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Socrates Meets Sartre: In Hell? | By Peter Kreeft | An excerpt from Socrates Meets Sartre: The Father of Philosophy Cross-Examines the Founder of Existentialism

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This book is one in a series of Socratic explorations of some of the Great Books. Books in this series are intended to be short, clear, and non-technical, thus fully understandable by beginners. They also introduce (or review) the basic questions in the fundamental divisions of philosophy (see the chapter titles): metaphysics, epistemology, anthropology, ethics, logic, and method. They are designed both for classroom use and for educational do-it-yourselfers. The "Socrates Meets . . ." books can be read and understood completely on their own, but each is best appreciated after reading the little classic it engages in dialogue.

The setting – Socrates and the author of the Great Book meeting in the afterlife – need not deter readers who do not believe there is an afterlife. For although the two characters and their philosophies are historically real, their conversation, of course, is not and requires a "willing suspension of disbelief ". There is no reason the skeptic cannot extend this literary belief also to the setting.

Chapter I | In Hell?

SARTRE: Oh, the absurdity of it all! The absurdity! The absurdity! That I exist! Even after I have died, I still exist! How utterly nauseating! It is indeed the nausea of existence itself. There is indeed "no exit" from my own existence! I am in Hell, forever!

SOCRATES (to himself): He whines like a sick puppy. He pouts and preens like a bratty teenager. He drowns in the lake of his own verbosity like Narcissus. And yet this man is called a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. He was more popular in his lifetime than any other in his century. (What a century!) Thousands of adoring women flung themselves at him to be abused. I have been here in the Overworld for nearly twenty-four centuries, examining mankind, as part of their Purgatory and my Heaven, but sometimes I think I shall never understand human nature.

Well, there is mystery here, at any rate: that much is clear. Perhaps I can learn as well as teach in this encounter. But I may have to abandon my "Socratic method" for stronger medicines, if I am to get through to this patient. For this conversation, so that he can relate to me, I shall speak like an ordinary philosopher, not like myself. He does not see or hear me yet-or anything or anyone else, for that matter.

SARTRE: Alas, alas, the absurdity of it all, the absurdity of my existence!

SOCRATES: He is indeed in absurdity, but not because of his existence.

SARTRE: It is as I thought: my very being is a "being-for-itself", endlessly frustrated in its inescapable and unending attempt to do the impossible, to become a "being-in-itself". But there is "no exit" from this self-contradiction. My own noblest possession, freedom, is my doom: I am "condemned to freedom." I am doomed to failure. I am an eternal Boston Red Sox fan, under a cosmic curse.

SOCRATES: He attempts to drown himself and his misery in the ocean of his own verbiage. He is right: that attempt is doomed to failure.

SARTRE: But am I really in Hell? How can that be? "Hell is other people." But I see no other people here, either my torturers or my torturees.

SOCRATES: That is because your ugly eyeballs are ingrown, like toenails, jean-Paul. Look outside yourself for once! Look here! Look at me!

SARTRE: Oh, oh. I spoke too soon. Here comes my torturer. O cruel and cursed irony of the gods-my torturer is to be Socrates! Objective truth in a toga!

SOCRATES: It could be worse, Jean-Paul; it could have been Jesus.

SARTRE: No, no, there are no "could have beens." There are no possibilities, there are only actualities.

SOCRATES: Not so. You could have been Jean-Paul the Great. But that name will be given to another, with whom you will never be confused. You are JeanPaul the Small.

SARTRE: I do not answer to that name.

SOCRATES: But it answers to you. It hovers round your head like a halo.

SARTRE: A halo, you say?

SOCRATES: A tiny, dark halo.

SARTRE: I accept my fate: to be tortured, to be insulted, to be known by you as an object, a being-in-itself. But where is my victim? Each torturee must be a torturer as well.

SOCRATES: Not so. That pattern was broken when One became the universal torturee.

SARTRE: Not so. He is the torturer. He would be my torturer if He were present to me now.

SOCRATES: Perhaps that is why He is not present.

SARTRE: He lets you do His dirty work, then, Socrates?

SOCRATES: MY work is only to explore and examine your work.

SARTRE: What work?

SOCRATES: Your best book.

SARTRE: All 700 pages of it?

SOCRATES: No, no, not Saint Genet. That was your worst book: as perverse as DeSade but infinitely duller. I mean Existentialism and Human Emotions.

SARTRE: But that was my shortest book.

SOCRATES: Precisely. And that is why it was so precise and intelligible.

SARTRE: But most of it was culled from Being and Nothingness.

SOCRATES: Yes. A good panhandler can find a few nuggets of gold even in a river of mud.

SARTRE: I can endure your Socratic questioning, and even your sarcastic personal insults, if you only answer me one little question.

SOCRATES: "Just answer me one little question" that's my line. I am flattered by your plagiarism. And also curious about your question. What is it?

SARTRE: Well, as you know, I didn't believe in Hell or Heaven or Purgatory or any sort of life after death. It seems I was wrong about life after death; was I wrong about Hell too? In No Exit I used it as a metaphor for earth, for how we always inescapably deal with each other in life. Thus "Hell is other people." Am I now in my own play? Is that to be my punishment?

SOCRATES: You said you had one question. By my count that's three.

SARTRE: Am I in Hell or not?

SOCRATES: That is entirely up to you.

SARTRE: Look here, Socrates, if that is really who you are, could you give me just one little gift? Could you use another instrument of torture than your famous "Socratic method"? I mean those teasing questions of yours, and then those long, repetitious, and insultingly elementary chains of logic that you are so in love with. Could you instead come right to the point? Just hit me, already. It will make me less cranky than your intellectual version of Chinese water torture, and whatever you want from me, you'll get more out of me if I'm less cranky.

SOCRATES: I promise I will try to be quick. Quicker than you were in most of your books, at any rate.

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.

He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals of the Faith, Catholic Christianity, Back to Virtue, and Three Approaches to Abortion. In addition to Socrates Meets Sartre, his most recent Ignatius Press books include You Can Understand the Bible and The God Who Loves You.

Dr. Kreeft's personal web site | Dr. Kreeft's author page at IgnatiusInsight.com, with full listing of books in print

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