Learning from Sartre

by Daniel Hartley

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.