Our Friendship Was Not An Easy One, But I Shall Miss It

jean paul sarte camus
Fans of philosophy are all too familiar with the long running rivalry between legendary philosophers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In print, in person and everywhere in between, the two were vicious, friendly competitors disagreeing over everything from existentialism to World War II.

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“Our friendship was not an easy one, but I shall miss it” is a quote written by philosopher Jean-Paul Satre in a letter to a colleague, fellow philosopher, and intellectual sparring partner Albert Camus. As you might expect, the quote signaled an end to their long and, often heated, debates over philosophy and politics. First, the full quote: 

To the Editor of Les Temps moderns….

My Dear Camus: Our friendship was not easy, but I will miss it. If you end it today, that doubtless means it had to end. So many things drew us together; few divided us. But these few were still too many.

The open letter appeared in Les Temps Modernes, a french publication with only 10,000 subscribers to its name. The edition quickly sold out, then was reprinted and sold out again. 

Albert Camus vs Jean-Paul Sarte

One of the most celebrated, discussed, and public feuds in the history of ideas, Albert Camus vs. Jean-Paul Sarte, was an intellectual matchup for the ages. The exchange revealed that political beliefs really do have philosophical underpinnings. The likes of which, if one is being intellectually honest and consistent, guide almost every ethically relevant position one is destined to have. We find this disagreement and its underlying message particularly relevant in the age of Trump when one is forced to ask “Should I be friends with someone on the other side?” Or even more foundational, “Can I?”

The philosophical positions the two held were diametrically opposed. Albert Camus thought that, though he rejected many aspects of existentialism, individual freedom is the thing to be fostered. Perhaps not the out and out free-market capitalist that he is often portrayed as being, Camus nonetheless was partial to the idea institutions must promote as much freedom as possible.

Conversely, Sartre is famous for advocating that follows from the fact that the following two propositions are true (1) there is no god, and (2) humans have an extreme level of free will. Essentially, Sarte will make the case that just because there’s no reason to believe the morality prescribed by ancient texts, that doesn’t mean humans are off the hook. On the contrary, because we have an “outrageous” level of free will, we, therefore, have the power to make our society. Thus this commits one to acknowledge that our actions have consequences and create a world that we’re responsible for creating.

For Jean-Paul Sarte, therefore, humanism means creating systems, laws, and institutions that maximize the well-being of all. Granted, this is a simplistic view of Sartre’s position but it’s not difficult to see how this view is going to lead to bitter conflicts between himself and Camus, communism and capitalism, and the United States and the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Jean-Paul’s defense of the Soviet Union and Camus’ enduring comedy lead to Camus having more staying power in much of the mainstream world. 

There’s a great deal written about the relationship between the two, and, as frequently the case, some of the best works are only coming out recently. We recommend Ronald Arson’s 2004 book Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It for more about the relationship between the two and the philosophical positions that underlie them. Though Arson is a well-known Jean-Paul Sarte scholar, he nonetheless is to be commended for a work that’s so remarkably unbiased; you’d never guess he’s spent his lives work on one and not the other. 

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