Every Word Has Consequences. Every Silence, Too

Jean-Paul Sartre? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Did the famous existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre say the following:

Every word has consequences. Every silence, too.

I am trying to find a citation for the original French version. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: Jean-Paul Sartre believed that writers should be politically engaged. He was a founder of the journal “Les Temps Modernes”, and he presented his viewpoint on activism in the first issue in 1945: 1

L’écrivain est en situation dans son époque: chaque parole a des retentissements. Chaque silence aussi. Je tiens Flaubert et Goncourt pour responsables de la répression qui suivit la Commune parce qu’ils n’ont pas écrit une ligne pour l’empêcher. Ce n’était, pas leur affaire, dira-t-on. Mais le procès de Calas, était-ce l’affaire de Voltaire? La condamnation de Dreyfus, était-ce l’affaire de Zola?

One possible translation into English appeared in the 1982 book “The French Left: A History & Overview” by Arthur Hirsh: 2

The writer is situated in his time. Every word has consequences. Every silence, too. I hold Flaubert and Goncourt responsible for the repression which followed the Commune because they did not write one line to prevent it. One might say that it was not their business. But was the Calas trial Voltaire’s business? Dreyfus’ condemnation Zola’s?

The questions were rhetorical. Voltaire and Zola both took strong political stances, and Sartre argued that other writers should follow a similar policy of advocacy. Intellectuals should not be silent he maintained.

Below are two more citations and a conclusion.




The 1973 compilation “World Literature Since 1945: Critical Surveys of the Contemporary Literatures of Europe and the Americas” included an alternative translation: 3

The writer is situated in his age; every word has repercussions. Every silence too.

In 2004 “Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It” by Ronald Aronson included a translation of the passage above that closely matched the one from 1982. 4

In conclusion, Jean-Paul Sartre should be credited with the words he published in 1945. Multiple translations into English are possible. The two versions above are reasonable.

Image Notes: Picture of a barricade at the Paris Commune; photo by Bruno Braquehais; bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris. Picture of Jean-Paul Sartre circa 1967; author Moshe Milner; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Both images were accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been retouched, cropped, and resized.

(Great thanks to Michael R. Montgomery whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Jeffrey Graf of Indiana University for accessing “Les Temps Modernes”. In addition, thanks to mailing list discussant Luke Owens.)

Notes:

  1. 1945 October, Les Temps Modernes: Revue Mensuelle, Volume 1, Number 1, Présentation by Jean-Paul Sartre, Start Page 1, Quote Page 5, Publisher: Temps Modernes, Paris, France. (Verified with scans; thanks to the library system of Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)
  2. 1982, The French Left: A History & Overview by Arthur Hirsh, Chapter 2: The Existentialist Challenge, Quote Page 41, Black Rose Books, Montréal, Quebéc, Canada. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 1973 Copyright, World Literature Since 1945: Critical Surveys of the Contemporary Literatures of Europe and the Americas, Edited by Ivar Ivask and Gero von Wilpert, Quote Page 207, F. Ungar Pub. Co., New York. (Google Books Snippet data; this citation has not yet been verified with hardcopy; check back in a few days for verification; the text is visible in a snippet)
  4. 2004, Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It by Ronald Aronson, Chapter 3: Postwar Commitments, Quote Page 56 and 57, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Preview)