It may seem an obvious question, by why are human beings obsessed with relationships?
Jean-Paul Sartre's masterpiece Being and Nothingness (1943) made him one of the great modern philosophers of freedom. Though long and very difficult to read, his purpose was to drill down to find the heart of our being. Central to Sartre's thinking is the view that people have no essential 'essence'. In fact, when humans analyse their own being, what they find at the heart of it is nothing. Yet this nothingness is a great thing, since it means we are totally free to create the self or the life we want - we are free in a negative way, because there is nothing to stop us being free. The book's famous quote is, "...man being condemned to be free carries the whole weight of the world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being."
Despite this freedom, Sartre's answer to the question above is that, although we are each individually conscious beings, we also need others to see us and 'make us real'. To feel complete, we must join our 'nothingness' to another's 'being'.
We must be wanted
The problem is that we try to turn other free consciousnesses (people) into objects, which is never possible. Our best chances for happiness or success in relationships is to recognize and allow another's freedom, despite our natural wish to 'own' them. We can try to make others dependent on us emotionally, or materially, but we can never possess the consciousness of another. "If Tristan and Isolde [the mythical love pair] fall madly in love because of a love potion", Sartre writes, "they are less interesting" - because a potion would cut out their consciousness.
It is not just a person we want to possess, as an object, but their conscious freedom to want us. No pledge or vow measures up to the full giving of a person to another in spirit. As Sartre puts it, "the Lover wants to be 'the whole World' for the beloved." To the other person, "I must be the one whose function is to make the trees and water exist". We must represent to them the final limit of their freedom, where they voluntarily choose to see no further. For ourselves, we want to be seen by the other not as an object, but as something limitlessness:
"I must no longer be seen on the ground of the world as a 'this' among other 'thises', but the world must be revealed in terms of me."
Romantic relationships are so potent, Sartre says, because they join together one person's state of Nothingness to another's Being. We rely on the Other to make us exist (otherwise, we are the state of Nothing). Yet we are perpetually insecure in love because at any moment we can become, instead of the centre of the lover's world, merely one thing among many - a 'this' amongst 'thises'
A gift like no other
It is this push and pull between objectivity and subjectivity that is the heart of all conflicts and unresolved issues in love, Sartre says. Relationships are a perpetual dance between lovers needing to perceive each other's freedom, and wanting to see each other as an object. Without the other being free, they are not attractive, yet if they are in not some way an object, we cannot have them. It is only in recognizing the other person's total freedom that we can ever be said to 'possess' them in any way.
Reducing ourselves to an object to be used by the other, but in a voluntary way, is in a strange way the height of being human, since it is a kind of giving that goes against the very nature of man to be free - a gift like no other.
As the biographers have told us, Sartre himself was not good at this kind of commitment. Consistent with their refutation of all bourgeois or middle class values, he and fellow philosopher Simone de Beauvoir never married or had children, but their union of minds made them one of the great couples of the 20th century. For most of their lives they lived in apartments within a stone's throw of each other, and would spend several hours a day chatting and smoking. Sartre and de Beauvoir admitted it was difficult to know which ideas in their writing originated with one or the other.
Explaining sexual desire
Sartre sees sexual desire as having much less to do with the sexual organs than with states of being. We are sexual beings from birth to death, yet the sex organs do not explain our feelings of desire.
Desire of what, Sartre asks? We don't desire someone just for pleasure, or just because they are a vessel for the pleasurable act of ejaculation - as noted above, we desire a consciousness. There is a big gap between normal desires and sexual desire. We can desire to drink a glass of water, and once we have drunk we are satisfied. It's that simple. But sexual desire compromises me, Sartre notes. Consciousness becomes 'clogged' by desire, or to put it another way, it invades us. We can let this happen, or try to prevent it, but either way the sexual appetite is not the same as others, since it involves the mind, not just the body. We say that desire 'takes hold of us', or 'overwhelms us', phrases we don't use in relation to hunger or thirst.
Sartre likens sexual desire to being overcome by sleep, which is why we seem to have little power over it. Consciousness gives way to just being a body; during sex we wish to make the other person only flesh (thus revealing ourselves as just flesh). The caress, Sartre says, "causes the Other's flesh to be born", to awaken desire in them, and at the same time makes us realise ourselves as a body, and a body that belongs to the world. The interplay between mind and body he describes in this way: "...consciousness is engulfed in a body which is engulfed in the world". Though we are conscious beings, in love-making we wish to reduce the other to physicality, and reduce ourselves to being a mere body - if only for a time.
Setting out to write a guide to the classic writings in philosophy, the one thing I never expected was to find superior insights into relationships. While books on the neurology of love, the science of dating or differences between the sexes may be interesting, they do not address the basic questions of Being and the Other that Sartre so brilliantly pinpointed, questions which are the heart of every couple. Because they were willing to go deeper, Sartre and de Beauvoir's thoughts on being, love, and relationships remain some of the most penetrating ever written.
Tom Butler-Bowdon's 50 Philosophy Classics: Profound Insights and Powerful Thinking From Fifty Key Books is published this month by Nicholas Brealey.