Sophie had just walked in the front door when her mother came home from work.
That saved her having to describe her rescue from a tall tree by a tame goose.
After dinner they began to get everything ready for the garden party. They brought a
four-meter-long table top and trestles from the attic and carried it into the garden.
They had planned to set out the long table under the fruit trees. The last time they had
used the trestle table had been on Sophie's parents' tenth anniversary. Sophie was only
eight years old at the time, but she clearly remembered the big outdoor party with all
their friends and relatives.
The weather report was as good as it could be. There had not been as much as a drop
of rain since that horrid thunderstorm the day before Sophie's birthday. Nevertheless they
decided to leave the actual table setting and decorating until Saturday morning.
Later that evening they baked two different kinds of bread. They were going to serve
chicken and salad. And sodas. Sophie was worried that some of the boys in her class
would bring beer. If there was one thing she was afraid of it was trouble.
As Sophie was going to bed, her mother asked her once again if Alberto was
coming to the party.
"Of course he's coming. He has even promised to do a philosophical trick."
"A philosophical trick? What kind of trick is that?"
"No idea . . . if he were a magician, he would have done a magic trick. He would
probably have pulled a white rabbit out of"a hat. . ."
"But since he's a philosopher, he's going to do a philosophical trick instead. After all, it
is a philosophical garden party. Are you planning to do something too?"
"Actually, I am."
"I'm not telling. Good night, Sophie!"
Early the next morning Sophie was woken up by her mother, who came in to say
goodbye before she went to work. She gave Sophie a list of last-minute things to buy in
town for the garden party.
The minute her mother had left the house, the telephone rang. It was Alberto. He had
obviously found out exactly
when Sophie was home alone.
"How is your secret coming along?"
"Ssh! Not a word. Don't even give him the chance to think about it."
"I think I held his attention yesterday."
"Is the philosophy course finished?"
"That's why I'm calling. We're already in our own century. From now on you should be
able to orient yourself on your own. The foundations were the most important. But we
must nevertheless meet for a short talk about our own time."
"But I have to go to town . . ."
"That's excellent. I said it was our own time we had to talk about."
"So it would be most practical to meet in town, I mean."
"Shall I come to your place?"
"No, no, not here. Everything's a mess. I've been hunting for hidden microphones."
"Ah!" "There's a cafe that's just opened at the Main Square. Cafe Pierre. Do you
"Yes. When shall ! be there?"
"Can we meet at twelve?"
At a couple of minutes past twelve Sophie walked into Cafe Pierre. It was one of those
new fashionable places with little round tables and black chairs, upturned vermouth
bottles in dispensers, baguettes, and sandwiches.
The room was small, and the first thing Sophie noticed was that Alberto was not there.
A lot of other people were sitting at the round tables, but Sophie saw only that Alberto
was not among them. She was not in the habit of going into cafes on her own. Should
she just turn around and leave, and come back later to see if he had arrived?
She ordered a cup of lemon tea at the marble bar and
sat down at one of the vacant tables. She stared at the door. People came and went
all the time, but there was still no Alberto.
If only she had a newspaper!
As time passed, she started to look around. She got a couple of glances in return. For
a moment Sophie felt like a young woman. She was only fifteen, but she could certainly
have passed for seventeen—or at least, sixteen and a half.
She wondered what all these people thought about being alive. They looked as though
they had simply dropped in, as though they had just sat down here by chance. They
were all talking away, gesticulating vehemently, but it. didn't look as though they were
talking about anything that mattered.
She suddenly came to think of Kierkegaard, who had said that what characterized the
crowd most was their idle charter. Were all these people living at the aesthetic stage?
Or was there something that was existentially important to them?
In one of his early letters to her Alberto had talked about the similarity between
children and philosophers. She realized again that she was afraid of becoming an
adult. Suppose she too ended up crawling deep down into the fur of the white rabbit
that was pulled out of the universe's top hat!
She kept her eyes on the door. Suddenly Alberto walked in. Although it was
midsummer, he was wearing a black beret and a gray hip-length coat of herringbone
tweed. He hurried over to her. It felt very strange to meet him in public.
"It's quarter past twelve!"
"It's what is known as the academic quarter of an hour. Would you like a snack?"
He sat down and looked into her eyes. Sophie shrugged.
"Sure. A sandwich, maybe."
Alberto went up to the counter. He soon returned with a cup of coffee and two
baguette sandwiches with cheese and ham.
"Was if expensive?"
"A bagatelle, Sophie."
"Do you have any excuse at all for being late?"
"No. I did it on purpose. I'll explain why presently."
He took a few large bites of his sandwich. Then he said:
"Let's talk about our own century."
"Has anything of philosophical interest happened?"
"Lots . . . movements are going off in all directions. We'll start with one very important
direction, and that is existentialism. This is a collective term for several philosophical
currents that take man's existential situation as their point of departure. We generally
talk of twentieth-century existential philosophy. Several of these existential philosophers,
or existentialists, based their ideas not only on Kierkegaard, but on Hegel and Marx as
"Another important philosopher who had a great influence on the twentieth century
was the German Friedrich Nietzsche, who lived from 1844 to 1900. He, too, reacted
against Hegel's philosophy and the German 'histor-icism.' He proposed life itself as a
counterweight to the anemic interest in history and what he called the Christian 'slave
morality.' He sought to effect a 'revaluation of all values,' so that the life Force of the
strongest should not be hampered by the weak. According to Nietzsche, both
Christianity and traditional philosophy had turned away from the real world and pointed
toward 'heaven' or 'the world of ideas.' But what had hitherto been considered the 'real'
world was in fact a pseudo world. 'Be true to the world,' he said. 'Do not listen to those
who offer you supernatural expectations.' "
"So . . . ?"
"A man who was influenced by both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche was the German
existential philosopher Martin Heidegger. But we are going to concentrate on the French
existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, who lived from 1905 to 1980. He was the leading light
among the existentialists—at least, to the broader public. His existentialism became
especially popular in the forties, just after the war. Later on he allied himself with the
Marxist movement in France, but he never became a member of any party."
"Is that why we are meeting in a French cafe?" 455
"It was not quite accidental, I confess. Sartre himself spent a lot of time in cafes. He
met his life-long companion Simone de Beauvoir in a cafe. She was also an existential
"A woman philosopher?"
"What a relief that humanity is finally becoming civilized."
"Nevertheless, many new problems have arisen in our own time."
"You were going to talk about existentialism."
"Sartre said that 'existentialism is humanism.' By that he meant that the existentialists
start from nothing but humanity itself. I might add that the humanism he was referring to
took a far bleaker view of the human situation than the humanism we met in the
"Why was that?"
"Both Kierkegaard and some of this century's existential philosophers were Christian.
But Sartre's allegiance was to what we might call an atheistic existentialism. His phi-
losophy can be seen as a merciless analysis of the human situation when 'God is dead.'
The expression 'God is dead' came from Nietzsche."
"The key word in Sartre's philosophy, as in Kierkegaard's, is 'existence.' But existence
did not mean the same as being alive. Plants and animals are also alive, they exist, but
they do not have to think about what it implies. Man is the only living creature that is
conscious of its own existence. Sartre said that a material thing is simply 'in itself,' but
mankind is 'for itself.' The being of man is therefore not the same as the being of
"I can't disagree with that."
"Sartre said that man's existence takes priority over whatever he might otherwise be.
The fact that I exist takes priority over what I am. 'Existence takes priority over essence.' "
"That was a very complicated statement."
"By essence we mean that which something consists of—the nature, or being, of
something. But according to Sartre, man has no such innate 'nature.' Man must
therefore create himself. He must create his own nature or 'essence,' because it is not
fixed in advance."
"I think I see what you mean."
"Throughout the entire history of philosophy, philosophers have sought to discover
what man is—or what human nature is. But Sartre believed that man has no such eternal
'nature' to fall back on. It is therefore useless to search for the meaning of life in general.
We are condemned to improvise. We are like actors dragged onto the stage without
having learned our lines, with no script and no prompter to whisper stage directions to
us. We must decide for ourselves how to live."
"That's true, actually. If one could just look in the Bible—or in a philosophy book—to
find out how to live, it would be very practical."
"You've got the point. When people realize they are alive and will one day die—and
there is no meaning to cling to—they experience angsf, said Sartre. You may recall that
angst, a sense of dread, was also characteristic of Kierkegaard's description of a person
in an existential situation."
"Sartre says that man feels alien in a world without meaning. When he describes
man's 'alienation,' he is echoing the central ideas of Hegel and Marx. Man's feeling of
alienation in the world creates a sense of despair, boredom, nausea, and absurdity."
"It is quite normal to feel depressed, or to feel that everything is just too boring."
"Yes, indeed. Sartre was describing the twentieth-century city dweller. You remember
that the Renaissance humanists had drawn attention, almost triumphantly, to man's
freedom and independence? Sartre experienced man's freedom as a curse. 'Man is
condemned to be free,' he said. 'Condemned because he has not created himself—and
is nevertheless free. Because having once been hurled into the world, he is responsible
for everything he does.' "
"But we haven't asked to be created as free individuals."
"That was precisely Sartre's point. Nevertheless we are