Some of history’s greatest minds are known only by one or two of their quotes. Nietzsche’s “that which does not kill me make’s me stronger,” is one. “I regret that I have only one life to give to my country,” is Nathan Hale’s contribution to this list. Jean-Paul Sartre has “hell is other people.”
The past decade or so that last one has been an increasingly popular quote for all the wrong reasons. Hipsters, punks, gleefully anti-social businessmen and TV writers have all dipped into that well. I would be happy for Sartre, all this attention years after his death, if it was not for one very simple fact: they’re getting it all wrong. To these people this quote is a clever, little way to say “people suck” which was not JPS’s intent at all.
Jean-Paul realized his inability to understand even himself. We all share this problem, though I suppose only we philosophers agonize over it. If we cannot understand ourselves, how can we hope to understand others? Removed from the ability to truly relate to those we must interact with we are overcome with uncertainty and indecision, we are trapped in a hell of no one’s making. It’s not that people suck, quite the contrary. I would suggest that Sartre rather liked other people, which is why not knowing how to relate to them troubled him so.
For my part I find my inability to understand others a mixed blessing. Like Sartre, and really everyone else, it can be maddening to not know what others want and need of you. That can be frightening but it can also be wonderful. I see people as a course to learn, and every new thing they teach me about themselves, no matter how seemingly mundane, is wonderful. I suppose that is why I find people who act like walking tropes so frustrating. Nothing to see here.
No, people don’t suck, nor are they really hell. They just are. They can be infuriating, especially in groups, but individually they are fun and interesting and I, who have so often described myself as anti social, would have them no other way.