In 1964, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre declined to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. According to a Jan. 5 news article in The Guardan, Sarte wrote a letter declining the award, but it arrived too late for consideration as the Nobel committee of the day had made their decision a full month earlier. The 50-year period of secrecy surrounding the 1964 committee’s proceedings expired recently, making this archived data now available for everyone to read.
Sartre explained that he had “always declined official honours,” such as his declination of the French Legion of Honour in 1945. Sartre said that receiving such recognition would limit his independence. It seems curious that a man who believed in the total freedom of existentialism saw in the Nobel Prize a potential limiting effect.
Sartre believed that every man made himself through his own actions. He was nothing until he thought and then acted upon those thoughts. And whatever action a person takes, that action is ‘right’ at the time. That particular self-rightness of an individual gets complicated when expanded out into society. The view of a world where there is no Creator and therefore no fixed moral law devolves quickly into a world where whatever is at the moment is ‘right.’
Having witnessed first-hand the cruelty of Man in the Nazi treatment of Jews and others in World War II, Sartre’s philosophy laid the entire burden of depravity at the feet (and on the conscious) of Man himself. How then shall Man bear that burden? In Sartre’s philosophy, we must bear that very real moral guilt into nothingness.
One of Sartre’s contemporaries was Christian theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer recognized the profound effect that Sartre’s and other French philosophers were having on the thinking of people around the world. In his work, God is There and He is not Silent, Schaeffer reminds the reader of Sartre’s basic philosophic question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” If nothing is there, which Sartre maintains, then nothing can reasonably “be.”
Sartre declined to leave room for the possibility that God was there, preferring instead to put his full faith in what “is.” However, if what is (now) is ‘right’ now then how does one reconcile the reality that there are things that are now clearly wrong?
Sartre’s existentialism cannot reconcile the realities of a universe where Man is both the highest order being and yet desperately wickedly cruel. It is easy to see how Sartre’s existentialism of 50 years ago laid the groundwork for the renewal of nihilism.
Nihilism, literally “nothing,” is the philosophic assertion that nothing has objective meaning, purpose or value. It has its origins in the Greek Sophists and is evident today in much postmodern thought. Nihilism contends that words, communication, knowledge, life, morals, you and I have no real meaning, we are nothing, having come from nothing and going to nothing.
One can see how quickly this view leads to despair. Maybe Sartre declined the Nobel peace prize knowing that his philosophy would lead people away from peace, internally and externally.