Book Review: “The age of reason” by Jean-Paul Sartre

“The age of reason” is a haunting account of Philosophy professor Mathieu’s own battle with identity and freedom when he learns that his girlfriend, of whom he had no intention of marrying, is pregnant.

The story follows Mathieu over two days of anguish as he tries to raise the money needed for an abortion and debates if an abortion is the right thing to do, if it will really bring him his strongest desire – freedom. During these two days Mathieu juggles a bourgeois background, strong moral convictions and opinions upholding his bohemian personal philosophy, a streak of cowardice, love, poverty and mostly narcissistic friends. Eventually balls begin to fall and at the end of the story, Mathieu is left with nothing, not a single commitment and also no freedom.

Sartre somehow fills the pages with surreal characters that can still be admired, despised and empathised with, sometimes on successive pages. For example the indecisiveness of Mathieu is pathetic yet his dedication to making the right decision is admirable. In the introduction to the version I read David Caute describes Sartre as a ‘master cartographer of the landscape of evasion, the flight from responsibility’ and this is very evident in Mathieu and this story.

Much of the book is beyond me, indeed the introduction itself reminded me far to much of high-school English class, but despite this and the warnings in the introduction, I found “The age of reason” a pleasant, compelling read. it is a book that you can think about a lot, or a little and still enjoy.

One of the lessons I take from this book that be applied to development is the need for adaptability and decisiveness in dealing with difficult, morally challenging situations. Mathieu was a rigid character, jailed by his ideals and reasoning into a life of nothing. In development, the outcome is rarely questionable, it is the process that is debated, as it should be.  Mathieu failed to make a choice, he lost nothing and gained nothing. In development, this would be considered a failure. Adaptation to the situation and finding the best possible outcome is necessary, but as “Poor Economics” taught us, we should be careful where possible to test the assumptions we make in determining the best possible outcome.

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