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Socrates Meets Sartre: In Hell? | By Peter Kreeft | An excerpt from Socrates
Meets Sartre: The Father of Philosophy Cross-Examines the Founder of Existentialism
This book is one in a series of Socratic explorations of some of the Great
Books. Books in this series are intended to be short, clear, and non-technical,
thus fully understandable by beginners. They also introduce (or review)
the basic questions in the fundamental divisions of philosophy (see the
chapter titles): metaphysics, epistemology, anthropology, ethics, logic,
and method. They are designed both for classroom use and for educational
do-it-yourselfers. The "Socrates Meets . . ." books can be read and understood
completely on their own, but each is best appreciated after reading the
little classic it engages in dialogue.
The setting Socrates and the author of the Great Book meeting in
the afterlife need not deter readers who do not believe there is
an afterlife. For although the two characters and their philosophies are
historically real, their conversation, of course, is not and requires
a "willing suspension of disbelief ". There is no reason the skeptic cannot
extend this literary belief also to the setting.
Chapter I | In Hell?
SARTRE: Oh, the absurdity of it all! The absurdity! The absurdity! That
I exist! Even after I have died, I still exist! How utterly nauseating!
It is indeed the nausea of existence itself. There is indeed "no exit"
from my own existence! I am in Hell, forever!
SOCRATES (to himself): He whines like a sick puppy. He pouts and preens
like a bratty teenager. He drowns in the lake of his own verbosity like
Narcissus. And yet this man is called a philosopher, a lover of wisdom.
He was more popular in his lifetime than any other in his century. (What
a century!) Thousands of adoring women flung themselves at him to be abused.
I have been here in the Overworld for nearly twenty-four centuries, examining
mankind, as part of their Purgatory and my Heaven, but sometimes I think
I shall never understand human nature.
Well, there is mystery here, at any rate: that much is clear. Perhaps
I can learn as well as teach in this encounter. But I may have to abandon
my "Socratic method" for stronger medicines, if I am to get through to
this patient. For this conversation, so that he can relate to me, I shall
speak like an ordinary philosopher, not like myself. He does not see or
hear me yet-or anything or anyone else, for that matter.
SARTRE: Alas, alas, the absurdity of it all, the absurdity of my existence!
SOCRATES: He is indeed in absurdity, but not because of his existence.
SARTRE: It is as I thought: my very being is a "being-for-itself",
endlessly frustrated in its inescapable and unending attempt to do the
impossible, to become a "being-in-itself". But there is "no
exit" from this self-contradiction. My own noblest possession, freedom,
is my doom: I am "condemned to freedom." I am doomed to failure.
I am an eternal Boston Red Sox fan, under a cosmic curse.
SOCRATES: He attempts to drown himself and his misery in the ocean of
his own verbiage. He is right: that attempt is doomed to failure.
SARTRE: But am I really in Hell? How can that be? "Hell is other people."
But I see no other people here, either my torturers or my torturees.
SOCRATES: That is because your ugly eyeballs are ingrown, like toenails,
jean-Paul. Look outside yourself for once! Look here! Look at me!
SARTRE: Oh, oh. I spoke too soon. Here comes my torturer. O cruel and
cursed irony of the gods-my torturer is to be Socrates! Objective truth
in a toga!
SOCRATES: It could be worse, Jean-Paul; it could have been Jesus.
SARTRE: No, no, there are no "could have beens." There are no possibilities,
there are only actualities.
SOCRATES: Not so. You could have been Jean-Paul the Great. But that name
will be given to another, with whom you will never be confused. You are
JeanPaul the Small.
SARTRE: I do not answer to that name.
SOCRATES: But it answers to you. It hovers round your head like a halo.
SARTRE: A halo, you say?
SOCRATES: A tiny, dark halo.
SARTRE: I accept my fate: to be tortured, to be insulted, to be known
by you as an object, a being-in-itself. But where is my victim?
Each torturee must be a torturer as well.
SOCRATES: Not so. That pattern was broken when One became the universal
SARTRE: Not so. He is the torturer. He would be my torturer if He were
present to me now.
SOCRATES: Perhaps that is why He is not present.
SARTRE: He lets you do His dirty work, then, Socrates?
SOCRATES: MY work is only to explore and examine your work.
SARTRE: What work?
SOCRATES: Your best book.
SARTRE: All 700 pages of it?
SOCRATES: No, no, not Saint Genet. That was your worst book: as
perverse as DeSade but infinitely duller. I mean Existentialism and
SARTRE: But that was my shortest book.
SOCRATES: Precisely. And that is why it was so precise and intelligible.
SARTRE: But most of it was culled from Being and Nothingness.
SOCRATES: Yes. A good panhandler can find a few nuggets of gold even in
a river of mud.
SARTRE: I can endure your Socratic questioning, and even your sarcastic
personal insults, if you only answer me one little question.
SOCRATES: "Just answer me one little question" that's my line.
I am flattered by your plagiarism. And also curious about your question.
What is it?
SARTRE: Well, as you know, I didn't believe in Hell or Heaven or Purgatory
or any sort of life after death. It seems I was wrong about life after
death; was I wrong about Hell too? In No Exit I used it as a metaphor
for earth, for how we always inescapably deal with each other in life.
Thus "Hell is other people." Am I now in my own play? Is that to
be my punishment?
SOCRATES: You said you had one question. By my count that's three.
SARTRE: Am I in Hell or not?
SOCRATES: That is entirely up to you.
SARTRE: Look here, Socrates, if that is really who you are, could you
give me just one little gift? Could you use another instrument of torture
than your famous "Socratic method"? I mean those teasing questions of
yours, and then those long, repetitious, and insultingly elementary chains
of logic that you are so in love with. Could you instead come right to
the point? Just hit me, already. It will make me less cranky than your
intellectual version of Chinese water torture, and whatever you
want from me, you'll get more out of me if I'm less cranky.
SOCRATES: I promise I will try to be quick. Quicker than you were in most
of your books, at any rate.
Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor
of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College
(AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova
University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.
He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including:
C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals of the Faith, Catholic
Christianity, Back to Virtue, and Three Approaches to Abortion.
In addition to Socrates Meets Sartre, his most recent Ignatius Press books
Can Understand the Bible and The
God Who Loves You.
Dr. Kreeft's personal
web site | Dr. Kreeft's author
page at IgnatiusInsight.com, with full listing of books in print
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