I read some passages from Jean-Paul Sartre's "Being and Nothingness" to my wife recently. Her reaction: "How the heck can you make sense of that?"
Reasonable question. Sartre can be dense.
But I love how he rambles along in his French existentialist intellectual writing style for a while, then throws in a simple clear gem that makes me go Wow! Right on, Jean-Paul.
For example, how he ends these thoughts.
Anguish in fact is the recognition of a possibility as my possibility; that is, it is constituted when consciousness sees itself cut off from its essence by nothingness or separated from the future by its very freedom. This means that a nihilating nothing removes from me all excuse and that at the same time what I project as my future being is always nihilated and reduced to the rank of simple possibility because the future which I am remains out of my reach.
But we ought to remark that in these various instances we have to do with a temporal form where I await myself in the future, where I "make an appointment with myself on the other side of that hour, of that day, or of that month." Anguish is the fear of not finding myself at that appointment, of no longer even wishing to bring myself there.
"Being and Nothingness" is 811 pages long as I noted in a previous post. However, just the two paragraphs above show why Sartre is a patron saint (god, he would have hated that appellation) for the churchless.
He says, correctly in my opinion, that we choose ourselves. This is scary. Also, exhilarating, as I wrote about on my other blog in "Sartre, scootering, and sensuality."
If someone believes in a religion, that belief is his or hers. Not any one else's.
Believing is an action, not a state. It has to be continually reaffirmed, though often (or usually) we don't consciously realize how free we are to hold onto or discard a belief.
That's why Sartre speaks wonderfully about anguish being the fear that I won't find myself at the apppointment I've made with myself for some time in the future. ("Anguish," to my understanding, isn't so much anxiety as the realization of our freedom to choose.)
Someone believes in Jesus, or a guru, or whatever, for a long time. Then, she doesn't.
When the person was a true believer, she envisioned the appointment with herself that Sartre spoke of: a continued believing that carries on into the future (in the same way as a newly married couple imagines growing old together, not getting divorced some years down the line.)
But nothing comes between our present and our future. For Sartre, this "nothing" doesn't imply unbroken continuity, as when we say "Nothing is blocking the road between here and town."
No, nothing is nothingness. Freedom.
The gap between our subjectivity and things as they are in themselves, or being as it is in itself. The following quote is denser than the preceding one, but it offers a flavor of Sartre's view of nothingness.
But the nothingness which arises in the heart of consciousness is not. It is made-to-be. Belief, for example, is not the contiguity of one being with another being; it is its own presence to itself, it's own decompression of being.
...Thus the for-itself [individual consciousness] must be its own nothingness. The being of consciousness qua consciousness is to exist at a distance from itself as a presence to itself, and this empty distance which being carries in its being is Nothingness.
In this blog post I can't do a good job of explaining what Sartre means here. Here's a short and fairly simple attempt, though.
Things just are. A table is what it is. A table.
It's full of itself. All it is is what it is, a table. This is what Sartre calls Being-in-itself, which doesn't know that it is, because something unconscious isn't anything but itself. Meaning, it isn't aware that it exists. It just exists.
Humans, however, are Being-for-itself. We are conscious, including being conscious of our consciousness. This produces a distance from everything in existence, including ourselves.
Yes, there is a pre-reflexive consciousness that simply is. There has to be, because the nothing that separates Being-for-itself from itself isn't being. It is nothingness. Only being is. The rest is nothingness.
People talk about being one with God, one with the guru, one with Jesus, one with something. For Sartre (and also for me), that's impossible.
Oneness, in the sense of identity or no difference, is death for humans. If you and I aren't two, we're non-existent. I recall an Eastern sage, Ramakrishna, saying "I don't want to become sugar; I want to taste sugar."
Becoming sugar, or ashes, or God, or anything else, is to be non-existent. Unconscious. Dead. Who wants that?
This is what human life is: separateness, choice, freedom, anguish, joy, searching, finding, not-finding. If we were merely being, we would be a stone, a tree, a star, a table.
We are conscious. We are aware of existing. We know that we are free to choose. This is our joy. And also our anguish. Sartre says:
In anguish I apprehend myself at once as totally free and as not being able to derive the meaning of the world except as coming from myself.