Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) was born in Paris and was a teacher in a French high school. He served in the French army during World War II, was captured by the Germans, and spent time in a prison camp reading German philosophers (especially Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger). After the war, Sartre's plays, novels, and philosophical work, especially Being and Nothingness (1943), set him apart as Europe's premier existentialist. Later he combined existentialism with Marxism, though he never joined the Communist party.
Here is Paul Johnson's description of the impact of Sartre and the essay we are about to read on French society:
[On October 29, 1945 shortly after the end of the war], at the Club Maintenant, Jean-Paul Sartre
delivered a lecture, “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Here was the new Paris. This occasion …
was packed. Men and women fainted, fought for chairs, smashing thirty of them, shouted and bar-
racked. It coincided with the launching of Sartre's new review, Les Temps Modernes, in which
he argued that literary culture, plus the haute couture of the fashion shops, were the only things
France now had left—a symbol of Europe, really—and he produced Existentialism to give peo-
ple a bit of dignity and to preserve their individuality in the midst of degradation and absurdity.
The response was overwhelming. As his consort, Simone de Beauvoir, put it, “We were astounded
by the furore we caused.” Existentialism was remarkably un-Gallic; hence perhaps, its attractive-
ness. Sartre was half-Alsacian (Albert Schweitzer was his cousin) and he was brought up in the
house of his grandfather, Karl Schweitzer. His culture was as much German as French. He was
essentially a product of the Berlin school and especially Heidegger, from whom most of his ideas
derived…. Thus Existentialism was a French cultural import, which Paris then reexported to
Germany, its country of origin, in a sophisticated and vastly more attractive guise.1
In our first selection, “Bad Faith,” from Being and Nothingness, Sartre contrasts “bad faith” with authenticity (good faith). He argues that any attempt to deny our freedom, to identify ourselves with our roles in society, our gender, race, or religion, is to act in bad faith. Authenticity is to acknowledge one's freedom at every moment of existence.
In our second selection, “Existentialism and Humanism,” Sartre sets forth the broader principles of atheistic existentialism: that we are completely free; that since there is no God to give us an essence, we must create our own essence; that we are completely responsible for our actions, and are responsible for everyone else too; that because of the death of God and the human predicament, which leaves us totally free to create our values and our world, we must exist in anguish, forlornness, and despair. Yet there is a certain celebration and optimism in knowing that we are creators of our own values.
In this essay you will come across Sartre's notion that “existence precedes essence.” This is a difficult idea, but he seems to mean something like the following. If you have an
1 Paul Johnson, Modern Times, (Harper & Row, 1983), p. 575f.