Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre
Jean Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre (June 21, 1905April 15, 1980) was a French existentialist philosopher, dramatist, novelist and critic.


Early life and thought

Sartre was born in Paris to parents Jean-Baptiste Sartre, a naval officer, and Anne-Marie Schweitzer, cousin of Albert Schweitzer. He was 15 months old when his father died of a fever and Anne-Marie raised him with help from her father, Charles Schweitzer, who taught Sartre mathematics and introduced him to classical literature at an early age.

As a teenager in the 1920s, Sartre became attracted to philosophy upon reading Henri Bergson's Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. He studied in Paris at the elite École Normale Supérieure where, in 1929, he met fellow student Simone de Beauvoir. The two became inseparable and lifelong companions, though far from monogamous. Together they challenged the assumptions and expectations of their bourgeois upbringings. The conflict between oppressive, spiritually destructive conformity (bad faith/mauvaise foi) and an "authentic" state of "being" became the dominant theme of Sartre's work, a theme embodied in his principal philosophical work L'Etre et le Néant (Being and Nothingness) (1944).

The most well-known introduction of Sartre's philosophy is his work Existentialism is a Humanism (1946). In this work, Sartre defends existentialism against its detractors, which ultimately lends itself to a 'dumbing down' of his ideas. This makes it a popular, if over-simplifying, point of entry for anyone wanting to know more about Sartre's ideas but lacking the background in philosophy necessary to get through his longer work Being and Nothingness.

He graduated from the École Normale Supérieure in 1929 with a doctorate in philosophy and served as a conscript in the French Army from 1929 to 1931.

La Nausée and Existentialism

As a junior lecturer at the University of Le Havre in 1938, Sartre wrote the novel La Nausée (Nausea) which serves in some ways as a manifesto of existentialism and remains one of his most famous books. Taking a page from the German phenomenological movement, he 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 as do discursive essays for the elaboration of philosophical theories. With this mandate, the novel concerns a dejected researcher (Roquentin) in a town similar to Le Havre who becomes starkly conscious of the fact that inanimate objects and situations remain absolutely indifferent to his existence. As such, they show themselves to be resistant to whatever significance human consciousness might perceive in them. This indifference of 'things in themselves' (closely linked with the later notion of "being-in-itself" in his Being and Nothingness) has the effect of highlighting all the more the freedom Roquentin has to perceive and act in the world; everywhere he looks, he finds situations imbued with meanings which bear the stamp of his existence. Hence the "nausea" referred to in the title of the book; all that he encounters in his everyday life is suffused with a pervasive, even horrible, taste of himself and, more specifically, his freedom. No matter how much he longs for something other or something different, he cannot get away from this harrowing evidence of his engagement with the world.

The stories in Le Mur (The Wall) emphasize the arbitrary aspects of the situations people find themselves in and the absurdity of their attempts to deal rationally with them. A whole school of "absurd" literature subsequently developed.

Sartre and World War II

1939 saw Sartre drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. German troops captured him in 1940 in Padoux, and he spent nine months in prison — later in Nancy and finally in Stalag 12D, Treves, until released in April 1941 due to poor health (he claimed that his poor eyesight affected his balance). Given civilian status, he then escaped to Paris where he became involved in the French Resistance, and participated in the founding of the resistance group Socialisme et Liberté. It was while engaged in the resistance that he met Albert Camus, a philosopher and author who held similar beliefs, and remained friends with him until Camus became disillusioned with communism, a schism between them that eventually divided them in 1951. When the war ended Sartre established Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times), a monthly literary and political review, and started writing full-time as well as continuing his political activism. He would draw on his war experiences for his great trilogy of novels, Les Chemins de la Liberté (The Roads to Freedom) (1945–1949).

Sartre and Communism

The first period of Sartre's career, defined by Being and Nothingness (1943), gave way to a second period as a politically engaged activist and intellectual. His 1948 work Les Mains Sales (Dirty Hands) in particular explored the problem of being both an intellectual at the same time as becoming "engaged" politically. He embraced communism, though he never officially joined the Communist party, and took a prominent role in the struggle against French colonialism in Algeria. He became perhaps the most eminent supporter of the Algerian war of liberation. He had an Algerian mistress, Arlette Elkaïm, who became his adopted daughter in 1965. He opposed the Vietnam War and, along with Bertrand Russell and other luminaries, he organized a tribunal intended to expose U.S. war crimes, which became known as the Russell Tribunal.

Not being an orthodox Stalinist fellow-traveller, Sartre spent much of the rest of his life attempting to reconcile his existentialist ideas about self-determination with communist principles, which taught that socio-economic forces beyond our immediate, individual control play a critical role in shaping our lives. His major defining work of this period, the Critique de la raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason) appeared in 1960.

Sartre's emphasis on the humanist values in Marx and the emphasis on the early Marx this gave rise to, led to a famous dispute with the leading Communist intellectual in France in the 1960s, Louis Althusser, in which Althusser attempted to redefine Marx's work into an early pre-Marxist period, with essentialist generalizations about Mankind, and a mature, scientific, authentically Marxist period (starting between the Grundrisse and Das Kapital). Some say this was the only public debate Sartre ever lost, but it remains still to this day a both disputed and controversial event still discussed within some philosophical circles of France.

Sartre and literature

During the 1940s and 1950s Sartre's ideas remained much in vogue, and existentialism became a favoured philosophy of the beatnik generation. Sartre's views were counterposed to those of Albert Camus in the popular imagination. In 1948, the Vatican placed his complete works on the Index of prohibited books. Most of his plays are richly symbolic and serve as a means of conveying his philosophy. The best-known, Huis-clos (No Exit), contains the famous line: "L'enfer, c'est les autres", usually translated as "Hell, is the others" (as in Other people).

Besides the obvious impact of Nausea, Sartre's major contribution to literature was the Roads to Freedom trilogy which charts the progression of how World War II affected Sartre's ideas. In this way, Roads to Freedom presents a less theoretical and more practical approach to existentialism. The first book in the trilogy, L'age de raison (The Age of Reason) (1945), could easily be said to be the Sartre work with the broadest appeal.

In 1964, Sartre renounced literature in a witty and sardonic account of the first six years of his life, Les mots (Words). The book is an ironic counterblast to Marcel Proust, whose reputation had unexpectedly eclipsed that of André Gide (who had provided the model of literature engagée for Sartre's generation). Literature, Sartre concluded, functioned as a bourgeois substitute for real commitment in the world. In the same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but, true to his views, he resoundingly declined it. This rejection hurt the prestige of the Nobel institution more than it did Sartre's. However, in an embarrasing display of lacking integrity, Sartre tried to get the prize money later on, but his plea was refused by the Nobel institution.

Though he was now world-famous and a "household word" (as was "existentialism" during the tumultuous 1960's), Sartre remained a simple man with few possessions, actively committed to causes until the end of his life, such as the "student revolution" strikes in Paris during the summer of 1968.

In 1975, when asked how he would like to be remembered, Sartre replied: "I would like [people] to remember 'Nausea', [my plays] 'No Exit' and 'The Devil and the Good Lord', and then my two philosophical works, more particularly the second one, 'Critique of Dialectical Reason'. Then my essay on Genet, 'Saint Genet'...If these are remembered, that would be quite an achievement, and I don't ask for more. As a man, if a certain Jean-Paul Sartre is remembered, I would like people to remember the milieu or historical situation in which I lived, I lived in it, in terms of all the aspirations which I tried to gather up within myself."

Sartre's physical condition deteriorated, partially due to the merciless pace of work (and chemical stimulants) he put himself through during the writing of the Critique and the last project of his life, a massive analytical biography of Flaubert ("The Family Idiot"), both of which remained characteristically, tantalizingly brilliant but unfinished. He died April 15, 1980 in Paris.

Sartre lies buried in Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. His funeral was attended by some 50,000 people.


See also

Further reading

  • Annie Cohen-Solal, Sartre 1905-80, 1985
  • R. D. Laing and D. G. Cooper, Reason and Violence: A Decade of Sartre's Philosophy 1950-1960, New york: Pantheon, 1971.
  • Heiner Wittmann, L'esthétique de Sartre. Artistes et intellectuels, translated from the German by N. Weitemeier and J. Yacar, Éditions L'Harmattan (Collection L'ouverture philosophique), Paris 2001.
  • H. Wittmann, Sartre und die Kunst. Die Portrtstudien von Tintoretto bis Flaubert, Gunter Narr Verlag, Tübingen 1996.

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