The problem with Sartre.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
March 29 2007 10:45 AM

Jean-­Paul Sartre

The nothingness at the heart of his philosophy.

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The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.

The Cogito never delivers anything except what we ask it to deliver … [Click here for the full quote.]— ­Jean-­Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre
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Radiating contempt for its bourgeois liberal conformity, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) looms in the corner of this project like a genius with the evil eye. In my view, Sartre is a devil's advocate to be despised more than the devil, because the advocate was smarter. No doubt this is a disproportionate reaction. Sartre, after all, never actually killed anybody. But he excused many who did, and most of those never actually killed anybody, either: They just gave orders for their subordinates to do so.

Sartre was a brilliant man: The first thing to say about him, although unfortunately not the last. After the liberation of Paris in 1944, he called, in his capacity as a Resistance fighter, for punishment to be vented on those among his fellow literati who had collaborated with the Nazis. The question of how much Resistance fighting he had actually done did not impede his postwar climb to prominence. As philosopher, novelist, playwright, social commentator, and political analyst, Sartre was the pre-eminent French left-wing intellectual of the Fourth Republic and beyond, reigning supreme in the Left Bank cafes with Simone de Beauvoir the queen at his side. The pair made intellectual distinction into a media story: The celebrity enjoyed now by a glamour-boy philosopher such as Bernard-Henri Lévy has its precedent in that postwar connection between serious thought and media dazzle—a Parisian microclimate that helped give France a sense of luxury at a time when food and fuel were still in short supply. After Camus died prematurely in a car crash, Sartre's gauchiste vision was the style setter of French political thought, founding an orthodoxy that still saturates French intellectual life today and, to a certain extent, continues to set a standard of engagement for intellectual life all over the world.

A key principle in this vision is that the Communist regimes, no matter how illiberal, had serious altruistic intentions in comparison with the irredeemably self-serving capitalist West. (Academics in the capitalist West greeted this brain wave with awed approval, failing to note that their society could hardly be self-interested if it allowed them to do so—unless, that is, freedom of expression is a sly trick played by capitalism to convince the gullible that they are at liberty.) When Sartre broke with the Communists, he retained respect for their putatively benevolent social intentions, and was ready to say something exculpatory even when what he was exculpating was the Gulag network—whose existence, after he finally ceased to deny it, he never condemned as a central product of a totalitarian system, but as an incidental blemish. This maneuver, implying a powerful ability to deny the import of a fact even after he had acknowledged it, was hard to distinguish from duplicity.

Skeptics might say that a knack for making duplicity look profound was inherent in Sartre's style of argument. Students who tackle his creative prose in the novel sequence The Road to Freedom or the play Kean (his most convincing illustration of existentialism as a living philosophy) will find clear moments of narrative, but all clarity evaporates when it comes to the discursive prose of his avowedly philosophical works. But it should be said in fairnesss that even English philosopher Roger Scruton, otherwise a severe critic of Sartre, finds Sartre's keystone work Being and Nothingness a substantial work; and Jean-François Revel, who took Sartre's political philosophy apart brick by brick, still admired him as a philosopher who earned his own credentials, without depending on the university system for his prestige. But those of us unfettered by being either professional philosophers or patriotic Frenchmen can surely suggest that even Sartre's first and most famous treatise shows all the signs of his later mummery. Where Sartre got it from is a mystery begging to be explained. It could have had something to do with his prewar period in Berlin, and especially with the influence of his admired Heidegger. In Sartre's style of argument, German metaphysics met French sophistry in a kind of European Coal and Steel Community producing nothing but rhetorical gas.

The best explanation might have more to do with his personality. Perhaps he was overcompensating. It would be frivolous to suggest that Sartre's bad eye was a factor in determining his personality; and anyway, Sartre's physical ugliness in no way impeded his startling success with women. But it might be possible that he was compensating for a mental condition that he knew to be crippling. He might have known that he was debarred by nature from telling the truth for long about anything that mattered, because telling the truth was something that ordinary men did, and his urge to be extraordinary was, for him, more of a motive force than merely to see the world as it was. This perversity—and he was perverse, whether he realized it or not—made him the most conspicuous single example in the 20th century of a fully qualified intellectual aiding and abetting the opponents of civilization. Like Robespierre, he had an awful purity. He turned down the Nobel Prize. He was living proof that the devil's advocate can be idealistic and even self-sacrificing. Minus his virtues, he would be much easier to dismiss. With them, he presents us with our most worrying reminder that the problem of amoral intelligence is not confined to the sciences.