wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Tony Judt

Past Imperfect

In the circumstances of wartime France, her major premise was unimpeachable: all choices with which individuals are presented may force them to be unfaithful to their profound desire to respect human life, yet choose we must. In the context of her refusal to sign the petition for clemency in the Brasillach case (de Beauvoir was writing in January 1945), this was an understandable position. Her minor premise is a little less secure, however. There exists, she asserted, mo external reality by which such a choice can be evaluated (by this she meant that there are no universal criteria by which to assess a human action). Thus, she concluded, morality can only consist not in remaining faithtul to some fixed (fige) image of ourselves, but in seeking to 'base one's being' in some act or decision that will make our otherwise contingent existence necessary.

The problem with Kant, according to de Beauvoir, is that there is no way in which we can deduce from supposedly universal maxims of Justice, right, or truth what would be the correct action or choice at any given moment. Anyone faced with real choices in a particular situation 'thus places himself from the outset beyond morality.' Even if there were a proper, or 'good,' move to be made, we wouldn't know what it was. Thus, once we are engaged in history, once we take part in politics, we risk doing wrong. Ideas of justice or law have no purchase here, since their evaluation can only be undertaken in retrospect, and when we act we have no idea what the future will hold and thus how our decisions will be measured. This is a curious line of reasoning, deducing as it does from the difficulty of knowing what is right the conclusion that we should abandon the effort to discover it. And it is made even more opaque as an exercise in moral reasoning when we realize that what is being proposed here is nor an account of the impossibility of ever being sure but the claim that truth (and with it justice, law, and so on) will be determined by outcome. This is not even utilitarianism, since it offers no criteria for measuring the advantages of alternative outcomes.

The political implications of such arguments are self-evident. For both Sartre and de Beauvoir, the Kantian reign of ends was only conceivable as the outcome not of morally informed choices but of revolution. This did not follow directly from their metaphysics but, rather, from a practical evaluation of the options open to the engaged thinker at that moment in history. Although engagement in public life was a compelling necessity if the writer wished to forge for himself or herself an authentic existence, the purpose of such engagement must be to contribute towards bringing about a world in which the hitherto inauthentic condition of all (writer included) would be overcome. For the time being, this required the intellectual to commit to opposing things as they are, not in the name of some hypothetically better state of affairs but in large part because the very act of opposing would not only release the intellectual from the discomforts, of a contingent existence but would in itself change the rules of the existential game.

In the political configuration of postwar France, this pointed inevitably in the direction of Marxism, and thus communism. It should be clear that this was not because existentialism in its Sartrian guise was intrinsically sympathetic to Marxism; indeed, the two were logically incompatible. It was because they shared for the time being a common enemy, some overlapping language, and an affinity for denying the legitimacy of the present in the name of the claims of the future. The very real remaining philosophical differences help account for the continued unwillingness of nearly all the major philosophical figures in France to join the Communist party; even after 1949 and the increasing insistence of Sartre and others on the need to support the 'workers' party' come what may, they could only ever do so for their own reasons and not for those of the Communists. But this was a sign of weakness, not strength. Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Merleau-Ponty could argue the case for commitment and a radical political attitude, but when it came to accounting for the programmatic and tactical substance of that attitude, they were helplessly dependent upon a quite different set of philosophical and ideological criteria.

These inadequacies exposed them from the start to damaging critiques, damaging, that is, in the purely formal sense—they did not prevent many readers, then and since, from finding such an approach persuasive and appealing. Sartre himself inadvertently pointed out one obvious weakness in his thinking as early as 1945: France should have fought on in 1940, he wrote; the future was unpredictable and who could know whether Germany would eventually win, whether the Russians would enter the war, and so on—the point is that one must do what is right on the basis of what one knows at the time. Similarly, in his reflections on collaboration, Sartre made a strong case for the ideals of the Resistance—the values of freedom and the like are things that people can and do sincerely hold, while the collaborator's motives must be insincere. But this is in direct conflict with the whole tenor of existentialist reasoning—how, in Sartre's philosophy, could the French citizen of 1940 'know' what was right? Why is the collaborator's choice not as authentic as that of the resister, since the goal that each seeks to achieve is said to be irrelevant? And since Sartre's philosophy denies the existence of universal standards of moral measurement, how could we ever assert that one person's engagement is better or worse than another's?