Cover image for Sartre on Violence: Curiously Ambivalent By Ronald E. Santoni

Sartre on Violence

Curiously Ambivalent

Ronald E. Santoni


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ISBN: 978-0-271-02301-4

200 pages
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Sartre on Violence

Curiously Ambivalent

Ronald E. Santoni

“Across the years and through a number of writings that exhibit ‘an unsteady but tested line of continuity, development and coherence,’ Sartre came to realize that violence is at once freedom-affirming and freedom-destroying—a particularly uncomfortable situation for a philosopher of freedom with quasi-utopian social ideals. This insightful analysis of Sartre’s ‘curiously ambivalent’ understanding of violence and its justification is the most thorough study of this important topic that we are like to have for a long time.”


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From "Materialism and Revolution" (1946) through Hope Now (1980), Jean-Paul Sartre was deeply engaged with questions about the meaning and justifiability of violence. In the first comprehensive treatment of Sartre’s views on the subject, Ronald Santoni begins by tracing the full trajectory of Sartre’s evolving thought on violence and shows how the "curious ambiguity" of freedom affirming itself against freedom in his earliest writings about violence developed into his "curiously ambivalent" position through his later writings.
“Across the years and through a number of writings that exhibit ‘an unsteady but tested line of continuity, development and coherence,’ Sartre came to realize that violence is at once freedom-affirming and freedom-destroying—a particularly uncomfortable situation for a philosopher of freedom with quasi-utopian social ideals. This insightful analysis of Sartre’s ‘curiously ambivalent’ understanding of violence and its justification is the most thorough study of this important topic that we are like to have for a long time.”
“Professor Santoni has provided the reader with a clearly written and comprehensive study of Sartre’s views on violence, including a detailed reflection on Sartre’s relation to Camus on this topic. Santoni’s central theme is Sartre’s reluctance both to condemn the occasional necessity of oppressed people to use violence against their oppressors, and to grant the status of moral approval to this use of violence. While not himself approving of this ‘curious ambivalence,’ Santoni acknowledges that, given Sartre’s consistent and unequivocal support of the marginalized people of the world in their pursuit for a more dignified life, Sartre’s occasional bow to violence is at least understandable."Santoni’s important book is required reading for future work on this topic.”
“In this well-documented, provocative work, Professor Santoni uncovers and examines the ambivalence of Sartre’s treatments of violence throughout his writings. In the process he interestingly resurrects the intellectual atmosphere of mid-twentieth-century France, paying special attention to one of the most famous polemics of the time, the Sartre-Camus clash over the latter’s The Rebel. The timeliness of Santoni’s contribution, at a moment when the word ‘terrorism’ has captured everyone’s attention but the idea of it often appears murky and unclear, hardly needs to be underscored.”
“I do not know of anyone who has undertaken as thorough a study of both the early and later Sartre’s ‘curiously ambivalent’ views on violence. One of the book’s special strengths is that it makes significant use of Sartre’s unpublished 1964 "Rome Lecture" as well as interviews he gave shortly before his death.”
“Santoni makes no claim to an impressive intellectual pedigree for his analysis of Sartre. He just reads all the passages on violence in the thinker’s work, showing how each is embedded within the systemic matrix of his philosophy at any given stage of its development. But in so doing, Santoni comes very close to an improvised model of symptomatic reading; for he demonstrates that a contradictory notion of violence runs throughout Sartre’s work.”
Sartre on Violence has an important and provocative role to play. As a book full of moral challenges, it can serve as an extraordinarily valuable ‘instructor’ in these troubled times.”
“In this intelligent, humane, and all-too-timely study, Ron Santoni unites two of his lifelong passions: Sartre’s philosophy and his own abhorrence of violence. . . . The book is lucidly written. . . . It also serves as a good introduction to the trajectory of Sartre’s thinking as a whole through the prism of this one seemingly narrow theme. . . . This book will be essential reading for all Sartre scholars, whether students or professionals. Moreover, it deals intelligently and sensitively with what Santoni, surely rightly, calls ‘the issue of our time’ (p. x). May the leaders of our countries read it as well.”
“I would argue that this final section is the best discussion available in English of the "Rome Lectures" and is exceeded perhaps only by Juliette Simont’s work, which was published in French and has, until now, remained mostly untranslated.”
“Santoni, who has dedicated his life to the cause of peace, has favored us with a major contribution both to Sartre studies and to the broader issue of social violence that for Sartre as for many today remains ‘curiously ambivalent.’”

Ronald E. Santoni is Maria Theresa Barney Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Denison University and a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. His previous books include Bad Faith, Good Faith, and Authenticity in Sartre's Early Philosophy (1995).

Part I: Sartre’s Trajectory on Violence Introduction

In Hope Now: The 1980 Interviews,1 the controversial “conversations” that took place between Jean-Paul Sartre and Benny Lévy just months before Sartre’s death, Lévy quotes back to Sartre some of the extreme statements he made regarding violence in his introduction (normally called Preface) to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth.2 In particular, given both Sartre’s insistence during these “interviews” that we are all brothers born of the same “mother-humanity” and his plea for a “true fraternity” in which “what I have is yours, what you have is mine,” Lévy reminds Sartre of his characterization in that Preface of the “colonized man” as a “son of violence [who] draws his humanity from it at every moment.” Pressing Sartre to acknowledge the tension between these two positions and to admit that, in this latter statement, “violence [for Sartre] is the midwife,” Lévy asks Sartre whether people can be “brothers inasmuch as they are the children of violence.” He also asks whether violence can ever “have the redemptive [or regenerative?] role” that Sartre attributes to it in his Preface. With Sartre on the defensive and now acknowledging that “violence . . . is the very opposite of fraternity,” Lévy notes further “a profound tendency toward an ethic of violence” in Sartre’s philosophy and wants Sartre to account for his “exaltation of violence” in selective situations. In addition, as if to push the knife in a little deeper, he asks Sartre why he didn’t “work out an ethic of regenerative violence” at the time of the Resistance.3

This is not the time or place to give the details of Sartre’s answers to these questions or to offer a close assessment of section 10—entitled “Sons of Violence”— of Hope Now. I give detailed consideration to these questions and the Sartre-Lévy exchange in the concluding section of Part I of this work. I have offered the statements above mainly as a starting place for introducing my own concerns about the continuity and coherence of Sartre’s overall position on violence. Regardless of the style of Benny Lévy’s questioning or his oft-debated idiosyncrasies of dialogue, I believe that Lévy is raising some of the right questions and is justified in introducing the issue of consistency with respect to Sartre’s views on violence. Indeed, as I shall show, other scholars (not to mention passing readers) have raised such a concern.

My own recent reconsideration of the Lévy-Sartre “conversations,”4 together with Phyllis Morris’s written response to an earlier article in which I invoked Sartre’s analysis of violence in the Notebooks,5 has prompted me to do an intensive inquiry into Sartre’s thought regarding violence. Accordingly, in the study that follows, I formulate, interrelate, and compare Sartre’s views on violence in selected works in which he deals most directly with violence—namely, Cahiers pour une morale (Notebooks for an Ethics), Matérialisme et révolution (Materialism and Revolution), Critique de la raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason), his Preface to Frantz Fanon’s Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth), L’espoir maintenant (Hope Now), and the unpublished “Rome Lecture Notes.” Although I do not pretend to cover the entirety of Sartre’s thinking on violence, I believe that I present enough of it to reflect the diverging and contrasting positions— what I call the “curious ambivalence”—that Sartre exhibits in regard to violence through representative stages of his career. In addition, I attempt to show that there is consistency within each side of the tension, or dialectic, that seems to mark Sartre’s overall discussion of violence. Put another way, I think there is a wobbly continuity and coherence within the shifts and apparent inconsistency. While not entirely eliminating the tension, this continuity tends to relieve it. For one thing, the “altered view” on violence that Lévy directs Sartre to announce just before Sartre’s death in Hope Now is, I submit, noticeably similar to the main, but not exclusive, position Sartre expresses in his rather unsystematic, sometimes unfairly dismissed, but highly important, Notebooks for an Ethics,6 which he wrote in 1947–48, at the formative stage of his philosophical oeuvre. If my suggestion is even generally correct, it should lend support to Sartre’s insistence in The 1980 Interviews that “my contradictions were unimportant and . . . in spite of everything, I have always held to a continuous line [malgré tout, je suis toujours resté sur une ligne continue].”7

After viewing some preparatory materials from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, I begin my systematic inquiry of Part I with Sartre’s analysis of violence in Notebooks for an Ethics. I then consider, in chronological order, his sustained discussions of violence in his other representative works. But let me say at the outset that the reader must not assume that my study of Sartre on violence will terminate with the conclusions I reach on Sartre’s trajectory at the end of Part I. For, believing that no responsible inquiry into Sartre on violence should ignore the acrimonious 1952 exchange between Sartre and Camus over the latter’s views in The Rebel, I devote Part II of my study to this “confrontation.” To my mind, “violence” and revolutionary killing, in particular, are at the core of that mutually self-demeaning exchange (in Les temps modernes). I expect that the analysis of Sartre’s evolving views of violence that I provide in Part I will elucidate the philosophical bases for Sartre’s assault on Camus, even though some of these views come to fruition only after the dispute. In addition, I expect that this 1952 skirmish will bring to a head the dividing issue of the justification and limits of violence—the issue that will mark my culminatory concern in Part II of the book—and allow me to draw on Sartre’s rich, though not yet published or fully translated, “Rome Lecture Notes” of 1964.

Before addressing the relevant details of Sartre’s Notebooks for an Ethics or any of Sartre’s other major discussions of violence, I think it is imperative to provide a brief account of the background and framework out of which Sartre’s sustained confrontation with violence may be viewed. Because—as commentators on Sartre usually note—Sartre often invokes Hegel and in Being and Nothingness calls upon Hegel’s analysis of the Master-Slave relationship to generate his own account of our “concrete relations with Others,” it is important to begin with a brief summary of Hegel’s famous account. Sartre saw this relation as having “profoundly influenced Marx,”8 with whose philosophy Sartre seemed to have been in dialectical engagement during most of his philosophical development and oeuvre. And he himself refers or responds to Hegel’s specific account of this relationship in numerous places other than Being and Nothingness, including Notebooks for an Ethics.

1. Jean-Paul Sartre and Benny Lévy, Hope Now: The 1980 Interviews, trans. Adrian van den Hoven, with an introduction by Ronald Aronson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). The original French, from which this translation comes, is L’espoir maintenant: Les entretiens de 1980 (Lagrasse: Verdier, 1991).

2. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1968); originally published as Les damnés de la terre (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1961).

3. All quotes in this paragraph are from Sartre and Lévy, Hope Now, 89–95 (L’espoir maintenant, 58–66). I suggest “regenerative,” in the square brackets, as a possible additional connotation of the French word rédempteur (p. 62) in this context.

4. Ronald E. Santoni, “In Defense of Levy and ‘Hope Now’: A Minority View,” Sartre Studies International 4, no. 2 (1998): 61–68.

5. This response, to Ronald E. Santoni, “On the Existential Meaning of Violence,” Dialogue and Humanism, no. 4 (1993): 139–50 (also in Violence and Human Co-existence, ed. Venant Cauchy [Montreal: Montmorency, 1994]), came in the form of personal correspondence dated February 4, 1997. Though expressing agreement with my position on violence, she confessed to having “real reservations about tensions within Sartre’s own position” and encouraged me to pursue my projected work—which we had discussed earlier—on “Sartre and violence” as part of my wider project on violence. Once more, I express gratitude to her for our philosophical dialogue, her probing questions, her careful work, and our friendship, though I am saddened to report that between my original writing of this note of appreciation and my completion of an early, incomplete draft of Part I of this study three months later, my good friend Phyllis Morris died of complications related to metastatic breast cancer. She worked conscientiously on Sartre’s philosophy until two days before her death. For my fuller “Appreciation” of Phyllis, see Sartre Studies International 4, no. 1 (1998): 101–6 (R.E.S.).

6. Jean-Paul Sartre, Notebooks for an Ethics, trans. David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); originally published as Cahiers pour une morale (Paris: Gallimard, 1983). It is important to note that although Sartre wrote these Notebooks in 1947–48, early in his career, they were not published until 1983, three years after his death. It is also of interest to note that, in contrast to Haïm Gordon or, to a lesser extent, Joe Catalano, both William McBride and I, writing in separate works, used the word “gold mine” to describe the benefit of these posthumously published Notebooks. See William McBride, Sartre’s Political Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 63, and Ronald E. Santoni, Bad Faith, Good Faith, and Authenticity in Sartre’s Early Philosophy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), xix. Please note that all subsequent references to the Notebooks for an Ethics are cited as NFE, followed by the page number(s). References to the French original use the abbreviation CPM, followed by the page number(s). Unless otherwise indicated, I use the Pellauer translation.

7. Sartre and Lévy, Hope Now, 57 (L’espoir maintenant, 26).

8. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 237; originally published as L’être et le néant (Paris: Gallimard, 1943), 293. In the footnotes that follow, I use the abbreviation BN for Being and Nothingness and EN for L’être et le néant.

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