More on "Hell is Other People"

As I noted in a previous post, this is a famous saying from one Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous plays, No Exit. Three people die and are sent to Hell. It turns out that they are sentenced to spend eternity in small room with no one but themselves for company. They quickly discover that they are capable of becoming each other’s worst enemies. At one point, one of the characters says, “Hell is other people.”
Misanthropes everywhere rejoice in this phrase and love to quote it. At first, it seems the play is a misanthropic statement.
But Sartre always said that that was a misinterpretation of what he intended. So what did he mean?
First of all, you have understand Sartre. According to Sartre, we are incapable of developing reasonable or real opinions of ourselves via ourselves. So how do we derive our opinions of ourselves? Via others. If we think highly of ourselves and if the feeling is genuine, we probably got that opinion via the adulation or respect of others at some point. Or at some point, we managed to achieve some major successes in life. These successes were acknowledged by others in various ways. I assume that people who think poorly of themselves have gotten these views from others too.
We do have choices. For instance, I have a bit of an ego, but if I wanted to hate myself, I could do that too. How? Just look around. There are people now, and people in the past, who despise and despised me, for all sorts of reasons. I’ve figured out that there is not much I can do about this. On the other hand, since I’m a bit of an egotist, I have not assimilated the view of these folks that I am some of kind of scum of the Earth, most evil person on Earth. I simply reject that.
I also freely acknowledge that my egotism derives in part from the respect and adulation I acquired at another period in life when I was quite successful in a number of ways. So my egotism doesn’t really come from me. It comes from others.
You’re welcome to disagree and think that we are capable of hallucinating real opinions of ourselves out of thin air, but Sartre disagrees. I would add that one can indeed manufacture opinions about oneself, but I don’t think that they are real or genuine. For instance, the narcissist seems to do this.
On the other hand, because his narcissism is rooted in fantasy and not the real adulation of others, it is highly unstable, extremely exaggerated and prone to severe crashes and breakdowns during times of stress when the narcissist, the greatest person on Earth, suddenly become the lowest human that ever lived.
On the other hand, according to Sartre, we want to be our own masters, yet we cannot be. We are doomed to need others, whether we want to or not. This is the “no exit.” It’s also the “Hell is other people.” We are doomed to require respect and even adulation from others. We long to free ourselves from this addiction, but we cannot. We are trapped.
I agree with this. What do people really want? They want to be liked, admired, respected,  even treated with adulation. I would argue that almost all healthy people want this. There are extroverts who always jump all over us introverts saying, “Why do you care what other people think? I don’t care what anyone thinks!” This is one of the lies that people go around telling themselves. They want to believe that they are their own masters and that they are not addicted to feel-good snacks from other humans.
However, what if one of those extroverts who says this would wake up one day and find that everyone hated them? All of their friends and loved ones have abandoned them. They go outside and people spit at them and curse them. I figure they would go home and kill themselves. Seriously. So you see, even those folks who insist, “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me!” are completely wrong. They do care; they care so much.
However, this addiction of ours is frustrating. As I noted in an earlier post, other people let me down. Maybe I expect too much of them. So I avoid going places I ought to go to. I get there after a while, but I tend to put it off a bit. Why, because I fear being humiliated or embarrassed? No. Because I think it’s going to be a drag, and I hate drags. I was told that that’s life and to get over it and take risks. I’m sure there is truth to that.
However, according to Sartre, my dilemma, that others are often letting me down and not treating me how I wish to be treated, is actually the human dilemma of all of us. This is the lesson of “No Exit.” We are addicted to this continuous praise and admiration, or at least respect, of others, but too often we just don’t get it, or we don’t get it the way that we want to get it. Most of all, we want people to love, respect and admire us for ourselves and only for ourselves.
However, in an insanely competitive capitalistic society, what respect, admiration and whatnot we receive is often due to what we can give others or what others can get from us or out of us, not for what we are deep down inside.
Like it or not, others are out to use us in one way or another. If you don’t believe that’s true, watch what happens to a poor person who wins the lottery. Your boss uses you for your work, so he can make money off you. If you are male, women and others befriend and love you or not based on your income, your power, your possessions, your achievements, your stature, your insincere appearance, or your ability to bullshit about like a social actor.
How many people are really interested in befriending us or loving us just because we are great people deep down inside? Not as many as we would like. But this is what we long for. We resent that people only respect, befriend or love us based on superficial crap, ignoring our inner awesomeness. It’s a constant source of frustration, an existential dilemma. It’s the meaning of “Hell is other people.”
Imagine a world where you respect, befriend and love others not for their money, status, power, achievements, possessions, and superficial looks or winning personalities. Imagine a world we we respect, befriend and love others and vice versa purely for their inner greatness and not for any other reason. I believe that this is the world that Sartre wants us to imagine.
Try to create it.
I’ve dealt with some difficult concepts here and most people just reject this kind of thinking off the bat, but I urge you to think about what I just wrote, and see if you can get something meaningful out of it.
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25 thoughts on “More on "Hell is Other People"”

  1. “How many people are really interested in befriending us or loving us just because we are great people deep down inside? Few.”
    What about artists? Basquiat was a poor street guy yet was catapaulted by friends..Edith Piaf was a dirt-poor slattern singing on the street for handouts..also there are many people that reject accumulating wealth yet have many loyal friends. People need heros IMO, they need to gravitate towards people with strong, fascinating personalities. We are social creatures.

  2. You’re right, but look at how many more dates you get with hot chicks, after a certain age, if you have money, as opposed to if you don’t have money. No contest.
    I changed some of the wording in the text.
    Like it or not, a lot of folks associate with us due to what they can get out of us as a primary reason. You can say, “Everyone uses everyone,” but it still doesn’t quite feel right deep down inside. A lot of famous people have this problem. They become convinced that they don’t have any real friends, and that all their friends are around them just for their money and their fame. They’re sort of right.
    It doesn’t mean life sucks and kill yourself. It’s just an existential dilemma. Existentialism is full of this stuff.

    1. Well, I think Sartre was referring to some of the fundamentals of human nature that occur out of the phenomenon he calls existentialism. Plus, his world was that of the rock stars, where he was implicated in wondering if most of his ‘entourage’ were simply there because of his status.
      Thing is (for the rest of us, with less fame), you actually can decide that you don’t need others approval to feel happy. And you can disconnect with so called friends– who are only hanging around for the wrong reasons. Its possible not to give in and feel like you are the problem.
      The strength needed to for this –to leave the ‘pack mentality’ — is often too difficult for most people. They simply end up bending to the will of the stronger and give in to subjugation, in order to fit in and feel accepted and not alienated.
      The solution (difficult for most) is to understand this phenomena and not jump to confusion or generalization. For instance you could simply be aware and begin to leave those you find most phony and seek to replace them with those more genuine. I believe that simply living with this attitude of awareness will deter the phony types away from you to begin with.
      Being true to yourself and your ideals is something one needs to continuously strive for, in order to maintain proper mental health. The sacrifices you make, by distancing yourself from popular but noxious individuals, will help you re-organize your life and ‘entourage’ so that you will become psychologically and characteristically stronger in future relationships.

      1. “Thing is (for the rest of us, with less fame), you actually can decide that you don’t need others approval to feel happy.”
        I believe the point of the post was largely that, though many people think as you do (or claim to think as you do), it actually isn’t true at all. You can’t just decide. You say you don’t care about what others think of you, and maybe if you were the only man on earth, or lived in such solitude (both in space and habit) that you were practically alone, it would be true. But in a society of human beings, people get their opinion of themselves from the way others treat them. It’s a simple statement of fact.

        1. I don’t care what most people think of me. It makes me happy when people approve of me but, at the same time, I’m a very independent person. Enjoy people, enjoy being alone. Love someone for who they are inside without any other considerations? I agree. Christ said, “love thy neighbor as thyself.” He said this without qualifications.

  3. i found this all very interesting. i am usually a reasonably happy person, this works as long as i keep superficial and user types away from me. most of my really bad days are the result of these types of people crapping on my day.

  4. My opinion on Sartre varies, and the quality of his writing and his thought varies, so I won’t comment on Sartre. I will only say that I found your post incredibly insightful and well thought out. And accurate. This indeed is the root of the problem. We are decided by others. One’s sense of self erodes completely in isolation, and varies widely depending on the social context – we need look no further than the example of someone whose family hates him but whose friends love him – his image of himself will probably vary widely depending on which company he’s in, and overall he will never think quite well of himself because one of (if not THE) most important groups in determining how he feels about himself, hates him.
    There’s a wonderful passage in Brothers Karamazov where the father of the three boys, who has been described by Dostoevsky as acting the fool and being obscene and embarrassing in all his interactions, mostly due to other people’s having thought poorly of him and having come to expect just this behavior out of him, encounters a russian monk, Father Zossima. A genuinely saintly man. And Dostoevsky makes a point of showing how Zossima treats this man, who is acting the horrible role others have cast him in, with the utmost dignity and respect. He treats him with unconditional love and respect, looking past the horrible monster created by the person’s conforming to the low opinions others had of him. He chooses to interact only with the true, inner, ideal self – as you put it, for what the man is “deep down inside.” It’s a scene I always found very significant for just the reasons your post suggests. Now obviously the root of Father Zossima’s treating the man that way is Christian, but I think ultimately the impulse to do so, and to have others do so to us, is the same whatever the ostensible basis of it.
    Also on the subject of the sense of all relationships ultimately being quid pro quo, I once knew a girl who I believe at heart was a very good girl, nice and shy and desperate to be able to love and to be loved. But she was socially very cold and cynical, and she once told me, very resignedly and with complete conviction, not to expect much from her, as she didn’t expect much from anyone else – “All relationships are quid pro quo,” she said. Everyone just wants something from someone else. Relationships are social trade. And this, which she had probably learned the hard way (for God only knows what kind of a life would make someone see the world like that, and be so sure of it), became a self-fulfilling prophecy for her. She ended up being careless and mercenary, socially, just as she thought everyone really was. I’ve since thought that this was the most unhappy girl I’m ever likely to meet. And the worst part is, I’m not sure at all she was wrong. But Zossima’s way, your way, Sartre’s way does seem better, does it not?

  5. “If you are male, women and others befriend and love you or not based on your income, your power, your possessions, your achievements, your stature, your insincere appearance, or your ability to bullshit about like a social actor.”
    I’d like to point out males are not the only ones who suffer these injustices. Aside from that small point though, I found the essay deeply insightful and an interesting take on a classic.

  6. I just read this now in 2012, and I found this to be really interesting. It actually really made me question some of my personal relationships and I might be changing things in the near future.

  7. This has been good to read. I googled “hell is other people” because I wanted to know more about the phrase and I ended up here. I wanted to know more because I am thinking about solitude at the moment.
    I want to be on my own for a while. Just finished five months of chemo and I want to work out where that leaves me. I do not want to jump back into the pond, swimming like mad to catch up to other people. I’d like to have a purpose first.
    But I have a daily life full of potential obligations…snags under the surface…hell is other people. Yes.

  8. Meghna Sonkar –
    Yes…Hell is other people…Everytime I think I’m not going to bother about what other people have to say, something else comes up and I am reminded of my insufficiencies. However, I wouldn’t like to think I’m bad. Through the years I’ve seen people change. When you have impressive stuff, people swarm to you like bees to honey. At other times, they would probably say something wicked, which is inordinately a mirror to what they are thinking…maybe that’s why they say that God created bad times so you can test how genuine people are to your good…but, as they say, why would other people care about YOUR opinion of you?
    Strikes a chord somewhere?
    Robert, plainly speaking, I LOVED LOVED LOVED your article coz it was conjured rather cleverly( I mean in a good way….the clever part was that you hardly stopped in the midst of writiing, which probably made it all the more interesting and easy to gulp in…WOW!!!

      1. This article helped me understand the meanning of the expression “Hell is other people” But it also helped me realize things about life and about me.

  9. SO BASICALLY, HELL IS OUR REPRESENTATION OF TRYING TO BE ACCEPTED BY OTHER PEOPLE? WHY DO WE FEEL THE NEED TO LET OTHERS PLAN OUR LIVES. IS IT BECAUSE WE ARE NOT CAPABLE OF DOING IT OURSELVES? OR IS IT BECAUSE WE,AS A SOCIETY, ARE TOO LAZY TO MAKE OUR OWN HEAVEN AND ITS EASIER TO LET OTHERS DICTATE WHAT WE DO. WHAT WE FEEL. I KNOW NO ONE WANTS TO BE TOLD WHAT TO DO, BUT ARENT MOST PEOPLE FOLLOWERS, AND NOT LEADERS? MAYBE WE SHOULD REACH DOWN DEEP FROM WITHIN OURSELVES THE NEXT TIME WE LOOK IN THE MIRROR AND TRY TO REMEMBER THAT WE ALL HAVE A DESTINY. MANY TIMES IN MY LIFE, HAVE I LOOKED AT MYSELF IN DISGUST BECAUSE OF THE HELL I HAVE LEFT BEHIND. I KNOW MY GREAT ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN MY MIND, WONT MAKE AMMENDS FOR MY WORSE CRIMES AGAINST MYSELF AND OTHERS. SO, I CONTINUE TO FIGHT EVERYDAY TO GET BACK ON TOP. THIS IS MY STRUGGLE THAT I HAVE LET OTHERS CREATE. I DONT WANT TO BE THE WAY I AM, BUT IM AFRAID FOR NOW, THIS IS HOW IT MUST BE. I LOKK FORWARD TO READING OTHER COMMENTS. ALL OF YOUR VIEWS GIVE ME THE ARMOR TO FIGHT HELL IN OUR OWN WAYS. THANK-YOU AND GOOD LUCK

  10. For the most part this describes human nature and Nan’s desire to be liked.
    Some counter examples to this: criminals, robbers, and other wrongdoers. People who steal, harm, or break the rules won’t get the approval of anyone except other criminals. Why is it that these people often have brazen, arrogant attitudes if the average person would hate them?
    A lot of it has to do with your perception of how others view you, and not gods own truth. As a counter example, anyone can irrationally convince themselves that they are strongly disliked because they are fat skinny whatever, even though they may be the only person who thinks this. Everyone has flaws and lots of them. Most things in life are interpreted or assumed. The truth is elusive.

  11. I stumbled upon this post after seeing the phrase “hell is other people” randomly online. I am NOT highly educated nor very well-read, I don’t even know the correct annunciation of ‘Sartre’, but your article was amazing food for thought for me on so many levels. Like another person commented, it was interesting to read what others posted as well. You just helped me mentally process something that I have been internally working on without even realizing I was. Thank you for that.

  12. I just used this quote in a quarrel with my closest friend of five years, prefacing it with “sometimes” to soften the impact. I was probably following a more literal interpretation, as she was being difficult and irritable at the end of what had already been a long and tedious day of dealing with a coworker’s utter lack of interpersonal skills, routinely burying my virtually blinding anger more than once. My brittle effort to take the edge off of the quote failed. She was hurt, and this exchange then erupted to a full-scale confrontation, culminating in a humiliating display of infantile rage on my part. Now, the friendship seems to be thoroughly iced for the immediate future, which has left me sad, ashamed, and relatively alone, as my social network is not as localized as it once was. After I read this piece, I realized that I was actually on point with Sartre’s concept. I was forever trying in this friendship to be the “good” person, the rescuer, the fixer. While I think that may be an aspect of my nature, it is also a social guise that I assume, perhaps to feel of some value to others and myself. This guise manifests strongly with people who I sometimes incorrectly assume need my help. But the other side of taking on this guise is that it creates a certain amount of hostility and resentment, especially when it appears that there is inequity, which there always would be. As Paul (June 29, 2011 comment) mentioned when talking about his friend who had a very harsh view of human relationships, there is always this “social trade” that’s happening between people. And sometimes, yes, it really is a hellish experience, attempting to manage one’s feelings as well as those in one’s immediate midst, not to mention their expectations and needs. Thanks everyone for the insights…..

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