Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) was a French philosopher, novelist and playwright. Born in Paris, he was the only child of Jean-Baptiste Sartre and Anne-Marie Schweitzer. His father, an officer of the French navy, died when he was two years old. His mother Anne-Marie was the first cousin of German philosopher and Nobel prize winner, Albert Schweitzer.

Sartre had few friends as a child. He was a shy character who did not easily engage with his peers and thus lacked companions his own age. Out of his isolation grew a love of books and Sartre gained comfort through his writing. He went on to study philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure. He entered higher education in 1924 and met novelist Simone de Beauvoir, another existentialist philosopher who became the most significant of Sartre's numerous lovers.

Sartre is best known for his philosophical essays and novels. He became a leading influence in 20th century French philosophy and a famous proponent of existentialism, which he believed could lead humankind to freedom. Freedom came to be the most important aspect of Sartre's philosophy and he passionately believed it to be the right of all men.

His first novel, Nausea, was published in 1938. It was well received and gained international acclaim. The novel played a seminal role in expounding the tenets of existentialism and Sartre became a household name alongside that popular school of thought. Critics have described the novel - La Nausée in French — as the century's most influential French novel. In it Sartre tackles the subjects of freedom and responsibility, creating a world devoid of meaning in which accidental circumstances determine the outcome of the individual's existence.

From 1933 to 1935 as a research student, Sartre delved into the philosophical field of phenomenology, which is concerned with the study of experience through the perception of the individual. His writing became more of a discussion on philosophy, politics and psychology. Following this period he wrote highly regarded works such as The Wall, a series of short stories published in 1939. He taught in a lycee, a tier of the French secondary school system, until the onset of World War II when he was called up by the army. He served on the Eastern Front but was captured by German troops. He spent nine months as a prisoner of war and during that time wrote his first play, Barionà, Fils du Tonnerre. He was released in 1941.

After the war Sartre became more politically active. His experiences led to greater awareness of how poor people lived and heightened his focus on freedom and equality. He became actively involved in the Resistance. He was one of the founders of the group Socialisme et Liberté alongside Simone de Beauvoir and French intellectuals including writers Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Toussaint Desanti, Dominique Desanti and Jean Kanapa.

He started writing full time, becoming more vociferous in his political opinions. This came out in his literary works; he used his public prominence to campaign for issues such as the working class struggle. He was also known to participate in public protest. Today, Sartre is seen as an iconic figure. Words used to describe him include polemicist, playwright, novelist, intellectual and political activist. He was also a controversial figure, criticized for being inaccessible, with his philosophy labeled "difficult."

In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel prize in literature but refused the honor, stating that he did not want to receive the award from such a prominent Western cultural institution. He remained committed to the cause of human freedom and his political leanings attracted some hostility. His outspoken opinion on the emancipation of Algiers led to several attacks and threatening letters in the 1960s. Despite this Sartre remains revered for his literary and philosophical achievements. His ambitious work on eminent novelist Gustave Flaubert, named L'idiot de la Famille, was to remain unfinished at three volumes long. He died on April 15, 1980. The numbers in attendance at his funeral were estimated to have been from 25,000 to 50,000. Among the crowd that gathered at the cemetery in Montparnasse, Paris, were some of those people with whom Sartre had campaigned for political freedom. He was buried to rapturous applause.

Selected Bibliography

- The Age of Reason

- Nausea

- The Reprieve

- The Roads to Freedom

- Troubled Sleep

Jean-Paul Sartre: Selected full-text books and articles

The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre By Paul Arthur Schilpp Open Court, 1981
Essays in Aesthetics By Jean-Paul Sartre; Wade Baskin Citadel Press, 1963
Literary Polemics: Bataille, Sartre, Valéry, Breton By Suzanne Guerlac Stanford University Press, 1997
Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason By Thomas R. Flynn University of Chicago Press, vol.1, 1997
Sartre and Evil: Guidelines for a Struggle By Haim Gordon; Rivca Gordon Greenwood Press, 1995
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