Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Man's Not a Pickle: The Sartrean Argument Against Natural Law

THERE ARE MANY CRITICS OF THE NATURAL LAW THEORY. Alas, they are legion. There are some men, it would seem, that until they meet God in judgment will refuse to believe in Him and in his law. Man, who argues about everything, will argue about the natural law, will argue even whether it exists. Homo sapiens, knowing man, is also homo arguendus, arguing man. Some of these critics of the natural law argue that man cannot be subject to natural law because there is no such thing as human nature. One of these, perhaps one of the most notable, was the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Jean-Paul Sartre and his Roving Eye
(The Other Roving Part is Not Shown)

In his book Being and Nothingness (L'Être et le néant) Sartre intended to establish the priority of existence over essence, the fundamental doctrine of his atheistic version of "existentialism." In contrast to traditional metaphysics, where it is virtually axiomatic that essence precedes existence, Sartre iconoclastically reversed the order: existence precedes, is more fundamental, than essence: l'existence précède et commande l'essence. As Douglas Kries sees it in his The Problem of Natural Law (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008), 121:
In classical metaphysics, of course, this statement is non-sensical. With the exception of God, in order for something to exist, it has to exists as a certain kind of thing. One can conceive of an essence without that essence actually existing, but one cannot conceive of something existing without existing as a certain kind of thing. What Sartre mean by his phrase, though, is that what a human being is is not something determined. A human being first exists, or simply finds itself to be existing, and then must construct for itself its own essence. That a human being exists comes first; what a human being become becomes comes second, as the project of that human being.
Sartre divided the entirety of being (être) in the cosmos into two fundamental divisions: "being in-itself" (être-en-soi) and "being for-itself" (être-pour-soi). The former beings, those that are in themselves, are not conscious, are simply things (choses); whereas the latter beings, which include man, are conscious, and cannot be regarded as "things" (L'homme n'est pas une chose; "Man is not a thing.") Since man is not a thing, according to Sartre, one can say that man is a "no-thing," that is nothing, néant. Man, a "being for-itself," is consequently characterized, not by any sort of nature; rather, he is characterized by his "no-thing-ness," his nothingness.
That it is in the name of human freedom to create oneself that denies that there can be such a thing as human essence or human nature. He conceives of a nature as a stable structure that would pre-determine what a thing would be, and such a notion is perhaps appropriate to the "in-itself" being but is quite contrary to the radical self-determinism of the "for-itself" being.
Kries, 122. Only things have natures; man being no-thing has no nature, merely consciousness. This consciousness (existence) is infinitely malleable, radically undetermined, the subject of absolute freedom, unbound by any nature (essence). In fact, the existence determines its essence. A "being for-itself" is capable of defining its own essence, in Sartre's view. He has absolutely self-mastery, is answerable to no one but himself. Being unbound by nature means that, for man, nature has no role in his governance, and is certainly not the source of any binding laws. This was a constant in Sartre's life, so that even in his last published work he battled against any conception of nature and the natural law: "[T]he idea of nature, of human nature, of natural law," Sartre said in his work on the French author Flaubert, The Family Idiot (L'Idiot de la famille: Gustave Flaubert de 1821 à 1857), "is false." (trans. Carol Cosman) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, Vol. 5, p. 29)

The rejection of nature and the concept of natural law was fundamental to the Sartrean ethic. It was, in fact, bad faith to import any concept of nature or the natural law into morality. In Sartre's view, to allow something extrinsic to one's self to govern one's self is to lapse into, or act like, a being in-itself; it is nothing but bad faith (mauvaise foi). Human reality is not what it is, but is what it is not. That is, it was not limited by nature, by any potentiality: it remained to be defined, crafted, by radical choice, by a self-determined future, the "project," and not by anything in the present or the past. Sartre advanced a radical indeterminism based upon raw, untrammeled choice, the only value being "authenticity," in other words, that the choice was one's own. Man is condemned to be free. L'homme est condamné à être libre. He is condemned to be free of any rule, and is sadly trapped by his own will, as he lapses into selfish solipsism, into real nothingness.

Along with the concept of a human nature, Sartre rejected the notion of the author of nature, God.
[I]n his lecture on humanism [Existentialism is a Humanism (L'Existentialisme est un humanisme)], Sartre uses his objection to the notion of human nature as a justification for a denial of God. In many traditional metaphysical explanations [e.g., Plato, Plotinus, Augustine], the natures or types were said to exist originally as archetypes or exemplars in the divine mind, and it was argued that God created individual existing things in accord with these archetypes. The Enlightenment atheists, Sartre pointed out, had denied the existence of God but had kept the notion of form or essence. It is more consistent, however, to deny both. Without God there could be no divine exemplar defining human nature. The traditional doctrine of divine creation threatens the experienced fact of radical human freedom because that doctrine may well have recourse to a doctrine of natures, including human natures. Since the outcome of such a line of reasoning would be the denial of complete self-determination, it is necessary to deny the starting point of the argument. Atheism and human freedom are consequently joined in Sartre's view.
Kries, 122. Of course, the rejection of human nature, and of God, the author of human nature, can lead one to absurdities. And so one can find these sorts of absurdities in Sartre's writings. Among these, Kries points to some comments of Sartre in an essay he wrote on a novel by Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944), where he mocks, as it were, Giraudoux's Aristotelian world of essences and natures and any suggestion that man falls within this world and not outside of it:
Sartre says [in his essay on Giraudoux's last novel, Choix des élues, entitled "Jean Giraudoux et la philosophie d'Aristote. A propos de Choix des élues"] that the work turns out to be an illustration of the world of Aristotle, full of essences and natures, and that man's nature is not fundamentally differentiated from the other natures. Sartre mocks such a view, saying that for Giraudoux, "Man's character does not really differ in any way from the 'essence' of a pickle." Sartre terms this essence of man as an "archetype," but of course archetypes work against the freedom of self-determinism. In the view of Giraudoux and Aristotle [and in the classical Western and Christian world view], says Sartre, "We have not chosen to be what we are; we are 'possessed' by a form and can do nothing about it." A human being is understood as a "finite and definite reality." This Aristotelian finite essence with its prescribed boundaries gives rise to notion of morality that is close to fatalism: "Man realizes his essence spontaneously. For the mineral and the vegetable, obedience is automatic. Man conforms to his archetype of his own free will: he is constantly choosing himself as he is. This, to be sure, is a one-way freedom, for if the form is not realized by him, it will be realized through him and without his aid." Such a freedom, Sartre insists, is not far from "absolute necessity."
Kries, 123-24. In Sartre's view, man is not free by acting in accord with his nature (through his nature), man is only free if he both defines his nature and acts in accord with his chosen nature (by and through a nature he has chosen). "The idea of nature, of human nature, of natural law is false."
--Sartre, The Family Idiot
There is no form in man, he is formless and void. He is no-thing. To strap him into some nature, some form, some archetype not of his own choosing is to shackle him. It is to treat him like a thing, like a pickle.

Sartre: To Believe that Man has a Nature is to Believe Man is a Pickle

In a quote commonly attributed to G. K. Chesterton: "It is often supposed that when people stop believing in God, they believe in nothing. Alas, it is worse than that. When they stop believing in God, they believe in anything." If not Chesterton, it is certainly Chestertonian. So Sartre fits into the Chestertonian observation, and believed in anything. Here, the man who despised any notion of determinism implied by human nature and the natural law embraced Marxist thought and its historical determinism. He traded one set of chains for another; he traded the chains of the determinism engendered by love, for the chains of determinism of tyranny. He trade God for a General Director. Christ for Stalin. Mary for Simone de Beauvoir. Stupid trade. Bad judgment. That's the sort of decision that can land you in Hell.

Kries finds the link between Sartre's existentialism and his adoption of Marxism in their common rejection of human nature:
Both [Sartre's existentialism and Marxist materialistic philosophy] insist that the significant element of a human being has little or nothing to do with common, universal characteristics, but rather that what is important is the concrete, individual, uniqueness of the person; put differently, both agree that human beings are self-transcending beings as opposed to beings that possess a static nature. If Sartre simply denie that there is such a thing as human nature, Marxism--like Hegelianism before it--argues at least that human nature is infinitely malleable. . . . . [T]his does not imply that Sartrean and Marxist anthropology [sic] are completely reconcilable, for Marx's claim is that the fundamental anthropological fact is that work is the essence of man, or that man is first and foremost homo economicus, whereas the fundamental anthropological fact for the Sartrean is that the essence of man is freedom and choice, or that man is first and foremost homo existentialis. Nevertheless, the two views do find common ground in their emphasis on the historical existent rather than the universal essence, and hence they are both, because of their common questioning of the existence and significance of the idea of human nature, opponents of Aristotle and, by implication, Thomas Aquinas.
Kries, 126. The only other consistency apart from the common Marxist and Sartrean rejection of human nature, perhaps, is that both Sartre and Marx hated God, and in hating God, they also hated man. After all, anyone other than ourselves is a hell for us. L'enfer c'est les autres. Hell, Satre famously said in one of his plays (No Exit), "is other people."

Marx and Sartre, misanthropes both. That is where rejection of human nature and natural law will lead you, to the hatred of both God and man. To reject human nature and the natural law is not nobly to believe that man is not a pickle, it is ignobly to put man in a philosophical and moral pickle.

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