Jean-Paul Sartre was the most popular philosopher in history – during his lifetime. His work was known to students, intellectuals, revolutionaries, and even the general reading public the world over. Two main reasons account for this unprecedented popularity, neither of which has to do with Sartre’s abilities as a philosopher. First, he became the spokesman for existentialism at the opportune moment – when this philosophy filled the spiritual gap left amidst the ruins of Europe, in the aftermath of World War Two. And, second, his later adoption of a revolutionary stance against authority struck a chord in the era of Che Guevara, worldwide student unrest, and sentimental sympathy for the Cultural Revolution in Communist China.
Where politics was concerned, Sartre wrote about almost everything. Alas, events proved him wrong about almost everything. Sartre’s earlier philosophy is another matter. He may not have been the first existentialist, but he was the first publicly to accept this label. He was also one of its most able exponents.
‘Whatever you do’
Jean-Paul Sartre’s ability to develop philosophical ideas, and their implications, remained unrivaled in the twentieth century. But this was done with imaginative brilliance rather than analytic rigour. As a result, he was dismissed with contempt by many orthodox thinkers, who claimed that neither he nor existentialism had anything to do with ‘real’ philosophy. Existentialism was the philosophy that showed the ultimate freedom of the individual, succinctly encapsulated by the night club singer Juliette Greco: ‘Whatever you do, you become.’
Immanuel Kant was born April 22, 1724, in the Baltic city of Königsberg, then the capital of the isolated German province of East Prussia (now Kaliningrad in Russia). Kant’s ancestors had emigrated from Scotland in the preceding century and may well have been related to the notorious seventeenth-century Scottish preacher Andrew Cant, who is said to have been the origin of the verb “to cant” with regard to the use of jargon – a family trait which was to reappear with a vengeance in the philosopher.
At the time of Kant’s birth East Prussia was recovering from the devastation of war and plague, which had reduced the population by over half. Kant grew up in an atmosphere of pious poverty. He was the fourth child of the family, which eventually included five sisters and one other brother. Kant’s Scottish father was a cutter of leather straps who jocularly claimed that he “could never make both ends meet” either at home or at work. Kant always remained respectful of his likable but financially harassed father, and as a child is said to have enjoyed watching him deftly cutting up pieces of leather for harnesses. Yet according to the philosophical psychologist Ben-Ami Scharfstein, in the light of his father’s dexterity “Kant’s great clumsiness with his hands is therefore noteworthy.”
Whether or not this is the case, and what precisely it might be noteworthy of, the main early influence in Kant’s life was undoubtedly his mother. Frau Kant was a wholly uneducated German woman who is said to have possessed great “natural intelligence.” It was this which particularly influenced her son Immanuel – or Manelchen as she called him (“Little Manny”). Kant’s mother would take him for walks in the countryside and tell him the names of the plants and flowers. At night she would show him the stars, naming them and their constellations. She was a pious woman, and her loving but austere ways also helped shape her son’s moral character. This dual insistence on facts and moral obligation was to remain with Kant throughout his life and played a leading role in his philosophy.
Paul-Michel Foucault was born on October 15, 1926, at Poitiers, 250 miles south of Paris. His family were well-to-do bourgeois in a town that has remained a byword for French provincialism. His father was a surgeon, taught at the local medical school, and ran a prosperous practice. His mother was a strong-minded woman who managed her husband’s finances, helped administer his practice, and daringly drove an automobile.
During Paul-Michel’s childhood his parents also built a seaside villa on the Atlantic coast at La Baule. This was large enough for a family of five and servants. Here the family spent their summer holidays amidst the pine trees overlooking a long curve of sandy beach. Father was kindly but stern, mother was efficient but concerned. For Paul-Michel, life at home with his older sister and younger brother was the epitome of normality. Such was the standard background of so many intransigent French intellectuals who have revolted against all forms of authority and bourgeois behaviour.
Dreaming of goldfish
At school young Paul-Michel was weedy and shortsighted. As a result his schoolmates soon corrupted his name to Polchinelle (the French equivalent of the hunchbacked figure of fun we know as Punch). Freudians will be intrigued to know that he dreamed of becoming a goldfish. Such fishy ambitions were reflected in his academic performance. Although evidently bright, he never excelled. Even at his favourite subject, history, he only finished second.
World events impinged little on sleepy Poitiers or Foucault family life. The seaside villa was built during the early years of the depression; Hitler’s posturings on the newsreels were dismissed with sophisticated ridicule in the press; and the blandly debonair records of Maurice Chevalier spun on the phonograph.
Jacques Derrida was born in Algeria on 15 July 1930. His family were petit bourgeois “assimilated” Jews, both part of the French colonial class and yet partial outsiders within it. He grew up in the capital, the seaside city of Algiers. Here the Europeans lived the easygoing empty Mediterranean life revolving between business, café, and beach – so tellingly evoked by the French-Algerian writer and philosopher Albert Camus in The Outsider.
In 1940, when Derrida was just ten years old, Algeria was dragged into World War Two. Although the country never saw fighting, or even so much as a German uniform, the war cast its pestilential shadow over life in the French colony, which had now become a protectorate of the Nazi empire.
Anti-Semitism in wartime Algeria
Again, Camus captures the atmosphere of the period, this time in The Plague. France had been overrun, and French Algeria was governed by the collaborationist Pétain regime. In line with Nazi decrees, in 1942 racial laws were introduced, bringing to the surface a latent anti-Semitism amongst the European population. Derrida was informed by a master at school: “French culture is not made for little Jews.”
It was the privilege of the top pupil to raise the French flag each morning at school; but in Derrida’s case this was reassigned to the second in the class. A quota system was introduced limiting each lycée (high school) to 14 percent Jews. Derrida’s headmaster soon took it upon himself to reduce this quota to 7 percent, and Derrida was expelled. At street level such attitudes degenerated to name-calling and even violence.
Great ideas are often obvious. None more so than those of John Locke. Much of his thought we would now regard as common sense. This all makes Locke’s philosophy rather uninteresting. But there’s no reason why philosophy shouldn’t be dull. On the contrary, there are very good reasons why it should be dull. It was when works of philosophy became interesting, and people actually began reading them, that the trouble started. Many of the wisest philosophers have realised the pitfall of readers actually understanding what they were saying. Spinoza did his best to solve this problem by rendering his works unreadable. Socrates, on the other hand, decided that the best way was not to write down anything at all.
Locke’s solution was to write philosophy that was so obvious it soon appeared dull. But it wasn’t always so. Locke’s thought and ideas were revolutionary in their time and altered the course of philosophy.
Locke was the only major philosopher to become a government minister. And it shows. He was a man of many parts, but he remained for the most part consistent and practical. His philosophy is one that actually works – for both the individual and society at large.
John Locke attempted to live a life that was almost as dull as his philosophy. Fortunately for us, though not for him, he lived in exciting times – and couldn’t avoid getting involved. John Locke was born on August 29, 1632, in a small, rather grubby thatched cottage by the church in the Somerset village of Wrington. His father was an unambitious country lawyer and his mother a tanner’s daughter, who was reputed to have been a great beauty. Soon after John’s birth his parents moved to a family property near the small market town of Pensford, just south of Bristol.
‘I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lasciviousness. I ran wild with lust, the abominable things I did: rank depravity, a surfeit of hell’s pleasures. Bodily desire like a bubbling swamp and virile sex welling up within me exuded mists…’ St Augustine was a sex maniac. Or so he would have us believe. His famous Confessions contain page after page in which he castigates himself for being ‘the vilest slave of evil passions’ and indulging in ‘the filth of lewdness, hell’s black river of lust’. But the expectant reader turns the pages with increasing disappointment as he searches for actual examples of ‘this crazed wantonness’. So we don’t know exactly what Augustine was up to in the fleshpots of Carthage.
But there’s no denying that Augustine had a problem with sex. He had a strong sexual urge and probably enjoyed sex when he was actually doing it. But he was also possessed of an extremely strong mental desire to stay chaste. A few sessions with an understanding analyst would probably have defused the problem – but this would have robbed philosophy of its greatest exponent in almost one and a half millennia. When Augustine arrived on the scene, six hundred years had passed since the death of Aristotle; after Augustine died, it was nearly eight hundred years before the appearance of Thomas Aquinas.
I was indeed a great sinner
Augustine was born in 13 November 354 C.E. in the small town of Thagaste in the Roman province of Numidia (now Souk Ahras in the northeastern hinterland of Algeria). His parents appear to have been a rather boozy middle-class couple. But his hard-drinking father Patricius developed alcoholic symptoms of emotional disintegration in the form of obsessive womanising and violent outbursts. Whereupon Augustine’s mother Monica turned to religion, forswore the demon drink, and transformed her frustrations and disappointments into ambitions for her son.
With Hegel, philosophy became very difficult indeed, requiring the utmost concentration. Hegel once conceded that ‘only one man understands me, and even he does not’. Some critics consider that here Hegel was exaggerating. Did this man ever really exist?
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born on 27 August 1770, in Stuttgart. His family had for generations been civil servants, and his father worked in the Württemberg tax office. Hegel’s upbringing gave him a heavy Swabian accent which he retained to the end of his days, as well as the belief that self-effacement is one of the cardinal virtues of true culture. He was a sickly child and was to suffer from several bouts of serious illness before he reached manhood. At the age of six he caught such a bad case of smallpox that he nearly died. For more than a week he was blinded, and his complexion remained badly pockmarked. At the age of eleven he survived the fever that struck his entire family and carried off his mother. And during his student years he was laid low for several months by a malarial infection.
As Hegel grew up he read omnivorously – through literature, newspapers, and treatises on almost any subject he could find. Yet even at an early age he already believed in a strictly systematic approach, meticulously copying out in his journal excerpts from all he read. This thorough training in pedantry (his ‘excerpt mill’, as he called it) contained quotations on everything, from physiognomy to philosophy, from hyperboreans to hypochondria. Personal matters were included in this journal only when they illuminated an abstract principle. And on days when he found nothing serious enough to record, Hegel took this seriously enough to record why such a lamentable state of affairs had occurred.
Friedrich Nietzsche was born 15 October 1844, in Saxony, which was by this time a province of the increasingly powerful kingdom of Prussia. Nietzsche was descended from a long line of tradesmen, including hatters and butchers, but his grandfather and father were both Lutheran pastors. Nietzsche’s father was a patriotic Prussian who held his king, Friedrich
Wilhelm IV, in high esteem. When Ludwig Nietzsche’s first son was born on the king’s birthday, it was obvious that he had little chance of being named Otto. By an utterly meaningless coincidence, all three men were to die insane.
The Little Pastor
Nietzsche was now brought up in Naumburg in a house full of “holy women,” which included a mother, a younger sister, a maternal grandmother, and two slightly loopy maiden aunts. This appears to have affected Nietzsche’s attitude toward women in later life. At the age of thirteen he went to boarding school at nearby Pforta, one of the top private boarding schools in Germany.
Nietzsche, very much the product of his pious, mollycoddled upbringing, became known as “the little pastor” and carried off all the prizes. But he was so brilliant that eventually he couldn’t help thinking for himself. By the age of eighteen he was beginning to doubt his faith. The clear–sighted thinker couldn’t help noticing the square pegs in the round holes of the world about him. Typically this thinking appears to have been done in complete isolation. Throughout his life Nietzsche was to be influenced in his thought by very few living people (and not many dead ones either).
God is dead
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was a contemporary of such supreme philosophers as Kant and Hume, yet his popular influence far exceeded either. Immanuel Kant and David Hume may have been superior academic philosophers, but the sheer power of Rousseau’s ideas was un-equaled in his time. Indeed, Rousseau was certainly the most unintellectual of all the great philosophers.
Again and again, feeling triumphs over intellectual argument in his works – which are both deeply stirring and deeply inconsistent. It is possible simultaneously to both love and hate Rousseau – for his work as well as for his effect. It was he who encouraged the introduction of both liberty and irrationality into the public domain.
Our true nature
The man and his ideas were one. Rousseau lived out his thought to the very utmost of his being. As a man he was both endearing and impossible. Here was a walking ego, a naked sensibility. For Rousseau, normal everyday life was often a torment – and he often made sure it was for those around him. But Europe was in need of such a figure. By the early years of the eighteenth century, when Rousseau was born, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment were giving rise to great intellectual advances.
Yet at the same time the European sensibility was suffering from a deep malaise. It had become bogged down in the intellectual and emotional restraints of classicism. In the midst of the new progress, many individuals were aware that they were beginning to lose touch with themselves, with who they really were. This was a novel feeling – which would remain part of our sensibility to this day. Rousseau was the first to confront this inarticulate self-awareness. It was he who insisted that we should seek out and experience our “true nature.”
The first of my misfortunes
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born on June 28, 1712, at Geneva in Switzerland. He never knew his mother, who died of the effects of childbirth ten days after his arrival. In his own words: “My birth was the first of my misfortunes…. I was born almost dying, they had little hope of saving me. I carried the seed of a disorder that the years have reinforced.” This was how Rousseau viewed his entry into the world: a drama whose potential “disorder” would prove emotional, psychological, and even physical.
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz was the archetypal caricature genius. He lived a life rich in incidents of high farce, of whose nature he was seldom aware. He knew everything about everything, yet he simply didn’t understand how ordinary people thought and behaved. This said, Gottfried Leibniz was certainly one of the more presentable philosophers (though this probably says more about philosophers than about Leibniz). He appeared at courts throughout Europe, where the royals and aristocrats even took him seriously (though this probably says more about the royals and aristocrats …).
For almost his entire adult life Leibniz was employed by the court at Hanover – and several other courts at the same time. He always took on as many appointments as he could and insisted upon being paid the full salary for these positions. He would become highly indignant when his pay was stopped because his employers had heard he was off working somewhere else.
A man of two philosophies
To list Gottfried Leibniz’s achievements would once again make him sound like a parodic exaggeration of genius. In fact it’s impossible to list all his ideas and discoveries, many of which he kept in a trunkload of papers that have yet to be published in their entirety. Fortunately Leibniz is of interest to us mainly as a philosopher. Yet even here the picture remains unclear. Bertrand Russell, who wrote one of the finest critical works on Leibniz’s philosophy, was of the opinion that Leibniz had produced two philosophies. The first was a simple philosophy for public consumption: a shallow optimistic metaphysics intended to delight princesses. His other, less optimistic ideas he consigned to his trunk. These were part of a more complex, logical, and profound system which could only be understood with difficulty by minds of the caliber of Leibniz himself (and Russell, of course).
Characteristically, both of these philosophies remained unfinished – if indeed they really are two separate philosophies. Most other commentators, not having minds equal to Leibniz or Russell, claim that the simple philosophy and the complex one are really part and parcel of the same thing – which is neither as simple nor as complex as its two parts.