Jean-Paul Sartre was a French novelist, playwright, philosopher, political activist, and the Nobel Prize laureate. He was one of the leading figures of the 20thcentury philosophy, a thinker whose philosophy of existentialism and in a way Marxism influenced a number of disciplines from sociology and critical theory to literary studies.
Sartre’s life and his open relationship with fellow philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir challenged cultural and social norms and expectations and influenced millions. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, an honor he declined along with the Legion d’honneur.
Sartre was born in 1905 in Paris. He lost his father when he was just a young boy and grew up in the home of his maternal grandfather, Carl Schweitzer, professor of German at the Sorbonne. It was his grandfather who taught him mathematics and introduced him to classical literature at a very early age.
As a teenager, he became attracted to philosophy. He earned certificates in psychology, history of philosophy, logic, general philosophy, ethics and sociology, and physics at the Ecole Normale Superieure where he met Simone de Beauvoir with whom, despite resisting “bourgeois marriage” he formed a lifelong union.
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It was at Ecole Normale Superieure and then the Sorbonne that he met several persons who would later become great writers; among them were Raymond Aron with whom Sartre had a lifelong and tumultuous friendship, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, Emmanuel Mounier, Jean Hippolyte, and Claude Levi-Strauss.
From 1931 until the end of World War Two, Sartre taught in the licees of Le Havre, Loan, and Paris. His teaching career was interrupted when he was drafted in 1939 to serve as a meteorologist in the war. He was made prisoner in 1940 and released a year later because of poor health. Some say he escaped during a visit to the ophthalmologist.
While he was held captive he wrote his first theatrical piece – Bariona, fils du Tonnerre, a drama about Christmas. Upon returning to Paris, he founded an underground group Socialism and Liberty with other writers and Ecole Normale students. The group was resolved months later and Sartre decided to get involved more actively in resistance.
While in Le Havre, Sartre published Nausea, a novel in the form of a diary that in some ways can be seen as a manifesto of existentialism. The novel narrates the feeling of revulsion that a certain researcher undergoes when confronted with the world of matter. He becomes conscious of the fact that inanimate objects and situations remain indifferent to his existence and resistant to whatever significance human consciousness might perceive in them. In the novel, Sartre also tackled some of Immanuel Kant’s ideas about human freedom, a topic he will return to over and over again.
Toward the end of the Second World War, Sartre started participating more in public matters. He wrote and was published. “The world about us was a mere backdrop against which our private lives were played out,” de Beauvoir wrote.
The full extent of his talent Sartre demonstrated in L’Etre et le neant (Being and Nothingness) where he placed human consciousness, or no-thingness (neant), in opposition to being, or thingness (etre).
The war changed Sartre and destroyed his illusions of an insolated, self-determining individuals. He wrote ferociously, building up and expressing his moral system through literature. He became a public intellectual who view culture as a very fluid concept, not predetermined and not definitely finished.
In the introduction he wrote for Les Temps Modernes journal in 1945, he aligned himself with the Left. He believed in human freedom and constantly pointed to what he saw as inequalities and injustices in the world.
For a while, he supported the French Communist Party but stopped after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. The FCP, on the other hand, believed that Sartre used his philosophy to lure young men and women away from the ideology of communism into his own existentialism. He also supported the Maoist but later explicitly called himself an anarchist.
After the WWII Sartre set forth a body of work which reflected on every important theme he touched upon when younger. He turned his attention to the concept of social responsibility. Freedom implied social responsibility, he wrote in his Existentialism and humanism essay.
His major work of fiction, The Roads to Freedom trilogy that presents how WWII affected Sartre’s ideas is a less theoretical and more practical approach to existentialism.
Sartre fought against the outdated printed word as a form of expression and called for the new technological mass media forms to be embraced. He campaigned through radio interviews he advertised, newspaper columns, essays, lectures…
He criticized anyone who collaborated or remained passive during the German occupation. He embraced Marxism and described French nationalism as “provincial”. Despite being a Marxist he attacked the abuses of freedoms and human rights by the Soviet Union. As an anticolonialist, he criticized the French rule in Algeria.
He also met with Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara whom he declared “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age” and the “era’s most perfect man” who lived his words, spoke his own actions and his story and the story of the world ran parallel.” The admiration towards Guevara did not stop him from standing against the persecution of gays by Castro’s regime, which he compared to Nazi persecution of the Jews. “In Cuba, there are no Jews, but there are homosexuals”.
The Critique de la raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason), appeared in 1960 and in it, Sartre defended Marxism and the humanist values in early works of Marx. He also criticized the Americanization of the French working class.
In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, an honor he refused because, as he said, he did not wish to be “transformed” by such an award, and did not want to take sides in an East vs. West cultural struggle by accepting an award from a prominent Western cultural institution. He also refused the Legion d’honneur in 1945.
He continued with his political activism, participating in the May 1968 strikes when he was arrested for civil disobedience. French President Charles de Gaulle pardoned him saying “you don’t arrest Voltaire.”
Sartre remained prolific his entire life. In the last year, he was writing a study of Gustave Flaubert and wanted to use the “total biography” to present the readers Karl Marx’s concept of history and class and Sigmund Freud’s thoughts of dark recesses of the human soul through explorations into Flaubert’s childhood and family relations.
By the end of his life, he had to slow down as he became blind and his health deteriorated, but he still gave interviews, wrote scripts, essays and participated in public life. He died in 1980 of a lung tumor. His funeral was reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s with some 25,000 ordinary people attending but without the official recognition, his predecessor had.
When asked how he would like to be remembered Sartre said:
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, … how I lived in it, in terms of all the aspirations which I tried to gather up within myself.