Sartre was a French existentialist philosopher, dramatist, novelist
was born in Paris to parents Jean-Baptiste Sartre, an officer of
the French Navy, and Anne-Marie Schweitzer, cousin of Albert Schweitzer.
When he was 15 months old, 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.
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,
an institution of higher education which has served as the alma
mater for multiple prominent French thinkers and intellectuals.
Sartre was influenced by many aspects of Western philosophy, absorbing
ideas from Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Martin
1929 at the École Normale, he met fellow student Simone de
Beauvoir, later to become a noted thinker, writer, and feminist.
The two, it is documented, became inseparable and lifelong companions,
initiating a romantic relationship, though one that was not monogamous.
Sartre and Beauvoir challenged the cultural and social assumptions
and expectations of their upbringings, which they considered bourgeois,
in both lifestyle and thought. The conflict between oppressive,
spiritually-destructive conformity (mauvaise foi, literally, "bad
faith") and an "authentic" state of "being"
became the dominant theme of Sartre's work, a theme embodied in
his principal philosophical work L'Être et le Néant
(Being and Nothingness) (1944).
most well-known introduction to his philosophy is his work Existentialism
is a Humanism (1946). In this work, he defends existentialism
against its detractors, which ultimately results in a somewhat
incomplete description of his ideas. The work has been considered
a popular, if over-simplifying, point of entry for those seeking
to learn more about Sartre's ideas but lacking the background
in philosophy necessary to fully absorb his longer work Being
and Nothingness. One should not take the expression of his ideas
contained here as authoritative; in 1965, Sartre told Francis
Jeanson that its publication had been "une 'erreur.'"
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.
1935 Sartre tried the psychedelic drug mescaline, which is found
naturally in the peyote cactus of North America. By all accounts
he had a bad experience. It is widely reported that the chapter
'Six o'clock in the evening' from 'The Nausea' is essentially
a description of a bad mescaline trip.
sudden revelation of the independent existence of objects (rather
than merely the formulation of ideas in the observer's mind),
the loss or irrelevance of names for those objects, and the indwelling
horror of 'naked existence', are all very common elements of a
negative visionary experience (see 'Heaven and Hell' by Aldous
Huxley for an instructive comparison).
Nausée and Existentialism
As a junior lecturer at the Lycée du 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.
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.
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 -- 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
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.
and World War II
In 1939 Sartre was 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, where he wrote his first theater
piece: Barionà, fils du tonnerre, a drama concerning Christmas.
Due to poor health (he claimed that his poor eyesight affected
his balance) Sartre was released in April 1941.
civilian status, he recovered his position as a teacher of Lycée
Pasteur near Paris, settled at the Hotel Mistral near Montparnasse
at Paris and was given a new position at Lycée Condorcet,
replacing a Jewish teacher, forbidden to teach by Vichy law. After
coming back to Paris in May 1941, he participated in the founding
of the underground group Socialisme et Liberté with other
writers Simone de
Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Toussaint and
Dominique Desanti, Jean Kanapa, and École Normale students.
August, Sartre and Beauvoir went to the French Riviera seeking
the support of André Gide and André Malraux. However,
both Gide and Malraux were undecided, and this might be the cause
of Sartre's disappointment and discouragement.
et liberté disappeared soon and Sartre decided to write
instead of being involved in active resistance. He then wrote
Being and Nothingness, The Flies and No Exit, none of them being
censored by the Germans. He also contributed to both legal and
illegal literary magazines.
August 1944 and the Paris Liberation, he was a very active contributor
of Combat, a newspaper created during the period of clandestinity
by Albert Camus, a philosopher and author who held similar beliefs.
Sartre and Beauvoir remained friends with him until Camus turned
away from communism, a schism that eventually divided them in
1951, after the publication of Camus' book entitled The Rebel.
while Sartre was labelled by some authors as a resistant, the
French philosopher and resistant Vladimir Jankelevitch criticized
Sartre's lack of political commitment during the German Occupation,
and interpreted his further struggles for liberty as an attempt
to redeem himself.
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 was the head of the Organization to Defend Iranian Political
Prisoners from 1964 till the victory of the Islamic Revolution.
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.
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.
a 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.
emphasis on the humanist values in the early works of Marx led
to a dispute with the leading Communist intellectual in France
in the 1960s, Louis Althusser, who claimed that the ideas of the
young Marx were decisively superseded by the "scientific"
system of the later Marx.
During the 1940s and 1950s Sartre's ideas remained ambiguous,
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 Catholic Church
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 other people".
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'âge
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 litterature 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 he resoundingly declined it,
stating that he had always refused official honors and didn't
wish to align himself with institutions.
he was now world-famous and a household word (as was "existentialism"
during the tumultuous 1960s), 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.
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,...how I lived in it, in terms of all the aspirations
which I tried to gather up within myself."
physical condition deteriorated, partially due to the merciless
pace of work he put himself through during the writing of the
Critique and the last project of his life, a massive analytical
biography of Gustave Flaubert (The Family Idiot), both of which
remain unfinished. He died April 15, 1980 in Paris from an edema
of the lung.
lies buried in Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. His
funeral was attended by some 50,000 people.
atheism was foundational for his style of existentialist philosophy.
In March 1980, about a month before Sartre's death, he was interviewed
by an assistant of his, Benny Lévy, and within these interviews
he expressed interest in Messianic Judaism. Some people apparently
took this to indicate a religious conversion, however the text
of the interviews makes it clear that he did not consider himself
a Jew, and was interested in the ethical and "metaphysical
character" of the Jewish religion, while continuing to reject
the idea of an existing God.
a separate 1974 interview with Simone de
Beauvoir, Sartre said
that he often saw himself "as a being that could, it seems,
only come from a creator." However he immediately adds that
"this is not a clear, exact idea..." and in preceding
and following passages he makes it clear that he remains an atheist
and finds in atheism a source of personal and ethical power.
perhaps due in part to the fact that Sartre's interest in Jewish
messianism was precisely a rejection of Marxist ideas which has
previous played such a huge role in his thought, the validity
of the Beny Levy interviews was disputed. Sartre's supporters
were understandably reluctant to believe that he had so abruptly
renounced a crucial part of his philosophy. However, shortly before
his death, Sartre confirmed that the interviews were authentic.
1972 and Israel
When eleven Israeli Olympians were killed by the Palestinian organization
Black September in Munich 1972, Sartre referred to terrorism as
a "terrible weapon but the oppressed poor have no others."
He also found it "perfectly scandalous that the Munich attack
should be judged by the French press and a section of public opinion
as an intolerable scandal." (Sartre: The Philosopher of the
Twentieth Century, Bernard-Henri Lévy, p.343).
this has been understood by many as an apologia for terrorism,
these comments must be read together with others where he indicated
that no means should be used which dehumanize its targets and
disfigure its goal. He in fact identified as one of those "who
affirm the sovereignty of the Israeli state and also believe the
Palestinians have a right to sovereignty for the same reason..."
He was also known for his strong opposition to anti-semitism.