Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre (21 June 1905 15 April 1980) was a French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, biographer, and literary critic. He was one of the key figures in the philosophy of existentialism and phenomenology, and one of the leading figures in 20th-century French philosophy and Marxism.
Sartre was also noted for his open relationship with prominent feminist and fellow existentialist philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir. Together, Sartre and de 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” way of “being” became the dominant theme of Sartre’s early work, a theme embodied in his principal philosophical work Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le Néant, 1943). Sartre’s introduction to his philosophy is his work Existentialism and Humanism (L’existentialisme est un humanisme, 1946), originally presented as a lecture.
He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature but refused it, saying that he always declined official honours and that “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution”.
Jean-Paul Sartre was born on 21 June 1905 in Paris as the only child of Jean-Baptiste Sartre, an officer of the French Navy, and Anne-Marie Schweitzer. His mother was of Alsatian origin and the first cousin of Nobel Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer. (Her father, Charles Schweitzer, was the older brother of Albert Schweitzer’s father, Louis Théophile.) When Sartre was two years old, his father died of a fever in Indochina. Anne-Marie moved back to her parents’ house in Meudon, where she raised Sartre with help from her father, a teacher of German who taught Sartre mathematics and introduced him to classical literature at a very early age. When he was twelve, Sartre’s mother remarried, and the family moved to La Rochelle, where he was frequently bullied.
As a teenager in the 1920s, Sartre became attracted to philosophy upon reading Henri Bergson‘s essay Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. He attended the Cours Hattemer, a private school in Paris. He studied and earned certificates in psychology, history of philosophy, logic, general philosophy, ethics and sociology, and physics, as well as his diplôme d’études supérieures (roughly equivalent to an MA thesis) in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure, an institution of higher education that was the alma mater for several prominent French thinkers and intellectuals. (His 1928 MA thesis under the title “L’Image dans la vie psychologique: rôle et nature” was directed by Henri Delacroix.) It was at ENS that Sartre began his lifelong, sometimes fractious, friendship with Raymond Aron. Perhaps the most decisive influence on Sartre’s philosophical development was his weekly attendance at Alexandre Kojève‘s seminars, which continued for a number of years.
From his first years in the École Normale, Sartre was one of its fiercest pranksters. In 1927, his antimilitarist satirical cartoon in the revue of the school, coauthored with Georges Canguilhem, particularly upset the director Gustave Lanson. In the same year, with his comrades Nizan, Larroutis, Baillou and Herland, he organized a media prank following Charles Lindbergh‘s successful New York CityParis flight; Sartre & Co. called newspapers and informed them that Lindbergh was going to be awarded an honorary École degree. Many newspapers, including Le Petit Parisien, announced the event on 25 May. Thousands, including journalists and curious spectators, showed up, unaware that what they were witnessing was a stunt involving a Lindbergh look-alike. The public’s resultant outcry forced Lanson to resign.
In 1929 at the École Normale, he met Simone de Beauvoir, who studied at the Sorbonne and later went on to become a noted philosopher, writer, and feminist. The two became inseparable and lifelong companions, initiating a romantic relationship, though they were not monogamous. The first time Sartre took the exam to become a college instructor, he failed. He took it a second time and virtually tied for first place with Beauvoir, although Sartre was eventually awarded first place in his class, with Beauvoir second.
Sartre was drafted into the French Army from 1929 to 1931 and served as a meteorologist for some time. He later argued in 1959 that each French person was responsible for the collective crimes during the Algerian War of Independence.
From 1931 until 1945, Sartre taught at various lycées of Le Havre (at the Lycée de Le Havre, the present-day Lycée François-Ier (Le Havre), 193136), Laon (at the Lycée de Laon, 193637), and, finally, Paris (at the Lycée Pasteur, 193739, and at the Lycée Condorcet, 194144; see below).
In 193334, he succeeded Raymond Aron at the Institut français d’Allemagne in Berlin where he studied Edmund Husserl‘s phenomenological philosophy. Aron had already advised him in 1930 to read Emmanuel Levinas‘s Théorie de lintuition dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology).
World War II
In 1939 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 warin Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D, Trier, where he wrote his first theatrical piece, Barionà, fils du tonnerre, a drama concerning Christmas. It was during this period of confinement that Sartre read Martin Heidegger‘s Being and Time, later to become a major influence on his own essay on phenomenological ontology. Because of poor health (he claimed that his poor eyesight and exotropia affected his balance) Sartre was released in April 1941. Given civilian status, he recovered his teaching position at Lycée Pasteur near Paris, settled at the Hotel Mistral. In October 1941 he was given a position at Lycée Condorcet in Paris, replacing a Jewish teacher who had been 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 (“Socialism and Liberty”) with other writers Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Toussaint Desanti, Dominique Desanti, Jean Kanapa, and École Normale students. In August Sartre and de Beauvoir went to the French Riviera seeking the support of André Gide and André Malraux. However, both Gide and Malraux were undecided, and this may have been the cause of Sartre’s disappointment and discouragement. Socialisme et liberté soon dissolved 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 which were censored by the Germans, and also contributed to both legal and illegal literary magazines.
After August 1944 and the Liberation of Paris, he wrote Anti-Semite and Jew. In the book he tries to explain the etiology of “hate” by analyzing antisemitic hate. Sartre was a very active contributor to Combat, a newspaper created during the clandestine period by Albert Camus, a philosopher and author who held similar beliefs. Sartre and de Beauvoir remained friends with Camus until 1951, with the publication of Camus’s The Rebel. Later, while Sartre was labeled 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. According to Camus, Sartre was a writer who resisted; not a resister who wrote.
In 1945, after the war ended, Sartre moved to an apartment on the rue Bonaparte which was where he was to produce most of his subsequent work, and where he lived until 1962. It was from there that he helped establish a quarterly literary and political review, Les Temps modernes (Modern Times), in part to popularize his thought. He ceased teaching and devoted his time to writing and political activism. He would draw on his war experiences for his great trilogy of novels, Les Chemins de la Liberté (The Roads to Freedom) (19451949).
Cold War politics and anticolonialism
The first period of Sartre’s career, defined in large part by Being and Nothingness (1943), gave way to a second periodwhen the world was perceived as split into communist and capitalist blocsof highly publicized political involvement. His 1948 play Les mains sales (Dirty Hands) in particular explored the problem of being a politically “engaged” intellectual. He embraced Marxism but did not join the Communist Party. While a Marxist, Sartre attacked what he saw as abuses of freedom and human rights by the Soviet Union. He was one of the first French journalists to expose the existence of the labor camps, and vehemently opposed the invasion of Hungary, Russian anti-Semitism, and the execution of dissidents. As an anti-colonialist, Sartre took a prominent role in the struggle against French rule in Algeria, and the use of torture and concentration camps by the French in Algeria. He became an eminent supporter of the FLN in the Algerian War and was one of the signatories of the Manifeste des 121. Consequently, Sartre became a domestic target of the paramilitary Organisation armée secrète (OAS), escaping two bomb attacks in the early ’60s. (He had an Algerian mistress, Arlette Elkaïm, who became his adopted daughter in 1965.) He opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and, along with Bertrand Russell and others, organized a tribunal intended to expose U.S. war crimes, which became known as the Russell Tribunal in 1967.
His work after Stalin’s death, the Critique de la raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason), appeared in 1960 (a second volume appearing posthumously). In the Critique Sartre set out to give Marxism a more vigorous intellectual defense than it had received until then; he ended by concluding that Marx’s notion of “class” as an objective entity was fallacious. Sartre’s emphasis on the humanist values in the early works of Marx led to a dispute with a leading leftist 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.
Sartre went to Cuba in the 1960s to meet Fidel Castro and spoke with Ernesto “Che” Guevara. After Guevara’s death, Sartre would declare him to be “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age” and the “era’s most perfect man.” Sartre would also compliment Guevara by professing that “he lived his words, spoke his own actions and his story and the story of the world ran parallel”. However he stood against the persecution of gays by Castro’s régime, which he compared to Nazi persecution of the Jews, and said: “In Cuba there are no Jews, but there are homosexuals”.
During a collective hunger strike in 1974, Sartre visited Red Army Faction leader Andreas Baader in Stammheim Prison and criticized the harsh conditions of imprisonment. Towards the end of his life, Sartre became an anarchist.
Late life and death
In 1964 Sartre renounced literature in a witty and sardonic account of the first ten years of his life, Les Mots (The 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 littérature engagée for Sartre’s generation). Literature, Sartre concluded, functioned ultimately as a bourgeois substitute for real commitment in the world. In October 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature but he declined it. He was the first Nobel laureate to voluntarily decline the prize, and remains one of only two laureates to do so. According to Lars Gyllensten, in the book Minnen, bara minnen (Memories, Only Memories) published in 2000, Sartre himself or someone close to him got in touch with the Swedish Academy in 1975 with a request for the prize money, but was refused. In 1945, he had refused the Légion d’honneur. The Nobel prize was announced on 22 October 1964; on 14 October, Sartre had written a letter to the Nobel Institute, asking to be removed from the list of nominees, and warning that he would not accept the prize if awarded, but the letter went unread; on 23 October, Le Figaro published a statement by Sartre explaining his refusal. 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. After being awarded the prize he tried to escape the media by hiding in the house of Simone’s sister Hélène de Beauvoir in Goxwiller, Alsace.
Though his name was then 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 May 1968 strikes in Paris during the summer of 1968 during which he was arrested for civil disobedience. President Charles de Gaulle intervened and pardoned him, commenting that “you don’t arrest Voltaire.”
In 1975, when asked how he would like to be remembered, Sartre replied:
I would like to remember Nausea, 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.
Sartre’s physical condition deteriorated, partially because of the merciless pace of work (and the use of amphetamines) he put himself through during the writing of the Critique and a massive analytical biography of Gustave Flaubert (The Family Idiot), both of which remained unfinished. He suffered from hypertension, and became almost completely blind in 1973. Sartre was a notorious chain smoker, which could also have contributed to the deterioration of his health.
Sartre died on 15 April 1980 in Paris from edema of the lung. He had not wanted to be buried at Père-Lachaise Cemetery between his mother and stepfather, so it was arranged that he be buried at Montparnasse Cemetery. At his funeral on Saturday, 19 April, 50,000 Parisians descended onto Boulevard Montparnasse to accompany Sartre’s cortege. The funeral started at “the hospital at 2:00 p.m., then filed through the fourteenth arrondissement, past all Sartre’s haunts, and entered the cemetery through the gate on the Boulevard Edgar Quinet.” Sartre was initially buried in a temporary grave to the left of the cemetery gate. Four days later the body was disinterred for cremation at Père-Lachaise Cemetery, and his ashes were reburied at the permanent site in Montparnasse Cemetery, to the right of the cemetery gate.
Sartre’s primary idea is that people, as humans, are “condemned to be free”. This theory relies upon his position that there is no creator, and is illustrated using the example of the paper cutter. Sartre says that if one considered a paper cutter, one would assume that the creator would have had a plan for it: an essence. Sartre said that human beings have no essence before their existence because there is no Creator. Thus: “existence precedes essence”. This forms the basis for his assertion that because one cannot explain one’s own actions and behavior by referencing any specific human nature, they are necessarily fully responsible for those actions. “We are left alone, without excuse.” “We can act without being determined by our past which is always separated from us.”
Sartre maintained that the concepts of authenticity and individuality have to be earned but not learned. We need to experience “death consciousness” so as to wake up ourselves as to what is really important; the authentic in our lives which is life experience, not knowledge. Death draws the final point when we as beings cease to live for ourselves and permanently become objects that exist only for the outside world. In this way death emphasizes the burden of our free, individual existence.
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 can well describe such fundamental experiences, having equal value to discursive essays for the elaboration of philosophical theories such as existentialism. With such purpose, this 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.
He also took inspiration from phenomenologist epistemology, explained by Franz Adler in this way: “Man chooses and makes himself by acting. Any action implies the judgment that he is right under the circumstances not only for the actor, but also for everybody else in similar circumstances.”
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, tastespecifically, his freedom. The book takes the term from Friedrich Nietzsche‘s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where it is used in the context of the often nauseating quality of existence. No matter how much Roquentin longs for something else or something different, he cannot get away from this harrowing evidence of his engagement with the world.
The novel also acts as a terrifying realization of some of Immanuel Kant‘s fundamental ideas about freedom; Sartre uses the idea of the autonomy of the will (that morality is derived from our ability to choose in reality; the ability to choose being derived from human freedom; embodied in the famous saying “Condemned to be free”) as a way to show the world’s indifference to the individual. The freedom that Kant exposed is here a strong burden, for the freedom to act towards objects is ultimately useless, and the practical application of Kant’s ideas proves to be bitterly rejected.
Also important is Sartres analysis of psychological concepts, including his suggestion that consciousness exists as something other than itself, and that the conscious awareness of things is not limited to their knowledge: for Sartre intentionality applies to the emotions as well as to cognitions, to desires as well as to perceptions. “When an external object is perceived, consciousness is also conscious of itself, even if consciousness is not its own object: it is a non-positional consciousness of itself.”
Career as public intellectual
While the broad focus of Sartre’s life revolved around the notion of human freedom, he began a sustained intellectual participation in more public matters towards the end of the Second World War, around 1944-45. Before World War II, he was content with the role of an apolitical liberal intellectual: “Now teaching at a lycée in Laon Sartre made his headquarters the Dome café at the crossing of Montparnasse and Raspail boulevards. He attended plays, read novels, and dined women. He wrote. And he was published.” Sartre and his lifelong companion, de Beauvoir, existed, in her words, where “the world about us was a mere backdrop against which our private lives were played out”.
Sartre portrayed his own pre-war situation in the character Mathieu, chief protagonist in The Age of Reason, which was completed during Sartre’s first year as a soldier in the Second World War. By forging Mathieu as an absolute rationalist, analyzing every situation, and functioning entirely on reason, he removed any strands of authentic content from his character and as a result, Mathieu could “recognize no allegiance except to self”, though he realized that without “responsibility for my own existence, it would seem utterly absurd to go on existing”. Mathieu’s commitment was only to himself, never to the outside world. Mathieu was restrained from action each time because he had no reasons for acting. Sartre then, for these reasons, was not compelled to participate in the Spanish Civil War, and it took the invasion of his own country to motivate him into action and to provide a crystallization of these ideas. It was the war that gave him a purpose beyond himself, and the atrocities of the war can be seen as the turning point in his public stance.
The war opened Sartre’s eyes to a political reality he had not yet understood until forced into continual engagement with it: “the world itself destroyed Sartre’s illusions about isolated self-determining individuals and made clear his own personal stake in the events of the time.” Returning to Paris in 1941 he formed the “Socialisme et Liberté” resistance group. In 1943, after the group disbanded, Sartre joined a writers’ Resistance group, in which he remained an active participant until the end of the war. He continued to write ferociously, and it was due to this “crucial experience of war and captivity that Sartre began to try to build up a positive moral system and to express it through literature”.
The symbolic initiation of this new phase in Sartres work is packaged in the introduction he wrote for a new journal, Les Temps modernes, in October 1945. Here he aligned the journal, and thus himself, with the Left and called for writers to express their political commitment. Yet, this alignment was indefinite, directed more to the concept of the Left than a specific party of the Left.
Sartre’s philosophy lent itself to his being a public intellectual. He envisaged culture as a very fluid concept; neither pre-determined, nor definitely finished; instead, in true existential fashion, “culture was always conceived as a process of continual invention and re-invention.” This marks Sartre, the intellectual, as a pragmatist, willing to move and shift stance along with events. He did not dogmatically follow a cause other than the belief in human freedom, preferring to retain a pacifist’s objectivity. It is this overarching theme of freedom that means his work “subverts the bases for distinctions among the disciplines”. Therefore, he was able to hold knowledge across a vast array of subjects: “the international world order, the political and economic organisation of contemporary society, especially France, the institutional and legal frameworks that regulate the lives of ordinary citizens, the educational system, the media networks that control and disseminate information. Sartre systematically refused to keep quiet about what he saw as inequalities and injustices in the world.”
Sartre always sympathized with the Left, and supported the French Communist Party (PCF) until the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. Following the Liberation the PCF were infuriated by Sartre’s philosophy, which appeared to lure young French men and women away from the ideology of communism and into Sartres own existentialism. From 1956 onwards Sartre rejected the claims of the PCF to represent the French working classes, objecting to its “authoritarian tendencies”. In the late 1960s Sartre supported the Maoists, a movement that rejected the authority of established communist parties. However, despite aligning with the Maoists, Sartre said after the May events: “If one rereads all my books, one will realize that I have not changed profoundly, and that I have always remained an anarchist.” He would later explicitly allow himself to be called an anarchist.
In the aftermath of a war that had for the first time properly engaged Sartre in political matters, he set forth a body of work which “reflected on virtually every important theme of his early thought and began to explore alternative solutions to the problems posed there”. The greatest difficulties that he and all public intellectuals of the time faced were the increasing technological aspects of the world that were outdating the printed word as a form of expression. In Sartre’s opinion, the “traditional bourgeois literary forms remain innately superior”, but there is “a recognition that the new technological ‘mass media’ forms must be embraced” if Sartre’s ethical and political goals as an authentic, committed intellectual are to be achieved: the demystification of bourgeois political practices and the raising of the consciousness, both political and cultural, of the working class.
The struggle for Sartre was against the monopolising moguls who were beginning to take over the media and destroy the role of the intellectual. His attempts to reach a public were mediated by these powers, and it was often these powers he had to campaign against. He was skilled enough, however, to circumvent some of these issues by his interactive approach to the various forms of media, advertising his radio interviews in a newspaper column for example, and vice versa.
The role of a public intellectual can lead to the individual placing himself in danger as he engages with disputed topics. In Sartre’s case, this was witnessed in June 1961, when a plastic bomb exploded in the entrance of his apartment building. His public support of Algerian self-determination at the time had led Sartre to become a target of the campaign of terror that mounted as the colonists’ position deteriorated. A similar occurrence took place the next year and he had begun to receive threatening letters from Oran, Algeria.
Sartre wrote successfully in a number of literary modes and made major contributions to literary criticism and literary biography. 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.” Aside from the impact of Nausea, Sartre’s major work of fiction 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.
Despite their similarities as polemicists, novelists, adapters, and playwrights, Sartre’s literary work has been counterposed, often pejoratively, to that of Camus in the popular imagination. In 1948 the Roman Catholic Church placed Sartre’s oeuvre on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books).
Some philosophers argue that Sartre’s thought is contradictory. Specifically, they believe that Sartre makes metaphysical arguments despite his claim that his philosophical views ignore metaphysics. Herbert Marcuse criticized Being and Nothingness for projecting anxiety and meaninglessness onto the nature of existence itself: “Insofar as Existentialism is a philosophical doctrine, it remains an idealistic doctrine: it hypostatizes specific historical conditions of human existence into ontological and metaphysical characteristics. Existentialism thus becomes part of the very ideology which it attacks, and its radicalism is illusory.” In Letter on Humanism, Heidegger criticized Sartre’s existentialism:
Existentialism says existence precedes essence. In this statement he is taking existentia and essentia according to their metaphysical meaning, which, from Plato’s time on, has said that essentia precedes existentia. Sartre reverses this statement. But the reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement. With it, he stays with metaphysics, in oblivion of the truth of Being.
Philosophers Richard Wollheim and Thomas Baldwin have argued that Sartre’s attempt to show that Sigmund Freud‘s theory of the unconscious is mistaken was based on a misinterpretation of Freud. Author Richard Webster considers Sartre one of many modern thinkers who have reconstructed Judaeo-Christian orthodoxies in secular form.
Author Brian C. Anderson denounced Sartre as an apologist for tyranny and terror and a supporter of Stalinism, Maoism, and Castro’s regime in Cuba. Historian Paul Johnson asserted that Sartre’s ideas had inspired the Khmer Rouge leadership: “The events in Cambodia in the 1970s, in which between one-fifth and one-third of the nation was starved to death or murdered, were entirely the work of a group of intellectuals, who were for the most part pupils and admirers of Jean-Paul Sartre ‘Sartre’s Children’ as I call them.”
Sartre, who stated in his preface to Frantz Fanon‘s The Wretched of the Earth that, “To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remains a dead man and a free man,” has been criticized by Anderson and Michael Walzer for supporting the killing of European civilians by the FLN during the Algerian War. Walzer suggests that Sartre, a European, was a hypocrite for not volunteering to be killed.