Sunday, 28 June 2015

On Sartre and the Rambam

Jean-Paul Sartre
I recently listened to a lecture by Professor Frank Furedi on prominent Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre(1905-1980) and the relevance of his thought today. I enjoyed it so much that I went ahead and read “Existentialism is a Humanism”, an essay based on a famous lecture by Sartre, introducing his philosophy to the broader public. As such, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on Sartre and connect it to the Rambam.

A Timeless Debate

Sartre’s thought is largely based around the idea of Human Freedom, and it’s on this topic that he clashed with many of the intelligentsia of his day. As the scientific revolution added more and more knowledge about how the world works, many thinkers felt that it was just a matter of time until Free Will was proven to be an illusion, and Human to be merely complex automatons, subject to deterministic processes. Baron Paul Henri Thiry d'Holbach(1723-1789) summarizes this opposed view well before Sartre was born:

"You will say that I feel free. This is an illusion, which may be compared to that of the fly in the fable, who, upon the pole of a heavy carriage, applauded himself for directing its course. Man, who thinks himself free, is a fly who imagines he has power to move the universe, while he is himself unknowingly carried along by it."

Sartre rejected this notion that our perceived freedom of choice is a faux, and explored the implications of said free will.

“In other words, there is no determinism—man is free, man is freedom.”

Hearing about this debate, I couldn’t help thinking of the debate over Free Will in the Rambam’s time. The Rambam took issue with some Islamic thinkers of his time who opposed the notion of Human Freedom as they saw it as contradicting God's ability to know the future and therefore detracting from his Omnipotence. The Rambam even refers to this debate in his Mishna Torah(Hilchot Tshuva 5:2)

אל יעבור במחשבתך דבר זה שאומרים טיפשי האומות ורוב גולמי בני ישראל, שהקדוש ברוך הוא גוזר על האדם מתחילת ברייתו להיות צדיק או רשע.

It seems that this debate is truly a timeless one, as it continues to resonate in the popular culture of today.

Character Traits

Discussions of Free Will often focus on individual acts, such as whether a person gives in to the temptation to sin or not. Sartre, on the other hand, focuses on the larger scale implications of Freedom--the type of person we become.

“What the existentialist says is that the coward makes himself a cowardly and the hero makes himself heroic; there is always the possibility that one day the coward may no longer be cowardly and the hero may cease to be a hero.”

I expected to find the Rambam’s formulations on Free Will to be focused more on the micro-scale of whether or not one chooses to sin, perform a mitzvah (especially since it's in Hilchot Tshuva).  Instead, the Rambam also begins his discussion of Free Will by focusing on character traits(Hilchot Tshuva 5:2)

אין הדבר כן, אלא כל אדם ואדם ראוי להיות צדיק כמשה רבנו או רשע כירובעם, או חכם או סכל, או רחמן או אכזרי, או כיליי או שוע; וכן שאר כל הדעות

That said, I’ll just note, that while the Rambam accepts the concept of Human Nature(yet indicates that we can change it), Sartre takes the more extreme approach of rejecting it entirely, insisting that we are only how we choose to act.

…there is no Human Nature…Man is that which he wills himself to be…is nothing other than what he makes of himself.

Taking Human Freedom Further

So, the Rambam focuses, not merely on deeds, but on traits. Sartre takes things a step further. His concept of Radical Freedom encompasses the ability to create and define ourselves entirely. He gives the example of an artist:

“…has anyone ever blamed an artist for not following rules of painting a priori? Has anyone ever told an artist what sort of picture he should paint? It is obvious that there is no pre-defined picture to be made…”

Inventing oneself is a creative act, perhaps THE creative act. Free will is not just a question of whether we are good or bad or even just the traits we acquire. There are many paths to virtue and we have the power and creativity to craft our own path.

Sartre gives the example of one of his students who came to him for advice, whether to attempt to escape occupied France for England so that he could help fight the Nazis, or whether to stay with his widowed mother who has no one else in the world but him. Sartre tells us that both paths are valid, it is the young man’s mission to choose what life to live and what person to become.

This is a powerful message and it is one worth internalizing. As Jews, we are obligated in many mitzvot, yet much is left open to us. If our service of God ends within the 4 amot of Halacha, then our work is incomplete. Each of us must forge his own path in the service of his Maker.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Along those lines, let's wrap up with advice from Rabbi Sacks on how to choose a direction for one's life.

If you want to find your purpose in life. Think about following sentence,  Where what you want to do, meets what needs too be done.