Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Sartre and Sertillanges on Creation

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Sartre and Sertillanges on Creation

Article excerpt

DURING THE FRIGHTENING YEARS OF 1943 to 1945, in the midst of devastations and annihilations of all sorts, two very different philosophers, with very different intentions, had a concern in common: the concept of creation. On the one hand, there is Jean-Paul Sartre, whose essay on phenomenological ontology entitled L'Etre et le Neant (Being and Nothingness) intends to dismiss creation. But this is neither the traditional skeptical way of rejecting natural theology (illustrated by Hume), nor the critical way (advocated by Kant), nor the materialist denial of the relevance of any issue as to why there is something rather than nothing. Nor does Sartre take into account sociological and psychoanalytical challenges to religious conceptions. He intends to argue, on purely ontological grounds, that the very idea of creation proves to be a self-defeating contradiction.

No commentators have analyzed Sartre's attempts to prove that the concept of God as a creator is self-contradictory and inconsistent with human freedom. (1) That is why his purported dismissal of the concept of creation is worth reviewing now. On the other hand, the French Dominican priest Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges, who in 1927 translated questions 44 through 49 of the first part of Summa theologiae, dared to publish in 1945 L'idee de creation et ses retentissements en philosophic (The Idea of a Creation and Its Echoes in Philosophy). Quite surprisingly, Sertillanges had already taken into account, with some respectful attention, some of Sartre's views. In his posthumous volume dedicated to the problem of evil, Sertillanges criticizes Sartre's neo-Heideggerian account of freedom in terms of delaissement (Gelassenheit, squalidity), for such a freedom "cannot aim at nothing but chosing itself [ne peut avoir pour but que de se vouloir elle-meme]." But Sertillanges also points out some Sartrian insights: "M. Sartre very well saw that from the idea of loyalty ... we can go back up to the supreme, absolute norm, that is to God." (2) Sertillanges even grants some points to Sartre: "We are forced to register this statement by Sartre himself: 'If there is no God, then ... '." (3) Of course, Sertillanges does not share the views of L'existentialisme est-il un humanisme? But he is, no doubt, in dialogue with Sartre on this topic. It could be objected that Sartre proceeds anthropologically, and Sertillanges metaphysically. Sartre's method is transcendental and phenomenological, Sertillanges's line of reasoning is ontological. Surely, the topic of self-creation turns out to be for Sartre an anthropological account of the being-for-itself. But, as I shall try to argue, Sartre's first step consists in attempting to dismiss the metaphysical concept of creation. In so doing, Sartre discusses the traditional ontological issues associated with the question of whether some being can produce another. My concern is not to assess Sartre's use of the notion of creation. Neither will I explore the topic of "the creation of the self." I investigate only the way Sartre suggests that the very ontological concept of creation is self-defeating. The primary question is thus whether Sartre is justified in rejecting the metaphysical concept of creation. Therefore, I will not elaborate the notions of facticity, desire, or freedom in situation. Nevertheless, I will evoke some anthropological commitments of Sartre's denial of ontological creation.

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Being and Nothingness is a foundational text. Jean-Paul Sartre may be considered the prophet of French postmodernism, and Being and Nothingness may be viewed as the bible, or at least the Old Testament, of French postmodernism (the four gospels being written by Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, and Lyotard). Like the Old Testament, Being and Nothingness is a huge patchwork which, while read in its entirety by few, is still quoted by many as if they know it very well. But unlike the Old Testament, what is displayed in this book is not the revelation of "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," nor of "I am Who am. …

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