Why did Jean Paul Sartre become a believer before his death?
This may sound shocking to the legions of admirers of the dean of existentialism or Western alienation, but to quote TS Eliot from his ‘Burnt Norton’: ‘Mankind cannot stand much reality.’ We cannot indeed, especially when the reality is so full of disillusionment, leaving us disillusioned.
It is interesting to observe that only three of a series of existentialists were atheists in the true sense of the word. These three were Jean Paul Sartre, his partner Simone de Beauvoir and another great Frenchman, Albert Camus. All other existentialists like Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Martin Buber, Frantz Fanon, Ralph Ellison, among others, were either believers, skeptics or agnostics. Nietzsche was not exactly an existentialist. He was nihilist.
Camus went beyond atheism. In today’s parlance, he was apathetic (a person who goes beyond theism and atheism).
Contrary to the general belief that Sartre was an atheist from the start, he was extremely confused about his religious beliefs from an early age. His atheistic existentialism was in fact a facade. It was a building. He was religiously vulnerable and spiritually sensitive. Those who have studied his existential philosophy and read all his books (especially in French) namely, ‘Nausea’, ‘The Wall’, ‘Existentialism is humanism’, ‘Being and Nothingness’,’ The Sursis’, ‘The Age of Reason ‘, to name a few, finds excessive atavistic antagonism towards God, which prompted Camus to comment in The world in 1949, “For me, Sartre’s excessively enraged stand against God is ontological proof of his deep faith in a creator. Man (Sartre) is a secret believer who will die not as an atheist but as a believer. So prophetic!
Tom Flanley of the University of Cambridge closely studied Sartre’s personality, his character and all of his writings and found that “Sartre suffered from ‘reverse excess syndrome’ (SRE). To make it easier for readers, “Where there is excessive hatred, there is love lurking somewhere. What we deny all the time is actually our subconscious belief struggling to become our faith. To deny is to accept unwittingly. It happened to Sartre. He kept condemning God, but God resided in the crevices of his mind. On the contrary, Camus did not care about the existence or the non-existence of god. It was a non-entity for him. Read his books, ‘The Stranger’, ‘The Plague’, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, ‘The Fall’, ‘The Rebel’, ‘The Happy Death’, ‘The Guest’, and. al., God is a maginized entity that rarely appears as a character or a metaphor. To quote Camus in The Parisian (1953), “I am theologically indifferent to God and religion and spiritually flippant about any esoteric belief (s). I don’t have time to think or condemn God.
But this was not the case with Sartre. He was overtly obsessed with the “non-existence” of God and his atheism bordered on the militant atheism of today’s Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens. It was a pathological denial of God that had to recede and bloom again in an equally strong faith in God. This is why he called a priest just before his death. Dismayed, his supporters asked him what had happened to him when death was at his doorstep. His response was: “In case ……..”
The one who revealed Sartre’s astonishing change was his friend and ex-Maoist, Pierre Victor (aka Benny Levy), who spent much of his time with the dying Sartre and asked him about several of his opinions. According to Victor, Sartre radically changed his mind about the existence of God and began to turn to Messianic Judaism. This is Sartre’s pre-death profession, according to Pierre Victor: “I do not feel the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, foreshadowed. In short, a being that only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creative hand refers to God.
This statement effectively closes Sartre’s existential phase to the dismay of his disciples and his lover, Simone de Beauvoir, in particular. At Sartre’s funeral, De Beauvoir reportedly behaved like a bereaved widow, but later became quite critical of Sartre in his “Farewell ceremony. She later revealed her anger at his change of mind, stating, “How do you explain this senile act of a defector? All my friends, all Sartreans, and the editorial staff of Modern times supported me in my dismay.
This is how the cookie crumbles. Even the best minds can change their well-held belief systems throughout their lives when death hangs over their heads. Sartre was no exception. To quote Camus de son ‘The happy one Death‘: “Death has the power and the audacity to change its beliefs.” It changed the disbelief of his existentialist friend and colleague Sartre.