Learning from Sartre

In a recent post, I wrote of the difference between propositional and performative understandings of religion (more specifically, of Christianity). I explained that part of the problem facing most people today is that they are not born into a tradition of any kind. In the Western world, there used to be two great traditions of which the majority of people were an active member: Christianity and socialism. These were the days when ‘being’ a Christian and ‘being’ a socialist meant performing certain acts in tandem with holding certain beliefs. Creed was a material, practical affair. Today, on the contrary, these traditions no longer exist in the West in the same way in which they used to, and so the majority of people are condemned to confronting them in their abstract propositional form only. Whereas at one time being a socialist meant attending trade union meetings and organising worker education evenings, it now (more or less) means a student sat in halls of residence reading Marx. Put crudely, people used to do things and think things, but now they only think things.

Having never read much Sartre until recently, I was struck by his description of existentialism and its relation to the problem outlined above. By insisting that existence precedes essence – in other words, that we exist before we ourselves decide on what our essence as humans will be (Christian, atheist, agnostic, existentialist, Muslim etc.) – he’s effectively taking to its historical conclusion the fact of the severing of the performative from the propositional. Existential angst is what an honest suburban petit bourgeois who is trying to ‘become’ a Christian experiences almost every day, predominantly because for him Christianity is a choice. He has chosen to become a Christian. He existed, and then he himself founded his own essence, rather than his essence preceding him. Unless one is raised in a Christian family or a socialist family, it seems to me that to ignore this fact and the day-to-day consequences of it is to ignore the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

The repercussions of this for both Christianity and socialism are profound. When critics of Sartre point out that his worldview is merely a reflection of the grim social consequences of monopoly capitalism – a world of bourgeois monads confronting each other as potential competitors and strangers – they are correct. But just because Sartrean existentialism cannot be thought of as ahistorical is precisely not to say that it does not apply to our own epoch. If socialism and Christianity do not begin from this alienated present, then they are simply the nefarious ideologies which their enemies take them for.


3 thoughts on “Learning from Sartre

  1. Steve says:

    Hmm very interesting Dan, ta.
    “He existed, and then he himself founded his own essence, rather than his essence preceding him. Unless one is raised in a Christian family or a socialist family, it seems to me that to ignore this fact and the day-to-day consequences of it is to ignore the historical moment in which we find ourselves.”
    I think that although i’d been given the identity of ‘Christian’ pretty much along with my existence, I still had to choose it before it became my essence. So what consequences does that have…? maybe your not so isolated as you thought in ur ‘existential angst’ at least not from people brought up in churches in this era, but i agree that this prob wasnt such an issue for Christians from ages past. For all of us “Christianity is a choice”, perhaps it was just an easier choice back when everyone was doing it?!

    Couple of thoughts on doing vs thinking…
    -Really important foundation of the Christian faith is that we’re saved by grace, not deeds. Nothing i do makes me worthy of what i’ve been given; it cant ever be earned.
    -However, i think doing is, actually, very important. Maybe its not the what defines you as a Christian, but there is a huge imperative to Do. Jesus doesnt go on about ‘believe this, understand this, accept this argument’, but he goes on a lot about ‘feed the hungry, clothe the naked, get justice for the oppressed’. Also, I reckon (for lots of people anyway) its much more through doing stuff than through isolated thought that we discover what God’s up to and what this life is all about. I’m rubbish at it,

    (Having said that, there are some people whose style or character is just more orientated towards an intellectual path, and worship can be intellectual too. Folk aren’t all the same and shouldn’t do things in the same way)

    But if you’d have continued elaborating your first paragraph…
    “Whereas at one time being a socialist meant attending trade union meetings and organising worker education evenings, it now (more or less) means a student sat in halls of residence reading Marx…”
    ‘Whereas at one time being a Christian meant xxx
    it now more or less means xxx’
    what would you have said?
    Cause, bearing in mind the ‘grace not deeds’ proviso, it would seem a pretty incomplete sort of Christianity to me, no? Maybe you could say the same for the marx-reading student ‘socialist’. Maybe he’s not really a socialist.
    So if this age is teaching us that you dont have to do something to be something, you just have to think something, that’s a pretty flimsy. Grace not deeds, yeah. But without the response of action, have you really become?

  2. Daniel Hartley says:

    Hey Steve,

    You seem basically to agree with everything I say in the article, but I get the impression that you think you’re disagreeing with it!

    I’ll try and take your points one at a time. Firstly, choice. I think that the only thing connecting a ‘choice’ to become Christian back in the day to a ‘choice’ by a non-Christian-family person to become Christian today, to a ‘choice’ by a Christian-family-origin person to become Christian today is the word ‘choice’. For the same word to be used of all of them there must, of course, be some fundamental homology between the acts it designates, but I suspect that that homology is nigh-on bursting at the seams. The choices outlined above (at random) seem so qualitatively different that it’s hard to think of them as analogous. The hypothetical olden-days Christian is raised in a (feudal?) society which is fundamentally, metaphysically Christian. Christianity forms the absolute basis of everything for everyone; it is the untranscendable horizon of human existence. To ‘choose’ in this context is more or less a rite of passage, a ritual whereby the individual assumes his or her place within the social body (which also happens to be the body of Christ). Compare that to someone not raised Christian today in a world whose untranscendable horizon is multinational capitalism, where God is laughable, where Christianity is simply one product in the religious supermarket amongst others, etc. etc. To ‘choose’ to become Christian in that context is to attempt to hoist yourself up by your own ontological bootstraps, to claim an absolute foundation for your world and for everybody else’s etc. So, I agree that even for Christians from church-going families the choice is different today – and part of the point of my article was to suggest precisely that – to observe that that existential angst must be reckoned with even by Christians themselves, and that if they don’t reckon with it then they are not wrestling with God.

    Again, the point on ‘doing versus thinking’: my whole article was intended to argue in favour of what you say. It was precisely meant to be an indictment of those who claim to ‘be’ Christians or socialists without actually ‘doing’ anything (i.e. a self-indictment, but one not intended to be over-self-flagellating, rather cutting myself some historical slack!). Extremely important in this respect is Slavoj Zizek on how ideology functions today. It used to be thought that ideology was simply ‘false consciousness’ i.e. if people only knew how the world really worked (exploitation etc.) then they would jolly well do something about it. But Zizek shows that this no longer holds true: everybody knows – more or less – what’s wrong with the world, they know about exploitation etc. and they make ironic/ cynical jokes about it (just take people like Ian Hislop or mainstream satire). The point is that ideology is not on the side of knowing, it’s on the side of DOING. ‘I know very well that what I’m doing is destroying the planet, but nonetheless I continue to do it anyway.’ Ideology is the fundamental fantasy structuring our immediate relation to reality and what we do in it – not what we think in it. (This is why Chomsky is wrong. He functions on the basis of a far too rational and unified human being. He thinks that if only everybody knew what those in power were really doing, then people would do something about it, but this simply isn’t true – or at least not to the extent that he believes it to be). I’ve thought about this a lot recently: people like me (knowers who can’t seem to break the spell and act) are phantoms. We are not fully human because we cannot unify our knowledge of the world with our capacity to act in it in ways that will disrupt the autonomous functioning of capital.

    ‘Maybe he’s not really socialist?’ Precisely! He’s not!

    ‘That’s pretty flimsy’ – yes, it is!

    ‘Without the response of action, have you really become?’ No, you haven’t!! And that question is a fucking beautiful way of posing the problem!

  3. Steve says:

    Ah, thanks. I understand what you’re saying better now!
    Its brilliant, I think, that when we can ‘unify’ knowledge with action, we become ‘fully human’. This seems to be profoundly true to me, and a fantastic thing to aim for.
    lets do it!

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