Last updated: 27 March 2023

Download: The Self Under Siege (1993) Lecture 3: Sartre and the Roads to Freedom (VHS).avi

Transcript: In this third lecture I want to discuss one of the most famous intellectuals of the 20th Century, one of the few intellectuals to actually become a kind of international star, and that’s Jean Paul Sartre, a French philosopher from my decade, my period, the sixties, but whose career lasted longer than that and started before that and in many ways whose journey as both an intellectual and an activist marks out a certain search for meaning in the 20th Century in his own life. In other words, his own life story is interesting in that regard apart from the works that he wrote. The best introduction here, given that my last lecture was on Heidegger, is to explain that there was a profound misunderstanding between Sartre and Heidegger over what was going on.

Sartre was, as many of you out there know, the populariser of existentialism in a series of essays and novels and plays that were, I think, excellent literature and the existentialism; one of its sources at least, was Heidegger. But for Sartre, he had misunderstood Heidegger in the way that some of the questions at the end of the last lecture might indicate. Sartre had read Heidegger’s account of human being in the world – human dasein – as a form of humanism. So Sartre wrote a famous essay called “Existentialism is a Humanism” to which Heidegger replied “Nothing could be, you know, sort of, further from the truth; what I am interested in – Heidegger said – is more the way that language speaks us, in other words the way that the languages we learn and the cultures into which we are, you know, brought up, the way that they end up interpolating our lives, and you have interpolated me as saying that my only project is how we reform them… and so this misunderstanding, though, ah, in my view, cuts very nicely in Sartre’s direction, and the reason it does is – misunderstanding or not – it gives Sartre a very different project; one that I am sure as soon as I mention the word – and I have already mentioned it in the title – that I am sure you will all be familiar with and that’s the project of trying to find a way to live in which one might say of oneself that you are free.

In fact, the two phases into which Sartre’s career are divided both are attempts to travel this road to freedom. One is that as a young man, Sartre, as an existentialist, and I will try to explain that term briefly in a moment, many of you are familiar with it already, and then later, after the existentialist so-called period, although I think that Sartre in some sense maintains those views throughout his life, or at least a set of them. Then there is Sartre, the one that Americans are much less familiar with… because we are unfamiliar with this intellectual tradition in Europe, and that’s Sartre the Marxist. In fact this was outrageous to many of his early admirers, that he would become a revolutionary Marxist, because in the United States that always had been associated with Soviet style bureaucratic Marxism and of course then you began to think about the Cold War and all the little films you saw in grade school of Russian kids with their hands hanging on barbed wire, and all that stuff which actually wasn’t a mode of thought, but was just our mode of propaganda. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t better than their propaganda; events have proven it was… better.

But in any case, this second period of Sartre’s development as a revolutionary Marxist is less well understood, and I am going to try to say a little bit about both. And the reason I want to do this is that our general theme is The Self Under Siege and no-one more than Sartre, I think, in the intellectual world, in the world of ideas and books, fought harder to maintain a sense of self. The themes of existentialism, as you may recall, its principle concern I have already raised in Heidegger, although as I say, not in the way Sartre would raise it, it has concern with a series of concepts that today would be, I think, if you were to discuss them today, for example at the mall, you would just be called someone who is very depressing, and if you went to your psychiatrist, they would probably just give you some Prozac and hope things worked out, because the existential concepts are anxiety, despair, death, and these array of concepts. See, I could come up with some others, but those are a handful that I think will give you an idea of the existentialist project.

This was not a – interestingly enough – a philosophy that was worked out in lengthy volumes, or tomes, I mean, it’s clear Heidegger didn’t view his work as existentialism, and except for a few essays, Sartre’s own work would not be adequately characterised this way. It became popular in the United States precisely in the context of a cultural search for meaning. So the ways in which you are familiar with Sartre’s existentialism, again, probably won’t be from reading the books that Sartre wrote, but from the cultural artefacts produced out of that mood of existentialism, and there you could name dozens of movies, plays, novels, and cinema produced with that mood. With moods of despair, anxiety, and with the structural problem, you know, this anxiety before death and meaninglessness. Another famous concept out of this same set is the concept of the absurd by Camus, and I want to mention it briefly since… before I proceed onto Sartre.

The absurd, for Camus [cough], is that circumstance within which we frequently… I mean, that circumstance we frequently encounter when for example somebody who is 25 is hit by a brick that falls off a building, you know, and then somebody like Ronald Reagan who is 80 and is shot in the chest with an exploding bullet and lives, and we go “that’s absurd”, you know, I mean, it’s the sense that our life hangs on the same kind of contingencies that dice hang on, you know, like you roll 11 and its lights out, otherwise keep playing. That sense makes your life feel absurd. I mean, this is not, again, you can see why existentialism had popularity as a cultural phenomenon, because these are issues that traditional philosophers didn’t address in this way.

Why is existentialism even possible? Well, in spite of the fact there were so-called religious existentialists, it took this whole background that I at least tried to explain in the first lecture. The secularisation of society and the suspicion about its ultimate meaning that goes along with abandoning certain simplistic views of God that open up fears about death. I mean, this is what opens up the human experience to anxiety, despair, dread, and the absurd.

I mean, it is true that if there is no God; then there is no easy answer to the question about the meaning of – not just human beings, but – anything, and it’s just a dodge to lower your standard for meaning because the world’s become more secular. That’s my view anyways; it’s that that standard should still be set that high. In any case, Sartre’s attempt to articulate existentialism… let me mention at least one novel you all should read: “Nausea”.

There’s another good word, I mean, this is, again, the title kind of says it all: “Nausea”; it’s a wonderful novel about various of these existential motifs and moods. Well, what was supposed to be the glory of existentialism though, given that its grief was final death, nothingness, the absurd, the moods I have … and so on, well its glory was exactly along the dimension of freedom… that what this would do; this insight that life had no meaning other than the one constructed by the self was not only an insight that we had no-one to protect us, but it was also an insight that we had no-one to stop us.

Let me try to state that in the most vicious way I can. Dostoyevsky said – he didn’t say it, his character says in the novel The Brothers Karamazov “If there were no God, all things would be permitted” Now that’s for the existentialist both frightening, but it’s also exhilarating in the sense that your life becomes your own construction. So, Sartre’s view of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, that’s the famous phrase Sartre has for existentialists: “existence precedes essence”, and what he meant by that was that human beings have no essential nature.

There is nothing universal or essential about human beings. What precedes anything that may appear as essential are existential choices that are made, and as it were, your life then becomes the sum of your actions, and for Sartre this was what freedom meant. Freedom would be unthinkable in the older world that still was surrounded by this holy halo; it would not be a thinkable concept. Nietzsche once said “If there are gods how can I bear not be one? Because I would live as a slave; I don’t want to be a slave. If there are gods, how could I not be one. Who wants to live as a slave?”

Well if you find that outrageous, you should find Milton outrageous, he has… you know, Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost. This is a little joke, a little aside here. I mean, I don’t know if you have read it, but Satan’s the hero. Well, you know, he’s an antihero, let’s be fair, but Satan says “Look, you know, sure I joined dubious battle with God upon the plains of heaven and lost and all that, but it’s, you know, better to be in hell than to be a slave, and that view of freedom – that very extreme view – is the one that comes out of what you might call “the existentialist revolt”, and many people have found existentialism revolting; certain… [laughs] certain modes of behaviour especially in our culture came along with it. It was a coffee house attitude, people viewed themselves as non-conformists, they drank a lot of espresso, they listened to beat poetry and so on. This was the existential mood – motif – in our country.

Of course, you know, the great American genius for marketing, and this goes right to the point of The Self Under Siege. Now you have got a movement, and you have got people “Oh this is a way to find my authentic selfhood, I have got to free myself from these conformists and from all this old religious stuff that used to hold me back, so I will be a non conformist; I’ll dress in black, I’ll read Heidegger and Sartre, I’ll listen to this different music, we’ll all go out and be different together and then pretty soon you have got a whole new industry selling dark clothes and weird funky music, and coffee houses on every block, because Americans can even market death. They could say “Oh you believe your life has no meaning unless you die, I can sell that to you” I mean this is just American marketing genius.

Now this is funny, but in a way it’s not funny, I mean its like if Christ came back, he’d get a deal with Nike [crowd laughter]. I mean, why mess with, you know, twelve fishermen? I mean, get a deal with Nike. This is the self under siege, this is a world transformed, and believe me… believe me… well, you don’t have to believe me, I mean, hell, why… but think about it this way.

If you looked from the 19th on to the latter 20th Century… we had some of the first automobiles, and they came along and they seemed to be rather noisy, pointless machines. Horses were certainly more elegant; riding them was more fun, but… what? Well, it didn’t help, did it? I mean, automobiles became as big a part of our lives as any religious festival in the history of the planet.

How about television? I remember – I was a member of the first TV generation – I remember the first one my father brought in… little black and white Zenith… picture about like this [makes a small square with his hands]… box about, like, yea so [stretches arms out indicating a large box]… [crowd laughter], okay. We were trying to gaze in there somewhere… [squints] Milton Berle… you know, and my father said “Nobody is going to watch this damn thing when they could listen to the radio” But in how many subtle and countless ways do these things change us? Phenomenally change us.

Now, in the late 20th Century, we have the advent of virtual reality, cloning, multi informational systems, and so on, all going on rapidly. So this joke of mine isn’t so funny, I mean it’s a shame, in a way, that the existentialists couldn’t start their own little club, you know, and sort of, be different, but in a way they could. Nobody stopped them, right? It just got to the point where it wasn’t really fair to call anybody who has a TV show a non-conformist. You know, I mean, that wasn’t the idea originally. You were going to be a little bit more different than that.

This is, by the way, a very familiar cultural trope of trying to find meaning in the United States, and also it’s not fair to limit it to the U.S. because our culture, as you know, is becoming a world culture. I mean this seems to me obvious. It invades other cultures, its televised images, its movies, its music begins to dominate even the most traditional cultures… and you can drive down Mexico and you could find that at some villages, even a new Coke machine will be like the totem of the village. Everybody will be around the newest coke machine, talking.

So this is a culture that is beginning to, as it were, tell people who they are. So Sartre the existentialist wouldn’t have been happy with this development, and the paradox into which he found himself drawn was twofold. On the one hand, you get enough non-conformists and you have just got another group to which you advertise, okay, that’s one problem.

The second problem he points out himself as he matures, he writes an autobiography called “The Words”, and he said “You know, when I was talking about death and despair and anxiety, when I wrote all that stuff about nausea, or whatever” [cough] in fact he is referring specifically to writing Nausea, he says “I was a young man and actually I was faked and hoodwinked to the bottom of my soul, because while I was writing that book, I was on the one hand… I, myself, Sartre, the writer, the chronicler of hell, I was in fact extremely happy” [rolls eyes] [crowd laughter]

This was, sort of, bad news for people who loved existentialism, it’s that later on in life, he says “This was the happiest period in my life, when I was writing nausea, ooh, death, meaninglessness…” [crowd laughter] …and I am not unaware of that irony in the explication of the material either, cause I get a real kick out of this stuff. I enjoy it. I mean, you know, I don’t enjoy it as much as Jimmy Swaggart enjoys what he does, but then I don’t have the same array of behaviours that he has.

In any case, Sartre’s mature view is that the roads to freedom would lead to an encounter – and a construction – of selves with other selves, and the only project available that at least that he thought on a scale grand enough to be a worthwhile project, and I mean he believed this to the end of his days as far as I know, was the project of being a revolutionary; which he was.

In short, while he didn’t view it a way to stop working on his self freedom, that his existence preceded his essence, that he would make his existence by choices. That was not inconsistent for Sartre, with making one of those choices, sort of, the main choice for his project; the choice of being a revolutionary. And that just meant at that period, in Europe, to be a Marxist of one kind or another. No-one ever figured out the kind of Marxist Sartre was.

I mean, I have a book here by him called “Search for a Method” which is just what it says it is, he is trying to figure out a reason to be what he has already decided to be. I am not putting him down for that because that is, and this is another part of my polemic – as the course goes on – against analytic philosophy and standard philosophy. Part of their modus operandi is always to have already what you want to prove in mind and then, clearly, after the fact produce the evidence. It’s like “lawyering”. Doing philosophy at universities like Duke and Harvard is like “lawyering”, you know what the hell you think, then afterwards you construct the arguments, and I mean, no good philosopher – or good physicist – would let one little dirty fact get in the way.

I mean, that’s true of Physicists too, don’t think it’s just true of philosophers. If you look at a cloud chamber and see just one little particle astray, you just forget it. Hell, I don’t know what that is, and then you go back to the formulas. By the way, that’s not a put-down; you would be crazy to do science any other way. In the case of philosophers there is not even cloud chambers there though, so one wonders what kind of drugs they take, but anyway, that’s another story.

I am trying to give a substantive talk on Sartre here; it’s not working out… because… the reason it’s not working out is because his work is immense, there is tonnes of it, and he is more important as a figure. I want you to understand that, to me, he is more important as a personality of thought. He in a way engages in at least the experiences of three generations in trying to create an authentic, worthy self. The Second World War generation where he is a freedom fighter against the Nazis, that’s part of his existential identity, comes out of the hideous experience of Europeans during the Second World War. Certainly existentialism comes out of that.

The project of reconstruction, part of what comes out of that is this commitment to revolutionary Marxism, as he understood it, and as he understands it, and that’s even a more difficult matter since for Sartre it would be more like what I think we understand in this country as a, sort of, populism of a certain kind. I mean, it’s not what we… you know, it’s not like a great love for the Commissar or whatever. It comes out of a, kind of, populist spirit in Sartre. Now, where does that come from? Well, it comes from what he said – as I mentioned earlier, I was mentioning his autobiography “The Words” – it comes out of this insight that, you know, when he was young, talking about death and all that, that he was a fake, he was hoodwinked, and he has come to see that he is no better than anybody else, and that insight, you know, “I am no better than anyone”, that insight leads him on to the insight that perhaps that’s the condition that gas been historically missing.

The condition that societies remain in today, and that’s one of rigid hierarchies, and I think that those rigid hierarchies remain intact in spite of the complexity of modern societies; sometimes in absolute opposition to it, and I am not sure that Sartre had that full insight, but I am sure that he had it at least in part, and the fact that Sartre’s journey through a variant of Marxism – a kind of Marxism did not produce for him the results that many people expected from Marxism – is not a story to be chortled about because what was Marxism except a secular way to try to recover the lost meanings from a previous sacred period.

I mean, it still has this advantage over so-called liberal democratic societies that revolutionary Socialists believe in something. It could be misguided, but they believe some damn thing which allows you to predict to some extent what they’ll do. This is not an advantage if you take our political system where its awfully hard as many of us have discovered through long years to predict what any of our leaders, politicians, will do, based either on what they say and the question about whether they believe anything at all is, of course, relevant… obviously relevant. So I mean, that is the advantage of someone who believes something, and Sartre was an opinionated person about everything, but he was – in the same way – predictable.

Sartre could see no way to escape the 20th Century without a revolutionary change in the relations between selves, you know, human beings… unless we changed the way we related to each other in some radical way, and that is the Nietzschean part of Sartre. In other words, it wouldn’t be enough to merely change the economy in some way, to change human beings. It would help, but it wouldn’t be enough. The Soviet experience shows that changing it in certain ways doesn’t even help; it hurts. But what Sartre was after was, in a way, the same thing that Nietzsche was after, and that’s a whole new way to try to be human, and it comes – as I say – under this heading of The Self Under Siege.

What is the primary experience of his life? Well, when I talk about this in my own terms, the primary experience for me is the war in Vietnam. It shapes the way I think about many things. For Sartre’s generation it was Fascism. It was their experience, and it shaped the way he thought about many, many things. Though most Americans have forgotten, when I was in the first grade, we still had our poster up of the allies. Churchill, FDR and Joseph Stalin, I could still remember walking into the first grade, looking at the allies, you know. It’s kind of… history is a funny thing, as someone once said… it’s a funny thing. So anyway – don’t be outraged – read books from both periods of Sartre’s development. Ah, the revolutionary Sartre; fascinating, interesting… the existentialist; the same way… both fascinating men.

Sartre also has… I want to leave you with at least one argument since philosophers, I guess, come with one argument a day, you know, I’ll to try to come with an argument of Sartre’s, and it’s an argument against certain kinds of ethical theories. For example this is an argument against Kant‘s that comes out of Sartre’s work and it emphasises the importance of decision. For Sartre, your decisions, your acts, make up your life. That will be your life; will be the sum total of your decisions and your acts, and here is the example he gives. Here is your moral dilemma – again, it’s based on this thing in Fascism – the moral dilemma is this.

You have a mother at home in occupied France and you don’t think she will survive if you don’t stay. On the other hand, you also feel obligated to go with your friends who have joined the resistance. Sartre runs through that dilemma, the standard moral theories, Kantian moral theory, utilitarian moral theory, and the interesting thing about it is that – as you might expect – do you think they would be worth anything? No… none of them are worth a damn. It doesn’t do any good to come up with a Categorical Imperative that goes “Oh well, let’s see… which would cause the greatest good to the greatest number? Saving my mothers’ life or saving my country’s life” You follow me? This is not, you know, this is not amenable as Sartre’s point to the kind of logic chopping that philosophers do. It’s amenable, however, to what kind of person that you are going to see yourself as.

In his example – this is a story he uses as an example – it’s not a far fetched example for the France of that period, not at all. And I think that if you think about it a while, you’ll see why that the entire line of questioning I am pursuing about The Self Under Siege is drawing so little support from moral theories; it really can’t, because it’s not what the conservatives think about the late 20th Century that its immoral, its that it’s beyond good and evil. I mean, these are mere tokens on the marketplace upon which we trade; it’s not that our society is somehow more immoral than all others. It’s just that good and bad appear in it in real cartoonish ways. Maybe they always did… maybe they always did. I am not sure. But in any case, that’s not the problem.

Well Sartre’s career comes to its culmination, and this is his career as an activist, in the sixties when he joins the great student strikes in France and with their failure that’s I guess his last disappointment. His road doesn’t ultimately lead to what one philosopher has called “a way to escape the 20th Century”, it turns out we have already escaped it a few years ago, unknown to us, but the way they used to state that was “How do we escape the 20th Century?” and Sartre was unable to. He does institute a form of behaviour though that I think is exemplary for the intellectuals of the whole 20th Century, and there is a… similar case in Lukacs, and its an experience that American intellectuals largely bypassed because of the way that fascism left us touched as a distant enemy rather than an internal enemy.

In Europe, the experience was that Fascism was not on only enemy to be fought without, but it was in us too. This is the European experience of it. To Americans it was just like Darth Vader; just these, you know, pretty much the reaction we get now when we see a Steven Spielberg movie and there is a swastika in it. Everybody goes boo, hiss, kill [thumbs down] and it’s just the external enemy. Europeans had to deal with a far more difficult question, and this really does have to do with “the they” and how you were raised and what you were taught to believe. They had to deal with a much more difficult question of having friends and neighbours who were collaborators, having other people who were not just collaborators, but who just pretend not to hear what is going on… just pretend not to hear it. Now that is an experience Americans know about from our racial history, to some extent… from our history with race, but nothing on the order of Fascism in the sense I am using it here.

So in many ways the choices that Sartre faced throughout his life are more interesting than any views he held about them, and the way he answered them is the most interesting thing about him, and his journey from a young, sort of, existentialist literati who later admitted was a real elitist ass, to a revolutionary who at least, you know, met with workers and talked to them and many of us would think of it as, sort of, trade union work on the extreme, or whatever, but this is a very interesting and emblematic journey in the 20th Century because it is a journey through various paths. It tries first to find meaning inside, then try to find it outside, and oscillate between the two throughout his life, an oscillation between trying to find meaning in his life, and outside it. It would have been interesting to find out if he ever found it but then we don’t know that. We have no way of knowing that, and then perhaps we shouldn’t, because he has left behind a lot of writings and maybe its none of our business, but his life is most instructive.

I think that the best way to summarise this, perhaps… these remarks may seem to be scattered – I am sorry – because what we are dealing with here is a problem so fundamental; the problem of the construction of a human being, any human being and I have taken Sartre as an example of someone who tried to construct himself as a free human being. Perhaps what Sartre wanted what Fidel Castro – I know that this is going to be an example you will all love – what Fidel Castro once told Barbara Walters in an interview, ah, Barbara kept asking Fidel… this interview is on tape, we could probably get it and splice it in here; it’s more interesting in many ways than Sartre. But ah…

Barbara Walters kept asking Fidel about; was he married, where did he live – and you know those kind of interviews, you know – how many rock stars have you met, were you really a minor league pitcher, and finally Fidel just loses all patience with this and he goes “Look, this is all trivial, it has nothing to do with the revolution, with world opinion, or with my people. All I can tell you is this: I am an absolutely free man, I own my own life, the rest is untranscendental detail, you know, garbage for People magazine”. That was the freedom I think Sartre was looking for, maybe it’s the freedom Castro found and it would be a tough a brutal way to find it if you find it that way. But the 20th Century has not looked good for very many people for very long, but that is what I think was at the heart of Sartre’s search.

In fact there was a famous conversation between Sartre and Castro – which I won’t relate to you more than just a little bit – there is a nice question in it where Sartre goes “Well, you know, how do you serve the people, I mean, what if they wanted the moon?”, and you know, Castro has tried to argue that we can… the revolution can get anything it wants. But what if they want the moon? Sounds like a pretty good question by a philosopher like Sartre; can’t get that for them, and he goes “Well if they want it bad enough, it will be because someone needs it. In other words, he doesn’t say “I can get it”, but “We will at least understand they need it”. Well that revolutionary project still has some appeal to me. I mean, I still think that people’s needs are important and while we can’t get the moon, it’s sometimes as well to listen to those who at least need it.

Sartre was someone who clearly… I am sure that someone out there in the audience or listening to the tape is saying to me “Well, I mean, hell, Sartre should have just been a good Catholic boy and that would have taken care of it” The trouble is that in the 20th Century that doesn’t take care of it, that was my beginning little story from the movie The Big Chill, you know? The rewards of just being a good and decent person in a good and decent situation is not enough to sustain us anymore, and I picked his life out as a particularly tragic – and one filled with, sort of, and odd kind of destiny – life to discuss.

I will mention a few of his books if you are interested, because I think that they are very good, and I think that the literary ones are very nice. “Nausea”, which is his young man’s book, ah, a very short book called “The Words”, by Sartre that has been translated, and then rather than try to read his long Marxist works, look for “Search for a Method”, which is the book that I brought in, and read it, because he makes a point in Search for a Method that I want to leave you with… I think it’s time to leave you with some point here… makes a point in his book Search for a Method that we need to remember, and that’s that modernity, both in the sense of capitalism; being a part of modernity, and its criticism; Marxism are in their infancy. This is very important to remember.

In other words, we look at these things as structures that have become already become old, outdated, thrown away, and I have been talking that way myself. On the other hand, as structures of ideas, these things are barely in their infancy. By that I mean that, in human terms they haven’t been around that long. I mean the first trade union is only a little over a hundred years old, and it was the trade union movement that created Marxism, not the reverse, although frequently the propaganda we hear in our own country makes it sound like it was the reverse. It was actually working people that created Socialism, not Socialism creating them. You know, this seems to me to be an odd way to think, anyway.

So… Sartre gave his life for that project and in the course of it produced these powerful works… and for anyone who wants to pursue it even further let me mention “Critique of Dialectical Reason“, I only want to mention it – Critique of Dialectical Reason – because I don’t want you to read it [crowd laughter]… and here is why. For long and complicated reasons that I won’t engage here, I think it’s wrong, but that’s not why. It’s too damn long and life is too short. It’s too long and life is too short. We are here having a lecture about The Self Under Siege. We are in a culture where people spend time… huge amounts of time running hither and thither to buy, you know, shorts for the kids for school to go up and down stairmasters and so on, we haven’t got time for these four or five thousand pages. So, I mean, one function that people who at least used to be intellectuals, like me, can perform is to say about certain books “Don’t worry about it! You don’t have time for it!” Then of course if you are irritated by me that will make you read it, and if not, you don’t have to. But certainly you could look at “The Words”; that’s his autobiography, you can learn a lot about Sartre from that.

I didn’t really want to talk about his work, I wanted to talk about him as a human being, because in his case, trying to be an existentialist, and trying to be a revolutionary was his way of seeking his selfhood under siege. For him, and this is, I think, his highest glory – the best thing about him – for him philosophy was not just an academic exercise of thinking, but the way he tried to construct a life worth living, a self worth talking about as a kind of destiny, and I am in no position to say he didn’t do a decent job at it. [applause]

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