Philosophy at the service of peace: Jean Paul Sartre
Jean Paul Sartre (21 June 1905 – 15 April 1980) is one of the more prominent post-war writers ad dramatists who have, arisen on the Continent. As a young man he studied under the philosophers Husserl and Heidegger, and now has come to be regarded as the foremost exponent of the philosophical trend known as “Existentialism.” His philosophical view is best summarized in his work “Existentialism and Humanism.”
On 12-19 December 1952, Sartre delivered the opening statement at the Vienna Congress of the Peoples for Peace, in which he said that “our first duty is to dig out the beautiful word Peace from the mud into which it has been thrown and to clean it up a bit. No! No peace in terror, not in humiliation, not in bondage. No peace at any price…. We say that we have chosen the chance for Peace and that we wish to show that such a chance exists and to seek out what must be done so that it shall not pass us by”. He added that “peace is not a permanent condition that is bestowed upon us one fine day like a good conduct certificate, but a long term construction project to be carried out on a world-wide basis and demanding the collaboration of all the world’s peoples”.
In this vein, Prof. David Lethbridge outlined that for Sartre, there was no question of creating a new international body, or of trying to substitute a new organization to replace the United Nations, but to set in motion a resolution, a set of popular demands, that could be effectively communicated with the various governments in the nations from which the delegates had come: a people’s unity was key.
In his famous statement delivered in Vienna, Sartre took the occasion to describe what, for him, was of central importance in the Congress he had so recently attended: it was peace. “We not only made known our desire for peace to our Governments, we have been making peace. We brought about a unique experience of friendship amongst men. … If there was hope at Vienna it was because, all of a sudden, we saw what peace could be and has never yet been: concord … I bear witness therefore that the Vienna Congress is and will remain, despite all the calumnies, an historic event. … I bear witness that Peace, of which I saw the first seed, is something more than the mere absence of war, and that it could be a new honor and a new bond between men. The seed, we saw it at Vienna: it is for us … not to let it be crushed”.
In his pacifist vision of the world he openly denounced the use of nuclear weapons for its devastating effects over the population. In the World Peace Council Congress, held in Berlin, in May 1954, Sartre delivered a statement entitled “Weapon against History”, in which he stated the following:
“Whereas previously wars of aggression required “millions of men to kill millions of men,” with the development of atomic and hydrogen bombs “war becomes detached from mankind. It is no longer restrained by the masses … today atomic war is in the hands of a few wealthy men and their mercenaries.” Nuclear war “could be launched tomorrow by a few cabinet ministers against the will and interests of the nation.”
In the context of the World Assembly for Peace, held in Helsinki on 23-29 June 1955, Sartre delivered the final speech of the Conference before two thousand delegates from sixty-five countries. He took this opportunity to stress the importance of the Vienna and Helsinki Congress in the pursuit of peace as follows:
“Vienna has borne its fruits: at the Helsinki Congress all sectors, all opinions, all parties are represented.” And, a little later, “all the groups who have sent delegates to Helsinki have stressed one essential aspect of the peace which we are trying to create: it is a peace desired by the peoples. Not in the first instance by elites, but foremost by the masses”.
Sartre reaffirmed the linkage between peace and freedom by saying that “our peace can only have one meaning: it is possible for all nations and all men to muster their own destiny; in a word it is freedom. There, it seems to me, is the common meaning of our undertaking: we want to construct peace by freedom and give freedom back to the peoples through peace”.
Finally, Sartre stressed in this Congress that instead of emphasizing what separates us, humankind should try and show what unites us. Because our unity does exist.
In 1962, Jean-Paul Sartre explained his refusal to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in a statement made to the Swedish Press, which appeared in Le Monde in a French translation. He said that this attitude is based on his conception of the writer’s enterprise.
“A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner”.