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Jean-Paul Sartre and Pope Leo XIII

David Cowles

Jan 15, 2023

“Separated by c. 75 years, these men nonetheless faced a common challenge: Rebuild civilization!”

Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialist philosopher, prolific author, and perpetual social critic is not often linked with Pope Leo XIII, leader of the Roman Catholic Church from 1878 to 1903. Yet, these two men share an important intellectual legacy: a focus on freedom. 


Separated by c. 75 years, these men nonetheless faced a common challenge: Rebuild civilization! Sartre faced a Europe shattered by two world wars, the collapse of the liberal republics, the meteoric rise and gradual decline of fascism, and the rampant spread of Stalinism. 


He was at various times a communist, an existentialist, a ‘man of letters’, and a member of the French resistance. After WW II, Sartre wrote prolifically in an effort to influence the course of Europe’s reconstruction.


And what of Leo XIII? The crisis he faced was more cultural than it was political. In fact, you can think of Leo as ‘politically agnostic’…and proud of it. Leo’s pontificate occurred at a dark time for European civilization; he inherited a ‘war’ on three fronts: 

  • Intellectually, the so-called Enlightenment had undermined belief in God; the promise of science and technology replaced the Good News and gave rise to colonialism, militarism, and the humanitarian horror known as the Industrial Revolution. 

  • Politically, a flurry of new ‘isms’, liberalism, socialism, communism, and anarchism, threatened to marginalize Leo’s ‘ism’ of choice, Catholicism.

  • Morally, these were the early days of modern permissiveness. The cult of ‘license’ was rapidly replacing the practice of ‘morality’ as the foundation of Western civilization.


To young people in particular, morality was associated with rules laid down by parents, teachers, politicians, and priests – rules that were enforced selectively…and often brutally. By 1889, the liberte of 1789 had become license.  


Freedom is not just ‘freedom from’ constraint; true freedom is also ‘freedom to’ create. Nor is free behavior to be confused with random behavior. 


Consider the Brownian motion of molecules: it is totally ‘unconstrained’…but it is certainly not ‘free’. In fact, randomness is the antithesis of freedom; it undermines free will just as surely as does determinism. In fact, it has been shown that it is impossible to distinguish, phenomenologically, between a thoroughly random world and a rigidly determined one. Both are infinitely susceptible to infinitesimal perturbations.


Freedom is a function of ‘will’ and will is always a will to create (or to destroy only in order to create). That’s what will is. It is will that empowers human beings (and perhaps other entities) to formulate projects and carry them out. Will requires the freedom to execute a project once conceived; but it also requires the capacity and inclination to formulate the project itself.


The essential element of ‘will’ that allows us to formulate projects is a set of ideal values, freely chosen, that we use (1) to evaluate the current state of our world and (2) to conceive projects to bring that current state into closer harmony with those values.


To whatever extent our ‘ideal values’ are imposed on us or our ‘choice of projects’ is dictated to us, our subsequent actions are not a function of will. Nor are they if either our values or our projects pop-up randomly. ‘Whack-a-Mole’ is not chess.


Will reWill requires freedom; in fact, freedom is the substance of will. The famous phrase ‘free will’ is redundant. Freedom is only operative in the context of will and will only exists in the context of freedom. 


When will, motivated by our ideal values, commits to some project, we implicitly designate that project as ‘good’. (‘Good’ is synonymous with ‘our set of ideal values’.) In doing so, we identify something outside ourselves and our world as ‘good’ and when we designate something outside ourselves as ‘good’, we affirm the reality of an objective, transcendent Good that qualifies our project as ‘good’. 


Example: every work of art aims to be beautiful. Beauty is a core value involved in the creation and appreciation of art. However, different artists and different cultures understand beauty in radically different ways. Furthermore, what is beautiful in one context might be much less so in another. But the value itself, beauty, never varies and never waivers! 


Without the value known as ‘beauty’ there is no art. When utility replaces beauty as the standard of measurement, art vanishes. “The Bali have no art; they do everything well.”


Likewise, if a value is transcendent, it is not derived from anything in this world…or in any possible world. A value has its status a priori. In that sense, values exist before (logically, not temporally) the world exists. Even if there were no world(s), justice would still be justice, even if not yet interpreted or applied.


Stated differently, it is impossible to imagine a world where ‘justice’ is not a value. It may be ignored, perverted, or even rejected, but the value itself never goes away. A society that ignores or rejects justice is simply…’wrong’.


Let’s let Leo get a word in edgewise on this subject:


“Liberty is a power perfecting man, and hence should have truth and goodness for its object.” Immortale Dei (ID) For Leo, ‘truth and goodness’ (in the person of God) is the summum bonum:


“… The supreme end to which human liberty must aspire is God.”  Human Liberty (HL) Freedom “…is to be regarded as legitimate in so far only as it affords greater facility for doing good…” (HL)


This controversial and counter-intuitive proposition should be understood as a tautology. The fact that it is not read that way is grand testimony to the crisis of intellectual life in contemporary Western society.


Freedom is the opposite of slavery. When we choose a project that is ‘suboptimal’, we are giving-in to some compulsion (biological, psychological, or social). “… To exchange the unchangeable good for evil…is not liberty, but its degradation, and the abject submission of the soul to sin.” (HL)


“… Whosoever commits sin is the slave of sin. (John 8:34)” (HL) So here we are, like little boys, imagining that when we are our naughtiest, we are our most free. In fact, the reverse is true. How incredibly distorted our view of reality has become!


As Immanuel Kant wrote before Leo or Sartre, “… A free will and a will subject to moral laws are one and the same.” If I were truly free, I would want to do good.


Earlier still, the Psalmist began: “Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers. Rather, the law of the Lord is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night.”


Jean-Paul Sartre approaches the question of ‘freedom’ from a diametrically opposite point on the ideological spectrum. He denies the existence of God and, perhaps ‘worse’, states (like Lucretius) that even if God did exist, he wouldn’t be relevant. Like Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ayer and Wittgenstein, Sartre rejects outright even the possibility of objective, transcendent values.


Without God, “there could no longer be any a priori good, since there would be no infinite and perfect consciousness to conceive it… (If) God does not exist, we will encounter no values…that can legitimize our conduct.” Existentialism is a Humanism (EH)


Even so, Sartre recognizes that life without values is impossible. In so doing, he accepts a major part of the Leonine thesis (summarized above). But according to Sartre, if there is no God to source our values, then it is incumbent on us to invent them.


This view offers us an important glimpse into Sartre’s ontology. We will see later that for Sartre, human beings take on many of the functions reserved for God in other philosophies. But for now, let’s return to the subject of values: “… If I have eliminated God the Father, there has to be someone to invent values… To say that we invent values means neither more nor less than this: life has no meaning a priori. Life is nothing until it is lived, it is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning we give it.” (EH)


Brave talk! But this is little more than what children do when they play Cowboys and Indians (sorry, ‘Cowpersons and Native Americans’) or Pirates (aka ‘non-traditional merchants’). They invent rules, establish values and act accordingly. At the time these values are held earnestly, but all is erased when mom calls, “Dinner!”


These ad hoc rules have no objective validity, and the values they represent have no transcendent worth. They are ‘made up’ and they remain operative only so long as the ‘play’ continues. One is reminded of Shakespeare’s Tempest:


“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air; and—like the baseless fabric of this vision— the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit shall dissolve, and like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”


However, to his great credit Sartre avoids the trap of moral nihilism that doomed Nietzsche, Camus, Ayer, and others. He finds a very clever way out. Sartre locates ‘value’ in ‘freedom’ itself.


Earlier we noticed that ‘freedom’ has a unique property: it is the antithesis both of determinism and of indeterminism, even though they are antitheses of each other. How is this possible?


In Sartre’s ontology, freedom is closely related to le neant, negation. Freedom negates both determinism and randomness. Sartre demonstrates that the determined and the random are fundamentally identical. They both characterize a world devoid of purpose, choice, etc. Morally, it makes no difference whether events are determined or random; either way, they are meaningless. They make no appeal to transcendence. 


According to Sartre, unique among the categories of existence, the concept of freedom entails its own value. This is eerily reminiscent of the ontological argument for the existence of God, according to which the concept of God entails the existence of God.


But Sartre’s view raises questions: If freedom is a value in itself, from whence does it derive that value? After all, freedom per se (and by definition) has no content; it is merely ‘freedom’, right?


Not so, says Sartre: “Freedom, under any concrete circumstance, can have no other aim but itself…(man) can will but one thing: freedom as the foundation of all values… The ultimate significance of the actions of men of good faith is the quest for freedom itself.” (EH)


Let’s unpack this: Is freedom “the foundation of all values”? Well, values would have no relevance in our world if we lacked the freedom to conceive and execute (to the best of our abilities) projects that embody those values.


On the other hand, freedom cannot be “the foundation of all values” per se. Those values must have a reality beyond freedom itself. Freedom wouldn’t be freedom if values were hard-wired or random. 


Earlier we observed that freedom empowers ‘will’ and is its essence. Now it is time to turn the tables: without will, freedom is meaningless. The concept of ‘meaning’ presupposes a ‘signified’ beyond the ‘signifier’, so ‘Will’ must be directed at something outside itself, and it is that direction that constitutes freedom’s meaning.


‘Something outside itself’ must possess intrinsic worth if it is to stimulate the will to act. (Why else would ‘will’ undertake action?) That worth must be a function of values embodied in a freely chosen end, values that are objective and transcendent.


Let’s restate: Will operates only in the context of purpose (end). To will some ‘end’ is to endow that end with value. It is the values embodied in that end that give it worth; and it is those values and that end that give worth to will itself and therefore to freedom, which is its essence.


The sum of all projects freely chosen by the will because of their intrinsic value constitutes the worth of ‘will’ per se, and therefore, the value of the freedom that empowers will.


“Man is free. Man is freedom…… Man is nothing other than his own projects.” (EH)


Wow! Humanity is not only ‘free’, but ‘freedom’ itself; it is humanity that injects freedom into the world. Yet, that freedom is simply the sum of the freely chosen projects that ‘will’ empowers us to undertake, and as we saw earlier, ‘projects’ imply choice and choice implies value.


Traditionally, God is understood to be supremely free and, in some formulations at least, freedom itself. Sartre preserves this ontological structure but puts humanity in the place of Godhead. But he doesn’t stop there:


“There is no difference between free being – being as project, being as existence choosing its own essence – and absolute being.” (EH) 


Again, God is traditionally understood to be ‘absolute being’, sometimes referred to as ‘the ground of all being’. Sartre defines God as an entity whose essence (good) precedes existence; he defines humanity as an entity whose existence (freedom) precedes its essence. 


God’s perfection does not compromise God’s freedom. Sartre misses this. For him, God is hardwired. He is not a free being who chooses good unfailingly; he is a being whose essence defines him as good and robs him of the freedom to choose. If that were true, perhaps the concept of God would indeed be irrelevant…but it is not!


What makes God good, supremely good, is that God freely and perpetually chooses to embody the objective and transcendent values from which all worth is derived. God’s ‘good’ is active, not passive.


Second, “God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis: 1:26). God and human beings do not form a template as Sartre imagined. Rather, human beings and God share a common ontological nature: freedom. We are co-creators.


Remember Kant: “… A free will and a will subject to moral laws are one and the same,” and Leo: “… The supreme end to which human liberty must aspire is God.” (HL)


Freedom is the ever new and ever active power to choose the eternal and unchangeable ‘good’. In popular consciousness, Leo is viewed as the archenemy of freedom (as it is popularly conceived, i.e., as license); Sartre, on the other hand, is viewed as its champion. Yet, Sartre’s ideology of ‘freedom’ leads away from the moral nihilism of Nietzsche, Ayer and Camus and back to objective, transcendent values a la Leo. 


So, two great men whose views are irreconcilably opposed? I think not!



David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at

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