jean-paul sartre

THE NIHILIST – Jean-Paul Sartre (June 21, 1905 – April 15, 1980) was one of the key figures in the philosophy of Existentialism (and phenomenology), a French playwright, novelist, screenwriter, political activist, biographer, literary critic, as well as a leading figure in 20th-century French philosophy and Marxism. His work has influenced sociology, critical theory, post-colonial theory, and literary studies, and continues to do so.

Was Sartre a nihilist? “Perhaps not,” say some. “He was more like a humanist.” But Sartre wrote much about nihilism, that is, he popularized the subject perhaps more than anyone − more than even Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

NIHILISM (from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.

Sartre also stands in company with Algerian-born French philosopher Albert Camus to posit that the question about the meaning of life is rather meaningless. Theirs is no good answer, appealing or not, as it does not affirm the certainty regarding values and life that most people need and seek in their lives. It does not matter if Sartre’s or Camus’ insights are true because people cannot live with such a truth.

Sartre’s philosophy emphasized the importance of individual freedom and responsibility, which he believed were central to human existence. However, Sartre rejected the idea of God and religion and instead believed in a philosophy of nihilism. Sartre believed that humans are not bound by any predetermined fate or external force, but rather create their own meaning through their choices and actions.

Critics of Sartre’s nihilistic philosophy argue that it is too pessimistic and fails to provide a positive solution to the problem of meaninglessness. Some argue that Sartre’s emphasis on individual freedom and responsibility ignores the social and political realities that can limit people’s choices and opportunities. Additionally, some criticize Sartre’s rejection of God and religion, arguing that these provide important sources of meaning and purpose for many people.

By the way, Camus and Sartre call existence an absurdity. Are existents, people like me and you, absurd entities as well. Probably not. Are all behaviors absurd? That is very different from calling existence an absurdity. Sure, behaviors can be called absurd as well, but not all, not categorically as Camus and Sartre called the singularity of existence. Many behaviors are unquestionably noble. Childbirth is perhaps one of them. Other behaviors seem a bit grotesque, like wearing a suit on a beach or sitting naked on a public bench in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood.

Look, I do get Sartre’s and Camus’ sentimentality regarding life and all. In my better moments − let’s say after a beer or so − I often do wonder about all the events I have witnessed in my own life. So, I call a lot of things in life grotesque or tragic, but not absurd. That is my truth, but it need not be your truth. My truths are truths void of the capital T. This truth of the absurd, however, is a cognitive abstraction of temporary sentiments − sentiments that are taken out of the context of affective beings engaged in living.

I know how to recover from such moments of truth. Just give me a hug and life is good again. After all, I am an affective being rather than just being cognitive, rational, thinking, etc. Yippee!

This suggested notion of the absurd, of meaninglessness is less of a problem for me in my old age than it must be for young people in their formative years. Does nihilism not undermine the development of esteem or the capacity for wholesome cooperation and competition in youth? What good is an undercooked egg, that is, a person of stunted character? How can a future home be erected on quicksand? It does not make much sense to take a conjectured sentiment out of the context of a frail, yet living community and reinject it as medicine only to overwhelm the struggling patient.


  • Tom

    Exploring what living a worthy life means. Despite what some say, there's no simple answer.

[…] In spite of having promoted a god, the soul, and immortality, the late Rev. Moon still has a lot of appeal for me and others. Do people of faith and agnostics not seek certainty alone as a most precious good? Especially certainty about the prospects of a good life? Who gets inspired by hearing that life is absurd from the likes of Camus or Sartre? […]

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