Sometimes Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous adage, “Hell is other people”, rings true. Last Saturday expressed this seeming truth to me. Throughout the day I was getting phone calls, text messages, emails, work assignments and calls for help around the house. The outside world seemed to be stripping me of all my freedom. I started the weekend with my own agenda and everything seemed to be getting in the way. My desire for complete control of my circumstances in line with my projected idea of how the day would turn out didn’t seem to be a possibility unless I wanted to be a jerk to everyone. Retreat to either the local Starbucks or my room seemed to be the only escape option. However, I wanted to play basketball and not just shooting hoops by myself, but a basketball game
! This meant that I was going to have to take back my insistent cri de cœur to my family that ‘hell is other people’ and ask someone if they wanted to play a game. So, I hesitatingly asked my dad, “Dad, even though ‘hell is other people’, can you play basketball with me?”
But why would I even think Sartre’s adage to be true? An adequate answer to this question is complicated; but, in short, I would highlight sin and a form of modernity as the main culprits. In its radical form, modernity, the cultural hermeneutic arguably finding its first spokesman in Descartes, tells us that the highest value is individual autonomy - one of Thomas Jefferson’s ‘self-evident’ truths. This means that all I do should be directed towards ensuring my autonomy, the ability to choose
whatever end I find desirable so long as I do not limit nor do violence to the autonomy of others. Just as Christianity believes salvation rests in Christ, modernity hopes for salvation in absolute autonomy. But is this a reasonable hope? Given our predicament as social animals longing for the transcendent, I do not think it is.
Modernity assumes that the individual is prior to society. Taken to its extreme, modern society is seen as merely a construct. It exists because the individual sees it as a beneficial relational arrangement to enter into. But wouldn’t entering into such artificial relationships necessarily limit my autonomy? According to Rousseau, it would not. After freely submitting myself to such an arrangement, the state, the head of society, would ensure the return of my freedom in surplus in light of all of the other desirable goods it makes available (e.g. vacations in Florida, three meals a day and whatever social services I might desire). However, this contractual understanding of society - as a potentially beneficial instrument for the exercise of autonomy - reduces all relationships (familial, marital, fraternal) to contracts the individual is prior to and can back out of if he/she feels
the understood terms have been violated. According to this logic, the relationships that I have not freely chosen, or have chosen and are likely to infringe upon my freedom, ought to be broken by me or the state. However, experience shows that there are times others are dependent upon me and I on them. I could refer dependent persons to the state; but I think most of us recognize that it is better to personally
help the dependent person than refer them to the impersonal state. This ranking of the personal above the impersonal hints at the human desire for friendship - communion with another as an end and not as a means. But this desire clashes with the ideal of absolute autonomy.
Here’s why. Friendship desired as an end entails loving another with a sacrificial love regardless of the potential limitations to autonomy. As Fr. Barron says, “There is no communion (friendship) without sacrifice.” It goes beyond participation in common activities and the sharing of natural sentiment. Since most people desire friendship and depend upon each other, the goal of absolute autonomy is rather tenuous. This explains why the modern ideal of absolute autonomy finds ready agreement with Sartre’s famous adage ‘hell is other people’. Therefore, in order to uphold this ideal, the individual should either escape the bondage of society or the state should police the desire for friendship, unmasking it as an imposition upon another individual’s autonomy. But there is an alternative to these modern options.
It is the alternative revealed through Christ. Christ has revealed God to be perfect relationship – God is love (1 John 4:16). If God is love itself and not merely a god who loves, then this implies that God is a community of persons: the lover, the beloved, and the love between them. God does not exist in Plotinian isolationism. Also, the individual dignity of each of the Trinitarian persons is not compromised in this relationship. Nevertheless, they are united to such a degree that the identity of each person is defined as living for the other. The Father lives for the Son, and the Son lives for the Father. So, God’s essence, his deepest reality, is communion, a perfect society of friendship. The Biblical faith tells us that we are created in the image and likeness of God, meaning that we are created for love in a community of persons. The self is realized in loving another person. But it is most fully realized in loving Christ.
Genesis tells us that God originally created us in communion with himself. However, Adam and Eve’s sin broke that communion. They wanted to define themselves apart from that communion; but they were not made for this divorce. Consequently, we have experienced a lack in ourselves; something’s missing. Our rush to fill that hole is never satisfied. When we confront the futility of our searching, the awareness of our finitude brings forth a longing for a return to our original communion with God. Christ was given to us to manifest the sacrificial love needed to restore that communion. But this gift was more than a restoration; it was an elevation. God, through Christ, invites us to partake in the Divine life, a life of perfect friendship. Therefore, our fulfillment as human beings is to exist in a society of friendship.
If I escaped to Starbucks or my room, I would have been free of perceived annoyance, but, according to a Biblical understanding, I would not have been fully alive. Playing basketball with my dad was a step in a good direction, but it was still something I wanted to do. Loving others and not using them as means to my ends would have lead to my full flourishing, for it is the path to friendship, what I was made for. Hence, going against Jean-Paul Sartre, absolute autonomy is hell, and heaven is other people.
Robert Mixa is the Research Assistant for Word in Fire Catholic Ministries.