Title: The Age of Reason
Author: Jean-Paul Sartre
Originally Published: 1945
This is a top shelf book.
Perhaps if I decided to become a philosopher I would be an existentialist. Many of the philosophical texts I read and have interest in are existential in nature, delving deeply into issues of freedom, self, and how one fits into the world. I’m not sure what that says about me but I do know that The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre did not disappoint my needs.
In this novel, the first in the trilogy The Roads to Freedom, Sartre focuses on freedom – what is is, how to find it, how to keep it, and if it makes one happy. The main character Mathieu is a professor of philosophy who is obsessed with maintaining his freedom despite a pregnant mistress of seven years and the approach of World War II. He spends most of the text on the hunt for money needed for an abortion but takes a break to flirt, fall in love, stab himself in the hand, steal from a woman presumed dead but isn’t quite, and generally question everything going on around him.
Mathieu is not highly likeable, to say the least, but the other characters are not either. A friend of Mathieu’s who is suicidal, a student of Mathieu’s who is terrified of growing older, the student’s sister who Mathieu is taken by but is also taking her medical entrance exams which she is doomed to fail, and an older entertainer who is in love with the student.
It is difficult to write a novel that is enjoyable to read when none of the characters are people you would like to know. Sartre not only succeeds in making you want to learn more about these people, he draws you into their world despite yourself and forces you to think about what they are looking for. Each of them are realizing that life is a limitation, the barriers it puts in front of us such as work, school, and life take away any chance for freedom. You wiggle through their storylines, wondering what will become of such a sad group of people seemingly going nowhere, until near to the very end when they all have a choice to make.
It is a brilliant piece of existential literature, showing how freedom and the right to do as you wish are more difficult than it initially seems. A perfect example of what must be sacrificed to truly be who you want to be, where you want to be, and to have no obligation to answer to anyone, The Age of Reason will make you think, will ask questions of you, and will create more confusion than it will clear up. But it does it in a way that doesn’t annoy you – it simply leaves you feeling as if you may not be as free as you initially thought.