working as Coordinator to the VC of the University of Gujrat.|