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Existentialism and Christian humanism: Josef Pieper's critque of Sartre revisited.

More than perhaps any other Thomistic philosopher of his generation, Josef Pieper (1904-1997) attempted to understand and engage (rather than caricature and evade) the early philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, especially Sartre's famous definition of existentialism as the "belief that existence precedes essence." (1) Indeed, Pieper seems to have considered Sartre's denial of any human nature that might serve as a "natural" limit on our freedom to be the supreme expression not merely of existentialism but of modernity itself. He returned repeatedly in his writings to Sartre's denial of human nature, eventually dedicating an entire essay, "Creatureliness and Human Nature: Reflections on the Philosophical Method of Jean-Paul Sartre," (2) to an examination of and reflection upon its (not entirely negative) significance for Christian philosophy. While Pieper's analysis is based primarily on the famous 1945 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism, which Sartre himself later dismissed as overly popular and simplistic, Pieper's essay itself is a surprisingly insightful and even-handed attempt to comprehend and critique Sartre's early thought from a Catholic and Thomistic perspective.

In this article, I will examine Pieper's essay and its enduring value for understanding Sartre. First, I will briefly examine and defend his analysis of and disagreement with Sartre's claim that "existence precedes essence," showing how--despite his severely limited textual basis--Pieper correctly identifies and engages the heart of Sartre's early philosophy. Next, I will explore Pieper's argument that Sartre, by connecting the existence of natures to that of a creating God, has not only grounded his philosophy deeply within the classical and Christian philosophical tradition, but also provided an opportunity for Christians to rethink and deepen the notion of creation. Finally, I will turn to Pieper's efforts to draw out some of the more radical implications of Sartre's existentialism for our knowledge of the world, implications which Pieper recognized more clearly than many of Sartre's own followers. Despite his disagreement, Pieper expresses these consequences of Sartre's existentialism eloquently and offers them as a fundamental challenge to anyone who would defend Sartre's project. In conclusion, I argue that Pieper's critique, while hardly complete or conclusive, represents a serious effort by a Christian philosopher to comprehend and philosophically engage in good faith what Sartre called "all the consequences of a coherent atheistic position." As such, his critical engagement with and assessment of Sartre's philosophy deserves closer attention than it has yet received among either Sartrean or Christian philosophers.

I. Pieper and the Early Sartre

At first glance, Josef Pieper seems a most unlikely candidate for serious dialogue with Sartre's early philosophy. A devout Catholic, German by birth, Thomist by training and inclination, and shockingly apolitical (at least by Sartrean standards), Pieper would seem to have little in common with Sartre. Their disparate responses to reading Heidegger's Being and Time illustrate the differences in both personality and worldview between them. While Sartre's ultimate answer to Heidegger was the atheistic existentialism of Being and Nothingness, Pieper's reply (a decade earlier) was his small book on the theological virtue of hope. (3) That Pieper would respond thus should not surprise us, though. In marked contrast to Sartre, he embraced the classical and Christian metaphysical tradition from Plato to Aquinas, with all its theological and anthropological assumptions, drawing upon it to engage, critique, and challenge from a Catholic perspective the dominant philosophical movements of the mid-twentieth century.

For our purposes, what is most interesting about Pieper's critical engagement with modernity is his choice of Sartre as perhaps the supreme representative of existentialism, under whose mantle he claimed in 1957 that "the most vital and genuine philosophical thinking is being carried on today." (4) Across several decades and many works, Sartre constantly reappears in Pieper's writing, more often than perhaps any other modern philosopher. And, just as significantly, Sartre is consistently presented not as a straw man but rather as a dialogue partner through whom Pieper hopes to comprehend and provide a way out of what he saw as the dead end of modern philosophy. He speaks admiringly of "the perplexing existential relevance of Sartre's philosophizing," (5) and acknowledges ungrudgingly that "Sartre's thought possesses ... that immediate existential relevance which will always be the distinguishing mark of an earnestly lived philosophizing." (6)

Admittedly, Pieper's direct knowledge of Sartre's early philosophy was, textually speaking, quite thin. The dominant source by far for his dialogue with Sartre is the lecture Existentialism is a Humanism, supplemented occasionally by reference to Nausea, No Exit and other literary works. In addition, Pieper draws from popular accounts (some of which are nevertheless quite excellent) of Sartre's thought, including those by Liselotte Richter, (7) J. M. Bochenski, (8) and Max Muller. (9) There is no evidence, even in his essay devoted exclusively to Sartre, that Pieper ever worked his way through Being and Nothingness (though this hardly sets him apart from most of Sartre's critics or many of his admirers), and he never shows any interest in Sartre's philosophical development after the late 1940s.

Pieper's heavy reliance on the "Existentialism" lecture may raise eyebrows (or cause eye-rolling) among many scholars, since it is not and was never intended to be an introduction to or substitute for Being and Nothingness--even to describe it as "a measured and concise summary of the 'highlights'" (10) of Sartre's magnum opus is overly generous. However, Pieper's decision to rely upon it in his analysis of Sartre is made in full awareness of the limitations of this text. He writes, "Although it has been said of the lecture--by historians of philosophy, primarily--that it is actually too journalistic and too superficial to be taken seriously, I would argue, conversely, that this nonacademic, spontaneous, and unrehearsed attempt at self-interpretation is much more interesting and even more instructive than a heavily fortified treatise that comes replete with technical jargon and a conceptual apparatus." (11) For better or worse, Pieper is not interested in a reconstruction of Sartre's phenomenological method or a debate over the finer points of textual analysis. These scholarly tasks, however important and essential in their proper place, are no substitute for a direct philosophical engagement with the radical challenge Sartre presents to the Western philosophical tradition. (12) It is this level of engagement with Sartrean existentialism that Pieper seeks and (in my opinion) finds.

In his essay on Sartre published in 1974, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," Pieper defines existentialism using one of Sartre's most popular (indeed, vulgar, and cliched) expressions: "Existential philosophy is above all a philosophy that asserts that existence precedes essence." Pieper immediately recognizes this formula's roots in the classical metaphysical tradition:
   By "essence," Sartre understands an enduring juxtaposition of
   attributes, a "community" of specific qualities, "the ensemble of
   ... the properties which enable it to be ... defined." This does
   not, in fact, sound that much different from ... Aquinas' Summa
   theologica.... And what about the meaning of the word "existence"?
   Sartre's answer is that it corresponds to actual presence in the
   world, to "presence ... in front of me." Again the term is being
   defined in a way that is thoroughly traditional and, for that
   matter, extremely plausible. (13)

However, Pieper warns, Sartre's willingness to philosophize out of the tradition should not be mistaken for an acceptance of it, since "the way in which Sartre relates the two concepts, 'essence' and 'existence,' to each other [reveals] his avowed intention not only to oppose the traditional worldview but to transform it into its opposite." (14) To expose the full radicality of Sartre's project, Pieper provides a careful analysis of Sartre's famous--and philosophically problematic--"paper knife" example from Existentialism is a Humanism, in which Sartre writes:
   If we consider a manufactured object, such as a book or paper
   knife, we know that this object was produced by a craftsman who
   drew his inspiration from a concept: he referred both to the
   concept of what a paper knife is, and to a known production
   technique that is a part of that concept and is, by and large, a
   formula.... We cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper
   knife without knowing what purpose it would serve. Let us say,
   therefore, that the essence of the paper knife--that is, the sum of
   formulae and properties that enable it to be produced and
   defined--precedes its essence. (15)

In an analogous manner, Sartre argues, "When we think of God the Creator, we usually conceive of him as a superlative artisan.... When God creates he knows exactly what he is creating. Thus the concept of man, in the mind of God, is comparable to the concept of the paper knife in the mind of the manufacturer.... Thus, each individual man is the realization of a certain concept in the divine intelligence." (16)

As Pieper correctly notes in his analysis, in this example "Sartre refers to the vision technique du monde, with which he associates the view that God created man and the world, and ... [which] implies that essence precedes existence." (17) To Pieper's credit, and despite elsewhere describing Sartre's interpretation of creation as "grotesquely incorrect," (18) he does not try to evade Sartre's challenge to traditional metaphysics by scholastic or logical hairsplitting over whether the human designer of a paper knife is truly analogous to God as Creator or whether Sartre is logically entitled to claim that essence is posterior to (rather than simply simultaneous with) existence. (19) Countless other, far less interesting Christian critics have taken this approach, and thereby claimed victory over Sartre without having to seriously consider his larger point at all.

Instead, Pieper writes, "What primarily interests us is how Sartre himself constructs the significance of his problematic inference and interprets it." (20) And in this passage, Pieper argues,
   Sartre is using what he calls "the technical view of the world"
   merely as a contrasting foil, against which he intends to highlight
   his own thesis and clarify it. His own thesis, which he is alone
   concerned to prove, runs as follows: From the fact that man has no
   essence and whatness designed and conceived in advance that could
   have been invented and then imparted to him by a divine
   manufacturer, it may be inferred that in the case of man, existence
   precedes essence. (21)

In other words, Pieper argues, Sartre's "paper knife" example is intended not to disprove the existence of either human nature or God--as Sartre himself admits, "existentialism is not so much an atheism in the sense that it would exhaust itself attempting to demonstrate the non-existence of God" (22)--but to reveal the necessary connection between these two concepts. In the final analysis, Sartre (like Pieper, as we shall see) believes that God and human nature are like love and marriage: you can't have one without the other.

Having sketched out these twin pillars of Sartre's philosophy, namely, his denial of God and natures, Pieper then shows how they jointly entail the central and controlling idea of his philosophy, namely, a belief in the absolute freedom of man, freedom even from the constraints that would be imposed by one's own nature: "To the inevitable follow-up question, 'What, then, is man if there really is no human nature?' Sartre gives a thoroughly consistent response: 'At first, he is nothing.' And later? Later, he 'is nothing else but what he makes himself.' Man invents and makes himself without the benefit of any pregiven design. This is precisely what Sartre means by freedom in his terminology." (23) Or, as Pieper describes the situation elsewhere, "Since there is for Sartre no human nature and human beings have no pre-established purpose or meaning, they possess no way to orient themselves toward any kind of 'sign' or any obligation or commitment, however formed." (24) Without a nature to define the manner, mode, and telos of our being, we are, inevitably, thrown back entirely upon ourselves when deciding how to live our lives--condemned, as Sartre would say, to be free. (25)

Admirably, Pieper confesses his respect, if not for Sartre's vision of the world, then at least for the rigor, consistency, and courage with which he developed it as a philosopher. In his book The Concept of Sin Pieper writes:
   One cannot help but draw a certain comfort from noticing how
   Sartre's "existentialism" approaches just this kind of sharper
   radicality, which claims that there simply is no such thing as
   human nature, since no personal being preceded the evolution of
   man; no prior being designed him or intended him to be something
   definite. On its own terms and inside Sartre's presupposed
   worldview, the assertion is unimpeachable. It clearly expresses the
   fundamentals of godless existence far more clearly than a
   conventional, soothing philosophy that contents itself with holding
   back from pursuing conclusions to their last consequence. (26)

Indeed, Pieper's repeated engagement over several decades with Sartre's early philosophy is itself a testimony to the seriousness and respect he accorded it. Despite the textual limitations under which his account labors, as well as the popular format that his essay on Sartre adopts, Pieper manages to accurately and succinctly capture the (dare I say?) essence of Sartre's early philosophy in its full radicality, namely, its denial of God and human nature in a pursuit of absolute human freedom and responsibility. But what value does Pieper think it holds for the classical and Christian philosophical tradition?

II. Creation and Essence in Pieper and Sartre

As I have already suggested, few Catholic philosophers of Pieper's generation ever rose above the level of misunderstanding Sartre's philosophy before rejecting it in favor of one or another school within the tradition. Existentialism in general, and Sartre's atheistic version of it in particular, were widely seen as errors to be refuted, not ideas to be encountered. In stark contrast to this attitude of refusal, Pieper's writings provide "an interpretation of the tradition in dialogue with contemporary thought." (27) This goal of dialogue in the Socratic sense, of refining and rethinking one's own position through a serious engagement with the ideas of another, allows Pieper to revisit some of the most fundamental concepts of the Christian and classical traditions in light of Sartre's philosophy.

In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre pointedly distinguished his position from that of "Eighteenth-century atheistic philosophers [who] suppressed the idea of God, but not, for all that, the idea that essence precedes existence." (28) In Pieper's opinion, "Sartre rightly polemicizes against those philosophers ... who refused to go on speaking of God and who even openly denied the creation of man and all beings while continuing to refer to the 'nature' of man and the 'essence' of those beings as if nothing had changed." (29) What these philosophers had forgotten, but what Sartre never lost sight of in his philosophy, is "the implicit connection between the concept of a 'design,' a pattern, a model, or, as Meister Eckhart called it, a 'prior image,' on the one hand, and the concept of a nature, an essence, or a whatness, on the other." (30) And if the idea of essence is indeed inseparable from that of design, Pieper continues, "Sartre's thesis is correct: Where there is no design (and hence no designer), there is also no essence or nature." (31)

Ironically, Pieper points out, the connection between essence and creation is rooted in the very same classical and Christian metaphysical tradition that Sartre is struggling to overcome, a struggle that marked much of his early philosophical work. According to John Duncan, Simone de Beauvoir "also suggests that Sartre's early attempts to write about [metaphysics] were stunted by his inability to step out of overly classical forms of expression, and there is some truth in this." (32) Pieper recognizes this commonality, writing that:
   In criticizing the philosophical atheism of the eighteenth century
   Sartre shows that he is in full agreement with the old doctrine of
   Being. It betrays, he declares, a sad lack of clear and logical
   thinking, when the concept of creation is abandoned but not the
   habit of talking about the "nature of things," as though on that
   point nothing had changed. It is superficial, unreasonable, and
   even absurd to maintain that there is a "nature" of things,
   anterior to existence, unless one holds at the same time that
   things are creatures. (33)

Indeed, precisely because of its centrality to the "old doctrine of Being," Pieper argues that "this fundamental conviction [about the connection between essence and creation] is shared by both Jean-Paul Sartre and Saint Thomas Aquinas ... [who writes in the Summa theologiae, Pars I, q. 93, a. 6, that] 'the fact that a creature subsists according to a certain standard and certain limits indicates that it comes from some source.' Might not one also express it this way: There is no human nature unless there is a Creator who could have designed it (or, rather, actually designed it)?" (34)

Nor is this rather unexpected agreement accidental or incidental to the philosophies of either man. Pieper writes elsewhere (betraying his scholastic roots): "If one were to compare the thought of Sartre and St. Thomas and reduce both to syllogistic form, one would realize that both start with the same 'major premise', namely this principle: things have an essential nature only in so far as they are fashioned by thought." (35) This agreement between two thinkers as radically different as Sartre and Aquinas on such a basic metaphysical principle is certainly worthy of notice and deeper reflection than it is usually given either by critics or partisans of either man. In fact, Pieper believes, it serves as an occasion "to rethink certain funda mental concepts in our own tradition, [namely ...] the relationship between the concept of 'creatureliness' and the concept of 'nature', and, more specifically ... the question of whether 'by nature' must always and necessarily be synonymous with 'by virtue of creation' or 'on the basis of creation.'" (36)

This connection between creation and essence was certainly forgotten by those eighteenth-century philosophers from whom Sartre was so eager to distance himself and whom he dismissed with the laconic observation: "Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more consistent." (37) Moreover, Pieper laments, this forgetfulness is if anything even more widespread in the twentieth century, even (or especially) within twentieth-century Christian theology, where "there is a tendency, a trend, to believe that being a Christian means nothing more than to be open to the future ... or to believe that the whole of Christian theology amounts to nothing more than eschatology and that hope is the only Christian virtue." (38) Pieper also complains in 1974 that one finds among both Christians and Marxists, especially those influenced by Ernst Bloch, "a real commonality, namely, the more or less explicit disinterest in what man is 'by virtue of creation,'" (39) and he finds it "a discomforting thought that atheism and supernaturalism are able to come together in a common conclusion at all. And this in itself could--and, perhaps, should--be impetus enough to rethink the concept of 'nature' (particularly, the nature of man) and that of creatureliness." (40)

In Pieper's opinion, Sartre's philosophy has the unique ability to assist us in this task: "Sartre's radical negation of the idea of creation ... [has] suddenly made evident how and to what extent the doctrine of creation is the concealed but basic foundation of classical Western metaphysics" (41) stretching back beyond Aquinas to Plato. Thus, by a dialogic engagement of Sartre and the tradition, the meaning of the tradition itself can be clarified:
   In Plato's metaphor, philosophizing amounts to being on the hunt
   for the "Idea of Being." Insofar as Jean-Paul Sartre has recently
   attacked the Platonic world view in an extremely radical and, in
   its radicalism, revealing manner, we have, somewhat unexpectedly,
   been given the opportunity to bring the general contours of that
   world view into sharper relief. Sartre's existentialism consists,
   by his own definition, in the following: No design precedes or
   informs natural beings, least of all man; and since there is no
   design, no "prior image," there is also no point in speaking of the
   nature or essence of man ... because the God who could have
   conceived this design does not exist! In pursuing this contrast, it
   becomes possible to penetrate more deeply into the innermost
   meaning of the Platonic worldview. (42)

And while Pieper realizes that "Plato did not entertain the thought of creation in the strict sense," he did "consistently [assign] the archetype of things--'ideas'--to the realm of the divine," (43) thus implicitly rooting ideas or essences in an idea of creation that the Christian tradition would later make explicit.

Once made explicit by the Christian philosophical tradition, however, the centrality of the belief in creation to the entire metaphysical worldview of the West quickly becomes clear:
   The conviction that the universe has been created cannot [be
   reduced to] ... an abstract tenet carried around in the head. We
   cannot just file it away in a "philosophical-religious" pigeonhole.
   Once it has been thought through to the end, consistently and
   vitally, it inevitably affects our entire sense of being. For it
   then follows that all of reality (things, man, we ourselves)
   presents itself to us as something creatively conceived, something
   designed, hence something that had a distinct purpose from the
   start (an idea that, as is well known, Jean-Paul Sartre
   passionately repudiated). (44)

Indeed, Pieper insists, to abandon the idea of creation is to jettison much more than a merely theological affirmation about the existence or non-existence of God. Rather, it is to call into question the very possibility of philosophy as it has heretofore been understood in the West:
   One should not deceive oneself, however: the straightforward denial
   of the createdness of the world also has unforeseeable consequences
   for the philosophical understanding of the world that are perhaps
   truly "realized" only in stages. With this denial, one distances
   oneself not only from the holy tradition of Christianity but also
   from the Greek world view, which means also from those origins that
   inevitably shape one's own thinking, in terms of both its
   problematic and its terminology. (45)

In the next and final section of this paper, I will turn to these "unforeseeable consequences" and their significance for any attempt at a serious assessment of Sartre's "attempt to draw all of the conclusions from a consistently atheistic point of view." (46)

III. Creation, Contingency, and Cognition in Sartre's Philosophy

In Existentialism is a Humanism, when discussing why his existentialism does not "exhaust itself attempting to demonstrate the nonexistence of God," Sartre gives the surprising (and, one must admit, only half-serious) explanation that, "even if God were to exist, it would make no difference" (47) since we would still have no external authority to absolve us of responsibility for our choices. In contrast, Pieper argues that "it makes an enormous difference ... whether or not one accepts the traditum of the created character of the world and mankind. Only someone who accepts it, who understands mankind essentially as something designed, can stand up against Jean-Paul Sartre's thesis, which is equally derived from a dogma, has very serious consequences, and is by no means purely abstract." (48) The most serious of these consequences, Pieper insists, is the impossibility of coming to any knowledge of the world once the belief in a creative design behind it is abandoned, since "it is certainly impossible to deny consistently that things were thought out by a creative, designing spirit and--as if this had no consequences--to continue to find comprehensible and meaningful the notion that the intelligibility of these very same things is an empirical fact." (49) Even more than its ethical subjectivism, it is this (for lack of a better phrase) epistemological nihilism at the heart of Sartre's philosophy that Pieper sets out to challenge in his essay.

In many ways, the goal of Pieper's dialogue with modernity was always to preserve that classical metaphysical realism about the world and our knowledge of it, of which Aquinas was perhaps the greatest Christian exponent. (50) Pieper's insistence on the reality of a God who created the world with essences known beforehand by the divine mind, far from being a perfunctory repetition of Catholic dogma, is in fact the assertion of a fundamental philosophical principle upon which any possibility of knowledge (human or divine) rests. He writes: "The proposition ... 'omne ens est verum ... asserts nothing other than that everything that possesses being is by nature, that is, by virtue of its being real, at the same time intelligible.... The reason why things are intelligible ... is that everything that is emerges from the creatively designing knowledge of God and consequently possesses ... the characteristic of being in principle comprehensible and intelligible." (51) Accordingly, Pieper warns us: "Do not think that it is possible to do both, to argue away the idea that things have been creatively thought by God and then go on to understand how things can be known by the human mind!" (52) Seen in this light, Pieper is not indulging in pious sentimentality but in serious metaphysical reflection when he quotes Augustine's prayer from the Confessions (13.38): "We see the things you have made because they are. But they are because you, Lord, see them." (53)

In contrast to this belief that the world is itself grounded in and finds its meaning in the divine mind, Sartre's "especially profound appreciation for the superfluity of the world" (54) presents itself precisely as a rejection of the classical and Christian philosophical tradition. John Duncan has done an excellent job of demonstrating how this fascination with contingency marked every stage of Sartre's philosophical development, from his study of Nietzsche under Leon Brunschvicg in the mid-1920s onward. (55) Pieper strings together a series of passages from Nausea to succinctly capture Sartre's acute sense of the superfluity of all things: "To exist is simply to be there; those who exist let themselves be encountered, but you can never deduce anything from them. Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance." (56) However literary and non-technical these verses may be, no one can seriously claim that they do not capture in a uniquely powerful and direct manner the same philosophical vision that Sartre took almost eight hundred pages to unpack in Being and Nothingness, or that Pieper has misconstrued Sartre's experience of the world as de trop.

However, Pieper argues, Sartre's philosophy, rather than demonstrating the truth of the world's radical contingency and utter superfluity, instead serves "to expose and denounce [it] as something absurd." (57) In keeping with the connection between creation and essence, between design and intelligibility, which both Sartre's "paper knife" example and the classical and Christian philosophical tradition both hold, Pieper finds in this vision of the contingency of all things a negative version of "the old argument for God's existence, what in Hegel's philosophy is still called the argumentum e contingencia mundi, that is, that the world--precisely because of its obvious contingency, its sheer nonnecessity--would indeed be absurd were it not for the existence of an absolute, necessary being who sustains it." (58) In other words, as Pieper provocatively suggests, does not Sartre's obsession with the contingency of all things reveal at least an implicit understanding of the untenability of this belief?

Pieper admits that Sartre could (and, I believe, almost certainly would) "counter here by asking, 'Why should it not be possible for there to be a completely meaningless world? What precludes the possibility that reality and human existence are, in fact, absurd? It is absurd that we are born, and absurd that we die.'" (59) Indeed, Pieper's intuition here reveals just how secure his fundamental grasp of Sartre's philosophy was, since in Being and Nothingness (the contents of which Pieper seems largely unaware) Sartre explicitly affirms the radical contingency of the world precisely, because of its uncreated character, in language quite similar to Pieper's:
   If being exists as over against God, it is its own support; it does
   not preserve the least trace of divine creation. In a word, even if
   it had been created, being-in-itself would be inexplicable in terms
   of creation; for it assumes its being beyond the creation. This is
   equivalent to saying that being is uncreated. ... Being is itself.
   This means that it is neither passivity nor activity. Both these
   designations are human and designate human conduct or the
   instruments of human conduct.... Being is equally beyond negation
   as beyond affirmation. (60)

Because of its simple and irreducible givenness, lying beyond the ability of consciousness to affirm, deny, explain or justify it, being-in-itself, the world, "can neither be derived from the possible or reduced to the necessary.... Uncreated, without reason for being, without any connection with another being, being-in-itself is de trop for eternity." (61)

But this view of being, Pieper argues, is philosophically untenable, since "no one in the world--not even Sartre himself--is able to think through consistently this notion of the absurdity of everything that exists." (62) And while his initial objection to such a belief, namely, that it would render it impossible "to speak--as Sartre does--of freedom, justice, responsibility, and so on," (63) really misses the point of Sartre's critique of traditional ethics and can be safely ignored, (64) Pieper makes another objection to Sartre's embrace of the radical contingency of all things that is much more powerful and cannot be so easily dismissed.

In a direct challenge to the very foundations of Sartre's worldview, Pieper writes: "If one were nevertheless to insist that absolutely everything in the world is, in reality, absurd, then one would, eo ipso, no longer have any 'grounds' whatsoever for believing anything; for 'ground' here means ratio, raison, reason. It should be clear that, if that were the case, one could no longer 'give grounds' for anything--not even God's nonexistence." (65) Note that this objection is not a variation of Schumacher's rather pedestrian complaint that in Nausea, when Roquentin is in the garden experiencing the contingency and absurdity of all existence, "the author does not offer any rational reasons to prove what he is saying, but relies instead on feelings and impressions." (66) Nor does Pieper merely claim that Sartre, as a matter of fact, "presupposes uncritically, without any trace of a justification, God's nonexistence--and this with far more 'faith' than the thought of creation was ever presupposed in traditional philosophy" (though Pieper does in fact believe this to be the case). (67) Rather, Pieper is here pointing out--quite correctly, I think--that, in a world which is entirely lacking an intelligible structure or meaning, one could not hope to ever provide a rational reason for anything whatsoever.

I am unsure how Sartre would (or should) respond to this critique. On the one hand, one could argue that all of Sartre's philosophical development subsequent to Being and Nothingness and Existentialism is a Humanism, from his study of Jean Genet though his Critique of Dialectical Reason to his unfinished study of Gustav Flaubert, constitute his response to the charges of idealism and subjectivism that Pieper makes in his essay. Sartre's turn after the mid-1940s from an emphasis on the isolated individual and toward the social context in which freedom is always instantiated certainly provides one way (or, rather, multiple ways) of discovering a structure to the world that, precisely by its rootedness in the social practices of concrete human beings, enables subjects to think the world together. As Joseph S. Catalano describes this solution:
   The general direction of this ontology is to reveal the intimate
   tie between any type of structure and human existence. Trees,
   stars, galaxies, black holes, the entire universe, the internal
   structures that we call our self, our human nature and the rules of
   human thought, all of language, anything remotely connected to
   sense or meaning, all the rules of ethics and the general norms of
   morality--all of this complex exists, each facet displaying its own
   unique characteristics, but only because we exist.... Sartre's
   ontology is an anthropocentrism that is not a relativism. Given
   that all structures only exist in relation to us, they are still
   objective. (68)

However, whether this strategy would satisfy either Pieper or the countless other critics of Sartre (Thomist, Marxist, Analytic, or Feminist) who have seen in his philosophical enterprise a strong tendency toward idealism (be it subjective, objective, or something in-between) is doubtful.

Perhaps a better approach, and one certainly more in keeping with Sartre's temperament, would be for him to offer no answer to Pieper's essentially rationalistic critique of his system, but rather to accept it as a description of the world as it truly is. Faced with a world in which existence, in fact, precedes essence, and in which no natures exist except those we create, the only honest response is an unflinching acceptance of the world's intrinsic unintelligibility. By its very character as radically and irreducibly contingent (that is, without reason or ground), existence eludes any attempt to capture it within the net of reason or necessity. John Duncan describes it thus: "Existence precedes all. It is theoretically irreducible. Unformed, rife with contingency, it leaks through putative general laws and explanations." (69) Or, as Roquentin states in Nausea, "The essential thing is contingency. I mean that one cannot define existence as necessity. ... I believe there are people who have understood this. Only they tried to overcome this contingency by inventing a necessary, causal being. But no necessary being can explain existence." (70) Over a quarter century later, in his quasi-autobiography, The Words, Sartre seems to hold the same view when he describes his initial error as a child of wrongly imposing upon the world an order and intelligibility that had its origin not in the things themselves but only in his own interpretation: "I confused the disordered experiences of my bookish experiences with the real course of random events. From that came the idealism, which took me thirty years to shake off." (71) It is certainly possible that Sartre would simply try to ride out Pieper's objection with pure philosophical moxie, accepting the unintelligibility of the world and daring Pieper and the reader to follow him.

Pieper anticipates this response, and admires the courage and consistency (relative to the principles of Sartre's philosophy) it demands. Once we are confronted with the question of whether we are created with a nature and telos or not, Pieper writes:
   There can be only two possible answers, at least for a radical,
   truly "existential" philosophy that does not want to shrink from
   anything. As Jean-Paul Sartre realized, we are faced with either a
   clear Yes or a clear No. All intermediate positions eventually
   prove to be compromises. What is specific to man's creatureliness
   lies in the fact that he, unlike a crystal, a tree or an animal,
   can say "I myself." As soon as he does this, that is, in the very
   moment when he recognizes that his status as a rational animal is
   unique (on the one hand, he is a creature; on the other, he can
   either accept or reject this fact), at just that moment he stands
   before the alternative: he can either choose himself or God. (72)

But, however much courage it may demand, the fact that Sartre confronts us with such an existential decision only highlights the breakdown in the possibility of philosophical dialogue that his philosophical radicalism entails.

As Pieper has argued, "no one in the world--not even Sartre himself--is able to think through consistently this notion of the absurdity of everything that exists." (73) In a telling observation on the Dasein analysis of Heidegger's philosophy, but equally applicable to Sartre's, Pieper writes: "The explosive character of this philosophizing consists in nothing other than the fact that, from an originally theological impetus, it poses with a thought-provoking radicalism questions that demand a theological response--and in the fact that such a response is at the same time just as radically rejected." (74) But rather than dismiss Sartre's philosophy for leading the reader down a philosophical blind alley, Pieper feels compelled to recognize its enduring value as a "counterpoint" (75) to the classical and Christian philosophical tradition. He writes: "Sartre's thought possesses precisely on account of its resolutely straightforward commitment to those underlying articles of faith, which for it lie beyond discussion, that immediate existential relevance which will always be the distinguishing mark of an earnestly lived philosophizing." (76)


While Sartre's goal was "to draw all of the conclusions inferred by a consistently atheistic point of view," (77) Pieper, in the words of Bernard Schumacher, "wanted to think through the ultimate consequences of the metaphysics of creation on the level of human nature, death, hope, love, leisure, the virtues, tradition, and philosophy." (78) But in order to think through these ultimate consequences, indeed, in order to think about the world at all, Pieper believed, the fundamental Platonic concept of a nature or essence, capable of being known in some real (if not exhaustive) way was necessary. And such an intelligible nature, in turn, demands for its existence the Christian notion of a Creator.

Pieper acknowledges the immense philosophical difficulties involved in establishing either of these beliefs, or indeed even of establishing their plausibility in a secular society where technology has supplanted reason as the primary mode of knowledge. The classical and Christian philosophical tradition cannot ignore the fundamental challenges posed by modernity, especially to the overly simplistic, static, and ahistorical understanding of human nature in much of neoscholastic and neo-Thomistic philosophy. A simple reiteration of the old Catholic manual tradition would be absurd, and how a Christian understanding of the human person will look after taking into account the findings of evolutionary biology, modern psychology, and sociology is far from clear. Pieper admits as much: "Of course, I am far from being in possession of a magic formula by reason of which all these problems might be resolved. On the contrary, I am well aware that the concept 'human nature,' which, in truth, has never been capable of exhaustive definition, must be thought out anew." (79) Nevertheless, he continues, "I remain at the same time convinced that mankind risks dehumanization as well as denaturation the moment human nature fails to be understood as something created, as something that has been designed and brought into being by a creative spirit absolutely superior to man. Viewed from this standpoint, the cautionary example of Jean-Paul Sartre is rather typical--or so it appears to me--of one core position." (80) And while Sartre would almost certainly disagree with Pieper on every philosophical point about God and human nature, he would at least be compelled to respect the truly engaged mindset behind Pieper's criticisms. And so, I suggest in closing, should we.


(1.) Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism; Including a Commentary on The Stranger, trans. Carol Macomber (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 20.

(2.) Josef Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," in For the Love of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Philosophy, ed. Berthold Wald, trans. Roger Wasserman (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 173-84.

(3.) Josef Pieper, "On Hope," in Faith, Hope, Love, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 87-138. Vincent Wargo writes: "After reading Sein und Zeit, in the early 1930s, Pieper's answer to Heidegger and the Dasein analytic was a small book entitled Uber die Hofnung, wherein he tried to show how hope was the fundamental condition of human life" (VincentWargo, "Josef Pieper on the Nature of Philosophy and the Philosophical Act," Modern Schoolman 80, no. i [January 2003]: 115).

(4.) Josef Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas: Three Essays, trans. Daniel O'Connor (London: Faber and Faber, 1957), 89.

(5.) Josef Pieper, "Tradition," in Tradition: Concept and Claim, trans. E. Christian Kopff (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2010), 66.

(6.) Josef Pieper, "A Plea for Philosophy," in For the Love of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Philosophy, 150-51.

(7.) Liselotte Richter, Jean-Paul Sartre, trans. Fred D. Wieck (NewYork: Frederick Ungar, 1970).

(8.) J. M. Bochenski, Europaische Philosophie der Gegenwart, 2nd ed. (Munich: Sammlung Dalp, 1951).

(9.) Max Mueller, Existenzphilosophie Im Geistigen Leben der Gegenwart (Heidelberg: F. H. Kerle, 1949).

(10.) Andrew Leak, Jean-Paul Sartre (London: Reaktion, 2006), 75.

(11.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 174.

(12.) This is not, of course, at attack on scholarship per se, but only a recognition of its insufficiency as a basis for philosophical reflection. Thus, Pieper writes:

I have long cherished admiration and respect for the historical learning of Japanese professors of philosophy. They know their Hegel or Heidegger or Sartre with the sovereign command of specialists, and when asked about the most obscure individual questions, they respond with totally precise and informative answers. Such detailed knowledge, however, cannot be the basis for real philosophizing for very long. When a Westerner tries to discuss basic philosophical problems with these experts, not "what other people have thought, but how the true nature of things actually stands," [Aquinas, Comm. on Aristrotle's De Caelo 1.22] he soon sees that no matter how extremely well versed these experts are in Western terminology, their responses exhibit a disjointedness that seems almost creepy, like the artificial liveliness of marionettes (Pieper, "Tradition," 64).

(13.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 175.

(14.) Ibid.

(15.) Sartre, Existentialism, 20-21.

(16.) Ibid., 21.

(17.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 175.

(18.) Pieper, "A Plea for Philosophy," 151.

(19.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 176.

(20.) Ibid., 177.

(21.) Ibid., 176.

(22.) Sartre, Existentialism, 53. This is a curious claim by Sartre, since, in the words of John H. Gillespie, "the God-question has always been central to Sartre's thought" (John H. Gillespie, "Sartre and God: A Spiritual Odyssey? Part I," Sartre Studies International 19, no. 1 [2013]: 71).

(23.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 178.

(24.) Pieper, "Tradition," 44.

(25.) It is worth noting Pieper's response to Sartrean ethics. He writes:

We are not the ones who determine the ends or goal [of human life]. Failure to reach this goal is the essence of sin, but it is not for us to choose what the goal will be in the first place, as if by some arbitrary choice. On the contrary, we already find ourselves oriented toward this end without having been consulted about the matter. Here we are not free. Admittedly, many thinkers (Jean-Paul Sartre, for example) hold the opposite and claim that even the possibility of existing as a human being at all, and with such-and-such a nature, must be decided upon. To whichThomas gives the tart reply: "The requirement of determining the ultimate end is not among those things of which we are masters" [Summa theologiae I, q. 81, a. 1 ad 3] (Josef Pieper, The Concept of Sin, trans. Edward T. Oakes [South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2001], 30).

(26.) Ibid., 49.

(27.) Wargo, "Josef Pieper on the Nature of Philosophy and the Philosophical Act," 115.

(28.) Sartre, Existentialism, 21.

(29.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 179.

(30.) Ibid.

(31.) Ibid.

(32.) John Duncan, "Sartre and Realism All-the-Way-Down," in Sartre Today: A Centenary Celebration, ed. Adrian van den Hoven and Andrew Leak (New York: Berghahn, 2005), 103, citing Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, trans. James Kirkup (NewYork: Penguin, 1963), 343.

(33.) Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas, 97-98.

(34.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 179.

(35.) Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas, 58.

(36.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 179.

(37.) Sartre, Existentialism, 22.

(38.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 180. See also his discussion of the theology of Jurgen Moltmann and his (over)emphasis on eschatology in Pieper, The Concept of Sin, 39-41.

(39.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 180. Bernard Schumacher writes, while "Sartre's ontology of not-yet-being in fact turns out to be a philosophy of despair and of the absurd" (Bernard N. Schumacher, A Philosophy of Hope: Josef Pieper and the Contemporary Debate on Hope, trans. D. C. Schindler [New York: Fordham University Press, 2003], 59 n. 128), Pieper's

anthropology presupposes an ontology of not-yet-being accompanied by an eschatological dimension that expresses the internal structure of human nature, which tends toward a future that is yet to come, a future in which possibilities will be realized. Unlike Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ernst Bloch, Josef Pieper maintains that this future is open to a movement of transcendence with transcendence, in which the surpassing can be understood as an act of breaking out of immanent temporal finiteness, which does not constitute the whole of reality (Bernard N. Schumacher, "A Cosmopolitan Hermit: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Josef Pieper," in A Cosmopolitan Hermit: Modernity and Tradition in the Philosophy of Josef Pieper, ed. Bernard N. Schumacher [Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2009], ii).

See also Schumacher's discussion of Pieper's relationship with the thought of Bloch (Schumacher, A Philosophy of Hope, 172-202).

(40.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 180-81.

(41.) Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas, 57-58.

(42.) Pieper, "A Plea for Philosophy," 163.

(43.) Ibid.

(44.) Josef Pieper, "On Love," in Faith, Hope, Love, in Faith, Hope, Love, 177.

(45.) Pieper, "A Plea for Philosophy," 125. The centrality of the Christian notion of creation to Western metaphysics, Pieper argues, makes it "extremely difficult for someone from our Western world to prescind so completely from those presuppositions deriving from our Christian tradition that his philosophizing could appropriately be described as thoroughly 'non-Christian', that is, in no way informed by its subordination to an unacknowledged, if ultimately theological, counterpoint" (Pieper, "On the Dilemma Posed by a Non-Christian Philosophy," in For the Love of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Philosophy, 295-301, 300-01).

Closer to our own time, does not Pieper's insistence on the inseparability of Western metaphysics and theology find an unintentional confirmation in thought of Derrida, who "himself was of the opinion, thanks to his peculiar knack for deconstruction, that the theological epoch of Western logocentrism had reached its 'historical closure' by the beginning of the twentieth century. Heidegger's Nichtigkeit, Sartre's le neant, 'God's No to the world' in dialectical theology were already the harbingers of a 'midnight of absence'" (Berthold Wald, "Josef Pieper in the Context of Modern Philosophy," in A Cosmopolitan Hermit: Modernity and Tradition in the Philosophy of Josef Pieper, ed. Bernard N. Schmacher [Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2009], 51). Indeed, the collapse of metaphysics in the wake of Deconstruction's triumph (or train wreck, depending on one's opinion) suggests that Pieper was not entirely wrongheaded in asserting this connection.

(46.) Sartre, Existentialism, 53.

(47.) Ibid.

(48.) Pieper, "Tradition," 44.

(49.) Pieper, "A Plea for Philosophy," 125-26.

(50.) Interestingly, Wargo (following John D. Caputo) argues that "it was the realism of Neo-Thomism which provided the basis for the acceptance of the early phenomenological/existential movement in the United States" (Wargo, "Josef Pieper on the Nature of Philosophy and the Philosophical Act," 141 n. 2). See also John D. Caputo, "Philosophy and Prophetic Postmodernism: Toward a Catholic Postmodernity," American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly LXXIV, no. 3 (August 2000): 553.

(51.) Pieper, "A Plea for Philosophy," 124--25. Indeed, for Pieper, it is precisely a recognition of our creatureliness that makes possible a disclosure of our freedom. As Bernard Schumacher summarizes:

Already during the 1930s Pieper had developed a philosophizing anthropology--inspired by Thomas Aquinas, Erich Przywara, and Martin Heidegger, and anticipating the homo viator of Gabriel Marcel--of the free human being "on the way" to the actualization of his potential for being, pointed toward his total fulfillment by means of the practice of virtue. The latter constitutes the ultimate perfection of that capacity, or better, the maximum of what a person can be by his nature, leading him to the utmost of his own potential for being. This anthropology presupposes an ontology of not-yet-being accompanied by an eschatological dimension that expresses the internal structure of human nature, which tends toward a future that is yet to come, a future in which possibilities will be realized (Schumacher, "A Cosmopolitan Hermit," II).

(52.) Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas, 62.

(53.) Pieper, "A Plea for Philosophy," 126.

(54.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 182.

(55.) Duncan, "Sartre and Realism All-the-Way-Down," 100.

(56.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 182-83.

(57.) Ibid., 183.

(58.) Ibid.

(59.) Ibid.

(60.) Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square, 1984), 27.

(61.) Ibid., 29.

(62.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 183.

(63.) Ibid.

(64.) For detailed treatments and defenses of Sartre's ethical theory, see, for example, Thomas Anderson, Sartre's Two Ethics: From Bad Faith to Authenticity (Chicago: Open Court, 1993); Linda A. Bell, Sartre's Ethics of Authenticity (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1980); T. Storm Heter, Sartre's Ethics of Engagement (London: Continuum, 2006).

(65.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 183-84.

(66.) Schumacher, A Philosophy of Hope, 31.

(67.) Pieper, "A Plea for Philosophy," 150.

(68.) Joseph S. Catalano, "Sartre's Ontology from Being and Nothingness to The Family Idiot," in Sartre Today: A Centenary Celecration, ed. Adrian van den Hoven and Andrew Leak (NewYork: Berghan, 2005), 19.

(69.) Duncan, "Sartre and Realism All-the-Way-Down," 103.

(70.) Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (NewYork: New Directions, 2007), 131.

(71.) Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words: The Autobiography of Jean-Paul Sartre, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Vintage, 1981), 51.

(72.) Pieper, The Concept of Sin, 64.

(73.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 183.

(74.) Josef Pieper, "What Does It Mean To Philosophize? Four Lectures," in For the Love of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Philosophy, 27-80, 74.

(75.) Ibid.

(76.) Pieper, "A Plea for Philosophy," 150-51.

(77.) Sartre, Existentialism, 53.

(78.) Schumacher, "A Cosmopolitan Hermit," 15.

(79.) Pieper, "Creatureliness and Human Nature," 182.

(80.) Ibid.
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