Roger Scruton

The power of negative thinking

Roger Scruton says that France has never recovered from Jean-Paul Sartre’s horror of the bourgeoisie and his repudiation of both Christianity and the idea of France

Roger Scruton says that France has never recovered from Jean-Paul Sartre’s horror of the bourgeoisie and his repudiation of both Christianity and the idea of France

Jean-Paul Sartre, born 100 years ago on 21 June 1905, was the most striking presence in French post-war literature, and the originating cause of the left-bank culture of the Sixties. His prodigious literary gifts found expression in seminal works of philosophy, in novels, plays, stories, criticism, in a highly influential literary journal (Les Temps modernes) and in a remarkable work of autobiography (Les Mots, 1964). His versatile sensibility set him high above the intellectual landscape on which he poured down his scorn, and his ability to express complex ideas in vivid imagery enabled him to influence not only his fellow intellectuals but the entire social and political fabric of modern France. Thirty thousand people followed his coffin — a tribute comparable to that paid by the people of Vienna to Beethoven, a century and a half before, and one that no British or American philosopher could ever hope for.

Sartre invented the anti-hero of modern literature, the suffering consciousness who does not act but who hides within his ego, disgusted by the obscene reality of external things (La Nausée, 1938). He advocated the moral posture of the ‘existentialist’ — the one for whom the self and its authenticity take precedence over every moral code, every convention, every custom in which ‘others’ have a voice, but who nevertheless lives by engagement or commitment (L’Existentialisme est un humanisme, 1946). He out-satanised Baudelaire in his choice of heroes, discovered in the professional thief Jean Genet the type of the modern saint (Saint Genet, comédien et martyr, 1952), and advocated crime as a form of moral purity. He reinvented the class enemy of Marx and inspired a whole generation of young people to live in antagonism towards the ‘bourgeoisie’ — the class that jettisons freedom in favour of the ‘bad faith’ of customs, institutions and laws.

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