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  • SARTRE, EXISTENTIALISM AND BAD FAITH

    Arthur Chappell

    If not for Humanism, I might have become an Existentialist. It seems the only credible philosophy of atheism/agnosticism apart from Humanism itself.

    Existentialism began with Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) who believed that in the terror that comes of recognising that there is no God and therefore no meaning or purpose behind life, we should live as though there were a God anyway, as a sort of positive, affirmative act of agnosticism. This would be in keeping with Pascalís wager. Sartre rejected such reasoning.

    For Sartre, we exist, and we choose what to do. Trees, stones, and animals exist as beings in themselves

    A rock is entirely at the mercy of forces around it, and helpless to prevent its fate. It may erode, or be used by us in building work. A dog is only able to feed, fight or flee instinctively, and answer to its training by us. It has no free will. Humans however are beings for themselves. That is, we have the freedom to choose through reasoning, what we will do. Our existence precedes our essence. We have to be in order to do. and by acting we create moral values.

    To Sartre, the driving compulsion to act through choice is overwhelming, a curse as well as a blessing. In his 1938 novel, Nausea, his hero Roquentin is a historian writing about an enigmatic, neglected figure from the past called Rollebon, (a fictional mixture of Rasputin and Thomas Paine) who mainly exists as a series of footnote references to other figures from the past. Roquentin finds with time that his hero is given essence only through what he writes about him, and that by selecting and highlighting different aspects of the manís life, he can create different interpretations of him, but that he can never capture any true essence. Roquentin gives up his research, but then finds that the same lack of meaning and essence affects his own biography. The world around him, and all its physical manifestations begins to sicken and physically nauseate him.

    There is simply too much existence around him. He concludes that "Everything that exists is born for no reason, carries on living through weakness, and dies by accident." This probably makes optimistic Humanism so much more attractive. We still have hope.

    Sartre sees that many people try o escape from the existential fact that they are burdened with making their own choices by deluding themselves into thinking they follow some kind of duty to some other cause or obligations to other individuals, groups of people, or to some kind of creed. Sartre calls this delusion BAD FAITH. It applies to much more than religious faith. It is a denial of the existential fact that we have only ourselves to blame or praise for the consequences of our actions. In his 1939 story, Intimacy, Lucienne Crispin wants to dump her husband for another man, and yet also wants her husband to compel her to stay with him. She effectively gives in to having them push and pull her to oblige on them to make her difficult decision for her. She rejects the burden of choice on to them. Hers is a total act of Bad Faith.

    We may try to defend our actions by saying we were driven to them by emotion and passion. Not so, to Sartre. He believes our reason rules our feelings. Emotions are feelings we choose to adapt. our emotions. Sartre, who fought for the French Resistance against the Nazis, believes they freely, consciously chose to scapegoat the Jews in order to escape their feelings of unhappiness and social uncertainty. This was a theory Sartre wrote into a story called Childhood Of A Leader about a young French fascist in early 1939. His critics said it was about a hooligan, and therefore far fetched. Events beginning later that year proved them wrong. We try to be ourselves but we are also detached from ourselves by our awareness of what we do. We can never be beings in ourselves. Sartre famously described a French cafe waiter who had confused doing a waiterís job by choice of profession with being essentially a waiter.

    Bad Faith is the attempt we make to be beings for others. We try to see ourselves through the eyes of another; we try to gain another personís trust, affection, etc. We canít bear the thought of others thinking badly of us. We continually reinvent ourselves, and resell ourselves. In Huis Clos (No Exit) three people are in an unusual hell. It has no torture instruments or demons. It is an elegant, stuffy hotel room. Each is appalled by the acts that the others committed to deserve being there (murder, wife-beating, suicide, cowardice) and while two might be able to see each otherís fate as circumstantial misfortune, the ĎLookí, of the third person makes it impossible. This provokes the playís most infamous line, and the reason why there are no torturers. "Hell is other people." If we live for others, or in bad faith, instead of as ourselves for ourselves, existing before choosing, this neednít be so. To Humanists Heaven is other people too.

    Arthur Chappell

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