Philosophy is used in many ways and somewhat loosely. However, in the final analysis, it is traceable to various world outlooks, the human being's conception of the external world, of himself, and of his position in it. The disparity in the use of the word "philosophy" itself demonstrates the manner in which the numerous schools of philosophy understand what philosophy is and what it should aim to be. Existentialism has been among the most influential philosophy on the European continent in the twentieth century. The strong appeal and popularity of existentialism in the post-war era owes to the confusion, the crisis, and the feeling of rejection and rootlessness during the World War II and its aftermath. At present, while existentialism has lost much of its former glory, its temperament is still rampant and wields powerful influence on writers and artists, especially the youth engaged in creative activities. Existentialism provides a moving account of the agony of being thrown in the world. Those who think that logical analysis should be the cardinal business of philosophy should not dismiss existentialist philosophy as trivial. On the contrary, one could profit by seriously examining its doctrines. The most prominent exponent of existentialism in the modern times is the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre and it is his philosophy that is considered in this essay with particular attention to his massive work, Being and Nothingness.
The edifice of Sartre's work is vast, ranging from his early works of phenomenological analysis of imagination and the emotions, to his mature works comprising of many philosophical treatises, short stories, novels, plays and criticisms, and finally to his attempt to integrate the existentialist concern for freedom and human individuality with a form of radicalism. The overall complexity of Sartre's writing gives the possibility of alternative interpretations of his thought. His works are eloquent, no doubt, but hardly systematic. While his writing never reach the obscurity of Heidegger, some of his terminology defines analysis. He writes with sophistic bias, although he denies being a sophist. Pessimism towers over his work, because he believed, "Man is a useless passion."
It is important to realize the reciprocal relationship of philosophy and civilization. The thoughts of the philosophers, and more so the speculative philosophers, are shaped by their socio-cultural, economic and political circumstances. Sartre's philosophy is very much in the context of traditional French philosophy, as well as the outcome of the prevailing sociopolitical situation. Sartre came to be thought of as the ablest French intellectual in mid-twentieth century.
Sartre was born in Paris on June 21, 1905. He was the only son of Jean-Baptiste Sartre and Anne-Marie Schweitzer. His father, a naval officer, died during his early childhood. He wrote: "Jean-Baptiste's death was the greatest event in my life, it returned my mother to her chains and it gave me my freedom." Anne-Marie, his mother, returned to her parent's home. His childhood was spent in the house of Charles Schweitzer, uncle of the famous missionary Albert Schweitzer. His grandfather was a school teacher who taught German in a school. As a lonely child, he found his companion among books. Reading and writing became his twin passions. He was educated in Paris. He entered the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1925. He failed his first attempt at aggregation completely, but when he tried for the second time the following year in 1929, he came out first. In the same year, Simone de Beauvoir finished second. She was to become his intimate companion as well as intellectual associate. He discarded the idea of bourgeois marriage, but entered into a lasting union libre with Madame Beauvoir.
He taught at Le Harve, Loan, Nevilly. Between 1929-1934, he traveled and studied. In 1934, he spent a year in the French Institute in Berlin and the University of Freiburg. It was while in Germany he studied under the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and the existentialist Martin Heidegger. After his return from Germany in 1935, Sartre taught in Paris. He lived in a hotel on the Left Bank.
His first work L'imagination was published in 1936 and his first novel Nausea was published in 1938. In the novel, Sartre brings out the meaningless and futility of human life. There the hero finds himself weighed down, sickened and alienated by the opposition between things and consciousness. Roquetin is dismayed by discovering: "Everything is gratuitous, this garden, this city and myself. When you realize it, it makes you feel sick and everything begins to drift . . . that's nausea." The novel contains the philosophical themes that Sartre develops later.
Sartre joined the French Army in 1939 as a private. He was taken prisoner on the Magionot line and imprisoned in Germany in 1941. During the nine months of imprisonment, he wrote and directed plays for his fellow prisoners. He escaped and joined the Resistance to take an active in it. He was among the key intellectuals in the Resistance. The Nazi Occupation of France was to effect him profoundly. He wrote: "Because the Nazi venom worked its way even into our thoughts, every accurate thought was a conquest; because an all-powerful police sought to force us into silence, every world became precious as a declaration of principle; because we were persecuted, each of our gesture carried the weight of a commitment." During that period, Sartre produced a first-rate volume of short stories, The Wall. He also wrote two plays, No Exit and The Flies.
Sartre's major work Being and Nothingness was published in 1944. It brilliantly depicts the feeling of dissatisfaction and purposelessness. Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology was the result of his philosophical reflections on the thoughts of Husserl. He sets himself to investigate the nature of existence. The contradiction of two types of being is discovered: The being of objective things, called being-in-itself, and the being of consciousness, titled being-for-itself. Being-in-itself is the fixed being for things and is static. Being-for-itself is the fluid being cherished for the human being. The human being must strive for it. The human being makes decisions and chooses. His futurity is open toward infinite scopes.
The human being exists but it only is a contingent fact, as there is no scope for his non-existence. Sartre wrote: "The world could get along very well without literature. It could get along even without men. The question is, as Heidegger posses: Why is there anything at all and not rather nothing?" He seems quite desperate about the contingency of human existence. For him, the human being's presence in the world is irrational and absurd because the human being is unnecessary. But, as one would say, there is no reason to lament about the contingency of human existence as the existentialist do, just as there would be nothing to be jubilant about if the human being's existence in the world was due to necessity.
Existentialism badly required a full-blooded ethical theory. In spite of being a prolific writer, Sartre's promise to turn attention to the moral responsibilities that freedom implies remained unfulfilled. Though the treatise on ethics never saw the light of the day, the psychological problems of human freedom is portrayed imaginatively in many of his novels, short stories, and plays. His style and diction made Sartre one the most powerful authors of contemporary times.
Existentialists understand that human existence is a contingent fact. Nevertheless, they emphasize what is thought to be the unique character of human existence. The human being's existence is radically different from things. At birth the human being is nothing and he can, unlike things, work out his destiny. It is human freedom that sets apart the human being from things. Unfortunately, anthropomorphic illusions dominate the ideas of the existentialists. Existentialism becomes obsessed with human beings and the happenings of the third planet of the solar system. This excessive concern with human being is pre-Copernican.
The confusing pronouncement regarding freedom lead to erroneous positions. Sartre's notion of freedom typifies the existentialist view. His treatment of freedom is confusing, but intoxicating. Its appeal owes entirely to the pervasive subtlety of his analysis of the human condition. True, he does not conclude the human being is free to do whatever he fancies; he places the primacy of the will at the center of his thought. Freedom is assertion of is ego, unhampered by external conditions, objective laws and limits, and necessity. Choice is at the core Sartrean philosophy. Free choice, according to him, is not determined by any existent fact because an action is projected towards the blank, the future which is non-existent. Freedom is outside the confinements of definition, or limits. Ultimately nothing, it is said, can restrict freedom. For the existentialist, the human being can alter the society from within himself. The human being must overcome obstacles by acts of conscious decision. All of these claims are erroneous because the human being does not have the external world he wishes to give to himself; perhaps, the human being does not even the world as he conceives it to be. Human life is conditioned by necessity and material situation. Without a proper appreciation of the circumstances, necessity, and objective laws, the human being cannot achieve any real freedom. The extent of the openness of futurity for the human being lies on his own position, inclinations, capabilities, and his comprehension of the world, as well as the objective reality. Though the existentialist provides a captivating narrative of subjective freedom, the limitless freedom of choice associated with the authentic human being, is entirely baseless. Fundamentally incorrect too is the intriguing concept of nothingness, about which the existentialist has much to say. However, nothingness, one cannot overemphasize, should be regarded as no more than a non-entity.
Immediately after the war, Sartre won recognition of the leader of the left-wing in Paris, with Café de Flore as their headquarters. He and his fellow intellectuals drew young disciples among writers and artists, and also become something of a tourist attraction. In 1945 he visited the United States and lectured at several universities there. He left his teaching position to edit the avant-garde journal Les Temps Moderns which he and other launched. It become the main forum of the French existentialist movement. In 1954, he visited the USSR, Scandinavia, Africa, and Cuba. He extended his support for Algerian independence. He was the leading figure in the creation of the short-lived political party Rassemblement Democratique Revolutionaire (RDR). His political position led to quarrels with writers Albert Camus, Raymond Aron, and Arthur Koestler.
1n 1956, Sartre denounced the Soviet intervention in Hungary. He criticized the French Communist Party for its submission to the dictates of Moscow. He himself had never joined the Communist Party. But he supported its program and its trade union when disagreeing with its ideological position and even when the party had denounced him as a bourgeois ideologist.
In 1964, when Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he refused to accept it. For him, acceptance of bourgeois honor would be an act of inauthenticity. He refused official honors because he held that his writing must alone and must not carry the weight of prestige. The acceptance of honor would mean compromise and surrender.
Sartre soon give himself the task writing a "total biography" of the famous French novelist Gustave Flaubert. It was meant to be a four volume definitive study. In the work, he combined Marxist analysis with Freudian psychoanalysis. The massive two volumes appeared in 1971. He takes up the slightest Flaubertian dictum to analysis in such a detailed and rigorous manner that the average reader cannot but be bewildered. Sartre had read Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary in his childhood: It affected him profoundly.
Sartre believed philosophy must not be divorced from literature and the arts. His theory that literature must take side is expounded in What is Literature. He skillfully demonstrated how philosophical concepts and ideals can be dramatized in literature. In his works, he portrayed how the individual must decide between the enigmas confronting him: What is true; what is right and what is wrong; what to accept and what to reject; what to be and what not; and, even, whether to be, or not to be. His own answer was there are no objective values or authorities to rely upon. The human being tries to avoid the anxiety of freedom by disowning liberty. But the human being must accept accountability without subterfuge. In the plays, Dirty Hand and The Condemned of Altona, he once more looked at the problems of liberty, obligation, and the assignment of action. Both the plays ends with the suicide of the main character. In his plays, the protagonist is called to create his own values.
Sartre wrote: "One always dies too soon or too late. And yet one's whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up." He himself died on April 15, 1980. He was buried without any official recognition. His funeral ceremony was, however, attended by thousands of ordinary people, whose cause he had always advocated.
The greatness of Sartre lies not in his philosophy but in the type of being he chose to be. Existentialism was more than a philosophical movement. It had tremendous cultural significance. The theater of the absurd, to cite one example only, is an expression of existentialist themes. The plays of Beckett and Ionesco were inspired by existentialist doctrines. But its popularity owes more, one would now say, to the mistaken belief that existentialism prescribes a dynamic life style than to the acceptance of its principal ideals. At present, existentialism has been replaced by structuralism and deconstruction as the dominant and fashionable ideologies in the French philosophical scene. In general, philosophy in France continues to influenced by the traditions of idealism and romanticism. Sartre was a philosopher in line of French thinkers and writers, such as Rousseau, Voltaire and Zola. Like them, he was passionately concerned about freedom. He was a writer with an international following. His writings were very moving and profound.
Even though the human being feels lost in an alien and hostile world, he believed the human being must act. As for his own work, he wrote: "For a long while I treated my pen as sword; now I realize how helpless we are. It does not matter: I am writing. I shall write books; they are needed; they have use all the same. Culture saves nothing and nobody, nor does it justify. But it is a product of man; he projects himself through it and recognizes himself in it; this critical mirror alone shows him his images." He wanted to change the world and establish justice. Even those who disagreed with Sartre's philosophical ideals will admire his moral honesty, integrity, his self-searching and his deep sense of commitment, which have few comparisons.