Jean-Paul Sartre


Early life

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris as the only child of Jean-Baptiste Sartre, an officer of the French Navy, and Anne-Marie Schweitzer.[9] 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.)[10] When Sartre was two years old, his father died of a fever overseas. 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.[11] When he was twelve, Sartre’s mother remarried, and the family moved to La Rochelle, where he was frequently bullied.[12]

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.[13] He attended the Cours Hattemer, a private school in Paris.[14] 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 (fr) (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.[15] (His 1928 MA thesis under the title “L’Image dans la vie psychologique: rôle et nature“, “Image in Psychological Life: Role and Nature” was directed by Henri Delacroix.)[15] It was at ENS that Sartre began his lifelong, sometimes fractious, friendship with Raymond Aron.[16] 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.[17]

From his first years in the École Normale, Sartre was one of its fiercest pranksters.[18][19] In 1927, his antimilitarist satirical cartoon in the revue of the school, coauthored with Georges Canguilhem, particularly upset the director Gustave Lanson.[20] In the same year, with his comrades Nizan, Larroutis, Baillou and Herland,[21] he organized a media prank following Charles Lindbergh‘s successful New York–Paris 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.[20][22][23] The public’s resultant outcry[need quotation to verify] forced Lanson to resign.[20][24]

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,[25] though they were not monogamous.[26] 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.[27][28]

Sartre was drafted into the French Army from 1929 to 1931 and served as a meteorologist for some time.[29] He later argued in 1959 that each French person was responsible for the collective crimes during the Algerian War of Independence.[30]

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) (fr), 1931–36), Laon (at the Lycée de Laon, 1936–37), and, finally, Paris (at the Lycée Pasteur, 1937–39, and at the Lycée Condorcet, 1941–44;[31] see below).

In 1932, Sartre discovered Voyage au bout de la nuit by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a book that had a remarkable influence on him.[32]

In 1933–34, he succeeded Raymond Aron at the Institut français d’Allemagne (fr) in Berlin where he studied Edmund Husserl‘s phenomenological philosophy. Aron had already advised him in 1930 to read Emmanuel Levinas‘s Théorie de l’intuition dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology).[33]

The Neo-Hegelian revival led by Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hyppolite in the 1930s inspired a whole generation of French thinkers, including Sartre, to discover Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.[34]

World War II

In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist.[35] He was captured by German troops in 1940 in Padoux,[36] and he spent nine months as a prisoner of war—in Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D (fr), 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.

French journalists visit General George C. Marshall at his office in the Pentagon building, 1945

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 was 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.[37] 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) (1945–1949).

Cold War politics and anticolonialism

Jean-Paul Sartre (middle) and Simone de Beauvoir (left) meeting with Che Guevara (right) in Cuba, 1960

The first period of Sartre’s career, defined in large part by Being and Nothingness (1943), gave way to a second period—when the world was perceived as split into communist and capitalist blocs—of 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 de l’armée secrète (OAS), escaping two bomb attacks in the early ’60s.[38] (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.

Sketch of Sartre for the New York Times by Reginald Gray, 1965

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”[39] and the “era’s most perfect man.”[40] 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.”[41] 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”.[42]

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.[43] Towards the end of his life, Sartre became an anarchist.[44][45][46]

Late life and death

Hélène de Beauvoir‘s house in Goxwiller, where Sartre tried to hide from the media after being awarded the Nobel Prize.

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,[47] and remains one of only two laureates to do so.[48] In 1945, he had refused the Légion d’honneur.[49] 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;[50] 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.[50] 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.

Jean-Paul Sartre in Venice in 1967

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.”[51]

Sartre’s and de Beauvoir’s grave in the Cimetière de Montparnasse

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,… how I lived in it, in terms of all the aspirations which I tried to gather up within myself.[52]

Sartre’s physical condition deteriorated, partially because of the merciless pace of work (and the use of amphetamines)[53] 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,[54] and became almost completely blind in 1973. Sartre was a notorious chain smoker, which could also have contributed to the deterioration of his health.[55]

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, fifty thousand Parisians descended onto Boulevard Montparnasse to accompany Sartre’s cortege.[56][57] The funeral started at “the hospital at two 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.[58] 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.[59]