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 really 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 − even Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
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 that, such a truth.
By the way, Camus and Sartre call existence an absurdity. Are existents, people like me and you, absurd entities as well. Probably not. Both Camus and Sartre would not deny that there are meanings in life or in living. But existence itself is absurd. So be it.
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, 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.