Integrity is the integration of a person’s parts into a contiguous whole, particularly the intellectual and ethical aspects. Integrity means that beliefs and actions, values and expressions, are consistent. One comes to a sense of self-identity by the development of this capacity.
Jean-Paul Sartre was a spokesperson for this way of thinking, and the most fascinating expressions of his rigorous and courageous point of view were in his stories, novels and plays, for which he became world famous, a Nobel Prize recipient for literature, and that rarest of phenomena for philosophers, a popular celebrity. In story after story, Sartre describes how, among our range of options, we choose that which we value most to express who we are.
In his story “The Wall” three prisoners are sentenced to death. They are held in a coal cellar to await their execution the next morning. As the night wears on the prisoners begin to lose their sense of being normal human beings and begin to die.
In the state I was in, if someone had come and told me I could go home quietly, that they would leave me my life whole, it would have left me cold: several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal. I clung to nothing, in a way I was calm. But it was a horrible calm – because of my body; my body, I saw with its eyes, I heard with its ears, but it was no longer me; it sweated and trembled by itself and I didn’t recognize it any more. I had to touch it and look at it to find out what was happening, as if it were the body of someone else. At times I could still feel it, I felt sinkings, and fallings, as when you’re in a plane taking a nosedive, or I felt my heart beating. But that didn’t reassure me. Everything that came from my body was all cockeyed. Most of the time it was quiet and I felt no more than a sort of weight, a filthy presence against me; I had the impression of being tied to an enormous vermin. Once I felt my pants and I felt they were damp; didn’t know whether it was sweat or urine, but I went to piss on the coal pile as a precaution. [Sartre, p. 182]
What Sartre is describing, with eloquent pathos, is a sense of disintegration, of fragmentation, and of losing touch with physicality (as well as transcendence, of which Sartre is unremittingly contemptuous).
Finally, the narrator, Ibbieta is isolated, with 15 minutes to live. He can tell his captors where the revolutionary leader Ramon Gris is hiding or Ibbieta will be shot. It is the critical moment of the story.
I…knew that I would not reveal his hiding place. …All that was perfectly regulated, definite and in no way interested me. Only I would have liked to understand the reasons for my conduct. I would rather die than give up Gris. Why? I didn’t like Ramon Gris any more. My friendship for him had died a little while before dawn at the same time as my love for Concha, at the same time as my desire to live. Undoubtedly I thought highly of him: he was tough. But it was not for this reason that I consented to die in his place, his life had no more value than mine; no life had value. They were going to slap a man up against a wall and shoot at him till he died, whether it was I or Gris or somebody else made no difference. I knew he was more useful than I to the cause of Spain but I thought to hell with Spain and anarchy; nothing was important. Yet I was there, I could save my skin and give up Gris and I refused to do it. I found that somehow comic; it was obstinacy. I thought, “I must be stubborn!” And a droll sort of gaiety spread over me. [Sartre, p. 185]
“I would have liked to understand the reasons for my conduct,” Ibbieta says, and finally concludes, “I must be stubborn!” It boiled down to that, nothing more noble or patriotic for Ibbieta than simple stubbornness. However, for Sartre, there is a great more about it that can be said. All of philosophical existentialism, in fact, is behind Ibbieta’s stand and, Sartre contends, our stands as well. In his essay “Choice in a World Without God” Sartre says:
“If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely on his own shoulders. And when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.” [Sartre, p. 187]
Sartre was certainly aware that the philosophic background for this position is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative that we should “act only according to maxims which you can will also to be universal laws.” In itself, the categorical imperative is not a revolutionary concept, being found virtually everywhere from the so-called Golden Rule attributed to Jesus to Confucian dictums. It was existentialism’s contribution, to insist on this as its “first effect” and to attribute to this ethical principle the role of defining one’s entire destiny.
Of all the actions that a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. [pp. 187-8]
Put in more facile terms, “In a Godless world we have no alternative but to choose, and in that sense create, our own values. Yet in doing so we are laying down the ground rules of our own lives. And in doing that we are determining how our own personalities develop: we are creating ourselves.” [Magee, p. 217]
It is a frightening responsibility to be the creator of one’s self. Some forms of Christianity would relieve us of that by having us be compliant to the benevolent plans of a loving God.
Sartre recommends that we always choose that which is better, but he does not say that the better is always, in all circumstances, the ideal. Existentialism is far from idealism. Sometimes the operational principles a person uses are mundane, as when Ibbieta decides to do what he does for no lofty reasons, but because he is stubborn. In another script Sartre would have Ibbieta agree that stubbornness in such circumstances would be recommended for all of us.
If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. [p. 188]
That, then, is existentialism’s basic social philosophy. Existentialism’s individualism avoids social chaos by a deft delegation of responsibility, which is based on the premise that human beings are rational.
When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. [p. 188]
Of course, Sartre, of all people, was aware that much of modern history, and contemporary European history, 18th and 19th century French history in particular, bear witness to an irrational, chaotic bent to human social behavior. What of those who are not apparently upset by the greed, sadism, depravity and conceit that their characters and their behaviors exhibit?
There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it. Certainly many people think that in what they are doing they commit no one but themselves to anything: and if you ask them, “What would happen if everyone did so?” they shrug their shoulders and reply, “Everyone does not do so.” [p. 188]
Sartre’s argument is not that all people do act responsibly but that they ought to.
But in truth, one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing; nor can one escape from that disturbing thought except by a kind of self-deception. The man who lies in self-excuse, by saying “Everyone will not do it” must be ill at ease in conscience, for the act of lying implies the universal value which it denies. By its very disguise his anguish reveals itself. [p. 188]
This anguish and regret is a burden that existentialism puts back onto human shoulders and removes from God’s. Existentialism never asks whether God is cruel to allow sinful behavior and natural calamity, or just unable to do anything about it. Kant, refused to deny the existence of God, and insisted instead, “It is thoroughly necessary to be convinced of God’s existence, it is not quite so necessary that one should demonstrate it.” Sartre avoids the temptation to shed the blame for human moral failures by denying that God has any role in human affairs. Faced with rising anarchy that came to its peak in the socialist and communist revolutionary movements, Dostoevsky argued that it is God and divine moral law that form the only dependable barrier to the collapse of civilization. Sartre argues that this felt need for something like God does not mean that God exists. He put it this way:
Dostoevsky once wrote, “If God does not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn [i.e. in despair and anguish at “abandonment”: Heidegger’s favorite term], for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. [p. 190]
As was the ironic hero Ibbieta, Sartre is also stubborn, obstinate in his insistence that human beings are responsible for their actions and the consequences of them. God cannot be blamed. Frightening as this might be, that’s the way it is.
Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimize our behavior. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. [p. 190]
“Many people find this freedom and this responsibility too terrifying to face, so they run away from it pretending that they are bound by already existing norms and rules,” one interpreter of Sartre explained. Sartre said these people were acting in “bad faith” and lacked “commitment.” Thus he threw the terms back into the face of the French church.
How, without God, does one achieve this type of stability (or stubbornness) and this level of commitment? One of the most ancient prescriptions explains a way:
55 O Partha, when a man relinquishes all the desires of his mind, and when his spirit delights in itself, then is he called a man of steady wisdom.
56 He whose heart is unperturbed in the midst of calamities and free from longing in the midst of pleasures, from whom attachment, fear and rage have departed, is called a sage of steady reason.
57 He who is unattached in all things, who neither exults in nor feels aversion for any good or evil that befalls him, is said to be steady in his wisdom.
58 When a person withdraws his senses from the objects of sense on every side the way a tortoise draws in its limbs, his wisdom is steady.
59 The objects of sense abandon the man who abstains from feeding on them, but the longing for them does not cease. But even this relish ceases when he has experienced the Supreme.
60 O Son of Kunti, these turbulent senses lead away by force the mind of even the wise man who is striving [for control].
61 Having acquired self-control, he should sit in yoga and meditate on Me [Brahman] alone. He whose senses are thus controlled is steady in his wisdom.
62 A man who contemplates the objects of sense develops an attachment to them; attachment gives rise to desire, and desire results in anger.
63 Anger gives rise to confusion, confusion to loss of memory. Loss of memory destroys intelligence and, once a man’s intelligence is destroyed, he perishes.
64 But the man whose mind is disciplined and whose senses are under control is free from attachment and aversion though he moves among the objects of sense, and such a person attains serenity.
65 And in that serenity, all misery is destroyed; because the intelligence of the man of serenity is also steadied immediately. [Bhagavadgita, ch. 2]
Anyone familiar with the Bhagavadgita is aware that the writing is theistic in its orientation and might not fill the bill as a guide for stability free from God. Yet, anyone that familiar with the Bhagavadgita would also know that the advice is shared in common with atheistic and agnostic Hinduism and with Buddhism. It is yoga and meditation that Sri Bhagavan recommends to control attachment and desire, the causes of human suffering. In the Bhagavadgita it is relinquishment of all desires that is the basis of steady wisdom, whereas in the Bible it is fear of (or reverence for) God that is the beginning of wisdom. On the surface the Bhagavadgita has the final word to say about human integrity and responsibility, including the way to achieve it.
In actual practice, that may not always be the case.
Our friend Linda called yesterday morning from her sister’s house in Virginia. She wanted to hear a friendly voice, she said, “to have a little light in the day.” Linda has come home from the hospital, and is recovering from her second operation on her neck, where they have removed a tumor that was attached to her spinal cord.
A month ago she was driving from California to take refuge at her sister’s, after her money ran out, and while she was driving through Texas her left arm went numb and the fingers on her left hand “just went limp.” She got as far as Nashville before she had to pull into a hospital and call friends.
“Last time the radiation didn’t work,” she reported. “They say this in incurable. The terrible thing is knowing that in a few months it will be back. It is the pain that gives me the most fear. They give me such heavy doses of medicine to keep down the pain that I live in a blur.”
She paused and signed, “I have such morbid thoughts.” Her view of her condition has a right to be morbid, I felt, but I just listened as she changed the subject to her former husband, Ben. He left her and the five girls four years ago to go live with another woman and her 17-year-old heroin addict son. Ben took all the good stuff when he left including the piano and the car, and she had to sue him to keep him from canceling her medical insurance and child support.
Now that the girls are grown and the divorce is final, she has nothing. She’s not bitter about being homeless and broke, but bitter that their twenty-year marriage, and even their five daughters, meant nothing more to Ben than they turned out to mean.
Then she thought about what she was saying to me, “But you know what I’ve been remembering?” she asked rhetorically. “All those old songs are coming back, ‘Count your blessings, count them one by one,’ ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus,’ ‘I walked in the garden alone,’ songs like that.”
Integrity is a product of two fields of energy, so to speak. Concentration, focused attention, or meditation, empowered by energy from the core of our souls in the form of intuition responds to a growing sense of maturity and creativity emanating from our silent center, our unconscious deep within. This maturity comes as freedom from ontological concern, selflessness. Where those two fields of force intersect, there our integrity emerges.
Thirty years ago Elizabeth O’Connor penned it this way in a collection of calligraphy:
To be a liberating community – the New Community –
is to touch not only an individual quiet center,
but a corporate quiet center,
and to drink as a people out of wells of living water.
Out of us
People will begin to marvel at what they see,
but that which is happening flows out of an inner life.
What is seen is visible as a result of this inwardness –
an inwardness that must always be
protected, nurtured, and tended.
Bhagavadgita, The translated by V. Nabar and S. Tumkur, 1997. Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
Magee, B. 1998. The Story of Philosophy. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.
O’Connor, E. 1976. The New Community. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Sartre, J-P. “The Wall” and “Choice in a World Without God” in The World of Short Fiction edited by R. Albrecht, 1969. New York: The Free Press.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.