We were never meant to be solitary souls
Published 29/10/2013 | 10:05
Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century and his writings have sustained debate and conversation throughout his lifetime and indeed since his death in 1980.
He was a militant atheist for most of his life, although before his death he reputedly started gravitating towards Messianic Judaism. One of the quotes he is most famous for is "Hell is Other People", and it's generally taken to mean that Sartre didn't like other people very much, or that he might have preferred solitude.
In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Sartre spelled out the real meaning in a talk he gave in 1965: 'Hell is other people" has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations.
'But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because. . . when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, . . . we use the knowledge of us which other people already have.
'We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else's judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else's judgment enters. . . . But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.'
While I find a lot of Sartre's thought absurd, I do think that he hits on some truth in the words quoted above, albeit accidentally. I believe that hell isn't other people at all, in fact, I think it's more the case that hell is the absence of other people.
Hell, in the religious sense, is when we exile ourselves from God. We send ourselves to hell by our actions and our by own choice, we don't need to be sent to hell by God because we've put ourselves there.
It's a bit like excommunication, something which has been given a very wrong perception in Ireland of late. Even church leaders sometimes ignorantly preach the wrong message about excommunication, because the truth is that they actually don't have the power to excommunicate anyone.
Excommunication is an act of the person who is excommunicated - by their actions they choose to sever themselves from communion with the church.
But apart from the religious sense, I think that hell is the absence of other people. What can be more hellish than the absence of departed loved ones - spouses, children, parents or lovers. Absence of companionship in break up of a relationship or marriage; absence of true friends when you are at your lowest ebb; absence felt when you've been betrayed by someone.
Indeed, when we're isolated and alone, when we're bereft and down and feeling sad, that's when it seems like we're in hell.
Human beings are social beings by nature - it's part of our make-up. We need other people to give meaning to our lives, and we have an innate relational desire. Without other people we would struggle.
Throughout the centuries many people have tried to find happiness through solitude and silence, and while I agree that we all need some quiet time and some space to think and perhaps pray quietly; we were never made to be solitary individuals. It's only the very rare few who can find complete happiness in solitude.
Hell is the absence of other people - and as I've often said before – if you're going through hell, then the one thing you must not do is stop. You must keep going at all costs – there'll always be someone there waiting for you at the other side.