[For Sartre,] man has no nature, but is sheer freedom. His life must take some direction or other, but in the end it comes to nothing. This absurd freedom is man’s hell. What is unsettling about this approach is that it is a way through the separation of freedom from truth to its most radical conclusion: there is no truth at all. Freedom has no direction and no measure.
“Truth and Freedom,” Communio 23 (Spring, 1996), 25
Reflection – Well, I seem to be having an unintentional theme this week on the blog, around the whole business of ‘truth’. It is, actually, unintentional – I have a sort of random process by which I normally select passages from Ratzinger’s writings, and these last few days the process is coughing up one truth-related quote after another.
Well, maybe it’s because so much of the media focus, at least for my largely American readership is focused so intensely on the last week of the interminable
presidential election campaign season. In a time of half-truths, no-truth, and endlessly accelerating political spin (aka BS, if you don't mind my language), it is good perhaps to ponder the utter centrality and necessity of truth and the knowledge of the truth in our lives. US
So here we have a reflection on Sartre’s absurd philosophy of freedom. For Sartre, any kind of ‘reality’, any solid and unyielding fact is an outrage against freedom. Freedom is sheer unfettered action; anything that impedes our action is an assault on our liberty.
The very physical universe in its solidity is a source of nausea, and other people in their pursuit of freedom are hell for us—l’enfer-c’est les autres.
I’ve always found it hard to know what to say about Sartre’s philosophy. Little of it is argued by Sartre—he is big on the sweeping assertion and the unsubstantiated claim. His freedom seems to be a curse and his world an essentially tragic one. We are free, but there is nothing worth doing with this freedom. We are unfettered, the chains of our degrading servitude have been broken, but it turns out there is no point to life anyhow. His notion of freedom casts mankind into a prison, ironically, of utter solitude and impotent paralysis. There is literally nothing for us and nothing really worth doing in this life.
Well, if this is true, and I don’t see any great reason to think it is, then to hell with it. If that is where philosophy and careful thought about life leads us (and again, there is no reason to think they do) then to hell with them, too! And that seems to be where Sartre ended up too—I don’t think it’s any vagary of fate that he became a Stalinist Communist in his later years. If freedom leads us to such an empty tragic abyss, who needs it anyhow?
But freedom does not lead us to an empty tragic abyss, really. Freedom is essentially part of a dialogue for human beings. Reality is from God, made by God, and comes to us both externally (the created world around us) and internally (our own human being) as a given, as structured and ordered by the Other who is God. And that, basically, is what we mean by the word 'truth'.
Our freedom is our response to this given. And the response is to receive it in love and care for it in love, and to come to know that the One who gave it to us is Himself love. Freedom is our entry into this dialogue of love, this reception and return of love that is the whole purpose and joyful fulfillment of the human person. Far from l’enfer, c’est les autres, we Christians say, le paradis, c’est l’Autre. Heaven is this Other, this God, this Father who made us, who loves us, and who beckons us into a free return of love.
Like I say, I have never understood Sartre, and he always seems to me to be a tragic pitiable figure. Nietzsche, I understand and even sympathize with, but Sartre, no. So my response to him is undoubtedly inadequate, but there it is. Our Christian faith, and it seems to me that it is borne out by experience, calls us into an adventure of love and freedom that asks everything of us and promises everything to us, that plunges us into a world of risk, arduous labor, and pain, but also a life of beauty and joy beyond imagining. How Sartre’s pinched, nauseous, dark, tragic and ultimately self-defeating notions of freedom could ever be seen as better or even worth a hearing is beyond me. Meanwhile, the call of the Gospel and of love beckons me today. Goodbye, Sartre; hello, Jesus!