Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sartre's Godless Philosophy


The trouble with the professional atheists or anti-theists these days is, apart from everything else that is bad and reductionist and ridiculous in what they write, that their apparently passionate commitment comes too cheap. It doesn't require that they give anything up, change anything about themselves, or challenge anything fundamental about the society. They don't have to engage in any analysis deeper than that which finds religious doctrine to be literally false, philosophically shallow, socially repressive and politically dangerous. Big deal. It never seems to have occurred to them that there might be more radical consequences of the absence centre of ontology than that you should support the teaching of evolution, not kill people for God, and support the right of knocked up teenagers to have abortions. Actually, there is nothing there but the regurgitation of bourgeois wisdom and morality, both of which are pretty contemptible. You can have moralism without the Gods, proscription and prescription without the Mosaic tablets, universal virtues without the heavens. There are no radical consequences: all will be much as it was before, because God was never all that important except as an infantile effort at reflection on causality and the universe. In Hitchens' case, you not only get the bourgeois wisdom that capitalism is not responsible for any of its ills, or that the empire is virtuous and its failings forced upon it by an evil-minded class of religious "riff-raff" and wreckers, that all religions are equally bad, especially Islam (because, as Amis put it, "We are hearing from Islam") - you are particularly treated to the idea that the 'war on terror' and support thereof was a compulsory response to the attacks on New York and Washington. None of it was a choice. (To descend further into the territory of bad faith, Hitchens didn't simply disaffiliate from the Left; ruthlessly ingratiate himself with far right publications and institutions which came with a flood of cash, celebrity and upward class mobility; accept and espouse some of the most bigoted versions of American nationalism; engage in an outrageous campaign of lies and vilification on behalf of the American government, etc. No - he discovered that the Left was suddenly not what it once was. Once a principled position, socialist anti-imperialism had become an auxiliary to tyranny, an alibi to Slobo and Saddam and all of America's other enemies. Further, it had become historically obsolete, its most recent upsurge also its last. Hitchens, then, could do no other than wave a sad farewell and initiate nuptials with the David Horowitz Freedom Center. The Left had, in the old pathetic formula, abandoned him.)

These people may prosper among sadsack American liberals who think fundamentalism is their big enemy, but what can they offer people who have got beyond that fetish? Buttkiss. If you want atheism done properly, you have to consult a French communist philosopher. For here, there is no comfort to be had - in fact, God's absence is a rather embarrassing and difficult fact. It is problematic. The first consequence of the absence of God in Sartre's philosophy is the fact that there is no such thing as 'human nature' - I've seen some commentaries referring to Sartre's particular view of 'human nature', but it's quite clear that he didn't believe such a thing existed. There might, at most, be a human condition, which is somewhat different. In the religious view, there is a Creator, a sort of artisan who creates humankind according to a particular conception He has of them, a pre-existing essense. In the non-religious existentialist view, existence precedes essence. There is no Creator, no pre-existing blueprint. We only become what we are having willed it ourselves. Our 'essence' is the sum of our actions in the world. This is not to say that there is no facticity about yourself - it is not a fantasy of limitless protean capability. But you can always choose how to relate to this facticity. There is a transcendental capacity, in which one can conceive, theorize, plan etc. Which brings us to the second consequence: you always bear responsibility for your choices, even in the most restrictive and desperate circumstances. There is no case in which you do not have a choice unless you have ceased to exist. For example, if someone sticks an ice-pick in your head, you can either wilt and slump to the floor, or you can try to bite his hand off.

Against all philosophical determinisms, against religious resignation, against complacent assumptions about human nature, Sartre insists on responsibility. One cannot say "I was only following orders", or "they started it", or "everyone's doing it", or "it's only natural". There are no excuses: one has to fully accept responsibility for one's decisions, and every action is the consequence of a decision, including falling in love or exploding with rage. Further, since one acts in the world, one does not simply act in isolation, but implicitly as a model for others to follow - hence, of each action the question has to be asked "what if everyone did as I am doing?", even if it is a 'private' action. The third consequence is that one cannot proceed as if God's absence makes no difference. Existence is a very different state of affairs without the maker. There can no longer be any good a priori, since this is a metaphysical notion, and we lack a perfect and omnipresent consciousness to think it. You simply have to spend your money and make your choices, accepting fully the anguish that comes with choosing for the whole of humanity without guarantees. The fourth consequence is that, since you are condemned to liberty, whatever humankind may now be, the future is virgin territory: it has to be shaped, rather than stoically accepted. This flies against any crummy historical determinism or stageism. It isn't, again, that each historical terminus doesn't come with a set of structural capacities that we did not choose; it is that we can absolutely choose whether and how to exercise them.

Mauvaise foi, or 'bad faith' is a crucial part of Sartre's doctrine. There are two ways to act in bad faith: one is to pretend that one simply is what one is, the sum of one's facticity; the other is to avoid one's facticity altogether and disappear into transcendence, wishful thinking, plans without fruition, dreams without action. So, if I say "I haven't been as active in politics as I'd like to have been because of the pressures of work and other activities", there is an element of bad faith involved, because I have chosen to prioritise those activities. I ought to be able to say that this decision has been the right one and to justify it. If at some point I move to the right or abandon politics altogether for a career, I might say "well, all that was finished, everyone else had given up, and anyway what difference can an individual make?". That would be in bad faith, since I am denying my own choice and its consequences. If I go on to patronise my former self and denounce my own radicalism as an adolescent tantrum that should be recalled with tender contempt, I will deny that I was perfectly free to take a different orientation. Similarly, if I drift into total inactivity but continue to conceive of radical social change without lifting a finger to achieve it, it is bad faith of the latter kind, a resort to irresponsible dreaming. Of course there are pressures in each given situation (toward resignation, despair, passivity, careerism, rightward lurches etc), but I am at liberty to resist them.

There is more obviously in Sartre than in any other philosopher a direct political context to his argument. He wrote Of Being and Nothingness during the Nazi occupation of France, where it was not uncommon to hear the sort of bad faith arguments that we are all tempted by. What can I do, I am only a small businessman with a massive debt, the Nazis could crush me. Yes, I make money from extermination, but this is the way of the world. I am at the mercy of human nature or historical forces. I am a soldier, I am not employed to philosophise M Sartre, so get back in your cell and shut up. This situation, one of enormous pressure, illuminated fundamental human capacities in a way that 'ordinary life' cannot. Sartre's godless philosophy exhorts one to analyse, to carefully think through the consequences of one's decisions, to eschew resignation, and to assume full responsibility. It is never good enough to engage in cost-free, risk-free critique, to enjoy the privileges of one's role without ever having to consider its bases. It is never adequate to attack religion unless one is prepared to take the point to its logical conclusion and part with all forms of self-deception and illusion. It is, in short, the epitome of bad faith to indulge in the critique of the god delusion and its destructive aspects if one is busy dispensing Streicherisms for the Weekly Standard.