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March 21, 2005

Why Sartre was an idiot

Not to throw around random insults, but an "idiot" in the extreme sense of a "private person," one who is closed in upon himself to the exclusion of other people.  I was thinking about his famed remark "hell is other people" and his very interesting and clever play "No Exit" at the same time as I was thinking about how delightful it is to have friends who are brothers and sisters in Christ and about the communion of saints.

From reading this play (I have not read his work extensively) it seems that he was one of those people G.K. Chesterton talks about who are very intelligent and perceptive, but because they are closed off to grace, their scope of vision is so limited that all they can see is hell.

If you've never read "No Exit," it is a play about three people who arrive in hell and are a bit surprised at not being tormented with fire and pits of molten lava, though in the end that might have been easier for them.  Instead they are shown to a hotel room and left there, and they begin to talk and subject each other to psychological torture and in short make it hell for each other.  Even when the door is unlocked none of them will budge because they are so overcome by the need to able to spite the other two.

I think this is very insightful because to be depraved and in the company of depraved people is dreadful beyond description.  If you do not love, and even if you have not supernatural love but natural affection even the enjoyment of natural pleasure is a gilded cage.  How much more miserable when the people around you twist the dagger in the wound.  If the devil was really clever (which he is, having an angelic intellect), he would do exactly what Sartre intuited, placing those together who would be most psychologically destructive to one another.  If you think this is unlikely, think about how in monasteries it is expected that the brothers will "form each other" to some extent.  Does it not seem unreasonable that the devil will arrange it so that those under him de-form each other?  In hell no doubt there is an anti-communion of the non-saints.

So that's one side of it.  What about the other?  The communion of saints?  To begin with, you have to have some level of holiness to appreciate it.  One time we were reading this play in an English class and all of the people in it were disgustingly greedy and selfish except for one young man who was neither wicked nor particularly virtuous and a young woman who was innocent and prayed.  The professor described her as "sickeningly good."  She was kind of one-dimensional, with only a few lines, but I found her presence to be a relief.  I wonder what he would think of actual saints.  Just like you can't enter or even understand why heaven should be good if you are unlike enough to God (i.e. unholy), I think it might be easier just to dislike good people if you do not see the point of being good.

But yet, you may say, many people who honestly try to good and holy are still incredibly annoying to be around.  They may have irritating habits that grate on your nerves.  They may be boorish or lack social graces.  So to some extent you must exercise charity to "put up with them."  But is it them, personally, that you must put up with, or is it some imperfection in them that bothers you?  That guy who doesn't know when to stop talking (for instance).  If he learned to amend that, would he still be the same person?  Of course.  When he is perfected by grace, there will be nothing not to like about him and everything to like.  The same for your foibles that people must put up with.

An illustration: someone once posed the question, "Sometimes when you meet very holy people, you might not get along with them.  If you met our Lady, would you like her?"  The answer is "Yes, of course."  Because all the other saints, though they were very good and holy, they did not yet have every grace and human perfection so they sometimes could be disagreeable.  But the Mother of God was filled with grace her entire life, so that you could not help but love her unless, I suppose, you were so wicked as to be sad or resentful at God's generosity.  That is why she has the title "Mother most amiable."  And our mother Mary gives us a preview of what we will be like in heaven; though she is the greatest of the saints, she is not essentially different from us.  In heaven we actually will be perfect, and as we will love others as ourself, our happiness will only increase in proportion to the joy of all.  We will have to wait for heaven for the fulfillment, but we can start enjoying the communion of the saints here on earth.

So the maxim about hell being other people seems to be a special case of a broader principle; knowing all this we ought to state the "general solution" (to use math terms).  It might not be so compact and pithy, but it will be more complete and more useful.  Does someone want to take a stab at it?

Posted by Thomas A. on March 21, 2005 at 04:07 PM | Permalink


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