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Jean-Paul Sartre

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Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre
(Undated photograph)

Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre (1905 - 1980) was a French philosopher, writer and political activist, and one of the central figures in 20th Century French philosophy.

He is best known as the main figurehead of the Existentialism movement. Along with his French contemporaries Albert Camus (1913 - 1960) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986), he helped popularize the movement through his novels and plays as well as through his more academic works. As a young man, he also made significant contributions to Phenomenology.

He was a confirmed Atheist and a committed Communist and Marxist, and took a prominent role in many leftist political causes throughout his adult life.


Sartre was born in Paris, France on 21 June 1905. His father was Jean-Baptiste Sartre, an officer of the French Navy, who died of a fever when Sartre was only 15 months old; his mother was Anne-Marie Schweitzer, of Alsatian origin and cousin to the German Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer (1875 - 1965). His mother raised him with help from her father, Charles Schweitzer, a high school professor of German, who taught Sartre mathematics and introduced him to classical literature at a very early age. As a boy, he was small and cross-eyed and socially awkward. When his mother remarried in 1917, the family moved to La Rochelle.

He first became attracted to philosophy on reading the "Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness" by Henri Bergson(1859 - 1941) as a teenager in the 1920s. He attended high school at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, and then went on to study at the elite École Normale Supérieure (the alma mater for several prominent French thinkers and intellectuals) from 1924 until 1929, where he absorbed the ideas of Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger among others.

While at the École Normale, he came into contact with such notables as Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 - 1961), Raymond Aron (1905 - 1983), Simone Weil (1909 - 1943), Jean Hippolyte (1907 - 1968) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 - ). Most importantly, he also met Simone de Beauvoir (1908 - 1986), who was studying at the Sorbonne at that time, and the two became inseparable and remained lifelong companions (although not monogamously), deliberately challenging the cultural and social assumptions and expectations of their upbringings. De Beauvoir went on to become a noted thinker in her own right, as well as a popular writer and prominent feminist.

Sartre graduated from the École Normale Supérieure in 1929 with a doctorate in philosophy, and then served for a period as a conscript in the French Army from 1929 to 1931. He obtained a position teaching philosophy at the lycée in Le Havre, and then obtained a grant to study at the French Institute in Berlin in 1933 where he studied the Phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger in more detail, and began to develop his own profoundly original Existentialism. He published two important early works, "La Transcendance de l'égo" ("Transcendence of the Ego") and "Esquisse d'une théorie des émotions" ("Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions") in 1936 and 1938 respectively, and his groundbreaking existentialist novel "La Nausée" ("Nausea") came out in 1938.

In 1939, at the start of World War II, Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in Padoux, and he spent nine months as a prisoner of war in Nancy and then in Stalag 12D at Trier, Germany. He was released in April 1941 due to poor health and given civilian status. He recovered his position as a teacher at the Lycée Pasteur near Paris, and then soon after took up a new position at the Lycée Condorcet.

He settled near Montparnasse in Paris, where a group of intellectuals gathered around him in the cafés of the Left Bank, especially the Café de Flore. He participated in the founding of the underground group Socialisme et Liberté with other writers including de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty. After the high-profile writers André Gide (1869 - 1951) and André Malraux (1901 - 1976) were approached but did not join, Sartre became discouraged and the group soon dissolved and he turned to writing in earnest. He wrote the plays "Les Mouches" ("The Flies") in 1943 and "Huis-clos" ("No Exit") in 1944, managing to avoid German censorship, and his most important scholarly work on Existentialism, "L'Être et le néant" ("Being and Nothingness"), was written in 1943.

Although some commentators criticized Sartre's lack of political commitment during the German occupation, he was an active contributor to "Les Lettres Française" and to "Combat", clandestine newspapers of the French Resistance, through which he met Albert Camus, a like-minded philosopher and author. Sartre and de Beauvoir remained close friends with Camus until he turned away from Communism in 1951. After the War, Sartre and de Beauvoir established "Les Temps Modernes" ("Modern Times"), a monthly literary and political review, and he started writing full-time as well as continuing his political activism. He drew on his war experiences for his great trilogy of novels, "Les Chemins de la Liberté" ("The Roads to Freedom") (1945 - 1949). In 1948, the Roman Catholic Church placed his complete works on its Index of Prohibited Books.

During this post-War period, Sartre was a very public intellectual and could always be found openly chatting, discussing and writing in the cafés of St. Germain des Près and the trendy Left Bank of Paris. Despite his rather unprepossessing appearance, he attracted the attentions of many glamorous women, and had many mistresses in addition to his on-going relationship with Simone de Beauvoir (whom he affectionately called "the Beaver") and with Michelle Vian. He also attracted a lot of press coverage, much of it negative, and he was publicly accused of moral corruption and of spreading hopelessness among the young. Eventually, he was hounded out by the attentions of the press and forced to retreat from his public café lifestyle. He moved back to his mother's house in the rue Bonaparte where he could work in peace.

Although he never officially joined the Communist Party, Sartre embraced Communism for many years, while continuing to defended Existentialism. Indeed, he spent much of the 1950s trying to reconcile the individualist philosophy of Existentialism with the collective vision of Marxism and Communism. His continued support for Russian Communism officially ended, however, on the entry of Soviet tanks into Budapest in 1956, and he roundly condemned both the Soviet intervention and the submission of the French Communist Party to the interests of Moscow.

His ongoing critiques of Communism led to his formulation of "Sartrian Socialism", a model which demanded that Marxism recognize differences between one society and another and respect human freedom. His "Critique de la raison dialectique" ("Critique of Dialectical Reason") of 1960 was intended to give Marxism a more vigorous intellectual defense than it had received up until then, and also to reconcile it with his existentialist ideas about free will. In the 1960s, he traveled to Cuba to meet Fidel Castro (1926 - ) and spent a great deal of time philosophizing with Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928 - 1967), whom he idolized.

He became increasingly politically active during the late 1950s and 1960s. He took a prominent role in the struggle against French rule in Algeria, and he was an eminent supporter of the Front de Libération nationale (FLN) (National Liberation Front, the Algerian socialist party) in the Algerian War of 1954 - 1962 and one of the signatories of the Manifeste des 121. He also had an Algerian mistress, Arlette Elkaïm, who became his adopted daughter in 1965. Along with Bertrand Russell and others, he vociferously opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s. He was actively involved in the student strikes in Paris during the summer of 1968, during which he was arrested several times for civil disobedience.

In the aftermath of the 1968 Paris unrest, Sartre lost faith in the French Communist Party and in Communism in general, and returned to a more individualist, but still radical, outlook, closer to Anarchism. He remained outspoken in his radical views, though, and caused something of a scandal by trying to justify the Munich massacre in which eleven Israeli Olympians were killed by a Palestinian terrorist organization in 1972.

With his witty and sardonic autobiography, "Les mots" ("Words") of 1964, Sartre renounced literature, calling it a bourgeois substitute for real commitment in the world. In the same year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he declined it in protest against the values of bourgeois society (just as he had earlier refused the Légion d'honneur in 1945).

During the 1970s, Sartre's physical condition deteriorated, partially due to his merciless pace of work (and his use of amphetamines). The last project of his life, a massive analytical biography of the French author Gustave Flaubert, as well as a proposed second volume of the "Critique of Dialectical Reason", both remained unfinished. He died on 15 April 1980 in Paris from an edema of the lung, and was buried in the Cimetière de Montparnasse in Paris. His funeral was attended by 50,000 mourners.

Work Back to Top

Adopting and adapting the methods of Phenomenology and, particularly, the work of Martin Heidegger, Sartre set out to develop an ontological account of what it is to be human. The basis of his Existentialism is found in his early book "La Transcendance de l'égo" ("Transcendence of the Ego") of 1936, was developed in "L'Être et le néant" ("Being and Nothingness") of 1943, and refined and summarized in "L'existentialisme est un humanisme" ("Existentialism is a Humanism") of 1946.

But he also believed that our ideas are the product of experiences of real-life situations, and that novels and plays describing such fundamental experiences have as much value for the elaboration of philosophical theories as do discursive essays. Thus, his novels such as "La Nausée" ("Nausea") of 1928 and the "Les Chemins de la Liberté" ("The Roads to Freedom") trilogy of 1945 to 1949, were also important vehicles of his thought, as were his plays like "Les Mouches" ("The Flies") of 1943, "Huis-clos" ("No Exit") of 1944 (with its famous line, "L'enfer, c'est les autres" or "Hell is other people"), and "Les Mains Sales" ("Dirty Hands") of 1948, and his volume of short stories, "Le Mur" ("The Wall"). A whole school of absurd literature subsequently developed.

In Sartre's Existentialism, "existence is prior to essence" (or, put a different way, the existence of humans precedes consciousness), in the sense that the meaning of man's life is not established before his existence, and man is "thrown into" into a concrete, inveterate universe that cannot be "thought away". Thus, it is what we do and how we act in our life that determines our apparent "qualities". As Sartre put it: "At first [Man] is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be".

Sartre firmly believed that everyone, always and everywhere, has choices and therefore freedom. Even in the most apparently cut-and-dried situations, even in the face of what appears to be inevitable, a person always has a choice of actions, whether it be to do nothing, whether it be to run away, or whether it be to risk one's very life. This freedom is empowering, but it also comes with responsibility.

Sartre famously declared that "man is condemned to be free" (meaning, free from all authority) and, although he may seek to evade, distort or deny that freedom (what Sartre called "mauvaise foi" or bad faith"), he will nevertheless have to face up to it if he is to become a moral being. Individuals are responsible for the choices they make, and for their emotional lives, but because they are always conscious of the limits of knowledge and of mortality, they constantly live with existential dread or "angst".

In his 1946 essay, "L'existentialisme est un humanisme" ("Existentialism is a Humanism"), seen by many as one of the defining texts of the Existentialist movement, Sartre described the human condition in a succinct summary form: "Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism." Thus, freedom entails total responsibility, in the face of which we experience anguish, forlornness and despair, and genuine human dignity can be achieved only in our active acceptance of these emotions.

Sartre concluded from his arguments that if God exists, then man is not free; by the same token, if man is free, then God does not exist. Atheism, then, is taken for granted in Sartre's philosophy, but he maintained that the "loss of God" is not to be mourned. On the contrary, in a godless universe, life has no meaning or purpose beyond the goals that each man sets for himself, and individuals must therefore detach themselves from things in order to give them meaning.

Although Sartre is considered by many to be an important and innovative philosopher, others are much less impressed by his contributions. Heidegger himself thought that Sartre had merely taken his own work and regressed it back to the subject-object orientated philosophy of Descartes and Husserl, which is exactly what Heidegger had been trying to free philosophy from. Some see Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 - 1961) as a better Existentialist philosopher, particular for his incorporation of the body as our way of being in the world, and for his more complete analysis of perception (two areas in which Heidegger's work is often seen as deficient).

Jean-Paul Sartre Books Back to Top

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