Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Existentialism and Christian Humanism: Josef Pieper's Critque of Sartre Revisited

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Existentialism and Christian Humanism: Josef Pieper's Critque of Sartre Revisited

Article excerpt

More than perhaps any other Thomistic philosopher of his generation, Josef Pieper (1904-1997) attempted to understand and engage (rather than caricature and evade) the early philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, especially Sartre's famous definition of existentialism as the "belief that existence precedes essence." (1) Indeed, Pieper seems to have considered Sartre's denial of any human nature that might serve as a "natural" limit on our freedom to be the supreme expression not merely of existentialism but of modernity itself. He returned repeatedly in his writings to Sartre's denial of human nature, eventually dedicating an entire essay, "Creatureliness and Human Nature: Reflections on the Philosophical Method of Jean-Paul Sartre," (2) to an examination of and reflection upon its (not entirely negative) significance for Christian philosophy. While Pieper's analysis is based primarily on the famous 1945 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism, which Sartre himself later dismissed as overly popular and simplistic, Pieper's essay itself is a surprisingly insightful and even-handed attempt to comprehend and critique Sartre's early thought from a Catholic and Thomistic perspective.

In this article, I will examine Pieper's essay and its enduring value for understanding Sartre. First, I will briefly examine and defend his analysis of and disagreement with Sartre's claim that "existence precedes essence," showing how--despite his severely limited textual basis--Pieper correctly identifies and engages the heart of Sartre's early philosophy. Next, I will explore Pieper's argument that Sartre, by connecting the existence of natures to that of a creating God, has not only grounded his philosophy deeply within the classical and Christian philosophical tradition, but also provided an opportunity for Christians to rethink and deepen the notion of creation. Finally, I will turn to Pieper's efforts to draw out some of the more radical implications of Sartre's existentialism for our knowledge of the world, implications which Pieper recognized more clearly than many of Sartre's own followers. Despite his disagreement, Pieper expresses these consequences of Sartre's existentialism eloquently and offers them as a fundamental challenge to anyone who would defend Sartre's project. In conclusion, I argue that Pieper's critique, while hardly complete or conclusive, represents a serious effort by a Christian philosopher to comprehend and philosophically engage in good faith what Sartre called "all the consequences of a coherent atheistic position." As such, his critical engagement with and assessment of Sartre's philosophy deserves closer attention than it has yet received among either Sartrean or Christian philosophers.

I. Pieper and the Early Sartre

At first glance, Josef Pieper seems a most unlikely candidate for serious dialogue with Sartre's early philosophy. A devout Catholic, German by birth, Thomist by training and inclination, and shockingly apolitical (at least by Sartrean standards), Pieper would seem to have little in common with Sartre. Their disparate responses to reading Heidegger's Being and Time illustrate the differences in both personality and worldview between them. While Sartre's ultimate answer to Heidegger was the atheistic existentialism of Being and Nothingness, Pieper's reply (a decade earlier) was his small book on the theological virtue of hope. (3) That Pieper would respond thus should not surprise us, though. In marked contrast to Sartre, he embraced the classical and Christian metaphysical tradition from Plato to Aquinas, with all its theological and anthropological assumptions, drawing upon it to engage, critique, and challenge from a Catholic perspective the dominant philosophical movements of the mid-twentieth century.

For our purposes, what is most interesting about Pieper's critical engagement with modernity is his choice of Sartre as perhaps the supreme representative of existentialism, under whose mantle he claimed in 1957 that "the most vital and genuine philosophical thinking is being carried on today. …

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