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Sartre and Heidegger

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
January 20, 2023 12:01 am

Sartre and Heidegger

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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January 20, 2023 12:01 am

What meaning could we possibly find for human life if we rejected the existence of God from the outset? Today, R.C. Sproul examines the 20th-century thinkers Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, whose ideas culminated in a philosophy of despair.

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Today, on Renewing Your Mind… We're in the perspective of Martin Heidegger, a prominent 20th century philosopher, and we see the ripples of his thought in our society today, don't we? The randomness and meaninglessness of life can be seen and felt everywhere we turn.

We're glad you could be with us today as we focus on R.C. Sproul's series, The Consequences of Ideas, and we'll explore a pessimistic line of reasoning today. Here's the question that we need to consider.

Is life more than chaos and despair? If somebody were to ask me, who I thought were the two most important philosophers of the 20th century, it may seem like a difficult task to identify them. We have many to choose from, people like Dewey and Peirce, Ludwig Wittgenstein, A.J. Eyre, Anthony Flew, Merleau-Ponty, Herbert Marcuse, and a host of others.

But for me, it's a no-brainer. I think that the two most influential and important philosophers of the 20th century are Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, Sartre of course being French and Heidegger being German, and both of them are associated with the broad school of existentialism, though Heidegger and Sartre both studied under the same professor, Edmund Husserl, who was the leading voice in his day of the philosophy of phenomenology. And sometimes technically people will distinguish between existentialism and phenomenology and set particularly Heidegger in a different category. But in the broad sense of the term existential, I think we can apply it to both of these men who have made an enormous impact on the thinking of 20th century scholars.

Heidegger was born in 1889 and died in 1976. Sartre was born in 1905 and died in 1980. Sartre, very much like Kierkegaard, combined literary gifts of great extraordinary genius with a technical grasp of some of the deepest questions of abstract philosophy. And Sartre was famous for publishing his plays such as his fictional works like The Flies and the drama No Exit and other works of that type, but his greatest philosophical contribution is in his large work entitled Being and Nothingness. Now, of course, Sartre's existentialism is a world apart from that of Kierkegaard, where Kierkegaard was religious, theistic, and Christian.

Sartre, of course, was vehemently opposed to Christianity and to all forms of theism, and his existentialism may be defined in terms of atheistic existentialism. He was the most important voice of post-World War II Europe. You remember that in the 19th century there was an unbridled spirit of optimism where people believed that through education and through the scientific revolution that the world was getting better and better and that people were learning how to control their own destiny, how to feed themselves, how to fend for themselves, and how to avoid the problems of warfare, and relatively speaking the 19th century was a rather peaceful time in world history. But the bubble burst on the optimism of the naïve humanism of the 19th century with the outbreak of World War I. But even then there were those who held tenaciously to their spirit of optimism saying that World War I was the war to end all wars, the last great conflict among people of a civilized sort. But that optimism was buried in the death camps of World War II, and the revealing of the extent of the Holocaust after World War II with the death camps in Auschwitz and Buchenwald and so on, Bergen-Belsen, and those things coming to light in modern Europe led to an overwhelming, almost tactile sense of despair among thinking people. And it was transported to this country with people like Jack Kerouac and others and the Beat Generation who brought this philosophy of despair to our culture.

And it was picked up and employed in drama, in the novel, in popular music, in and through all of the arts as existentialism with its mood of despair swept across the landscape of America, having been imported from Western Europe. It's Sartre who gave the initial formula for modern existentialism in which he uses the phrase being translated, existence precedes essence. And I think that really his thinking goes beyond this idea that not only is existence first in the order of knowing, which would simply put him in the same category of any empiricist going all the way back to somebody like Heraclitus who says you have becoming rather than being, and you have particulars rather than universals and things of that sort. But really what Sartre is getting at is that existence, individual concrete human existence precludes essence. There is no such thing as mankind.

There's only men and women. There are no universals, only the particular concrete data of existence. And because there is no overarching universal truth, that means there is nothing to unify our understanding of reality.

And in the final analysis, reality itself is absurd and irrational, and nothing really fits together in any meaningful way. So you have another kind, another form of nihilism following in the footsteps of Nietzsche in the thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre. Now, when he looks at human existence, he says that the defining trait or characteristic of a human being is subjectivity, that we are subjects, not objects. And the chief attribute of a subject is the subject's will, and specifically his free will. For without the power of choice, without the ability to make decisions for oneself, a person is not truly free, and if a person is not truly free, then that person is not human.

He's not a subject, as it were. And so anything for Sartre that threatens the subjectivity of human existence has to go. And of course, the greatest threat to humanness that Sartre encountered in his thinking was theism in general and Judeo-Christianity in particular, because one of the great tenets of Christian thought and Judeo-Christian thought is the sovereignty of God. And for Sartre, if God is sovereignty, if God is sovereign, truly sovereign, then man, in the final analysis, cannot be free, because true freedom, according to Sartre, demands autonomy, that we be a law unto ourselves. The authentic, existential person, just as it was with Nietzsche, is a person who rules himself. He is subject to the rule of no one or nothing else.

And if there's anyone or anything that restricts to any degree the freedom of that individual, then true freedom has been lost. And so if man is truly free, God cannot exist. His other argument against the existence of God is somewhat unique, although uniqueness doesn't admit to degrees.

It's just extraordinarily unusual. And he comes at it this way. He said, if the God of the Bible is true, and He's not only sovereign and omnipotent, but He is omniscient. That is, He knows everything. He knows your thoughts as you think them and before you think them. He sees you're sitting down and you're standing up.

He knows you altogether. If that is true, that would destroy humanity. Because remember, for Sartre, the essential, although I hesitate to use the word essence at all here, but the chief and most necessary attribute or characteristic of a human being is subjectivity. And if God is all-seeing and all-knowing, then every human being would always be constantly under the scrutiny of God. And he talks about God in this sense as being like a cosmic voyeur who is looking through the keyhole into a closed room and before His gaze, everything and everyone in the room is laid bare.

And that stare of God would dehumanize a person because under the gaze of God, you would be reduced to the status of object rather than subject. And he goes on to these brilliant vignettes of insight drawn from human experience. He talks, for example, about the impropriety of staring at human beings the way we stare at paintings in a museum where you sit on a bench across from the painting and you just sit there and gaze at it for minutes and perhaps even hours on end, or when you go to a zoo and you see the monkeys in the cage and you stand there and stare at them, that you wouldn't do that to real live people because if you just went up to somebody on the street and started to peer at them intently and stare at them, they would interpret that as a hostile action, which indeed it would be because you would be bearing them, reducing them to an object under your scrutiny. He talks about the existential experience of what he calls existential self-awareness. He used to habituate the cafes on the left bank of Paris, and he talks about sitting at a cafe table by himself one day, drinking coffee, and somebody else, another patron came in and sat in a corner of the cafe behind Sartre. And Sartre then said that he sensed, could feel the person's eyes on him, and he turned around and caught the person staring at him. He said that was dehumanizing.

In fact, this makes up the final pages of the drama No Exit, where in the final scene, people are in hell and all they're doing is staring at each other, and the punchline is hell is other people. That is, his identity as a person, he wanted to be free to determine for himself and not be fit or forced into some collective category where he became a thing rather than a person. But all this effort to achieve freedom and subjectivity, nevertheless for Sartre was in the final analysis an exercise in futility because he said that man in the final analysis is a useless passion. See, there's that word passion again, and he was an existentialist in the sense that he was passionately concerned for life and so on. But all of that concern and all of that passion and care that we give to human existence in the final analysis is an exercise in futility.

It is useless. And one of the most morbid works that he published was a little book with the one-word title, and the title was Nausea. That was his final judgment on the meaning of human existence. Well, in many ways, Heidegger shared the same pessimistic view of human existence. In his younger years, Martin Heidegger, who wasn't all that young, but he became for a while a member of the Nazi party.

He soon quit that and turned his attention to his academic pursuits and to his teaching. His most important work was entitled Sein und Zeit, Being and Time. Notice that Sartre's main book was Being and Nothingness, and for Heidegger it was Being and Time, both of them profoundly concerned with the question of ontology, what it means to be, and yet both of them rejecting the classical categories of being and siding on the side of becoming. He said that it is improper to speak of human beings simply by referring to the concept of being, which in German is the word sein. He said that man, whatever else he is, is always not sein but das sein.

Now, what does that mean? To say that man is das sein, he takes the spatial reference word da, which means there, there in that place, and attaches it to the German word for being. So that da sein means literally being there. I was driving home from church the other day, and my wife said, why are you going in this direction? Are you going to be able to find where we're headed?

And I said, well, yes, I think it's down here. She said, well, everything has to be somewhere. That's true, and that's why men won't stop and ask for directions because they know that wherever they are, they're somewhere, and wherever they're going has to be somewhere.

And not only that, but what defines our human existence is that we're not infinite and eternal. We are always in a particular place at a particular time. You are not just being in general. You are being there. You are where you are at this moment.

I always do the trick question with my students and ask them where do they live, and they'll tell me someplace 50 miles from where we're talking about. I said, are you there now? And they say no. I said, well, are you alive now?

And they say yes. And I said, well, then that's not where you live. Where you live is where you are.

That may be your residence 50 miles from here or where your house is, but where you live is where you are at the moment. Now the whole point here is that our existence is defined by our finite limits as creatures. And this creates a sense of fear, of anxiety, of care, what the German existentialists call a zorgan, a profound sense of caring, an angst, anxiety, in so far as we find ourselves in a particular place at a particular time.

And what makes it all the more dreadful is that how we experience this sense of dassine or of being there. For Heidegger, he uses a German term that uses the past participle form of a verb. And the word that he uses to define human existence and that which produces anxiety and care is the German word gewurfenheit. Now the word gewurfenheit means literally having been thrown, having been thrown. When I used to live in the Netherlands and learn the Dutch language which is a cognate language to German, I played baseball over there. And we had a star pitcher on our team who was voted the best pitcher in Europe. And the Dutch word for pitcher is verper, verper, w-e-r-p-e-r. And one of the things that I liked about that was that he wasn't called a hoyer, a thrower. We make a distinction in American baseball between pitchers who are throwers and those who are pitchers.

A pitcher is one who is under control. The other guy is just throwing the ball and who knows where it's going to go. I wish that would help us understand gewurfenheit, but really what Heidegger has in view of you here is more like a thrower than a verper. Gewurfenheit means a sense of having been hurled or thrown into existence. You didn't choose to be born where you were born.

You didn't choose the parents that you have or the culture in which you live. You experience a sense of having simply been hurled into time and hurled into space chaotically for no purpose and no great reason. You're simply there. And that's what defines the struggle and the passion of human existence, that here you are, here I am. I don't know where I came from.

I don't know where I'm going. I'm just sort of hanging out here suspended in some kind of animation where I have all these cares, all these concerns, all these passions, but there's no reason for my being where I am at this given time. And so he ends pretty much with Sartre in a philosophy of despair. One of their other compatriots was Albert Camus, who's famous for his popularization of these thoughts in his famous work, The Plague. And it was Camus who, reflecting on these same ideas of Sartre and Heidegger, who said that there's only one serious question left for philosophers to explore, and that's the question of suicide. You see, the real existential question for one who experiences Gewurf and Heide is the question posed by Hamlet, to be or not to be. That is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and narrows of outrageous fortune, that is, whether it's a virtuous and good and reasonable thing to continue to endure the sufferings that are imposed upon us by fortuitous circumstances that in the final analysis are outrageous, or, says Hamlet, what? By opposing.

End them. What's he contemplating? He's contemplating suicide, to die, to sleep, perchance to dream. There's the rub, for what dreams may come in the sleep of death when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.

There's the respect that makes calamity a such long life, and so on. And then he contemplates the possibility of judgment after the grave that gives him pause. But that's the question that Camus, following Sartre and Heidegger, say is the question, do I continue to bear this pain in this world of despair where I've been hurled chaotically into space and time, or do I take the initiative and end it? Perhaps the greatest exponent of this in popular literature was Ernest Hemingway.

He said, the only power I have over death is to determine the way, the place, and the time of my own death, which he methodically carried out by aiming his best and most accurate hunting rifle at his own head and set the trigger and pulled the trigger and ended his life, fulfilling the philosophy of despair. Ideas do have consequences, don't they? These can be difficult concepts to understand, but R.C.

Sproul has explained them so well today here on Renewing Your Mind. This week we are listening to lessons from his series The Consequences of Ideas, which in total spends 35 lessons explaining the history of philosophy. This is just one aspect of our ministry here at Ligonier, but at its core, our goal is to proclaim, teach, and defend the holiness of God in all its fullness to as many people as possible. Before he went home to be with the Lord a few years ago, I asked Dr. Sproul why it is so important that we teach on such heady topics. You know, it's funny that you ask me that now because I'm in the midst of reading a very provocative book that's addressing a serious crisis in modern evangelicalism where even heretofore basically considered to be sound theologians are drifting away from the biblical understanding of God and moving into a serious departure from an understanding of the perfect, pure being of God, His holiness, His transcendent otherness, His self-existence, His perfect being. And what happens when you depart from any aspect of theology proper, the understanding of the character nature of God? That is going to have repercussions on everything we understand, not only about God, but about His creation, the world, and how we live in it, because so basic and foundational to our whole understanding of life is our understanding of who God is.

And that's exactly why I think you'll find Dr. Sproul's series, The Consequences of Ideas, so helpful. We would like to send you all 35 messages on nine DVDs. Simply contact us today with a donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries.

You can find us online at, or you can call us with your gift at 800-435-4343. Your generosity is what keeps this program on the air. Renewing Your Mind is a unique voice. As you heard today, we take the time to dive into some pretty deep water, examining the ideas and philosophies that shape our culture, good and bad. So if you appreciate what we're doing here, I hope you'll contact us today with a donation of any amount. And we will send you The Consequences of Ideas as our way of saying thank you. Our number again is 800-435-4343. Our online address is Well, of course, the antidote for these destructive ideas that we see all around us is the gospel, and that's where we'll turn our attention next week. I hope you'll join us beginning Monday for Dr. Stephen Lawson's series, The New Birth, here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-20 06:27:49 / 2023-01-20 06:36:11 / 8

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