Sartre, Santayana, and Personal Ethics

By Andrew Huff

“A prize was awarded, and I refused it,” wrote French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre forty years ago in reference to the 1964 Nobel Prize in literature (“Sartre On the Nobel Prize”). His curt statement to the Swedish press both affirmed his philosophical principles and transformed him into the first person to voluntarily refuse the prize.

Sartre reasoned that the integrity of his craft depended on an avid avoidance of official prizes. As accolades bestow praise on the recipient, they also effect a certain co-optation of the writer. As Sartre puts it: “If I sign my name Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.” An authentic self precedes authentic work, and official praise obscures this equation.

Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism (which informed much of the work celebrated by the Swedish Academy) has unexpected roots in aesthetic philosopher George Santayana (ΦBK, Harvard, 1886).

According to Martin A. Coleman’s edited volume The Essential Santayana, the latter experienced an early life of hybridity: born in Madrid, Spain in 1863, he remained there with his father while his mother resettled with her first husband’s children in Boston; in 1872, Santayana arrived there and began attendance at the Boston Latin School. 

The city itself commanded a certain magnetism over Santayana. After studying philosophy under William James and Josiah Royce as a Harvard undergraduate, he earned his Master of Arts and Doctorate of Philosophy from Harvard in 1889. Unlike  Sartre, he embraced the institution’s honors, and that year he began teaching at the university. While a professor, Santayana taught Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, and Walter Lippmann, among other notable American literary figures.

A prolific writer and professor himself, Santayana chose to leave the famed “Golden Age” of the Harvard Philosophy Department in 1912 after twenty-two years of teaching. He describes in his treatise A General Confession how he sought, like Sartre, a measure of distance to pursue “the life of a wandering student.” Both men rejected the proverbial hand that feeds, though in an effort to reassert the dignity of their personal ethic.

Their iconoclasm brings to mind the theoretical underpinning of a liberal arts education: a shift away from prescriptive scholarship and an emphasis on arriving at heightened curiosity. The point of the scholarly journey is that it never fully ends. Education cultivates its own brand of wanderlust, though as we wander we must do so with care and deliberation. 

According to Director of the University of Indiana School of Letters Newton P. Stallknecht in his pamphlet George Santayana, Santayana held that nothing should be beyond criticism, whether oneself or one’s beliefs. As detailed in two of Sartre’s best-known works, Being and Nothingness and Existentialism is a Humanism, every action informs our self-constitution, and therefore carries either great potential or consequence. Not even praise is benign.

Stallknecht also writes that although Santayana himself never won the Nobel Prize, author Sinclair Lewis used an original phrase of his to conclude his own acceptance speech for the 1930 Nobel Prize in Literature. In it, Lewis praises those authors who have unabashedly “refused to be genteel and traditional and dull” (“The American Fear of Literature“). 

Santayana had consistently described American philosophy as mired in a “genteel tradition,” tethered too strongly to a Puritan, devilishly polite form. Most needed, in this regard, was exactly Sartre’s kind of break from the past. Within the philosophical perspective, whether existentialist or the liberal arts, a life of authenticity is a habitual process of introspection and questioning. 

This act itself has value as a foundation a new American tradition, less genteel than wholeheartedly curious. While Sartre may have shunned praise, perhaps he would embrace a certain degree of imitation of his spitfire philosophy–for in it we find something worth celebrating: a deep reverence for the scholar as an individual and his or her capacity to question.

Art Credit: From Andrew Baines, The Existentialists (2007)

Andrew Huff is a senior at Goucher College majoring in Political Science. Goucher College is home to the Beta of the Maryland Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.