World: Inadvertent Guru to an Age

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Jean-Paul Sartre: 1905-1980

He looked like a toad, as he said of himself. His sexual life was more intricate than the plot of a Restoration comedy; and he once remarked, with a humor rare in his profession, that sex preoccupied him far more than philosophy. He did not write like a philosopher either, for he commanded a graceful prose style that could turn the subtlest concept into a memorable aphorism or a playable drama. But Jean-Paul Sartre managed to become an influential philosopher at a moment in history when philosophers had ceased to influence almost anybody.

That moment was the bitter aftermath of World War II. Exhausted Europe, shaken by the absolute evil Adolf Hitler seemed to represent and by the paralyzing fear of nuclear annihilation, had been delivered not into peace but into the ambiguous stalemate of the cold war. Looking for guidance when most moral values seemed questionable and all ideals suspect, the postwar generation found solace in the austere arms of existentialism. Sartre did not invent the term, and he owed a heavy intellectual debt to more profound European thinkers, notably the opaque German Philosopher Martin Heidegger. But in Sartre's prose, abstract ideas were translated into demands for decision. "Man is free," he wrote. "The coward makes himself cowardly. The hero makes himself heroic."

Because God does not exist, said Sartre, man defines what he is, his essence, through his own actions. Each individual is responsible for choosing one course of action over another. It is the choice that gives value to the act, and nothing that is not acted upon has value. Lending a moral dimension to an otherwise indifferent universe, Sartre declared that a person cannot define himself by "disappointed dreams, miscarried hopes or vain expectations." Most people seek to evade responsibility by blaming something or somebody else for their fate. Sartre regarded this as "bad faith." It is the real curse of the characters in his most famous play, No Exit (1944), who whine, "Hell is other people."

Sartre expounded his ideas in nine plays, four novels, five major philosophical works, innumerable lectures, and essays written for Les Temps Modernes, the magazine he helped found in 1945. Among its contributors was another action-oriented writer, Albert Camus, who subsequently broke with Sartre in a bitter dispute over the nature of Stalinism, which Camus deplored. Sartre led demonstrations, fired off protests and manned almost every political barricade raised by the left. Ironically, his most conspicuous disciples—the young, the bitter and the cynical—did little or nothing and understood Sartre least. Had he not proclaimed life absurd, reality nauseating and man free—of moral laws, religious commandments, restricting obligations either to ideals or family? The long-haired beatniks became part of Sartre's mystique.

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