Jacques Maritain Center

Moral Philosophy

Part Three
Moral Philosophy's Crisis of Re-orientation

Person and Liberty

I The Kierkegaardian Protest
(Meditation on the Singular)

Coming to terms with self-knowledge
1. In the six preceding chapters we have attempted a critical analysis of the thought of Hegel, Marx and Auguste Comte, which, though certainly not exhaustive, would be at least as comprehensive and thorough as our present research, confined to moral philosophy, required. It was a question of examining three systems whose influence has deeply penetrated the contemporary world, and of taking the measure of three great exponents of modern anthropocentrism whose work has seriously disorganized moral knowledge, not only among philosophers but also in broad sectors of the common conscience. We shall proceed in a different manner in the present chapter and the following one, devoted to what we might call the crisis of re-orientation through which moral philosophy is trying at the present time to rediscover itself by rediscovering, in opposition to Kant, its realist and "cosmic" character: and, in opposition to Hegel, Marx and Comte, the primary truths on which it rests in the recesses of the human person. We shall not undertake an intensive study of Kierkegaard, Sartre, Dewey and Bergson. It will suffice for our purpose to disengage from the testimony of each a certain note, a certain characteristic sign, which will serve as a theme for our reflections.

Søren Kierkegaard was a contemporary of Marx. But it was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that his name began to become famous and his influence to be felt. He was the herald of the crisis of re-orientation of which we just spoke.

Neither a philosopher in the strict sense of the word -- although nourished in philosophy -- and yet a philosopher in the sense of being a lay thinker; nor a theologian nor a prophet (obsessed by his feeling for the requirements of the Gospel and by his own unworthiness, he hardly dared to profess himself a Christian),{1} and yet a kind of prophet and a knight of the faith, and, at the end of his life, "a witness to the truth" in his passionate revolt against the established church, this poet of the religious, as he called himself, is a figure complex and ambiguous enough to occupy generations of interpreters and to justify their disagreements.

Fascinated as Kierkegaard was by Socrates, it is not without reason that from the very beginning his attention was fixed upon Irony. His own situation was intrinsically ironic. A philosopher without a system but a philosopher, as we have just said, in the sense of being a lay thinker, it was necessary for him to be a philosopher of the faith, in opposition to a theology invaded and degraded by rationalism. The non-philosophy of this dandy, armed with the sling of David and pebbles from the torrent, was an authentically Christian philosophy holding its own against the arrogant phantom of Christian philosophy raised up by the Hegelian gnosis. In the most tragically paradoxical form, he inaugurated the Destiny of the Christian philosopher in the historical era in which the Christian philosopher, although he was actually becoming indispensable to culture, appeared as a scandal to the official general staffs of the intellect and was refused all right to exist.

2. For our present purposes, it is the theme of the singular (enkelte){1} which is of most significance for us in Kierkegaard. This theme is obviously related to the theme of subjectivity. Morbidly, no doubt, but with an insight all the keener for that, Kierkegaard's thought was concentrated upon his own suffering subjectivity. And the more he experienced its utter ineffability, the more he nevertheless sought to tell and make manifest something of it; and the more he tried to reveal something of it, the more he felt the duty to respect its impenetrability. Tormented by himself in this way, hiding himself under masks and pseudonyms which were still himself, and at intervals giving a glimpse of his own visage as still another mask, in such a way as to render the masquerade still more puzzling, irony{2} was for him the witness and the cloak of his own secret. And just as in the realm of religion humor was, in his view, the state of mind required for honoring the transcendence of divine things, so in the human realm all that complicated and naively tortuous apparatus of irony was the rite necessarily required for in some way revealing the subjectivity without at the same time profaning it.

Truth to tell, was not Kierkegaard in fact too preoccupied with his singularity to be able quite to keep himself from betraying its mystery? And is it not by avoiding mirrors instead of seeking them, and by forgetting oneself in the object, that a man can best respect the integrity of his own inner

depths, all the while knowing them, but with an inexpressible knowledge? It is here that the disconcerting ambiguity of the Socratic know thyself arises.

There is a know thyself in which the subject sees himself without the least discursive objectification. His consciousness grasps within him his interior movements and deep inner states by means of a simple gaze which does not conceptualize, in the manner, one might say (though the germ of a mental word be there) in which the senses grasp the sensible, without the intermediary of any image or species expressa. A simple knowledge of the quia est, of existence. No ripple on the surface of the waters -- a certain transparency where this absolutely naïve gaze penetrates is the reward for renouncing the analysis of oneself.

And there is another know thyself in which the reflexive intelligence strives to seize and explain to itself in some way the inner depths of the subject, through a process, be it obscure and unavowed, of discursive objectification, and by producing interpretative constructions or conceptualizations. An effort to grasp even a little of the inexhaustible, to know in some degree the quid est or the "essence" of the subjectivity. It is this kind of know thyself which as a general rule it would be better to replace by a forget thyself. For in general it has the effect of agitating and troubling the waters into which the gaze would like to plunge -- not to speak of the illusions it can produce in poorly integrated psyches, the false elaborations insidiously built up by the super-ego. In only two cases, we believe, does such a know thyself really "come off", and then it offers treasures to the nostalgia man has to know himself: I mean in the case of the saints and the great contemplatives, when the grace of an inspired psychological lucidity is given them, and in the case of souls wounded by neurosis or by remorse, when their passion to grasp themselves and their own ill, instead of turning toward illusory construction, develops a morbid psychological lucidity which a fundamental rectitude of moral conscience and of mind sharpens still further and keeps pure.

I think Kierkegaard fell into the latter category (as, on another level and without the religious profundity characteristic of Kierkegaard, did Proust and Kafka). And I note (something which I believe casts a certain light on existentialism) that the irony of the matter is that what made Kierkegaard an existential thinker was precisely the fact that he never contented himself with the first, simply existential know thyself through which the singular grasps itself, but was constantly obsessed by the second know thyself, in which the soul, with a look not naïve but terrifically intelligent, tries to enter into the secrets of the incommunicable "essence" of its singularity. In other words, it was his desperate effort to understand existence and subjectivity by a process of conceptual interpretation which he turned constantly back upon the pure subjective singular but which remained in spite of everything what it is by nature, discursive objectification in search of the quid est. Thus it is that in order to propose to the world a philosophy of pure existence and pure subjectivity, Kierkegaard's heirs will be forced, while taking all possible pains to conceal the fact, to have recourse to the very thing they proscribe, to that discursive objectification and that groping towards essence without which the intellect cannot advance: this contradiction is at the heart of existentialism insofar as it is a philosophy. The truth of the matter is that the only one who has a truly existential knowledge is the one who, in order to know himself introspectively,{1} does not think his subjectivity but only attains it in a simple look, innocently receptive, stupidly with no question whatever, as the bull sees a daisy or a poppy in the pasture. But this knowledge is not a philosophy.

Philosophy demands of the philosopher that he lose himself in the object. This does not mean, however, that his singularity and his subjectivity are less involved in his work than those of the existentialist, or, to choose a better term of comparison, the artist or the poet. They are involved in the work not in order to be sought for and revealed but in order to be consumed, and thereby to exalt the impetus of the objective grasp.

Incomprehensible vicissitudes, nights, joys, torments and lacerations in the experience of the self attain exceptional depths with the mystics, but in one form or another they are the lot of every human being: either he benumbs himself in order to escape them by lying to himself, or he enters with courage into simple knowledge of himself. The philosopher goes through this just like any other; and he knows better than the next man, perhaps, from what profound sources in us emanate acedia, anguish and despair. Clear thou me from my hidden faults. The fault or the infirmity that I see, that has a form and a name -- however heavily it weighs upon me, I still have sufficient stature to measure myself against it, through repentance or patience. But the most burning thorn is the hidden evil I bear within myself. If only my body were my own, made from the dust of the earth! But there is no worse nightmare than heredity.

Auguste Comte liked to say that the living are governed by the dead -- he did not suspect the far-reaching significance of that terrifying assertion. All of the dead hidden in my heredity weigh in me upon my destiny. Their dreams and their poisons which are fermenting within me are the hidden evil through which I am lost. For in every hereditary line there are particular disequilibriums and disorders which, to the extent to which the determinism of matter is at play, inexorably push the unfortunate survivor toward the abyss. Alone as he is at the extreme point of that accursed ride, there exist in his immortal soul free will and grace as the unique chance of delivering himself and of entering one day into possession of his true name, and of his veritable self. Then he will walk in the ways of truth and let the dead bury their dead. But how is it possible that black grief and fear should not sometimes all upon him, whispering in his ear that whatever he does his dead will get the better of him, tie him to some fate -- the vertigo of Icarus or the torpor of Caliban -- more crushing than that of the stars? It was thus that, haunted by his father, Kierkegaard saw himself receiving life and damnation from him at the same time. It was thus that in becoming engaged to Regina he doubtless (without quite believing in it{1}) tried to expect from marriage its highest good, through which two human persons are each other's salvation, and in the hard discipline of daily renunciation of which love renders them capable, help each other to break forever the fate to which their ancestors would like to chain them.

The champion of the Singular
3. In the philosophical order there is one very simple but obviously crucial truth that the modern era is indebted to Kierkegaard for having reminded us of, and having made luminously clear. By virtue of the very fact that his introverted thought was wholly centered in his own subjectivity and his own unique singularity, he restored, in opposition to Hegel, that truth that the singular par excellence -- the point where singularity and subjectivity have their full reality and meaning -- is not the so-called concrete universal, but the individual immediately born into existence, the human atom. And this simple awareness was enough to change everything. By this very fact Kierkegaard escaped idealism and recovered the realist perspective natural to the intelligence, but without confusing reality with matter, as did Marx. His realism, exclusively concerned with the human person, is above all a spiritual realism. And he freed himself of the Hegelian dialectic as well, doubtless not completely, but at least in the essentials, and more truly than his existentialist successors were to be capable of doing. His conceptualization remained unfortunately subjected to the dialectical scheme, in particular to the dialectical category of the stages of existence,{2} but this subjective and pathetic dialectic had lost all pretension to being an instrument of knowledge and explanation and became, with him, purely descriptive.

In short, he put ethics back on its feet.{3} And by the same token he re-established the individual person (no longer exalted to the skies as by Kant, but crying out to God from the bottom of the abyss) in its authentic absolute value, he restored the morality of the conscience, and he banished the Hegelian Sittlichkeit and the Emperor of this world.

But it was at the price of a radical irrationalism that all this was accomplished -- not that Kierkegaard denied reason (he denied it no more than he denied the world), but he disapproved of it. To put one's faith in the objectively rational was pure vanity of soul and idolatrous worldliness, and lost man in the shams of generality.{1} In order to recover the true singular (that of the human atom) and its unique ethical and religious value, Kierkegaard turned his back on the universe of demonstration and objective certitudes, on the universe proper to reason. It was from a delving into the singular itself, in its own incommunicable subjectivity -- "subjectivity is truth"{2} -- that he expected the discovery of the absolute.

I am quite aware that at first there was an exaggerated and greatly oversimplified idea of Kierkegaard's irrationalism; to-day, by way of reaction, some of his best interpreters{3} endeavor to extenuate this irrationalism by insisting on the traditional rationality which in fact appears in many of his views, and which sometimes seems to draw this Lutheran in a Catholic direction, even to ally his thought more or less with that of St. Thomas Aquinas. There is a misunderstanding here, in our opinion. One must not forget the cleavage which, for a thinker like Kierkegaard, precisely because he is an authentic existentialist (an "existential existentialist", not an "academic existentialist"),{1} separates one from another the real movement of thought and what I shall call the ideological discourse.{2}

In the ideological discourse, Kierkegaard will be as rational, even as "Aristotelian", as "Thomist", as you like. For after all, when one is employing rational discourse one might as well use it properly. But in the eyes of Kierkegaard this ideological discourse, this rational discourse is of no importance. Not that it is false, it is true on its level -- but not on the level that matters, on the level of the absolute, of the truth that grips my vitals and on which I risk my life, my eternal destiny. In other words, the ideological discourse, with all its truths, is relativized, in the sense that while it is valid in general it is unconditionally valid only in general, but for no one in particular.

But when it comes, contrariwise, to the real movement of thought, by which I go to the absolute and am saved in it, this movement, for Kierkegaard, requires first of all a rupture with the world of ideological discourse; it leaves this world behind it, in order to immerse itself in the subjective singularity, in whose depths the existential adhesion to the true is accomplished, in the blood as well as in the mind.

Here we have definitely left the world of objects. Instead of our objectifying ourselves intentionally in the real, it is the real which subjectifies itself existentially in us. The impulse or the passion by which the subjectivity gives itself over to what is{1} replaces the specification of the intelligence by the object; and what counts is the mode or quality of this impulse or passion, how it approaches the real and suffers it.{2} -- That is why, where the supreme reality is concerned, the transcendence of God is only respected and faithfully recognized, if insecurity and doubt, the fear of not really having the faith{3} -- a kind of Hegelian "labor of the negative" -- cause the certitude par excellence to groan, that absolute certitude from which the whole subjectivity is suspended (as if it were necessary that the very adhesion of faith should incarnate in its own interior laceration the two modes, cataphatic and apophatic, in which God offers Himself to our knowledge).

It is in passing from one incommunicable experience to another, each with its own burden of revelation of being, that the real movement of thought proceeds. Passing through the experiepce of anguish, of sin, of despair, at the end it casts the dismembered subjectivity into the incommensurable -- the singular finds itself alone before the God of faith. But this faith, which is existential adherence at its height, stripped of every kind of objectivity{4} (because there is no infallible Church, no human-divine Subject to propose the content thereof), can only be for Kierkegaard (still fundamentally Lutheran in this respect) a supreme act of rupture with reason, a leap into the absurd -- the absurd being confused with the stultitia Gentibus, the scandal of the eternal enclosed within time, of God dead and resurrected.{5} We may add that the process of deepening the subjectivity which leads to this supreme act of rupture, though it is absolutely valid for the singular person in the depths of whom it occurs, is really valid only for that singular person, and is in itself entirely lacking in rational necessity. For every other singular person it remains, in the last analysis, arbitrary and ambiguous. For everything depends on what, in fact, already is the singular subjectivity of this one or that one. It is because Kierkegaard is a Christian that at the end of his existential dialectic he finds himself face to face with God; an atheist, at the end of his existential dialectic, will find himself face to face with the void.

4. One would try in vain to find in the singularity of the subject a criterion of knowledge and the ways of establishing communicable certitudes. Even in the case of infused faith, where in the solitude of the mystery of grace that pure and sublime Singular which is the primary Truth itself touches the heart of the created singular and infuses into it the lumen fidei, there is an object -- a truth shouted from the roof-tops and offered to all souls -- proposed to the intelligence by the ministry of a visible mystical Body. The fact remains, however, and Kierkegaard saw this with admirable clarity, that it is the singular which performs the act of existing, the singular which performs the act of knowing and the act of believing, the singular which in the midst of singular circumstances performs the act of free choice and moral judgment, the singular which is healthy or vicious in its love, which ends up in slavery or autonomy, which is saved or lost forever, and which by its actions and nihilations in its relation to God and to creatures helps to fashion the destinies of the world. And it is a singular Son of Man, at a singular instant of time, and on a singular cross, who saved the world.

Kierkegaard was the champion of the singular, of the unicity and incommunicability which characterize every individual person. But the word "singular" is an uneasy word. It has two meanings. And it was Kierkegaard's destiny to be the champion of the singular not only in the sense in which the singular is the individual, but also in the sense in which the singular is the exceptional, in which a singular man is a strange and suspect man, who is not like others, a "character", a buffoon, a misfit (atopotatos), like Socrates, according to Plato, and Kierkegaard does not fail to note this.{1} With all this, Kierkegaard could try as he would to find an alibi in the concept of the "justified exception"{2} -- he knew quite well that an adjective does not suffice to tame the exceptional.{3}

In line with one type of exceptional singularity, the person is exceptional who bears within him a secret evil, a hidden sore, a "thorn in the flesh", which makes of him a kind of outcast from the human community. The paradoxes and elegances of Kierkegaard concealed a tragic singularity -- his father's pact with the Enemy [i.e., the Devil], his own misery, the solitary despair he bore within him from adolescence, the bruising of the sensuality by the imaginary (aided by the music of Mozart),{1} and, finally, impotence.{2}

He hoped to escape through the love of Regina; he tried to behave like others, to marry. He had to give it up. "Had I had faith I should have remained with Regina."{3} The breaking off of his engagement threw him back upon his wounded singularity. Guilty? Not guilty?{4} He would have made Regina unhappy by marrying her. Yes, that is true. But it was in order to cure himself that he began to make himself loved; he played upon her as upon an instrument, a simple means. And when he suddenly realized that it was a human person, an imperishable soul who was caught in the trap and wounded for the rest of her life, it was too late. The trap had closed on him as well. He had sinned towards her? And in the way he tortured her in order to free her of him, in the way he blackened himself, and in all that obscure strategy to recover his solitude and his freedom, who could distinguish the pure from the impure? God the Saviour! Towards Him alone could he turn in his mortal doubt. The God who had made him singular would take pity on his wounded singularity.

Kierkegaard was aligned against the general, in a state of constant protest against it. This is not to say that he denies the world of ethics and the value of the general law; he knows this law is good, and that what is asked of man is to interiorize it through conscience and thus to make his singularity coincide with the general:{5} here we have the rational Kierkegaard, the Kierkegaard of the ideological discourse, who, just as he did in his eloquent apology for marriage{6} (whatever his real feelings in this connection),{7} gives the wisdom of the universal order its due. Though he certainly does not present a doctrinally articulated moral philosophy, still he always maintained his spontaneous adherence to the injunctions of the natural law and the Decalogue. He knows it would be absurd to try to justify his singularity by making of it a norm in its turn; and in his very opposition to the general there was never any question of his scorning the precepts and making a hero of the criminal.

His problem is entirely different, and much more subtle. It is the problem of the singular decision, in a singular situation, by which a man elects not to do as others do, to be an exception. He will defy and offend the general conduct, and commit an act which appears to everyone to be a fault -- not in defiance of precept but (given his obscure appreciation of the particular case, in which different precepts and opposing duties are in conflict) at the risk perhaps of being guilty in committing this act, which he does not wish to be a fault but which perhaps is one, and which is all the more likely to be one because what is at the bottom of the singularity of his case is an affliction he bears within him, a thorn in his flesh.

Involved in this humanly irremediable doubt there is probably the kind of exaggerated feeling of guilt peculiar to Lutheranism, in whose eyes every trace of egoism or of concupiscence, even though involuntary or not consented to, is a sin, so that for a human act to be exempt from blame it would require an angelically pure psychological context. But more than this, it seems that for Kierkegaard a certain confusion came to exist between defying the general conduct and offending the general law, not marrying like everybody else and breaking a universal commandment: are not ethics and marriage two convertible terms for him?{1} In any case, the result of the situation we have described is that the exceptional singular, condemned by the human community, the possibly guilty one who has risked everything for what he believed to be a good, has no refuge but God. He is nearer to God than ever.{2} His secret evil, his hidden sore, his thorn in the flesh become a sign of a relation with God which is itself exceptional and privileged, of a vocation to sacrifice. Did not Kierkegaard finally sacrifice himself to the bourgeois happiness of Regina, now married to her former preceptor Frederick Schlegel, was he not a victim offered in sacrifice for the happy ones,{1} for those who are at home with the general, who are and who act like everyone else! Certainly he does not deny ethics, does not revolt against it. In passing beyond marriage, he passed beyond ethics.

Ethics and supra-Ethics
5. I have spoken of wounded singularity, of the singularity of affliction. There is another kind of singularity-by-exception, namely singularity by election. And, as we have just seen, the former demands nothing better than to be transmuted into the latter by some means.

The purest type of this singularity by election is the religious hero, the person chosen by God as a unique witness, and who receives from God an absolutely individual, unique command. The example par excellence and above all others is Abraham, the father of believers, to whom in the terror of an incomprehensible revelation the order was given to put Isaac to death, and to make an exception, in regard to his own unique son, to the thou shalt not kill which conscience, even before it was formulated in the revealed Law, recognized as a universal precept. Here is supreme defiance of the general law, here is the singular command which prescribes for one man what is forbidden to all others, and which Abraham obeys, because he is the hero of the faith. He prepares to execute the order of homicide, he lifts the knife against his son.{2}

Thus for Kierkegaard we leave behind us, without abolishing it certainly but transcending it, the world of ethics, which is the world "of the measurable",{3} and we cross the threshold of the world of faith. If there is, as he puts it, "a teleological suspension of the moral",{4} it is because at a certain moment -- the instant we pass the threshold and enter the presence of sovereign Freedom, our ultimate End in person -- everything else is necessarily eclipsed. Then "the ethical is reduced to a position of relativity"{1} and itself "constitutes temptation".{2} For really from this moment on there is only one absolute rule and obligation, that which deals with one's direct connection with the ultimate End itself,{3} and which directs the singular to go to the bottom of the abyss of singularity in obeying in every instance the singular command of faith.{4}

If ethics (now become supra-ethics) is restored, it is only in virtue of this singular commandment, which has replaced the general, even when it causes to be performed (but through the obedience of faith, not in conformity with the rational universal) the same action which the general law and general conduct on their subordinate level present as obligatory. But the case of the exceptional and scandalous commandment, of the sacrificial commandment, still remains possible,{1} as Kierkegaard himself experienced it at the time of his articles in The Instant (Ojeblikett), when he was hurled into the struggle against false Christendom as a witness of the truth, an "individual in opposition to the others".{2}

For we know perfectly well that "In every generation that man is a rarity who exercises such a power over himself that he can will what is not pleasant to him, that he can hold fast that truth which does not please him, hold that it is the truth although it does not please him, hold that it is the truth precisely because it does not please him, and then nevertheless, in spite of the fact that it does not please him, can commit himself to it."{5} The fact is that at the time when he wrote such lines Kierkegaard had these inflammatory traits: "So superior is God; so far He is from making it difficult, so infinitely easy it is to deceive Him, that He Himself even offers a prize to him who does it, rewards him with everything earthly."{4} -- "The difference between a genius and a Christian is that a genius is nature's extraordinary, no man being able to make himself a genius, whereas a Christian is freedom's extraordinary, or, more properly freedom's ordinary, for though it is found extraordinarily seldom, it is what everyone ought to be." {5} -- "What is the Christianity of the New Testament? It is the suffering truth."{6} -- "To become a Christian in the New Testament sense is such a radical change that, humanly speaking, one must say that it is the heaviest trial to a family that one of its members becomes a Christian."{7} In a note written three years before, he had said: "It is a matter of being transformed from a natural man into a spirit, and this road passes through dying to oneself, which is extremely painful. . . . So God, in his infinite love, has mercy on you . . . because he loves you! He so aggravates the suffering that he makes you pass through death."{8}

If we return now to our own ethical considerations, we can see that Kierkegaard puts morality on its guard, not only against Hegel but also against Kant. Not, to be sure, in virtue of some positivist, empiricist or naturalist claim, but in virtue of the claims of the moral and religious conscience itself, his desperate insistence on the importance of the singular struck a mortal blow against Kantian formalism.

In the Kantian doctrine of the categorical imperative, I am not only required to obey a general or universal law, but I as singular annihilate myself ethically before the generality or universality of the law.{1} For morality no longer consists in the conformity of my act to a reason itself measured by things -- first of all by the ends of human nature and its normality of functioning, then by particular circumstances and the personal context in which, in a case which is always unique of its kind, I must myself judge of the application of the law. On the contrary, it is a rationality emptied of the real, it is pure generality or logical universality itself, empty generality, in other words the abstract possibility of universalizing the maxim of my action, which constitutes all the force of the moral commandment. In addition, it is uniquely through reverence for the general law that I must be motivated; and if, according to the Kantian theory of autonomy, the noumenal I is the author of the law which the empirical I obeys, this noumenal I is itself universal, being the supra-temporal general will.

Kantian ethics empties the singular of itself, reduces it to making of itself a pure abstract point or derealized logical subject in face of the abstract universal which is the law. Hegelian ethics will give the singular back to itself only insofar as the singular will voluntarily obey the State, and identify itself with the concrete universal in which it is reunited with its own being and substance, and which is the universal will of the Spirit objectified in the State. It is against these two kinds of ethics that the Kierkegaardian singularity cries vengeance.

In regard to ethics itself, the picture is different. If, for Kierkegaard, it is necessary at a certain moment -- the moment of passing, or leaping, to a superior order of life -- that morality be "suspended", this does not in any way imply that ethics is ever to be abolished, for ethics exists wherever there is choice or will; "the ethical, which teaches us to venture everything for nothing, to risk everything, and therefore also to renounce the flattery of the world-historical in order to become as nothing". But it is just this historical nothing, this nothing in the world which an individual constituted in his autonomous conscience is, which terminates in eternity: "for only in the ethical is your eternal consciousness".{2} No, ethics is not abolished, but when man reaches the true depth where God awaits him, ethics is transmuted or transfigured: so that after having burst through the ceiling of Ethics,{1} the singular finds up above it a new ethics,{2} or rather a supra-ethics, and a new universe of values and norms, those of faith.

6. This problem of a "supra-ethics" is one of the great problems which Christianity, by introducing the notion of an order of supernatural virtues and supernatural gifts, obliges moral philosophy to consider. This is not the moment for us to attack it. What we should prefer now is to try to place the protest of Kierkegaard as a witness of the singular in a proper perspective. In this endeavor we shall take as our point of departure not the ethics of Kant or that of Hegel, but rather the conception of morality which we find in force on the most superficial and most inexistential, the most exteriorized level of ordinary moral life, a conception which Kierkegaard did not fail to excoriate frequently. On the level of which we are speaking the moral law means to act as everyone else does. The singular has a clear conscience and feels secure because he does not exist for himself and has no moral experience properly so called; he conforms in a single and identical motion to the general conduct and to an abstract law exterior to him.

Then let us turn our attention toward wounded singularity, of which other examples than that of Kierkegaard easily come to mind. Let it be, for example, a case just the opposite of Kierkegaard's, and one in which the "thorn in the flesh" is of another sort, the case of a homosexual who, dreaming of an ideal communion, decides, after serious moral deliberation, to marry an innocent girl whom he does not inform of his disorder; he loves her, he hopes to be cured through her; in fact, he ruins her life. Guilty? Not guilty? Or let us think of the case of a man whose fiancée has declared that she will marry him only on trial; she repeated this declaration on the day of their marriage; but he has no other proof of this refusal to contract an indissoluble union, no juridically valid proof. She leaves him. Confident that in the invisible reality of inward intentions this marriage was not a true marriage, and although his moral code forbids divorce and in the eyes of those who believe in the same code he is deemed to have chosen scandal and adultery, he marries another woman, who, for her part, desires to be united with him forever, and in whom he sees his true and unique wife. Guilty? Not guilty? Or yet again, take an ambitious man whom a dictator has showered with honors, and to whom he confides one day that in order to reinvigorate the country he has decided to order his scientists to annihilate by means of a virus those whose coefficient of physical resistance is below normal. Our man knows that if he speaks out no one will believe him; in addition, although his master seems to be quite firm in his resolution, who can say that it is not just a passing whim which will be forgotten to-morrow? Yet he elects to assassinate him. Guilty? Not guilty?

The men whose cases I have just been imagining find themselves involved in a moral experience in which there can no longer be any question of acting like everyone else, and in which the singular person is in the toils of laws whose generality affords no solution to his problem -- by the same stroke they find themselves alone (consciously or not), facing another singular person with whom they try their destiny, and who is the Author of the law himself.

Now let us consider the singularity of election. Abraham will always remain the most notable example. But the Bible offers us other examples: did not Hosea receive and execute the order to take unto himself a prostitute and to have children by her?{1} Thomas Aquinas, who interprets this passage quite literally, teaches that this order did not command Hosea to commit fornication, any more than the order Abraham received commanded him to perform an act falling under the moral definition of homicide, because it is God who consigned Isaac to death, as He consigns all men, innocent or guilty, and because in joining Gomer to Hosea He made of her really his wife.{2} Well, it is relevant for us to consider cases in which the exceptional is less scandalously divine, cases exceptional but less extraordinary, whether on the level of the supernatural and holy missions (like Joan of Arc's refusing to the very end to wear women's clothes), or on the level of secular and purely human vocations (like an artist exposing his wife and children to want for the good of his work). In such cases the man departs more than ever from the wholly socialized ethics of doing like everyone else, he is more than ever face to face with God. But he has not left the sphere of ethics (or perhaps supra-ethics) with its universal norms, to enter into the sphere of singular commandment.{3} For in his exceptional conduct itself there is still a universal norm which comes to be applied -- superseding every other obligation -- given the absolutely singular context in which the decision takes place.

Whether singularity of election or wounded singularity, what singularity-as-exception forces us to understand is that it is itself only an extreme case of the ethical life in all its extension, in which it is always up to the conscience and the prudence of the singular to carry out the right practical decision, the decision in which the general laws covering the case in question are incarnated and individualized. What we are compelled to understand is that the fact of being face to face with God is at the heart of all moral life and of every authentically moral decision, that the more the moral life and moral experience deepen and become genuine, the more they are interiorized and spiritualized, and by the same token liberated from servile conformity to the socially customary. Finally, we are forced to recognize -- here again in opposition to Kierkegaard -- that the interiorization of the universal law by the intelligence, the conscience, and the virtues of the individual, and by his love, is not only a truth pertaining to what we have called above the ideological discourse -- separated, contrary to the nature of things, from the real movement of thought -- and a valid theme for the man installed in the security of the general; it is the existential truth, and the central theme which commands the ethical life in its entirety, and there especially where man is more exposed to the insecurity of the singular because he is entering into those recesses of choice and engagement, which no knowledge of the general can sound, under the eyes of God alone.

II Sartrian Existentialism (Freedom, Thou Remainest, or the Courage of Despair)

Descartes and the sailors
1. While at sea in a little boat which he had engaged for himself to go from Emden to West-Frisia, Descartes discovered that he was dealing "with some sailors who were most crude and uncouth. . . . It was not long before he recognized that they were scoundrels, but -- after all -- they were the masters of the boat. . . . They found him to be in a very tranquil mood, very patient; and judging from the gentleness of his appearance and the courtesy which he showed them that this was an inexperienced man, they decided that they could easily take his life. They did not hesitate to deliberate in his presence, since they did not believe he knew any language other than the one in which he conversed with his servant; and they resolved to overwhelm him, throw him overboard, and take his effects.

"Descartes, seeing that this was quite in earnest, suddenly got up, changed his bearing, drew his sword with an unexpected haughtiness, spoke to them in their language in a tone which gripped them, and threatened to run them through if they dared to insult him. . . . The boldness . . . which he showed on this occasion had a marvellous effect on the spirit of these wretches."{1}

2. The sketch which I propose to trace concerns Sartrian existentialism as I see it. What interpretation of a movement of thought where the individual drama and the author's subjectivity are as decisive as his ideas could be put forth as certain? Although all I know of Sartre's personal history is what critics have published about him -- very little to tell the truth -- my free interpretation seems to me probable and well-founded, but it remains conjectural. In presenting it explicitly as such, I show more respect for Sartre than he has shown for Baudelaire, in the work where he used him as a guinea pig to test the themes of his own philosophy, not without at the same time satisfying a kind of curious resentment.{2} Insofar as it will be a question, not of the ideas of Sartre, but of his experiences and of his personal history, I will prefer then to present, not Sartre himself, but a fictional personage, a more or less distant cousin of the hero of Nausea, but, in contrast to him, a philosopher, whom I will call Eleutherius.

I imagine that Eleutherius began like many young Frenchmen of his generation. Good and inoffensive, but not wishing to seem so, with a bourgeois formation and a Cartesian tradition, he repudiated, in a crisis of adolescence which his gifts and his extremely refined intellectual sensibility only rendered more acute, his class and the "stuffed ideology" which it uses to justify itself. And he rejected as lies not only the social values invoked by the bourgeoisie, but also all the metaphysical and moral values which seemed to him to be tied to those social values as their guarantee, and above all God, held as the supreme guarantee of all the false authorities.

In an epoch in which everything is turning upside down, and in which the best minds see the individual, in his solitude and distress, obliged to recreate all his norms of conduct against a herd-conformism and to assume absolute responsibilities without any support other than himself, while unmasking the fakery of the ready-made judgments with which the world reassures itself, this Cartesian in revolt against the rationalism of his fathers joins in the brilliant and flourishing enterprise of lucid denudation in which the conformism of our time comes to a peak in the non-conformists; and he conducts this undertaking, for his own part, in the perspective of a total atheism still foreign to any profound spiritual experience, but held as one of the duties of the revolutionary attitude.

There is nothing exceptional in all this, except the superior intelligence of Eleutherius. Because of it he will go farther than many others. In a world from which God and every metaphysical certitude have been cast out, there is no longer for man any objectively valid reason for living and acting. Nothing, nothing and nothing. The more I attach myself to some hope, the more I am caught in the lie. Doubtless at least I can see; but what one sees gives nausea. Take away the imposture, there remains the void. Life is completely unjustified.

3. It is notable that the obsessing, sometimes terrifying, feeling of the absurdity of things, and of the radical non-justification of being, is bound up in Sartre with the idea of contingency or of "gratuity" (this shows to what degree his background was rationalist; existentialism is an inverted rationalism, despairing of the Hegelian saying, all-that-which-is-real-is-rational). "The essential is contingency. I mean that by definition existence is not necessity. To exist is to be there, simply; the existents appear, they let themselves be encountered, but one can never deduce them. . . . Contingency is not a false semblance, an appearance which can be dissipated; it is the absolute -- and consequently the perfect gratuity. Everything is gratuitous, this garden, this city, and myself. When it happens that one takes account of it, it twists your heart and everything begins to float, like the other evening . . . : that is Nausea."{1} Eleutherius is thus seized by the nausea of the contingent, of the irrational and meaningless, "in the middle of Things, the unnameables". It is at this instant that, in his very vertigo, the original intuition which will always remain at the center of his thought forces itself upon him. "Then, I was just now in the public Garden. The root of the chestnut-tree sank down into the earth, just beneath my bench. I forgot that it was a root. The words were gone and, with them, the meaning of things, their modes of use, the fragile marks which men have traced on their surface. . . . And then I had this illumination.

"It took my breath away. Never, before these last few days, did I have a presentiment of what 'to exist' meant. I was like the others. . . . Like them I said 'the sea is green; that white point, way up there, is a gull', but I did not perceive that it existed, that the gull was a 'gull-existing'; ordinarily existence conceals itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is ourselves, one cannot say two words without speaking of it, and in the end it is untouched.{1} When I believed that I was thinking it, I must assume that I was thinking nothing; my head was empty, or with barely a word in it, the word 'being'. Or I was thinking then -- how can I put it? -- I was thinking belonging, I said to myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects or that green was one of the qualities of the sea. Even when I was looking at things, I was a hundred miles from dreaming that they existed: they struck me as so much ornamentation. I took them in my hands, they served as instruments for me, I foresaw their resistances. But all this took place on the surface. If someone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered in good faith that it was nothing, barely an empty form which came to be added to things from outside, without changing anything in their nature. And then, behold, all at once, it was there, it was as clear as day: existence had suddenly come to light. It had lost its inoffensive air of an abstract category: it was the very stuff of things, this root was moulded in existence. Or rather, the root, the garden trellis, the bench, the thin grass of the lawn, all that had disappeared; the diversity of things, their individuality, was only an appearance, a gloss. This gloss had melted; there remained monstrous and soft masses in confusion -- naked with a dreadful and obscene nudity."{1}

I have cited this page at length, because of its importance, and because it describes in excellent terms -- just before "crushing the point", as Pascal said, and pushing it to a delirium of the mind -- a primordial intellectual experience. A strangely ambivalent intuition of being, authentic and authentically metaphysical in its basis, and turning immediately to the monstrous, to the intolerable, in disgust even more than in fear, under the lamp of atheism.

Being and Nothingness
4. Then comes another crucial moment in the intellectual history of Eleutherius: the moment of systematization or philosophical crystallization. However the case may be with things and the ontological nausea which they provoke, it is not enough to vomit; it is necessary to think, and to think in a coherent and articulate manner. It is necessary to reflect. To conceptualize his intuition of being and to think the world, Sartre, as a very knowledgeable young intellectual, will have recourse, while making an original use of it adapted to his own purpose, to the best and most modern of what our epoch has produced in the way of ideological equipment: Husserl, Kierkegaard, Heidegger.

Was there in this pompous philosophical elaboration an element of humor, as if, hidden in the wrinkle of an imperceptible smile, the idea of playing at making a system "to see what would happen" had had some part in the adventure? Let us admit that considering the result, such a conjecture does not seem in any way valid. It is difficult not to regard Being and Nothingness as a formidable triumph of the "spirit of seriousness" in the domain of speculative thought.

Sartre may have had, and we think he did, a metaphysical intuition (immediately spoiled); but he is not for all that a metaphysician. (Besides, he holds metaphysics to be out-of-date, and thinks he has something better.) Like many French philosophers, he is above all a moralist. The severe judgment passed on him by Heidegger is explained by the fact that Heidegger himself is a metaphysician.

The idea of establishing an ontology by the phenomenological method, and of discussing being while setting metaphysics aside, was from the beginning doomed to illusion. From the single fact that phenomenology puts the extra-mental real in parentheses, it excludes all ontology -- Husserl himself tended toward a kind of idealism closer to Berkeley than to Hegel. Can one pass beyond phenomenology by plunging into an existential metaphysics of subjectivity? In any case, this is not what Sartre has attempted. Remaining within phenomenology, he claims to attain being there, the "being of the phenomenon" as he says. There we have the original and irremediable equivocation; for if it is a question of that which is beyond the phenomenon and independently of the mind, then we are beyond phenomenology and in a full metaphysical ontology; if on the contrary it is a question of that which the phenomenon is as phenomenon, then we are in phenomenology, but entirely outside of ontology; and if it is a question of that which the phenomenon is as being-in-itself, then we are simply in the absurd. We must agree with Jean Wahl when he refuses any authentically ontological value to the "fundamental concepts on which Being and Nothingness seems founded",{1} and with Benjamin Fondane when he criticizes the philosophy of Sartre for being an abortive hybrid of academic rationalism and truly existential thought.{2}

The Sartrian ontology does not seek metaphysical knowledge. It proposes only to describe, and in no way to explain; this is tantamount to saying that it does not at all propose to know. This ontology which does not know is, by definition, arbitrary. It is not on being that it balances itself, but on the presuppositions and purposes of the thought which constructs it. In order that the so-called description in which it consists can take place, certain principles of orientation are needed, but ones that depend on the options of the philosopher. What principles? On the one hand, the double postulate that God does not exist, and that in making itself its own absolute, human freedom recovers its proper good from God; on the other hand, the intentions of a certain psychology on the analyses of which the ontology in question will model itself, and for which lucidity (the great concern being not to be naive) consists above all in unmasking and laying waste everything in which and by which man seeks to reassure himself: the human mind will truly affirm itself only in unveiling the deception of all that pretends to make it adhere to a good.

Let us say at once that to readers who look here for an ontology properly so-called, a philosophy thus elaborated would have every chance of appearing as a mere logomachy, from the very fact that the language employed by it will refer to being only in passing through disguised or disavowed significations of the psychological order. It will have an ontological bearing and value but a really and surreptitiously psychological sense. So it is that, taking up again the famous Hegelian notion (which has a meaning psychologically and with respect to the contradictions and nostalgias of the human heart, but which has no meaning ontologically speaking) of man who is not what he is and is what he is not, existentialist phenomenology will give to it, as did Hegel himself, an ontological signification, and will cheerfully outdo the language of Hegelian metaphysics, by speaking of a being which consists in nihilating or in bringing lack to the core of that which is -- or of a choice which precedes every essence, of a freedom which is not of man but the very being of man, that is to say, his nothingness of being, etc. All this nevertheless will become almost thinkable once it is understood that one is in reality in a pseudo-ontological or improperly ontological perspective. And at the same stroke one will understand how a philosopher -- above all a post-Hegelian philosopher -- can employ a remarkably brilliant intelligence to create on more than seven hundred pages words which, while holding together in virtue of the copula is, live in the delights of the contradictory and nevertheless convey a kind of meaning. . . .

5. It is known that in Sartrian "ontology", the opposition, classical in post-Cartesian philosophy, between the matter-object (res extensa) and the thought-subject (res cogitans) gives way to the opposition between the in-itself which is only res and the for-itself which is not a thing at all, and in regard to which the principle of identity is invalid.{1} Being is divided between an in itself which is the amorphous and undifferentiated world of the one everywhere identical with itself, of the petrified positivity of things and of their absurd being-there,{2} of "facticity"{3} -- of nausea -- and a for-itself which is nothing else but consciousness and freedom (human consciousness and freedom -- man alone in the world is free), and which, setting itself apart from things and "outside of being",{4} recoiling from them, must be defined as an unconditioned power of nihilation, "a being by which nothingness comes to things"{1} (the power and fecundity of the negative, as Hegel said).

It is by a separation, a not which was not found in the amorphous magma of things, and which it introduces there, that consciousness differentiates them, gives them a meaning, a form, which makes of them a world. It is through the not that things take on a meaning. Consciousness is a decompression of being.{2}

And freedom itself is conceived in terms of nothingness. Man is free, and is man, only through his power of nihilation, of "secreting a nothingness which isolates him",{3} of absenting himself from being-there, of causing himself to be lacking, and thus to be in need of something other than what is. Let it not be said that freedom crowns the plenitude of being! Where there is plenitude there is no freedom. Nothing is more foreigu to Sartre than the idea that freedom is rooted in reason and consists in the mastery of the will over the reasons which determine it. For him, on the contrary, freedom is a Nihilating which hollows itself out by its very self and at the same stroke makes arise in consciousness a project, a polarization of the whole movement of being and of desire toward an end -- and which precedes essence and reason. For my essence is what I have chosen to be, and the very validity for me of this or that line of reasons for acting depends on this choice: pure choice, "absurd", in this sense -- and in this sense only, says Sartre -- "that it is that through which all the foundations and all the reasons come to being, that through which the very notion of the absurd receives a sense. It is absurd as being beyond all reasons."{4}

Thus, far from dominating its act and its object through superabundance of being, freedom is a perpetual escape, a nihilation of being and of its universal contingency, through which I perpetually choose, and without any other reason than my choice itself, to make myself lack, to want this or that, and firstly my last ends: choice (choice-in-the-world -- and revocable, whence my fragility) of myself by myself, the fundamental or global project which I am ("the necessity of perpetually choosing myself is but one with the pursued-pursuing which I am"),{5} and in which are to be integrated my particular projects concerning the realization of such or such particular ends in the world.{6} If man were a plenum, if he were without any lack, like the God of traditional theology, he could not be free.{1} In a general way, it is to the Not, to the power of escaping from being in making nothingness come "to the very womb of being, like a worm",{2} that the privileges of the spirit and of its creativity have passed.

6. Thus then since there are men, men in whom the for-itself forces its way up, it is consciousness itself which, in introducing voids into the obscene contingency and undifferentiation of the in-itself, in tapping with nothingness the formless being of things, gives a sense and a figure to that which faces consciousness. It is freedom itself which, in withdrawing from being in order to project its choices into it, makes values arise in the mass of fundamental meaninglessness in the midst of which freedom acts, and makes of this mass a world. It is "the unique source of value, and the nothingness through which the world exists".{3} In this sense one can say that all the immense structure of given conditions, pressures, resistances and historic obstacles before which freedom finds itself has been the work of freedom itself.{4} The fact remains that my freedom can exercise itself only in confronting these obstacles; in other words it can exercise itself only in a given ensemble, as unique and singular as myself, of circumstances and conditions in which is posed the practical problem which my choice will resolve, and which will receive their meaning from this choice, in short in a given situation. Thus "there is freedom only in situation and there is situation only through freedom. Human-reality everywhere encounters resistances and obstacles which it has not created; but these resistances and obstacles have meaning only in and through the free choice which the human-reality is".{1} And conversely this free choice which the human-reality is takes place only in the midst of the resistances and obstacles which the situation includes. In this the in-itself which the freedom of the for-itself has itself structured, from which it has made a world, takes a kind of revenge on this freedom, by conditioning its exercise.

But there is something infinitely more serious, and which gives to the Sartrian ontology its meaningful import. It is not the exterior obstacle which threatens freedom; it is its own constitutive infirmity, its own internal poverty: through this it is doomed to defeat. Here the being-there of things truly has its revenge.

For if I withdraw from being and nihilate it, it is in the last analysis in order to aspire with my whole being, that is to say with my whole lack, to an absolute identification between consciousness or freedom and effectuated existence or being-there, in other words between the for-itself and the in-itself -- absolute identification which characterizes the divine aseity or self-sufficiency, if only God existed. "Human reality is pure effort to become God"{2} and every desire is an expression of this effort. But God does not exist and cannot exist, and an abysmal cleavage will always separate the in-itself from the for-itself which is Nihilation to surmount contingency.

One can see the consequences of the assertion: "my freedom is choice of being God and all my acts, all my projects, express this choice and reflect it in thousands of ways; for there is an infinity of ways of being and ways of having".{3} This is to say at the same stroke that my freedom, and all my choices, and all my projects not only tend to the impossible but are vitiated and corroded by the lie, the illusion acquiesced in, and bad faith. For they act as if all that they wish to attain and all that through them I happen to attain and possess were, be it inchoatively, the realization of this being God, of this in-itself-for-itself which is "beyond all contingency and all existence"{4} -- the term in which I claim to install myself once I hold some would-be good, and which I employ all imaginable ruses to guarantee and to stabilize, and to invest with a so-called value-in-itself independent of freedom, which is the unique source of every value.

And so if it is true that by his projects man gives himself a meaning and an essence -- no sooner, however, does he realize and supposedly grasp what he has freely projected, than he makes himself a thing and non-free to that very extent, and is caught in the toils of the facticity of the in-itself and of the being-there. And how would he admit to himself that he allowed himself to be thus ensnared and lost by freely betraying his freedom? He is wholly responsible{1} and he does not want to know it. So also the "sincerity" to which a Gide, for example, pretended, and through which I would wish to accept myself as a flower opens its corolla -- as if I were only a thing -- that so-called coincidence with oneself incompatible by definition with the recoil "outside of being" essential to the for-itself -- is only a trap, and a more insidious form of the bad faith "ontologically" inherent in a consciousness which conceals from itself its own freedom in order to escape anguish{2} and which achieves its own freedom only by betraying it.{3} Bad faith, the flight into a being which I am not and which would give me some kind of reason for being, is, according to the phrase of an authorized commentator on Sartre, the very mode of existence of consciousness.{4}

The man of Sartrian existentialism is thus more fundamentally corrupted, more rotten, than the Jansenist man. For original sin has become the very fact of being born, of participating in the being-there of things.{5} All the attainments of man are changed into accursed viscidity, into that "obscene and insipid existence, which" he "is given for nothing".{6} There remains, it is true, what he does attain. He is always running, from failure to failure, after what he does not attain -- like the ass that runs after a carrot which dangles before its eyes from a pole attached to the shaft of the cart{7} and thus only does man remain, in spite of all, free, and a man. He is a useless passion. His death is as vain as his entry into being. "Only musical airs bear proudly their own death in themselves as an internal necessity; yet they do not exist. Every existent is born without reason, endures through weakness, and dies by encounter."{8}

As Mr. Jeanson has justly noted,{1} Being and Nothingness is essentially a statement of failure, the description of the defeat to which man and freedom are irremediably doomed in the conflict which sets them at grips with the world of the unjustifiable, the world of things and of facticity. There is absolutely no hope for man and freedom ever to find in any reality or realization, in anything that is, a true good or a true achievement.

The valuating Decision
7. The ontology of Eleutherius -- let us return for an instant to this fictional personage -- is fundamentally arbitrary, but it is coherent and articulated. Eleutherius now finds himself caught in the trap of philosophical thought and of conceptualization. Impossible to escape from this picture of reality which, though it expresses only a phenomenological description, is for him an ersatz of metaphysics and imposes itself on him with the force of what is held as true. Atheism has now become a primary philosophical position; "Existentialism," Sartre will write,{2} "is nothing other than an effort to draw all the consequences of a coherent atheist position." And in the original atheist perspective henceforth resolutely confirmed, what had first been only a revolt of the subjectivity and a kind of revelation of the vanity of vanities has now become a systematic certitude, which reigns implacably over the intellect, of the ontologically irremediable defeat of the "human-reality".

Well and good! There is no question of dodging this certitude nor of seeking evasions; Eleutherius will not slip away. But he is free to pass beyond, to go farther.

It seems clear that phenomenological ontology has never been conceived by Sartre except as a step in a movement. The moment of ontological description is necessary, but has true interest only by reason of the moral moment, which will come afterwards and to which it is directed.{3}

Here in the genesis of Sartrian existentialism takes place the second profound and decisive experience, which is not an intuition this time but rather a decision, a movement of the will. This act of courage of the spirit is quite in the line of Descartes. In a desperate situation, in the face of a band of murderers, one can still act boldly and draw the sword. All is lost, and we likewise; we are in hell, "hell is others" and hell is to have been born. Well, freedom doomed to defeat and constantly betrayed, freedom my abyss and my creative nothingness, freedom, thou remainest. I know that in proposing to myself no matter what good I deceive myself; but the act of freely proposing to myself whatever it may be, expecting nothing from anything, this act is mine, it is me; by cutting off, not my action, but my heart from the world of things, by refusing to fix in it any particle of hope, by making my whole final purpose flow back into the sole exercise and expansion of my freedom, I can brave the ocean of being-there and the nausea of the unnameable. Existentialist ethics in its original drive is the courage of despair.

What is most significant in Sartrian existentialism, and what gives it its proper dignity for the philosophical intelligence, is thus the intention of a moral order or the moral movement through which "the rotten being pulls itself together", the supreme recourse to freedom through which it does not deny but determines to transcend the ontological defeat described in Being and Nothingness. How can we characterize this drive in its first springing forth? It is a question of being neither "Lâches" (cowards) who conceal their freedom, nor "Salauds" (skunks),{1} established in the bad faith of a clear conscience and of a self-styled justification; the question (we will return to this point in a moment) is to make oneself authentic{2} by a "radical conversion".{3} Although the notion of good and evil has no place in the existentialist philosophical lexicon (in fact it nevertheless uses it on occasion{4} -- and who could do without it?), let us say that the question is to escape from evil (which consists in making us things and in ensnaring us in the lie of a ready-made value and of a so-called justified being-there);{5} the question is to make ourselves truly autonomous, which means, in the system, to derive our rule of conduct at each instant only from that very freedom to which we are condemned (". . . this terrible necessity of being free which is my lot . . ."),{6} but which we assume, will, and recreate ourselves through our free choice, by a kind of reduplication of freedom: a singular atheism which cannot keep itself from counterfeiting a sort of perverted Christianity, and in which not grace but pure freedom wrests us from the perdition into which we are thrown by our birth into the world. There is here, moreover, it seems, an air of kinship with a Kantian morality in which the non-temporal freedom of the pure practical reason would be replaced by the freedom-in-time of the singular subject; and some resemblance also to certain virtualities of the Bergsonian pure becoming, which could have inspired a moral theory but which Bergson himself left aside in his ethics.

8. This primordial moment of recovery of self, or of valuating decision, involves an authentic moral drive, however badly conceptualized it is. The maxim ascribed to William of Orange: "There is no need at all to hope in order to venture, nor to succeed in order to persevere", becomes the axiom in which ethical reality reveals itself.

One can nevertheless ask if the construction of an ethics with this moral drive alone and this recourse to freedom alone is not itself a hopeless enterprise. No one, it is true, can prejudge what the moral treatise of Jean-Paul Sartre will be, if he decides to write it;{1} the thought of a philosopher can always take an unforeseen turn. In the meantime, however, we have the book by Francis Jeanson,{2} to which Sartre has given an explicit approbatur, and which, moreover, restricts itself to the affirmation of the moral drive of which we have just spoken; and the book by Simone de Beauvoir,{3} which risks going farther and giving some firmer precisions concerning existentialist morality. These two works, to which can be added certain indications offered in the lecture L'existentialisme est un humanisme, permit one to gain a sufficiently clear idea of the question.

No nature or essence is presupposed to freedom such as Sartre conceives it.{4}

This freedom is clearly opposed to all determinism,{1} but it is quite another thing from the free choice of the metaphysicians. For, on the one hand, far from proposing to us an analysis of the free act in its relation to its motives or reasons, Sartre disqualifies the voluntary act and regards voluntary deliberation as always faked;{2} and what he sees above all in freedom is the "initial project" or "choice of self" anterior to every reason and absolutely first,{3} as if the notion of an absolutely first choice (without any end already determined and in relation to which it takes place) was not void of meaning.{4} On the other hand, the Sartrian idea of freedom envelops both freedom of independence and freedom of option, and to tell the truth it is nothing else but the freedom of the God of Descartes transferred to man. Just as for Descartes God caused Himself to be Himself and created eternal truths and moral values at the pleasure of His pure will,{5} so Sartre's man will create, at the pleasure of his freedom, meanings and values, and will cause or choose himself. Descartes had simply "given to God what properly belongs to us."{6}

Nevertheless it is not to deify man in the manner of Hegel that Sartre confers on man what in the eyes of Descartes necessarily presupposed infinite perfection. On the contrary, he leaves man, more than. ever, dust. What he discloses to us is a kind of aseity of nothingness.{1}

The paradox is that if Sartre's man recovers from the God of Descartes this freedom cause-of-itself which "properly belongs" to man, and thus assumes a sort of aseity, it is precisely -- if we understand the system well -- by bringing, through this very freedom, when he truly assumes it in choosing it itself, nothingness into that "pure effort to become God"{2} which is human-reality. We encounter here the problem with respect to which the need of future elucidations furnished by Sartre himself becomes most keenly felt, the few indications which he has given on the matter being merely anticipatory and furnishing us mostly with question-marks. We have noted above that there is for him a "radical conversion" by which man shakes off bad faith and renders himself authentic.{3} How is this possible? According to the conjectures which seem to us the best founded, let us say that in this radical conversion which is the free choice of freedom itself, man evidently does not renounce -- this seems excluded by definition -- the effort to be God{4} which all his acts express and which is human-reality. Rather, by a voluntary nihilation in the second degree he withdraws from this effort itself which he is, and becomes distant from it, frees himself of it -- at once through knowledge (the "purifying reflection", no longer "conniving"){5} and through willing: by knowing that such an effort to become God is illusory and the root of the bad faith which inevitably possesses us so long as we have not freely pulled ourselves together -- and by refusing to consent to what ties us to the world, and to will, in everything that we will, anything other, in the last analysis, than our freedom itself.{1}

Then we are farther than ever from an impossible divine in-itself-for-itself in which the in-itself and the for-itself would be identified; but we can reconcile the in-itself and the for-itself, or arrive at their "synthetic fusion",{2} by making the in-itself, in the depths of our act of choice, a pure occasion for the freedom of the for-itself.

It is thus, we believe (with all due reservations) that whereas sincerity, which does not imply any recovery of self by self, remains a prisoner of bad faith,{3} on the contrary authenticity, which is this very recovery of rotten being by itself, permits us to "escape radically from bad faith".{4} In ceasing to be rotten being and in ceasing to have the source of bad faith ever active in us? No, to be sure; but rather in nihilating by a reduplication of freedom this source of bad faith which is so to speak natural to us, and this rotten being which we are -- in other words, in assuming them into the purity of a supreme movement of freedom in which our choice of being God culminates in a choice of being man and nothing but man, without support or prop, absolutely alone and absolutely forsaken, and creating his values by himself alone, responsible without any referee.

If the interpretation here proposed is, as we hope, itself authentic, it helps us to understand why the authenticity of the human subject (be he a criminal or a saint, a homicide, a sadist or a martyr, as far as the acts which he does are concerned) is for Sartrian existentialism the decisive and fundamental value, and indeed the unique criterion of morality.

Existentialist Ethics is a Morality of Ambiguity
9. Existentialist ethics is at once a morality of ambiguity and a morality of situation. It is clear that in the system of Sartre every universal value is rejected. "Nothing is in the intelligible heaven";{5} it is man, that is to say each individual in such or such given circumstances, in such or such a "situation", who by his free choice creates the value of his act. The existentialist school is as radically (although for altogether different reasons) opposed as the positivist school to the notion of natural law.

It is quite true, I note in passing, that in a given situation, where some act (to commit murder, or adultery) appears at once as an act to be done (because I want it) and not to be done (because this would be evil), it is freedom alone which decides: "the act in question is to be done by me", or "it is not to be done by me" (because that is the conduct which in the last analysis I prefer). This is what takes place in fact. Well, the operation to which Sartre proceeds is simply to pass from fact to right. Instead of saying: it is I who freely decide what I do (in agreement or disagreement with what I ought), it will be necessary henceforth to say: it is I who freely decide what I ought; it will be as good, as morally required, to commit this murder or adultery as not to commit it, since it is in creating this I ought by a truly free choice -- in which is truly expressed my first choice of my "fundamental project", or of myself -- that I thus take my risks. Ambiguity in sense No. 1, the ambiguity (ad utrumlibet) of the conduct on which I have to decide by my act of election, has become the ambiguity of the moral value itself or of the I ought on which I decide or which I "create" by my free choice.

There is no longer any law, everything is permitted. "If God does not exist, everything is permitted."{1} Everything is permitted to me, on condition that I permit it to myself by assuming deeply enough my responsibilities, through a choice in which I tear myself sufficiently away from myself to assume freely the freedom by which I choose myself. Such is the meaning of what we here call ambiguity No. 1.

"In this sense," a disciple of Sartre writes, "the unique moral recommendation of existentialism, a simple transposition of its description of the human, might be 'to live with the rending of conscience'."{2} So be it as to the rending! a rent conscience is worth more than a falsely assured conscience. It is nevertheless permissible to think that this recommendation does not lead very far in the order of practical discernment; and even that, in excluding from the field of the genuinely moral life the higher peace which the world cannot give, it shamelessly contradicts the moral experience of humanity; neither Francis of Assisi nor Benedict Labre had a rent conscience when they chose poverty.

In the existentialist ethics all the values are therefore relativized -- save that which freedom gives to itself when it takes itself for supreme end. Totally suspended to freedom as end,{3} this ethics is an ethics of finality. And it is an ethics of salvation.{4} In saving itself, my freedom saves me, removes me from the hell of facticity and of bad faith.

10. This salvation is, moreover, in no way an evasion of the world. The world is bad, but it is necessary to throw oneself into it. Freedom, being the power of hollowing out the nothingness in being, can exercise itself only by throwing itself into the being-there, only by putting itself "in situation".

But if freedom can save itself, and save me, it is on condition that it will nothing in the world as a good apart from that very freedom, and involving any objective value or value given in itself. It is on condition that freedom will what it wills only as retracted or reabsorbed into itself, having value only through the choice itself, new, unforeseeable, never fixed, which freedom makes of it at each instant. What matters then the ontological defeat, the falsehood of realization? Freedom knows it, it accepts it.{1} It is the devil's due. In virtue of the "purifying reflection", and no longer "conniving reflection",{2} freedom passes beyond. Then even when it inevitably incurs the stain of ensnarement in things, it keeps itself free and renews its youth by traversing this very stain, it makes its salvation and mine from defeat to defeat.{3}

From this point on, and in relation to freedom, one must no longer say that the world of things and of being-there is absurd; one must say that it is ambiguous. For it has neither meaning nor value, this remains true; but at the same time man, by and in his action, unceasingly gives it meanings and values which depend only on his free choice. That is ambiguity No. 2, ambiguity of the being in the midst of which freedom and moral conduct are exercised, and ambiguity of the existence of man as moral agent.{4} The very word existence, in this moral perspective, takes on a new signification, proper to the freedom reduplicated in the moral drive, to the freedom chosen, to the freedom which saves.{5} According to this new signification, it is necessary to say that what is simply, does not exist truly. To exist is to set oneself apart from being, to make oneself lack, and this by the choice of freedom; in other words, it is freely to assume freedom, and at the same time to create values and meanings, and therefore to unveil being and to reestablish being, doubtless with the ready-made and the unnameable in which being is inevitably ensnared and in which I am inevitably ensnared, but from which at the same time I deliver myself, in the measure that I keep myself free, free from that very thing which I create. Hence the formula of Sartre to which Madame de Beauvoir attaches a central importance: "Man makes himself lack, so that there may be being."{1}

Thus, as in the theology of Luther, man is at once irremediably bad and saved.{2} To be morally pure, it would be necessary that he be pure freedom, which is by definition impossible. He is rotten insofar as he is, but in the very midst of facticity, freedom saves him, makes him exist truly. Such is the import of what we have called ambiguity No. 2.

11. Historians have noted{3} that Sartre's personal experience, during the years in which he participated in the effort of the Resistance in occupied France, played a decisive role in the elaboration of his philosophical thought. In fact, it was just at the time that he was becoming aware of the importance of political activity that Sartre, in the movement of supreme recourse to freedom which we have pointed out, also became definitely aware of the primacy of the moral in his own thought, and of the necessity of insisting on his thought's ethical implications. It was in the perspective of politics that the other was revealed to him no longer as merely the witness in which subjectivity desperately seeks, and in pure loss, a justification of itself, but as another subjectivity which my own freedom recognizes and respects from the moment that this very freedom has been assumed by me as the foundation of my moral life; it was in politics that Sartre discovered the moral importance of the other. Thus at the same stroke we find brought back into play a certain number of classical moral concepts such as that of the dignity of the human person{4} and his character of end in itself, or the duties which bind us toward the other as individual person and freedom, and toward mankind in which each participates and to which each is responsible. And thus at the same stroke a certain number of criteria of conduct are laid down.

Here appears a new kind of ambiguity, to which the theorists of the morality of ambiguity scarcely seem to want to draw our attention. For from the moment that they elaborate a morality it is indeed necessary for them to deal with the criteria of conduct which I just mentioned. Thus therefore everything is permitted since there is no God, everything is permitted but something is forbidden{5} -- any conduct by which freedom, once it has chosen itself as supreme value, would be betrayed. Ambiguity No. 3, ambiguity of the system itself. The criteria of conduct in question remain, it must be added, large enough so that outside of the domain of what is forbidden, "everything" (that is to say, opposite conducts) is still permitted.

The fact remains that, after having begun with the grand atheist defiance of every law, and after having affirmed the radical opposition between the brute and unformed positivity of the in-itself and the freedom of the for-itself -- with its corollary: the bad faith inherent in that for-itself prisoner of the in-itself which is man -- one is forced in the end to show a way in which, thanks to the purifying reflection, man will be able to escape from bad faith, and, once he has renounced the illusion of "transcendent" values supposedly inscribed in things, and of foreordained ends, will be able -- by an incessant effort of auto-creation in which freedom "will become aware of itself and will discover itself in anguish as the unique source of value"{1} -- to make himself authentic and give himself for end "the synthetic fusion of the in-itself with the for-itself".{2} Why, moreover, is the author of L'existentialisme est un humanisme so anxious to justify himself before so many "salauds" who believe in objective values, be they Communists or Christians?

Well, all will no doubt end less badly than one might think; and we may hope that one day, through some notional recastings and some dialectical turns, the master or one of his disciples will find himself entrusted with delivering the addresses at the French Academy honoring those who have been awarded prizes for virtue.

12. But it is to the original symbiosis, in existentialist thought, between ethics and politics that I wish to return for a moment. This symbiosis has for its effect a curious exteriorization of ethics, and a transposition of political categories into moral categories. Thus, for example, the notion of engagement -- of engagement in political activity and a perpetual taking of sides -- which has the air of an imitation of the Marxist praxis, is in reality only the expression of a certain moralism. For engaging oneself in political action is synonymous with throwing oneself into the world, and it is in throwing himself into the world that man "makes himself" really "lack so that there may be being".

Thus again, the whole moral effort of man seems finally to identify itself with the revolutionary effort of social and political emancipation,{1} itself conceived in such a way that the Hegelian dialectic of the master and slave, which has become in the hands of one of the most appreciated existentialist authors an astonishingly naive sentimental cliche, will demand throughout the length of history that the moral man take a stand against the same puppetshow "tyrant" bobbing up at every cross-roads.{2} Here again it was natural that existentialism should encounter Marxism so as at once to compete with it and to cling to it. But in such a competition, the faith of Marxism in the objectivity of the dialectical laws of history and in the primacy of the social over the moral was easily to gain the upper hand over the vain attempt to suspend a revolution of the Marxist type to an ethics of freedom, and to the exigencies of a moral conscience whose compass is no longer allowed any pole.

The exteriorization of ethics into politics which I just mentioned can contribute in a certain measure to explain how a philosophy which seemed worried by the fundamental anguish of being-for-nothing, and, thus, destined to a certain greatness, emerges into a kind of pedantic atheism, resourceful and euphoric.{3} This philosophy even encourages us, with all the seriousness of a prison-doctor who pats a condemned man on the back on his way to the electric chair, to the "joy of existence";{4} and it teaches us to juggle away the reality of death in the manner of Epicurus -- "death escaping my projects because it is unrealizable" and being foreign "to the ontological structure of the for-itself".{5}

At least Epicurus had enough wit to propose to us at the same time a morality of pleasure, and, when he made death "the moment of life which we never have to live",{1} he truly believed in the subtle atoms of the soul without practising the phenomenological placing of reality in parentheses.

Briefly, except for the movement of courage from which emanates its first decision to save itself despite all by freedom, Sartrian existentialism is so poor in authentic spiritual experience and in interiority that the great problems and decisive tests on which depend the destiny of the person are mentioned by it only to be quickly juggled away. The moral concern there turns most often to the political one. And, more generally, if conscience, my conscience, is there interrogated, it is above all, in actual fact, with respect to the conduct of the other (how to judge it, how to act or not to act on it, to combat it or to cooperate with it, etc., given the respect which I owe to the free project of the other).{2}

And a Morality of Situation
13. In the absence of every objectively founded value, and of every precept of a universal moral law -- now that there is no longer "anyone to give me orders"{3} -- it pertains to each singular subject to create or to invent in each case the values which orient his conduct,{4} in relation to those primordial ends, themselves freely chosen, which are the freedom and the liberation of Man. And to be sure it has elsewhere been affirmed that every voluntary deliberation is faked, and that our particular choices are only reassertions of our fundamental free project (through which we have chosen ourselves antecedently to all reason) -- reassertions which are freely adjusted to particular situations. The fact remains nevertheless that the particular choices in question cannot take place without a conscientious examination of the situation, in which, if the mind does not deliberate so as to fasten on such or such a reason which in the very act of choice the freedom of the will has made decisive, at least it sufficiently discusses, debates, grinds and fluidifies the elements of the situation so that the fundamental free project emerges without shackles from its original abyss, under a new form flexibly articulated with the particularities of the situation.{5}

Such a process of elaboration of values and rules of action connected with values is by nature -- since there is no moral norm absolutely valid in itself -- a dialectical process (in the classical sense of this word). It pertains to opinion and the contingency of opinion, like the process by which, in the Resistance, a clandestine group decided on the path to follow in such or such a given occurrence; deliberation in the current accepted meaning of the word, and although it is refused the characteristics of moral deliberation in the philosophical sense.

Moral judgments in the ethics of the situation thus result from a discussion of points of conscience which lacks every absolute criterion of determination, and in which are examined the aspects according to which certain possible conducts appear more or less appropriate to the end (freedom or liberation) which remains transcendent in regard to them. It is clear that such a discussion or "deliberation" (which to tell the truth is distinguished from "voluntary deliberation" intending to base an act of choice on reason, only insofar as it is a rational conversation preparing a choice which is irrational in its root) can go on to infinity, like every deliberation in which by hypothesis an unconditioned value or norm would never intervene. This is doubtless why the existentialist authors and their friends never stop "arguing about the game", while a self-assured pedantry untiringly sustains their anxious casuistry. If nevertheless the discussion terminates at a certain solution, this will never be anything but an opinion which itself presupposes no objectively certain principle of determination. But such a pure probabilism is clearly untenable; even when it remains in doubt or anguish as to the value of a certain conduct, conscience can decide to act only in virtue of some certitude -- either the certitude of a singular and incommunicable view which traverses the doubt without dissipating it, or the certitude of a reflex principle which dominates the doubt from outside. Since the morality of situation excludes all certitude of this kind, it has to replace it by another kind of certitude, the "absurd" certitude of the "fundamental project" which freely gushes up antecedently to all reason, and whose sudden emergence is only expressed and let pass by the solution of pure opinion which we spoke of above.

Finally, since every universal precept is looked upon as a "ready-made rule" and is excluded for this very reason, it is, as we have already seen, up to each man to invent, in terms of the singular situation in which he is placed, the singular value and the singular precept of his singular conduct. But in the absence of every universal precept it is clear that according to the diversity of situations anything whatever will be able legitimately (that is to say, without lacking in authenticity or in freedom) to be regarded by one or another as morally required.{1} There we are come back to the "everything is permitted" and to "the unique moral recommendation of living with the rending of conscience discussed above. What interests us here in these two assertions is the way in which through them the ethics of situation avows, or proclaims, that there is no ethics at all. What is an ethics, in fact, but a knowledge directive of human acts? Now it is essential to the ethics of situation not to be directive of action. In this it differs from the "class ethics" of the Marxists, although it can appear, in other respects, as a kind of anarchical plagiarism of it.

That every moral decision concerns an individual "in situation" with respect to concrete singular circumstances, and poses for him a unique problem whose solution he has to discover himself, is a very old truth on which the Thomists unceasingly insist in their theory of prudentia, or virtue of practical discernment, which is by no right a science because it has to do with the singular and contingent, and which nevertheless makes judgments possessed of truth and certainty per conformitatem ad appetitum rectum. But man has need of the indispensable instrumentality of prudentia to apply the universal law and the unconditional precept to particular cases. Without the universal law and the unconditional precept, prudentia would drift without ever coming to a term.

The morality of situation ignores prudentia as it does the universal law. Curiously enough, it replaces prudentia by casuistry, and it asks casuistry (but as an escape-valve through which the "fundamental free project" emerges) to invent the precept itself. In the eyes of this morality the question for Abraham{1} was not to obey the particular precept of God against a universal law. It was to prescribe to himself or not to prescribe to himself the immolation of Isaac, by virtue solely of his first choice of himself, and by showing himself authentically faithful to his fundamental free project after having dialectically gone over the "situation".

The preceding discussion has shown us that existentialist ethics, as it results from the principles enunciated by Sartre and his school, is incapable of going farther than the first act of valuating decision, the original moral drive through which it demands salvation of freedom. It exhausts itself in testing the reality of this drive in the diverse situations which history causes to arise, without arriving at anything other than an endless possibility of casuistic controversy and words. It has a very lively sense of freedom and of responsibility, but one that works in a void.

The fact remains that, in Kierkegaard's wake, Sartrian existentialism has recognized anew this primary datum of moral philosophy: the freedom of the singular-in-the-world, of the individual-in-time, at once against Kant and (above all) against Hegel, Comte and Marx. At the same stroke it has brought out -- but without seeing that the point is to apply universal and objectively certain values and norms to singular cases always different one from another -- the right feeling of the uniqueness of every authentic moral decision.

1 Cf. J.-P. Sartre, L'existentialisme est un humanisme, pp. 29-31; Simone de Beauvoir, Pour une moral de l'ambiguïté, p. 186.

Moreover: in insisting on the importance of the moral conversions which Sartre mentions in Being and Nothingness,{1} and above all of the conversion (more radical, we are told){2} on which depends "this particular type of project which has freedom for foundation and end",{3} Sartrian existentialism has drawn attention to a fact which few philosophers have studied, and to that truth well known among theologians{4} that the destiny of each human person depends on a fundamental option or on a first act of freedom{5} which he accomplishes apart from the world, and wherein without anything here below on which to base himself he takes charge of himself by a radical choice (which bears in reality on the good in which he makes his ultimate Good consist).

In all this, and despite the basic errors from which it suffers, Sartrian existentialism can contribute to a certain righting of the moral philosophy which the modern world has inherited from Kant and his successors. And its very defeat on the plane of ethics can be, if they understand the reasons, instructive for our contemporaries.

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