​​​​David Sprintzen

Sartre and Camus: An Historic Confrontation


           Confronted by human suffering in a world without assured and universally accepted moral standards, many people feel demoralized and without direction. It is too painful to watch the slaughter -- even impossible to do so if you are the target or victim. But besides putting a stop to the outrage, what are we to do? And if the slaughter is the inevitable or consistent result of a "natural" state of affairs, then what better condition can we hope to bring about? Won't our “meddling" only make things worse? In any case, how can we be confident that it will really improve anything? And how do we convince others'? Or how do we deal with those who are not convinced – or who benefit from the present situation? 

Beyond the practical demands of proof and strategy lie the moral vision and authority in terms of which the present stands condemned. By what right do we pass that judgment? On what basis do we justify our claims and promote our programs?

Some have resolved these issues through a "leap of faith": the Truth has been revealed to them – whether by divine intervention, mystical vision, or rational insight – and the course of action lies unquestioned before them. What they lack in evidence and mutual confirmation, they more than make up for in self-confidence and determination. Let no man or woman dare stand in their way. Holy wars brook no opposition, and their warriors deal with opponents as with the Devil.

Others have retreated to the quiet delights of private life and personal satisfaction. Whether sensual pleasure, spiritual ennoblement, personal wealth, or the "cultivation of their gardens," the cares of the world are nothing to them. If they can avoid the threats, no "fellow feeling," moral imperative, or transcendent command calls them to significant public action. In fact, such action may seem but a meaningless activity, significant only to dedicated scoundrels who dwell in "public service" solely for the purpose of extracting greater wealth or personal power. In such a world, what are the possibilities for the reconstruction of public space and human community'? How can one aspire to fashion a social order in which individuals may live their lives freely, with security and dignity?

Faced with numerous temptations to despair, some have refused to give in-whether by taking the "leap of faith" into transcendent and salvific belief systems, by yielding to nihilism, or by giving one's life over to the pursuit of personal pleasure, instant gratification, and the use and misuse of other people. They have said "No" to these temptations and have insisted on preserving a commitment to human dignity, both individual and collective. It is to these rebels that Albert Camus looks for possible sources of a cultural renaissance. What happens, though, when these rebels themselves become the sources of human torment and suffering, inciting despair'? When rebellion itself becomes a vehicle of oppression rather than liberation-what then is left to us? Where, to whom, and to what can we then turn to find meaning and dignity in our post-modern world'?

These are among the concerns that led Camus to write The Rebel, whose publication in November 1951, and particularly its review in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les temps modernes several months later – generated an international controversy while bringing a public and decisive end to the friendship of two of France’s major post-War public intellectuals. That confrontation, essentially played out on the pages of Les temps modernes in mid- 1952, is the subject of this volume. The editors have translated the key texts, beginning with the initial review written by Sartre's colleague Francis Jeanson, which appeared in the May issue. This is followed by Camus' response as well as those of Sartre and Jeanson, appearing in the August issue, and an unpublished commentary on the entire controversy by Camus, probably written in late 1952, and only appearing a decade later, after Camus' death, in the Pleiade edition of his collected works. These original translations are first contextualized in the introduction to this book, which sets the scene by placing the debate in its appropriate historical and philosophical context. Original articles by distinguished scholars William McBride and Jeffrey Isaac follow the primary materials, presenting contemporary evaluations of the significance of the debate, the first from a Sartrean, and the second from a Camusian, perspective. Concluding this volume is an appendix containing a brief historical chronology of the key events in the intellectual careers of Sartre and Camus, written by Salam Hawa.

But, you may wonder, what was it that Camus said that was so provocative? Why did Sartre and Jeanson criticize it so sternly" What issues were at stake, and for whom'? And were they of relevance only in the immediate postwar period, or do they still have significance for us today, in this post-Cold War era at the beginning of the third millennium'?

 Since it is Camus' L'homme revolte (published in translation as The Rebel) that initiates the confrontation that is the subject of this volume, let us first carefully review its key theses. Then we will briefly situate it, first in the context of Camus' life and thought, then in relation to Sartre’s thought and political engagements, in order to locate the basic points of contention.