Santoni’s Sartre on Violence by Ruth Lucier

Lucier, Ruth (Bennett College, NC) “Violence of Ambiguity: A Review of Ronald E. Santoni; Sartre on Violence: Curiously Ambivalent”; The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. CPP Newsletter Vol. 24, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 2004).

Today, those who are concerned to promote peace are bombarded with paradoxical views of violence. One and the same act may be regarded (1) as an immoral attack on a nation state or its citizens, (2) as the legitimate expression of rage and desperation, and (3) as a tool for bringing about positive social change.

In this context, the deep probing of John Paul Sartre’s thinking about violence, undertaken by Ronald Santoni in his most recent book, is highly relevant and instructive. As Santoni points out, Sartre’s own struggle with questions about violence encourages us “to rethink carefully and systematically the question of violence and its alleged justifications…”(xv). Moreover, by reflecting on the evolution of Sartre’s thought we are drawn into considering the related issue of whether the use of Terror “could be justified in behalf of a better society or world”(155).

Santoni emphasizes that Sartre’s position is ambivalent, pointing out that, in Sartre’s view, “In circumstances of oppression, or what Sartre calls ‘pure violence,’ revolutionary violence and terror, because they are ‘necessary’ and inevitable are permissible and just, but they are bound by limits…”(155). This is because “in dialectical synthesis with the goal of ‘integral humanity,’ violence and terror must not violate the goal of pure revolutionary praxis (i.e. autonomous humanity) or denigrate the human“(155). To make sense of this ambivalence, Santoni suggests that we understand Sartre as construing Terror, “as a ‘stage of dialectic’ or ‘understandable product of totalizing Praxis’” and that we see Sartre as formulating “conditions beyond which Terror cannot be morally legitimized”(156).

Intriguing distinctions are discussed throughout the book. Memorable among them is Sartre’s distinction between “force” and “violence,” where force is construed as legitimate pressure in accordance with natural ends, and violence is identified as “the destruction of an entity’s nature in a way that obliterates its appropriate role and use”(22). Provocative footnotes are included in the work, among them a response to Sartre’s suggestion that “no gentleness can eradicate the ‘marks of violence’; only violence can do that.” Santoni points out (note 29, p. 27) that Martin Luther King, Jr. “turned this around,” claiming instead that nothing but non-violence could “put an end to violence.”

Santoni presents, and to some extent argues for, the idea that, in Sartre’s view, the unacceptable conditions for violence do not make violence immoral. Presumably the converse would also be true – which would allow the possibility of there being acceptable conditions for violence even when the violence is immoral. Perhaps this could occur in cases where supervening moral conditions or situations came into play.

Acknowledging that Sartre’s Perspective accommodates such an apparently “amoral” dichotomy (one in which something is deemed “acceptable” yet still morally suspect), Santoni suggests (rightly, I believe) that a critic could read this accommodation as transforming “a philosophy of human liberation into that of violence”(45). I would certainly have liked to see Santoni deal in a more detailed way with this issue. It seems to me that a plausible case could be made for saying that even understandable violence of the “eye for an eye” sort might eventually leave everyone blind.

As we struggle with the question of the acceptability of retaliatory violence as Terror, my suggestion is that we approach the question from “inside,” by analyzing what is happening in the acting subject’s consciousness. Perhaps as some Middle Easterners have been arguing of late, authentic (moral) persons can be pushed by their victimization to a kind of breaking point, a point that may make even self-destructive Terror the only truly free choice—the only choice that has a chance of changing the status quo in ways that eliminate oppression. One may in such cases strongly object to the act of Terror, and yet still view the act as understandably human.

An interesting observation Santoni makes about Sartre’s position on Terror (in the Rome lecture at least) is that Sartre regards it “in certain circumstances justified [in order] to overcome oppression,” but still not justified in cases where it itself establishes “a system of terror”(151). If Santoni is correct, Sartre embraces a kind of consequentialism where even the violence we despise may be said (by Sartre) to be sometimes necessary and sometimes odious, depending on its ultimate effect.

If the reader asks herself, “What is the final position on violence that Santoni wants us to accept as the one that Sartre ultimately takes?,” and looks for the answer, she will be disappointed. For one distinctive (and, I believe, intriguing) aspect of Santoni’s book is that it continually draws us unto the process of questioning, never allowing us to rest with fixed answers. Rather than discovering final answers, we are drawn into a circle of discourse among Sartre-like and Sartre-disputing voices—drawn, in effect, into the phenomena of open-ended deliberation.

But the open-endedness offered is certainly not purposeless; it is of the kind that reminds us that we must focus clearly on the actual life situations of the perpetrators of Terror and violence. And this approach may well be crucial to acting and arguing persuasively for some self-imposed, disciplined, sacrificial limits on even authentic and absurd expressions-–limits compatible with, and crucial to, the kind of open conversation through which humankind may eventually win the peace.

For the purpose of moving us into creative dialogue about the moral limits of violence and why its use must always (or nearly always) be protested, Sartre on Violence has an important and provocative role to play. As a book full of moral challenges, it can serve as a extraordinarily valuable “instructor” in these troubled times.

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