Sartre, Jean-Paul

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Jean-Paul Sartre


Born June 21, 1905, in Paris, France; died of a lung ailment April 15, 1980, in Paris, France; son of Jean-Baptiste (a naval officer) and Anne-Marie (Schweitzer) Sartre; children: Arlette el Kaim-Sartre (adopted). Education: Attended Lycée Louis-le-Grand; École Normale Superieure, agrege de philosophie, 1930; further study in Egypt, Italy, Greece, and in Germany under Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Politics: Communistic, but not party member. Religion: Atheist.


Philosopher and author of novels, plays, screenplays, biographies, and literary and political criticism. Professor of philosophy at Lycée le Havre, 1931-32 and 1934-36, Institut Français, Berlin, Germany, 1933-34, Lycée de Laon, 1936-37, Lycée Pasteur, 1937-39, and Lycée Condorcet, 1941-44. Les Temps modernes, 1944, founder and editor, beginning 1945. Lecturer at various institutions in United States, including Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton universities, and in Europe, the USSR, and China. Military service: Meteorological Corps, 1929-31; French Army, 1939-40; prisoner of war in Germany for nine months, 1940-41. Served in French resistance, 1941-44, wrote for its underground newspapers, Combat and Les Lettres françaises. Cofounder, French Rally of Revolutionary Democrats.


American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Modern Language Association of America (honorary fellow).

Awards, Honors

Roman populiste prize, 1940, for Le mur; French Legion d'honneur, 1945 (refused); New York Drama Critics Award for best foreign play of the season, 1947, for No Exit; French Grand Novel Prize, 1950, for La Nausée; Omegna prize (Italy), 1960, for total body of work; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1964 (refused); honorary doctorate from Hebrew University, 1976.



L'imagination, Librairie Felix Alcan (Paris, France), 1936, French and European Publications (New York, NY), 1970, translation by Forrest Williams published as Imagination: A Psychological Critique, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1962.

Esquisse d'une theorie des emotions, Hermann (Paris, France), 1939, translation by Bernard Frechtman published as The Emotions: Outline of a Theory, Philosophical Library (New York, NY), 1948, translation by Philip Mairet published as Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, Methuen (London, England), 1962.

L'imaginaire: psychologie phenomenologique de l'imagination, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1940, translation published as The Psychology of Imagination, Philosophical Library (New York, NY), 1948, translated by Jonathan Webber as The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, Routledge (New York, NY), 2003.

L'etre et le néant: essai d'ontologie phenomenologique, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1943, translation by Hazel E. Barnes published as Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, Philosophical Library (New York, NY), 1956, reprinted, Regnery (Washington, DC), 1996, abridged edition, Citadel (New York, NY), 1964, portions published as The Wisdom of Jean-Paul Sartre, Philosophical Library (New York, NY), 1968.

L'existentialisme est un humanisme, Nagel (Paris, France), 1946, translation by Bernard Frechtman published as Existentialism (also see below), Philosophical Library (New York, NY), 1947, translation by Philip Mairet published as Existentialism and Humanism, Methuen (London, England), 1948.

Existentialism and Human Emotions (selections from Existentialism and Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology), Philosophical Library (New York, NY), 1957.

Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness, translation by Forrest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick, Noonday (New York, NY), 1957, original French edition published as La transcendance de l'ego: Esquisse d'une description phenomenologique, J. Vrin (Paris, France), 1965.

Critique de la raison dialectique: precede de question de methode, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1960, translation by Alan Sheridan-Smith published as Critique of Dialectical Reason: Theory of Practical Ensembles, Humanities Press (Atlantic Highlands, NJ), 1976.

(With others) Marxisme et existentialisme, Plon (Paris, France), 1962, translation by John Matthews published as Between Existentialism and Marxism, NLB (London, England), 1974.

Choix de textes, edited by J. Sebille, Nathan, 1962, 2nd edition, 1966.

Essays in Aesthetics, selected and translated by Wade Baskin, Philosophical Library (New York, NY), 1963.

Search for a Method, translation by Hazel Barnes, Knopf (New York, NY), 1963, published as The Problem of Method, Methuen (London, England), 1964, original French edition published as Question de methode, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1967.

The Philosophy of Existentialism, edited by Wade Baskin, Philosophical Library (New York, NY), 1965.

The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre (translated excerpts), edited by Robert Denoon Cummings, Random House (New York, NY), 1965.

Of Human Freedom, edited by Wade Baskin, Philosophical Library (New York, NY), 1967.

Essays in Existentialism, selected and edited with a foreword by Wade Baskin, Citadel (New York, NY), 1967.

Textes choisis, edited by Marc Beigbeder and Gerard Deledalle, Bordes, 1968.

Verité et existence, edited by Arlette el Kaim-Sartre, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1990.


La nausée, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1938, translation by Lloyd Alexander published as Nausea, New Directions (New York, NY), 1949, published as The Diary of Antoine Requentin, J. Lehmann (London, England), 1949, new edition with illustrations by Walter Spitzer, Lidis (Paris, France), 1964, new translation by Robert Baldick, Penguin (New York, NY), 1965.

Le mur, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1939, with an introduction and notes by Walter Redferm, Bristol Classics Press (London, England), 1997, translation published as The Wall, and Other Stories, preface by Jean-Louis Curtis, New Directions (New York, NY), 1948.

Les chemins de la liberté, Volume 1: L'age de raison, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1945, new edition with illustrations by Walter Spitzer, Lidis (Paris, France), 1965, Volume 2: Le Sursis, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1945, Volume 3: La mort dans l'ame, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1949, French and European Publications (New York, NY), 1972, translation published as The Roads of Freedom, Volume 1: The Age of Reason, translation by Eric Sutton, Knopf (New York, NY), 1947, new edition with introduction by Henri Peyre, Bantam (New York, NY), 1968, Volume 2: The Reprieve, translation by Eric Sutton, Knopf (New York, NY), 1947, Volume 3: Iron in the Soul, translation by Gerard Hopkins, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1950, translation by Gerard Hopkins published as Troubled Sleep, Knopf (New York, NY), 1951.

Intimacy, and Other Stories, translation by Lloyd Alexander, Berkley Publishing (New York, NY), 1956.


Les mouches (also see below; produced in Paris, France, 1942; translation by Stuart Gilbert produced as The Flies in New York, NY, 1947), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1943, new edition edited by F. C. St. Aubyn and Robert G. Marshall, Harper (New York, NY), 1963.

Huis-clos (also see below; produced in Paris, France, 1944; translation by Marjorie Gabain and Joan Swinstead produced as The Vicious Circle in London, England, 1946; translation by Paul Bowles produced as No Exit on Broadway, 1946), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1945, new edition edited by Jacques Hardre and George B. Daniel, Appleton (New York, NY), 1962.

The Flies (also see below) [and] In Camera, translation by Gilbert, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1946, published with No Exit, Knopf (New York, NY), 1947, original French edition published as Huis-clos [and] Les mouches, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1964.

Morts sans sepulture (also see below; produced with La putain respectueuse in Sweden, 1946; produced in Paris, France, 1946; translation produced as Men without Shadows on London's West End, 1947; translation produced as The Victors in New York, NY, 1948), Marguerat (Lausanne, Switzerland), 1946.

La putain respectueuse (also see below; produced with Morts sans sepulture in Sweden, 1946; produced in Paris, France, 1946), Nagel (Paris, France), 1946, translation published as The Respectful Prostitute (also see below; produced in London, England, 1948; produced on Broadway, 1948), Twice a Year Press (New York, NY), 1948.

Theatre I (contains Les mouches, Huis-clos, Morts sans sepulture, and La putain respectueuse), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1947.

Les jeux sont faits (screenplay; produced by Gibe-Pathe Films, 1947), Nagel (Paris, France), 1947, new edition edited by Mary Elizabeth Storer, Appleton (New York, NY), 1952, translation by Louise Varese published as The Chips Are Down, Lear (New York, NY), 1948.

Les mains sales (also see below; produced in Paris, France, 1948; translation by Kitty Black produced as Crime Passionnel in London's West End, 1948, and adapted by Daniel Taradash and produced as The Red Gloves in New York, NY, 1948), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1948, published as Les mains sales: Piece en sept tableaux, edited by Geoffrey Brereton, Methuen (London, England), 1963, new edition with analysis and notes by Gaston Meyer, Bordas, 1971, translation by Black published as Crime Passionnel, Methuen (London, England), 1961.

L'engrenage (screenplay), Nagel (Paris, France), 1948, translation by Mervyn Savill published as In the Mesh, A. Dakers (London, England), 1954.

Orphee noir (first published in Anthologie de la nouvelle poesie negre et malgache de langue françeaise, Presses Universitaires de France (Paris, France), 1948), translation by S. W. Allen published as Black Orpheus, University Place Book Shop (New York, NY), c. 1963.

Three Plays (contains The Victors, Dirty Hands [translation of Les mains sales], and The Respectable Prostitute), translation by Lionel Abel, Knopf (New York, NY), 1949.

Three Plays: Crime Passionnel, Men without Shadows, [and] The Respectable Prostitute, translation by Kitty Black, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1949.

Le diable et le bon dieu (produced in Paris, France, 1951), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1951, translation by Kitty Black published as Lucifer and the Lord (also see below), Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1953, published as The Devil and the Good Lord, and Two Other Plays, Knopf (New York, NY), 1960.

(Adapter) Alexandre Dumas, Kean (also see below; produced in Paris, France, 1953), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1954, translation by Kitty Black published as Kean; or, Disorder and Genius, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1954, Vintage (New York, NY), 1960.

No Exit, and Three Other Plays (contains No Exit, The Flies, Dirty Hands, and The Respectful Prostitute), Random House (New York, NY), 1955.

Nekrassov (also see below; produced in Paris, France, 1955), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1956, translation by Sylvia and George Leeson published as Nekrassov (produced in London, England, 1957), Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1956, French and European Publications (New York, NY), 1973.

Les sequestres d'Altona (also see below; produced in Paris, France, 1959), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1960, new edition edited and with an introduction by Philip Thody, University of London Press (London, England), 1965, translation by S. Leeson and G. Leeson published as Loser Wins, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1960, published as The Condemned of Altona (also see below; produced on Broadway, 1966), Knopf (New York, NY), 1961.

The Condemned of Altona, Men without Shadows, [and] The Flies, Knopf (New York, NY), 1961.

Theatre (contains Les mouches, Huis-clos, Morts sans sepulture, La putain respectueuse, Les mains sales, Le diable et le bon dieu, Kean, Nekrassov, and Les sequestres d'Altona), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1962.

Bariona, Anjou-Copies (Paris, France), 1962, 2nd edition, E. Marescot, 1967.

La putain respectueuse, piece en un acte et deux tableaux: suivi de Morts sans sepulture, piece en deux actes et quatre tableax, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1963.

The Respectable Prostitute [and] Lucifer and the Lord, translation by Kitty Black, Penguin (London, England), 1965.

(Adapter) Euripides, Les troyennes (produced in Paris, France, 1965), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1966, translation by Ronald Duncan published as The Trojan Women (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1967.

Three Plays (contains Kean; or, Disorder and Genius, Nekrassov, and The Trojan Women), Penguin (New York, NY), 1969.

Five Plays (contains No Exit, The Flies, Dirty Hands, The Respectful Prostitute, and The Condemned of Altona), Franklin Library (Franklin Center, PA), 1978.

Also author of screenplays Typhus, 1944, and Les sorcieres de Salem (adapted from Arthur Miller's The Crucible); author of unpublished play All the Treasures of the Earth.


Réflexions sur la question juive, P. Morihien (Paris, France), 1946, translation by George J. Becker published as Anti-Semite and Jew, Schocken (New York, NY), 1948, reprinted, 1995, translation by Erik de Mauney published as Portrait of the Anti-Semite, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1948.

Baudelaire, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1947, translation by Martin Turnell published as Baudelaire, Horizon (London, England), 1949, New Directions (New York, NY), 1950.

Situations I (also see below), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1947, published as Critiques litteraires, 1975.

Situations II, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1948, portions published as Qu'est-ce que le litterature?, Gallimard, 1949, translation by Bernard Frechtman published as What Is Literature?, Philosophical Library (New York, NY), 1949, published as Literature and Existentialism, Citadel (New York, NY), 1962.

Situations III (also see below), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1949.

(With David Rousset and Gerard Rosenthal) Entretiens sur la politique, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1949.

Saint Genet, comedien et martyr, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1952, translation by Bernard Frechtman published as Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, Braziller (New York, NY), 1963.

Literary and Philosophical Essays (excerpts from Situations I and III), translation by Annette Michelson, Criterion (New York, NY), 1955.

Literary Essays (excerpts from Situations I and III), translation by Annette Michelson, Philosophical Library (New York, NY), 1957.

Sartre on Cuba, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1961.

Situations IV: Portraits, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1964, translation by Benita Eisler published as Situations, Braziller (New York, NY), 1965.

Situations V: Colonialisme et neo-colonialisme, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1964, translation published as Colonialism and Neocolonialism, Routledge (New York, NY), 2001.

Les communistes et la paix (first published in Situations VI), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1964, translation by Martha H. Fletcher and John R. Kleinschmidt (bound with "A Reply to Claude Lefort" translated by Philip R. Berk) published as The Communists and Peace, Braziller (New York, NY), 1968.

Situations VI: Problemes du Marxisme, Part I, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1966.

Situations VII: Problemes du Marxisme, Part II, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1967.

On Genocide, with commentary on the International War Crimes Tribunal by Sartre's adopted daughter, Arlette el Kaim-Sartre, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1968.

The Ghost of Stalin, translation by Martha H. Fletcher and John R. Kleinschmidt, Braziller (New York, NY), 1968, translation by Irene Clephane published as The Spectre of Stalin, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1969.

Les communistes ont peur de la revolution, J. Didier (Paris, France), 1969.

(With Vladimir Dedijer) War Crimes in Vietnam, Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation (Nottingham, England), 1971.

L'idiot de la famille, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1971, translation by Carol Cosman published as The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857, three volumes, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1981-1989.

Situations VIII: autour de 1968, French and European Publications (New York, NY), 1972.

Situations IX: mélanges, French and European Publications (New York, NY), 1972.

Situations X: politique et autobiographie, French and European Publications (New York, NY), 1976, translation by Paul Auster and Lydia Davis published as Life/Situations: Essays Written and Spoken, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1977.

Contributor of essay to Aimé Cesaire, Das politische Denken Lumumbas, Klaus Wagenbach (Berlin, Germany), 1966.


Sartre par lui-meme, edited by Francis Jeanson, Seuil (Paris, France), 1959, translation by Richard Seaver published as Sartre by Himself, Outback Press (Melbourne, Australia), 1978.

(Author of text) Andre Masson, Vingt-deux dessins sur le theme du désir, F. Mourtot, 1961.

Les mots (autobiography), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1963, translation by Bernard Frechtman published as The Words, Braziller (New York, NY), 1964, translation by Clephane published as Words, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1964.

(Editor with Bertrand Russell) Das Vietnam Tribunal, Rowohlt (Reinbeck, Germany), 1970.

Gott ohne Gott (contains Bariona and a dialogue with Sartre), edited by Gotthold Hasenhuttl, Graz (Graz, Austria), 1972.

Un théatre de situations, compiled and edited by Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1973, translation by Frank Jellinck published as Sartre on Theater, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1976.

Oeuvres romanesques, edited by Contat and Rybalka, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1981.

Cahiers pour une morale, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1983.

Carnets de la drole de guerre, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1983, new edition, 1995.

(With Simone de Beauvoir) Lettres au Castor et a quelques autres, Volume 1: 1926-1939, translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee as Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1926-1939, Scribner (New York, NY), 1992, Volume 2: 1940-1963, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1984, translated by Fahnestock and MacAfee as Quiet Moments in a War: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1940-1963, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1993.

Le scenario Freud, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1984, translation by Quintin Hoare published as The Freud Scenario, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1985.

The War Diaries of Jean-Paul Sartre, Random House (New York, NY), 1985.

Notes from a Phony War, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1995.

(With Benny Levy) Hope Now: The 1980 Interviews, translated by Adrian van den Hoven, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1996.

Existential Psychoanalysis, Regnery (Washington, DC), 1997.

Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings, Routledge (New York, NY), 2000.

Contributor to numerous books, including L'Affaire Henri Martin (title means "The Henry Martin Affair"), Gallimard (Paris, France), 1953; and to anthologies and periodicals. Editor of La Cause du peuple, beginning 1970, Tout!, beginning 1970, and Révolution!, beginning 1971.


Le jeux sont faits was adapted for film as The Chips Are Down by Lopert, 1949; Les mains sales was adapted for film by Rivers Films, 1951 and released in the United States as Dirty Hands; La putain respectueuse, was adapted for film by Agiman Films/Artes Films, 1952, and adapted as the film The Respectable Prostitute, by Gala, 1955; Les orgueilleux, a film based on Sartre's original screenplay Typhus, was produced by Jean Productions, 1953, and released in the United States as The Proud and the Beautiful by Kingsley, 1956; Huis-clos was adapted for film by Jacqueline Audry, 1954, and produced for French television, O.R.T.F., 1965; the film Kean, Genio e Sregolatezza was produced by Lux Films, 1957; Les sequestres d'Altona was adapted for film by Titanus Films, 1963 and released in the United States as The Condemned of Altona, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1963; the short story "Le mur" was adapted for film by Niepce Films, 1967; the thirteen-part television series The Roads to Freedom, based on Sartre's novels The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Troubled Sleep, was produced by the British Broadcasting Corp., 1970.


Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the major intellectual figures of the twentieth century, doubtless the greatest of his immediate generation in France. In the words of Sartrean scholars Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka in The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, he was "uncontestably the most outstanding philosopher and writer" of his age. Henri Peyre, in his preface to Sartre's play The Condemned of Altona, called the playwright and philosopher "the most powerful intellect at work … in the literature of Western Europe," and dubbed Sartre the "Picasso of literature." According to LynnDianne Beene, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "More than any other cultural figure of his generation, Jean-Paul Sartre set the tone of intellectual, philosophical, and literary activity both within postwar France and throughout Europe and the United States. Throughout his long writing career, Sartre probed the moral, historical, and philosophical parameters of the twentieth-century search for identity and the nature of existence." Since his death in 1980, Sartre's reputation has not waned, and with perspective it is clear that he represented his age much as, in different ways, Voltaire (1694-1778), Victor Hugo (1802-1885), and André Gide (1869-1951) represented theirs. "To understand Jean-Paul Sartre," wrote Iris Murdoch in Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, "is to understand something important about the present time."

Sartre was the chief proponent of French existentialism, a philosophic school—influenced by Sören Kierkegaard and German philosophers—that developed around the close of the World War II. Existentialism stresses the primacy of the thinking person and of concrete individual experience as the source of knowledge; this philosophy also emphasized the anguish and solitude inherent in the making of choices. Through his writings, Beene noted, "Sartre challenged not only contemporary ideas about freedom and human liberation, but also the oppression he found in Western capitalism. His relentless search for freedom gave rise to a process of existential inquiry and reflection. For Sartre, human beings are condemned to make their own destiny. Their burden and their transcendence is the act of making moral judgments. Thus, although he had little hope for the prospects of human institutions, Sartre championed human individuality and universal justice."

Sartre's literary and philosophic careers are inextricably bound together, and are best understood in relation to one another and to their biographic context. An only child, Sartre decided at an early age to be a writer. According to The Words, the autobiography of his youth, this decision was made in conscious opposition to the wishes of his grandfather, Charles Schweitzer, who, after the death of Sartre's father, raised the boy with the help of Sartre's grandmother. Schweitzer, a domineering Protestant who was nevertheless very fond of his grandson and extremely indulgent with him, appeared to young Sartre as insincere, a consummate charlatan. Schweitzer preached the serious values of the bourgeoisie and tried to denigrate a career in letters as precarious, unsuitable for stable middle-class people. In reaction, Sartre proposed to make writing serious, to adopt it as the center of his life and values. He also chose it as a kind of self-justification in a world where a child was not taken seriously. "By writing I was existing. I was escaping from the grown-ups," he wrote in The Words.

When his mother remarried, Sartre moved from Paris to La Rochelle with her and his stepfather, a solemn professional man with whom he felt little in common. All the same, young Sartre followed the path of a professional, finishing his studies at Lycée Henri IV in Paris. According to Beene, these years "proved a turning point in Sartre's literary career." Sartre became a student of Emile Auguste Chartier, a philosopher and essayist known as "Alain." As Beene noted, "Chartier, a humanist and materialist, attacked official power and promoted pacifism in his essays; he taught his students that opposing authority was politically valuable and philosophically necessary." Sartre completed university work at the École Normale Superieure. There he met feminist intellectual Simone de Beauvoir, who was to be a lifelong companion, though by no means his only love interest.

Philosophical Pursuits

As a student Sartre became interested in philosophy, pursuing it through the agregation—the highest French degree preparing for a teaching career. He was steeped in the Cartesian rationalist tradition whereby the subject's existence is proven by his thought, although eventually he largely departed from this philosophy. The topic of his thesis, the imagination, shows how his philosophic concerns supported his early interest in creative writing. Other of his treatises of the 1930s concern the emotions and what Sartre called the transcendence of the ego—or the nature of the self—which, he argued, is created by the individual instead of being a given. At the same time that he was pursuing these investigations on the imagination, Sartre became acquainted with phenomenology, a branch of philosophy centering around the development of the human conscious and associated with such German scholars as Edmund Husserl, with whom Sartre studied for a year in Berlin.

Throughout the 1930s Sartre's philosophic and literary pursuits supported each other and developed along parallel lines. At the beginning of the decade he began work on a fictional piece first called "A Pamphlet on Contingency"—contingency being lack of foundation—which developed into his first novel, Nausea. It illustrates what de Beauvoir dubbed Sartre's "opposition aesthetics"—his desire to use literature as a critical tool. The novel's title indicates the hero's reaction toward existence: when he discovers that life is absurd, he feels repulsed. Nothing, it would seem, can save him, except the discovery that he might be able to write a novel that would have internal necessity and be a rival to life; he proposes to save himself through an act of aesthetic creation. Sartre said in The Words: "At the age of thirty, I executed the masterstroke of writing in Nausea—quite sincerely, believe me—about the bitter unjustified existence of my fellow men and of exonerating my own."

Nausea was received with praise and had considerable success. In Esprit, reviewer Armand Robin called Nausea "undoubtedly one of the distinctive works of our time." Later, in Sartre: A Philosophic Study, Anthony Richards Manser called it "that rare thing: a genuinely philosophic novel."

Sartre revealed himself to be a master psychologist in his next fictional work, the short story collection The Wall. Particularly impressive is the title story, which recounts an episode from the Spanish Civil War, and the final one, "The Childhood of a Leader," which, while autobiographical to a considerable degree, has as its main plot thread the making of a fascist. These stories reveal the author's command of dialogue and metaphor and illustrate exceptionally interesting ideas about human relationships, sexuality, insanity, childhood development, and the meaning of action.

Sartre had served in the Meteorological Corps from 1929 to 1931, and he rejoined the French military in 1939 after Adolf Hitler and the Nazis invaded Poland. Sartre and members of his corps were captured by the Germans in June 1940, and he spent nine months as a prisoner of war. In 1941, he was released from the prison camp using a false medical certificate, and he returned to Paris. Sartre served in the resistance movement and wrote for its underground newspapers, Combat and Les Lettres françaises.

Being and Nothingness

During the late 1930s Sartre was known as a promising writer but he was not yet considered an important philosopher. This assessment changed in 1943 when he produced Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, the major philosophical work of the first half of his career. While closely related to his treatises on imagination and to the views of experience he had expressed in his fiction, Being and Nothingness is not confined to these subjects. Rather, in defining being, or what is, as what appears, it explores all phenomena. The essay examines man, the being who questions being, and concludes that he is both his body occupying a place in the world—that is, an object among objects—and a subject or a consciousness reflecting on objects. Sartre contends that all consciousness is consciousness of something. Since it is basically a negating or distinguishing function—i.e., saying that this chair, for instance, is not this table—consciousness produces the concept of nothingness; man is the being by whom negation is introduced into an otherwise complete world. Though its influence penetrated slowly, Being and Nothingness helped assure its author's fame after 1945.

Sartre attempted to expand upon Being and Nothingness with Truth and Existence, which, although completed in 1948, did not see print until 1989. In the essay the philosopher explores the connections between ethics, truth, and ignorance, and the panorama of history, and portrays bad faith among men and women as the intentional choice to remain ignorant by abrogating hard work in favor of a reliance upon fate and destiny.

In Existentialism, published in 1946, Sartre "defends existentialism from claims of immorality or amorality," wrote Beene in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. In the work, Beene noted, "Sartre refutes claims that existentialists create anguish, despair, and a sense of abandonment by arguing that existentialism offers people a reason to act and be committed in a world without God. Humans are the sum of their actions, freely undertaken. Existentialism inspires and motivates humans by reminding them of their freedom and of their transcendence as an act of surpassing themselves."

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote that one of the most important characteristics of consciousness is its freedom. He soon drew explicitly the corollary that ontological freedom, in which man is "condemned to be free," as he wrote in Being and Nothingness, must entail political freedom also. That is, freedom is a goal as well as a given and must be embodied in praxis, or practical action. The very popular The Flies, which retells the Greek story of the murder of Clytemnestra by her children Orestes and Electra, emphasizes man's fundamental freedom, against which even the gods are powerless. No Exit, often anthologized and perhaps the best known of all of Sartre's works, deals with the absence of freedom when one allows oneself to exist through and for others, rather than living authentically. Sartre stated in L'Express that its famous conclusion, "Hell is other people," did not describe what had to be true concerning human relationships, but what was true when relationships with others became corrupt or twisted.

The theme of freedom may be even more elaborately treated in less-famous Sartre plays of the 1940s. Morts sans sepulture (The Victors), which shocked the sensibilities of many theatergoers because it deals with torture during the German Occupation, indicates how extreme the Sartrean view of freedom could be. The play offers the view that even under torture and threat of death, one is free to choose; that this choice cannot be evaded, nor can it be made other than in utter loneliness; and that one is responsible for all its consequences. Les mains sales (Dirty Hands) treats the difficulty of political choice, the necessity of political compromise, and the refusal to let one's freedom be alienated or appropriated by others.

Between 1945 and 1950 Sartre also published three more novels—The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Troubled Sleep—collectively called Roads to Freedom. These works deal with an ineffectual hero in a morally and politically indifferent France before World War II. The series illustrates what Sartre described in "What Is Literature?" as a literature of praxis: "action in history and on history … a synthesis of historical relativity and moral and metaphysical absolute." In The Reprieve Sartre carries further than any other French writer of his period the techniques of jumping from one plot thread to another, without transition, and of pursuing simultaneous plots. While making for very difficult reading, these techniques suggest collective action and thus support his portrait of what it was like to be in Europe at the time of the Munich Crisis of 1938.

After the war Sartre published many articles on literature and politics, notably the important essay "What Is Literature?" in Situations II. Here he states that all prose literature is necessarily committed to making a political and social statement and is directed to one's own contemporaries; the practice of literature, he insists, is built on freedom—the writer's and the reader's. As he put it in Situations II, literature is "the subjectivity of a society in permanent revolution."

A Political Being

After the war, though considerably lionized and taken by many youthful readers to be the preeminent spokesman for their generation, Sartre continued to develop intellectually and undergo changes that were to have far-reaching effects on his work. In the prewar years, he had been generally uninterested in politics. While despising fascist parties and the bourgeoisie from which they—and he—came, Sartre had not participated in political action, nor even bothered to vote, considering his fiction and philosophic texts sufficient expressions of his unfavorable views of society. Now he became thoroughly politicized, speaking out on such issues as the French presence in Indochina, which he opposed, and even participating in a leftist, but non-Communist, postwar political movement.

By the close of the 1940s, with the advent of the Cold War, Sartre accepted that a non-communist leftist party was a contradiction. He returned to Karl Marx's writings, with which he had previously been only roughly familiar, and began steeping himself in Marxism to rework his positions and think against what he had previously held. Throughout the rest of his career Sartre denounced many of his previous attitudes and practiced systematic self-debate. Although he became a resolute neo-Marxist, he was never a member of the French Communist Party, but was instead often its critic and that of the former Soviet Union. However, he was always staunchly opposed to Western capitalism, NATO, and the United States.

The radicalization of his thinking seemed essential to Sartre because the fame that had overtaken him during the 1940s had the effect, or so he thought, of making him a public being; he felt that he was being appropriated by others. This threat increased his sense of alienation. He also resented what he felt would be his inevitable acceptance by the bourgeoisie; he was becoming respectable, read by the middle classes. This attitude explains why, in 1964, he refused the Nobel Prize for Literature; to him, it was a middle-class recognition that would have the effect of making him appear inoffensive.

In a 1964 Le Monde interview with Jacqueline Piatier, Sartre summarized his political changes: "I discovered abruptly that alienation, exploitation of man by man, undernourishment, relegated to the background metaphysical evil, which is a luxury." This discovery led to profound transformations in Sartre as a writer. Although he continued to regard his earlier works as well written, he also now viewed them as inauthentic because they resulted from a bourgeois decision to write, a decision based on personal rebellion and on the idolatry of words. Moreover, he came to believe that fiction could no longer serve his purpose. He even abandoned drama, although he had argued earlier that theatre is an ideal means of showing characters in situations where they must commit themselves wholly to their actions and thereby create values.

While Sartre's career as a semipopular writer came to a close in 1950, several works published after that date are among his greatest. The Critique of Dialectical Reason, his second major philosophic work, is essential to the understanding of all he wrote after his radicalization and is so closely connected to certain of his other texts that whole sections were transferred from one to another. It is far from a popular work; even more than in Being and Nothingness, the vocabulary and concepts of its 750-plus pages are difficult, and the analysis is so abstruse and sometimes meandering that even professional philosophers have found some of it incomprehensible.

Intended as a synthesis of existentialist philosophy and Marxism, the Critique calls on and belongs to disciplines as various as anthropology, history, psychology, economics, and philosophy. Its aim is to give a philosophical basis to Marxism and, on that basis, to investigate further the dialectic of history and its intelligibility. Dialectical reasoning, which is opposed to the analytic method, involves the Hegelian synthesis of contraries. Sartre's thesis is that, whereas analytical reason has been the tool of the oppressive classes, dialectical reason, which offers a different understanding of history and its possibilities, is the "practical awareness of an oppressed class fighting against its oppressor," "the objective spirit of the working class," as he put it in the Critique. While still insisting on the possibility of human freedom, the treatise shows how this freedom is conditioned, alienated, made powerless by historical and social developments. According to Beene, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "For all intents and purposes Critique de la raison dialectique ended Sartre's philosophical writings but not his popularity." Beene added, "In the years following World War II, Sartre attracted a mass following, particularly among liberal intellectuals, who found him a new phenomenon. Whether seen as the only true philosophy of freedom or as a false consciousness disorienting a whole generation of revolutionaries, Sartre's version of existentialism was identified with freedom and revolution. It stood outside any ivory tower and, thereby, maintained its hold on the youth."

In the field of biography, Sartre published in 1947 a short volume on poet Charles Baudelaire. Using what in Being and Nothingness he called existential psychoanalysis, Sartre explains Baudelaire's character and career as an original conscious choice—the choice to remain infantile, narcissistic, dependent on his mother, a failure. In opposition to Freud, Sartre shows that the poet's choice reveals psychological freedom, not psychological determinism. The next biography, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, is a masterly analysis of writer Jean Genet, a convicted thief and multiple offender known for his shocking plays and novels concerned with homosexuality, anarchy, and rebellion against authority. The biography ascribes Genet's career as a thief to a conscious decision made in childhood to be what others accused him of being. To Sartre, Genet is a splendid example of a man who made himself as he wanted to be by inverting other people's values.

Some twelve years later, Sartre published his autobiography, a self-accusatory work. The title, The Words, refers to the idolatry of literature he had practiced up to about 1950. The autobiography was judged by Francis Jeanson in Sartre dans sa vie as "the most accessible, and doubtless the most successful, of all the non-philosophical works of Sartre." It demolishes "the myth of a Messiah-writer of a dechristianized bourgeoisie," according to Revue des Sciences Humaines contributor Marc Bensimon. As a study in characters—including his mother, his grandfather, the Alsatian bourgeoisie from which they sprang, and his father's family—it is superb. The book was, Sartre says within its pages, the fruit of an awakening from "a long, bitter, and sweet delusion." The Words reads almost like fiction; it is brief and its style is witty, aphoristic, penetrating—classical, in a word, although its method is dialectical.

At the opposite extreme is Sartre's final biographic work, The Family Idiot, a 2,800-page analysis of Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert had long interested Sartre, both attracting him and repulsing him. Sartre wanted to explore chiefly the particular circumstances and the dialectical relationships that made Flaubert into a bourgeois who hated the bourgeoisie, a passive man incapable of pursuing an ordinary career, and, generally, a misfit and a neurotic, as well as a great writer. The investigation ranges far afield, from Flaubert's antecedents and family, to his infancy—reconstructed with the help of Sartre's dialectical method, here called progressive-regressive—and youth, to all aspects of the social and economic situation in which he matured. Sartre wished to show, he once told a Le monde interviewer that "everything can be communicated … that every human being is perfectly capable of being understood if the appropriate methods are used."

After 1950 Sartre published and saw into production two theatrical adaptations and three original plays, two of which are surely among his greatest. The Devil and the Good Lord, his personal favorite, is, like the volume on Genet, concerned with values, absolutely and pragmatically. An uncompromising statement of atheism, the play explores in an historical context—sixteenth-century Reformation Germany—the interdependency of good and evil and illustrates the necessity of adopting means that suit the ends. A second major play of the 1950s is the lengthy The Condemned of Altona, which concerns a German World War II veteran who has barricaded himself in his room for years. Tended only by his sister, the veteran has persuaded himself that Germany won the war. Although concerned explicitly with that conflict and its aftermath, the play was intended to refer also to the Algerian War, then in progress. The play impugns Nazi Germany and the type of men it produced: not just SS soldiers but also members of the upper bourgeoisie who found Nazism useful because it served their economic interests. More generally, it condemns capitalist Europe, whose conflicts over markets and expansion had caused two world wars.

Once telling New York Times Magazine interviewer John Gerassi that "commitment is an act, not a word," Sartre expressed his political beliefs by participating in demonstrations, marches, and campaigns, although he suffered from failing eyesight and circulatory troubles, among other ailments. The French writer and philosopher took stands on literally dozens of political and social issues around the world; topics ranging from decent housing in France, conscientious objection in Israel, and the Vietnamese War to repression in the Congo, Basque separatism, the troubles in Northern Ireland, torture in Argentina, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan show the range of his concerns. Denouncing as ossified the French Communist Party and all other parties intellectually dependent upon the Soviet Union, Sartre supported Maoist attempts at a new radicalization of Marxist theory and action. This political activity both increased interest in his writings and made him notorious throughout Europe.

From the beginning of his career, Sartre wanted to make people think, feel, see, and ultimately act differently. Like his earlier views, summarized in Existentialism Is a Humanism, Sartre's later morality is both a difficult and a hopeful one. People can change, he proclaimed, but they would prefer to remain in their errors—to practice injustice, for instance—or to cling to what he called bad faith. Because of the acceleration of violence and international competition, they must change, he insisted. Since the oppressive and privileged classes will not willingly give up their privileges, these must be wrested from them by violence and revolution; then new relationships between human beings, based on reciprocity and openness instead of rivalry and secrecy, will be possible, Sartre declared.

Sartre's Private Life

As his health deteriorated, Sartre wrote less but gave lengthy interviews that serve as a sort of intellectual autobiography. He remained fascinated with himself and his career, perhaps more so than other great writers, but more surprisingly so, since he had wished to move away from the cult of the individual to the idea of the general man, "anyone at all," as he put it in The Words. He was, as Josette Pacaly declared in Sartre au miroir, "a Narcissus who does not like himself." A heavy smoker, Sartre died of a lung tumor on April 15, 1980. Reportedly, his funeral was attended by some 2,500 people.

Twelve years after Sartre's death in 1980, his daughter authorized the publication of several collections of letters that illuminate the private life and thoughts of the philosopher. Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1926-1939 relates to the early years of the unconventional Sartre-de Beauvoir love relationship, during which time he wrote his first fictional and philosophical works and served as a professor of philosophy at several universities. Many ideas that the novelist-philosopher included in such novels as The Age of Reason and Being and Nothingness "were first formulated in letters written at the beginning of [World War II], when, exiled from the distractions of Paris, he profited from the enforced leisure of camp life," according to Ronald Hayman in the New York Times Book Review. "Though the publication of these letters brings rather too many private parts into public view, and though they illuminate only the comparatively brief periods when Sartre and Beauvoir were separated, they enable us to see the whole partnership in a new perspective," the critic added.

The philosopher's experiences of serving as an officer attached to a French meteorological unit and, later, as a prisoner of war, are recounted through letters collected as Quiet Moments in a War: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1940-1963. "In these letters, we have in effect an intimate portrait of the precocious philosopher emerging into a kind of intellectual and spiritual maturity," explained Peter T. Connor in America. Many of the letters written to his lover from his uneventful wartime post show Sartre engaged in "deep and searching ruminations," added Connor, "staking out his philosophical position vis-a-vis Husserl and Heidegger, overcoming his 'inferiority complex vis-a-vis the far Left' and reflecting on the inner meaning that his philosophy holds for him." Enthralled by the collection, Penelope Mesic added in Chicago's Tribune Books: "It is irresistible, when reading the life of a philosopher, to compare the writer's conduct with his theories. But the foremost philosopher of freedom, in prison, comes across rather well.… In these letters we almost casually discover an exemplary life."

Seen as a whole, Sartre's career reveals numerous contradictions. A bourgeois, he hated the middle classes and wanted to chastise them; "I became a traitor and remained one," he wrote in The Words. Yet he was not a true proletarian writer. An individualist in many ways and completely opposed to regimentation, he nevertheless attacked the individualistic tradition and insisted on the importance of the collectivity; he moved from the extremely solitary position of an existentialist to concern for society above all. A writer possessed of an outstanding ear for language and other literary skills, he came to suspect literature as inauthentic and wrote a superb autobiography to denounce writing. An atheist, he often spoke with the fervor of an evangelist and repeated that man was responsible for his own errors and must mend his ways. A reformer and moralist, he led an existence that would seem to many decidedly immoral. Of such contradictions, he was of course, aware.

If you enjoy the works of Jean-Paul Sartre

you may also want to check out the following books:

Sören Kierkegaard, Either/Or, 1843.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1947.

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 1962.

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Sartre, Jean-Paul

views updated Jun 08 2018

Sartre, Jean-Paul 1905-1980


Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris on June 13, 1905, and died there on April 15, 1980. He studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, achieving his doctorate in 1929, and then taught high school until the publication of his first novel, Nausea, in 1938. Sartre was a prisoner of war in World War II from 1940 to 1941, after which he founded a group of resistance intellectuals, socialism et liberté, which he disbanded by the time of the 1943 publication of his most famous philosophical work, Being and Nothingness. Sartre became a celebrity at the end of the war, which enabled him to be a public intellectual on the world stage for a variety of causes that included fighting against anti-Semitism, supporting Third World liberation and workers struggles, protesting against the Vietnam War, and joining strikers in the student movement of the late 1960s. Some of Sartres causes, such as his support of the Algerian struggle for independence, led to assassination attempts on his life. Other causes, such as his support of communism without ever joining the Communist Party, led to attacks on him from extreme liberal and conservative critics. Sartre received many awards, two of which he refusedthe French Legion of Honor in 1945 and the Nobel Prize in 1964. He was co-founder of the influential magazine Les temps moderne in 1945.

Although he wished to achieve greatness as a novelist and playwright, Sartres legacy is primarily as a philosopher, where he contributed to the study of freedom and the challenges it poses for understanding human existence. His writings from the 1930s until the late 1940s gave him a leading and permanent place in existentialism and phenomenology. Phenomenology is the study of things as understood as objects of consciousness. Sartres motto Existence precedes essence, argued for in Being and Nothingness, became a major theme of existential thought and a rallying cry against essentialism in the study of human beings. Human beings create themselves through living a biography, which is the only real self that will emerge at each persons death. For a living human, choice is not only a constant possibility but is a precondition for itself. Even so-called choosing not to choose is a choice, and the act of choosing must in principle have preceded it. Sartres most famous play from this period, No Exit (1944), explored these themes in a situation, people encountering other people, with literally no material alternative to the hell of being forced together.

Many of Sartres writings in the late 1940s into the mid-1950s addressed existential themes in concrete situations. In Anti-Semite and Jew, he examined how the hating of Jews played a role in the construction of Jewish identity and the anti-Semites. This question of how humans create values that in turn create us was taken up in a unique genre (philosophical biography), in his demand for the writer to be politically engaged, and in his explorations of Marxism, reflected in works such as Baudelaire (1947), What Is Literature? (1947), and Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960). The Critique of Dialectical Reason explored the problem of agency in history and in developing existential Marxism, which is dialectical thought without determinism or the crushing of freedom.

Sartre, in effect, said good-bye to literature in The Words (1964), in which his hatred for his own class, the bourgeoisie (capitalist class), culminated in his rejection of literature as a bourgeois ideal in favor of devoting the rest of his life to political engagement. Although he continued to protest and sign declarations condemning human rights violations as long as his health permitted, this last period of Sartres life was marked by his conducting a sustained, multi-volume study of the life of the nineteenth century French novelist Gustave Flaubert, The Family Idiot (19711972), which he did not write for an audience but for himself. As with his works of philosophical biography, the role of bad faith in the formation of the self is illustrated in minute detail throughout. The text, like many of Sartres projects, was not completed, which is appropriate for a philosopher whose life was a struggle against ever being pinned down and standing still.

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Bourgeoisie; Culture, Low and High; Epistemology; Existentialism; Human Rights; Jews; Literature; Marxism; Philosophy; Resistance;World War II


Contat, Michel, and Michel Rybalka, eds. 1973. The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Contat, Michel, Yvan Cloutier, Michel Rybalka, and Laura Piccioni, eds. 1993. Sartre: Bibliography, 19801992. Bowling Green, OH: Philosophy Documentation Center.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. [1938] 1965. La nausée. Trans. Robert Baldick. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. [1943] 1948. Lêtre et le néant; essai dontologie phénomologique. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. [1960] 1976. Critique de la raison dialectique, précédé de Question de méthode, tome 1, Théorie des ensembles pratique. Trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith. London: New Left Books.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1972. Lidiot de la famille: Gustave Flaubert de 18211857, tome 13 [The Family Idiot]. Trans. Carol Cosman. 5 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. [1985] 1991. Critique de la raison dialectique, tome 2, Lintelligibilité de lhistoire. Trans. Quintin Hoare. London: Verso.

Lewis R. Gordon

Sartre, Jean-Paul

views updated May 17 2018


SARTRE, JEAN-PAUL (19051980), French philosopher and man of letters, is generally regarded as the chief exponent of the atheistic branch of existentialism. Soon after World War II, Sartre wrote in Existentialism and Humanism (London, 1948): "Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it. That being is man" (pp. 2728). Sartre's existentialism, given its most sophisticated expression in Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (New York, 1956), is a philosophy of human reality that views human beings without recourse to any divine creator, that is, without appeal to God. Neither a virulent nor a polemical atheist, Sartre is not interested in the traditional philosophical or theological proofs for the existence of God. It would be more precise to say that Sartre is concerned with other matters, for, according to him, even if God did exist, his existence would be irrelevant to Sartre's fundamental project: to draw the final conclusions of a view of reality in which human beings define themselves through the choices that they make of their lives and that form the portraits of their being. In Existentialism and Humanism Sartre quotes Dostoevskii's statement that "if God did not exist, everything would be permitted" and adds: "that, for existentialism, is the starting point" (p. 33). Whether or not God does exist, it might be said, in Sartrean terms, "everything is permitted"and that means that human beings are the source of value, choice, and responsibility. At the same time, Sartre holds that the individual's choice is not a solitary event but a moment of responsibility in which the chooser chooses an image of existence for everyone

Although Sartre considers the existence of God irrelevant, he "finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven" (Existentialism and Humanism, p. 33). That "embarrassment" is explored more cautiously and profoundly in Being and Nothingness, where Sartre maintains that the basic polarities of being, the "For-itself" and the "In-itself," are incapable of synthesis. The For-itself, or the human reality, is understood as consciousness (both pre-reflective and reflective), a continually nihilating movement of temporality that arises, absurdly, from being In-itself. The In-itself is simply that which it is: an opaque plenum. The In-itself is underivable from God or from any divine act of creation; in its utter density, the In-itself, according to Sartre, "is never anything but what it is" (Being and Nothingness, p. lxviii). The For-itself is empty and seeks to fill itself, to ground itself in the fullness of the In-itself. But a paradox ensues: The more human beings endeavor to become "something," stable, fixed, assured in their status, the more they are In-itself-like, the more they lose their freedom and choose "bad faith," a negation of human authenticity. Yet the primordial ontological project of the For-itself is to achieve a stable synthesis with the In-itself. That synthesis, for Sartre, would be God. "To be man means to reach toward being God. Or, if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God" (Being and Nothingness, p. 566). What Sartre calls the "passion" of the human being to unite itself with the plenum of being In-itself and become For-itself-In-itself is from the ontological outset doomed to defeat. Sartre writes:

Every human reality is a passion in that it projects losing itself so as to found being and by the same stroke to constitute the In-itself which escapes contingency by being its own foundation, the Ens causa sui, which religions call God. Thus the passion of man is the reverse of that Christ, for man loses himself as man in order that God may be born. But the idea of God is contradictory and we lose ourselves in vain. Man is a useless passion. (Being and Nothingness, p. 615)

The striking feature of Sartre's atheism is that it remains so closely in touch witheven in ontological termsthe concept of God. The anguish of human beings, ultimately, is that they cannot be God and that in consequence they are forced back upon themselvesutterly and without recourse. But it is evident that however "religiously unmusical" Sartre's writings may be, there is not only in Being and Nothingness but in later works, such as his book on Genet and his study of Flaubert, the intransigent recognition that fellow human beings believe. The faith of others haunts the human reality. In his autobiographical study Words (London, 1964), Sartre explores the complex religious background of his childhood. The harsh and thorough repudiation he has given his Protestant-Catholic heritage has negated its essentials; but he has not succeeded altogether in ridding religious nuances from his writing: "I depend only on those who depend only on God, and I do not believe in God. Try and sort this out" (ibid., pp. 172173). Sartre's atheism is not a state of being or a fixed condition. Rather it is a provocative affirmation that "becoming-an-atheist is a long and difficult undertaking" ("The Singular Universal," in Kierkegaard: A Collection of Critical Essays, Garden City, N.Y., 1972, p. 264).

In contrast to Camus, a writer whose honey of the absurd has attracted many theistic readersthat is, believersSartre's bitter gift to the faithful and the theologians is a replication of Hegel's "unhappy consciousness" (see Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 90). Viewed in religious terms, Sartre is an aberrant supplicant to a shattered God.



Contat, Michel, and Michel Rybalka, comps. The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, vol. 1, A Biographical Life. Evanston, Ill., 1974.

Lapointe, François H., with the collaboration of Claire Lapointe. Jean-Paul Sartre and His Critics: An International Bibliography, 19381980. 2d ed., annot. & rev. Bowling Green, Ky., 1981.

Wilcocks, Robert. Jean-Paul Sartre: A Bibliography of International Criticism. With a preface by Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka. Edmonton, 1975.

Secondary Sources

Desan, Wilfred. The Tragic Finale: An Essay on the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. Cambridge, 1954.

Grene, Marjorie. Sartre. New York, 1973.

Hartmann, Klaus. Sartre's Ontology. Evanston, Ill., 1966.

Jeanson, Francis. Sartre and the Problem of Morality. Bloomington, Ind., 1980.

Jolivet, Régis. Sartre: The Theology of the Absurd. Westminster, Md., 1967.

King, Thomas M. Sartre and the Sacred. Chicago, 1974.

Natanson, Maurice. A Critique of Jean-Paul Sartre's Ontology (1951). Reprint, The Hague, 1973.

Schilpp, Paul A., ed. The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. La Salle, Ill., 1981.

New Sources

Aronson, Ronald. Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It. Chicago, Ill., 2004.

Dobson, Andrew. Jean-Paul Sartre and the Politics of Reason: A Theory of History. New York, 1993.

Wider, Kathleen Virginia. The Bodily Nature of Consciousness: Sartre and Contemporary Philosophy of Mind. Ithaca, N.Y., 1997.

Maurice Natanson (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Sartre, Jean-Paul

views updated May 21 2018


Existentialist philosopher; b. Paris, June 21, 1905; d. April 15, 1980. He received his degree in philosophy from the École Normale Supérieur in 1929, and taught at various Lycées from 1931 to 1944. In 1933 he went to Germany for a year to study the philosophy of E. husserl and M. heidegger. Returning to France he taught philosophy until 1939, at which time he was drafted into the French army; there he remained until the downfall of France, when he became a prisoner of war. After his release in 1941 he taught philosophy at the Lycée Condorcet. In 1944 he gave up teaching and devoted himself to writing. Sartre wrote novels and plays in defense of individual freedom, human dignity, and social responsibility. He had a great concern for the poor and the working class. Following the war, he became an admirer of the Soviet Union until the Hungarian revolution was crushed in 1956, though he continued to see Marxism as the only philosophy for the modern era. In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for Les Mots, but he refused to accept. In 1971 he moved away from writing and became a street activist for left-wing causes, advocating "the revolution." The following year he returned to writing, which he continued until his death.

Thought. Sartre in his philosophy is both a phenomenologist and an existentialist. He is an existentialist in that his main concern is with the problems experienced by the existing human individual as he lives his particular, concrete situation; he is a phenomenologist in that the methodology he employs in his analysis of this existence is the descriptive method developed by Husserl and Heidegger.

God and Man. Sartre insists that modern man must face up to the fact that God does not exist. Far from being the creatures of a loving and beneficient Father, the world and the beings in it are things that exist without any reason. There is no reason for their being the kinds of things they are; nor is there any reason for their existence, they just are. Because there is no reason for their being, Sartre calls them the Absurd. This absolute contingency, total gratuity, and sheer facticity of the world engenders in man the feeling of nausea. Possessed of consciousness and freedom, man alone can give himself a reason for existence by consciously making himself to be the kind of man he has freely decided to be. By choosing his morality, by actively fulfilling his decision, man makes his own essence, he creates himself. Hence Sartre calls man being-for-itself, whereas all other beings are being-in-itself.

Man's freedom in Sartre's view is so absolute that there can be in him no nature anterior to his own making, for any determination would destroy his freedom. In freely creating his own essence, each man is striving to become the absolutely self-caused, the Causa Sui; and since for Sartre, Causa Sui is the traditional definition of God,

he describes man as striving to become God. Because the project is doomed to failure, he maintains that human life is a useless passion.

Freedom and Anguish. Man's freedom is not only the foundation of his own essence; it is also the reason why there are values, ends, and objects in the world. By his freely chosen projects man puts order into the things of the world; he makes the world a universe, and he alone gives meaning to being.

This absolute freedom of man brings with it the anguish of total responsibility. Since there is no God to establish values nor any objective standards to guide him in his decision, each man is "on his own," he is abandoned to his own judgment, and he is responsible for all that he does. Although man did not give himself responsibility, he must carry it as a burden so long as he is. Hence Sartre's statement that each is responsible for everything except for the fact of being responsible. Man can always get away from the obligation by suicide, but so long as he does not use this release, he is freely choosing to live his life with all the concrete and varied conditions that will envelop it. He is freely accepting responsibility for all that occurs. Thus, there are no accidents in a man's life; wars, famines, catastrophes exist for a man because he freely chose to continue to exist.

Because anguish, abandonment, and responsibility are, for Sartre, the very quality of human existence, these notes are predominant in all his works. His novels and plays are centered on the drama of people trying to avoid responsibility for the situation in which they find themselves, or of people having neither the courage nor the good faith freely to choose to become what they would like to be.

Being and Nothingness. Freedom and consciousness are intimately connected with another Sartrean theme, viz, negation, negativity, or nothingness. Thus, a man can desire an object only because he does not now possess it. He sees the deficiency in himself because he views his present status in relation to an ideal situation that does not yet exist. By projecting himself toward this object or end, the individual is not only turning himself toward a new man to be created by his future actions, but he is also turning away from or negating the present man that he now is. Freedom is thus defined by Sartre as a nihilating rupture with the present.

Consciousness is oftentimes depicted by him as a negation, in the sense that consciousness is always consciousness of something, viz, of an object that is not the knowing consciousness precisely as knowing. In its questioning concerning the problem of being, consciousness again indicates its radical negativity. There is, first of all, the very questioning itself, which shows an ignorance or an "is not" on the part of consciousness itself; secondly, the search may terminate in negative as well as affirmative replies; and thirdly, the questioner expects an objective answer so that he can say: it is thus and not otherwise. Hence "nothing," "nobody," and "never" are objective possibilities when consciousness is asking about being. Consciousness soon discovers that it is encompassed by nothingness; that nonbeing is a component of the real. This does not mean, according to Sartre, that being and nonbeing are on the same plane; rather, non-being, negation, is always subsequent to being in that it denies being in some way or other. Nothingness has its ground in being, depends on being, and can be known only by being; for nothingness is nonidentity between things, or an absence of a thing, or a destruction of a thing, and the like.

Works. A prolific author, Sartre published philosophical studies of various lengths, essays devoted to literary criticism, novels and plays, besides founding and editing a journal, Les Temps Modernes. A partial listing of his works that have been translated into English would include (1) the philosophical studies: Psychology and Imagination, The Transcendence of the Ego, Being and Nothingness, Existentialism and Humanism and The Problem of Method; (2) the novels: Nausea and the trilogy, Roads to Freedom; (3) the plays: The Flies, No Exit, The Respectful Prostitute, Dirty Hands, The Devil and the Good Lord, and The Condemned of Altona; and (4) the critical essays: What Is Literature?, Literary and Philosophical Essays, and Saint Genet.

See Also: existentialism; atheism.

Bibliography: h. e. barnes, The Literature of Possibility (Lincoln, Nebr. 1959). w. desan, The Tragic Finale (Cambridge, Mass. 1954). f. jeanson, Le Problème moral et la pensée de Sartre (Paris 1947); Sartre par lui-même (Paris 1955). e. kern, ed., Sartre (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1962). i. murdoch, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (New Haven 1959). p. thody, Jean-Paul Sartre (New York 1960). r. d. laing and d. g. cooper, Reason and Violence: A Decade of Sartre's Philosophy, 19501960 (New York 1964). w. desan, The Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre (New York 1965). p. r. wood, Understanding Jean-Paul Sartre (Columbia, S.C. 1990). c. howells, Sartre: The Necessity of Freedom (Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] 1988).

[v. m. martin/eds.]

Sartre, Jean-Paul

views updated May 21 2018

Jean-Paul Sartre

Born: June 21, 1905
Paris, France
Died: April 15, 1980
Paris, France

French philosopher and writer

The French philosopher and distinguished writer Jean-Paul Sartre ranks as the most versatile writer and as the dominant influence in three decades of French intellectual life.

Childhood and early work

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris, France, on June 21, 1905. His father, a naval officer, died while on a tour of duty in Indochina before Sartre was two years old. His mother belonged to the Alsatian Schweitzer family and was a first cousin to the famous physician Albert Schweitzer (18751925). The young widow returned to her parents' house, where she and her son were treated as "the children." In the first volume of his autobiography, The Words (1964), Sartre describes his "unnatural" childhood as a spoiled and an unusually intelligent boy. Lacking any companions his own age, the child found "friends" exclusively in books. He began reading when he was a very young boy. Reading and writing thus became his twin passions. "It was in books that I encountered the universe," he once said.

Sartre received much of his early education from tutors. He entered the école Normale Supérieure at the University of Paris in 1924 and graduated in 1929. While there, he met the novelist Simone de Beauvoir (19081986), and the two formed a close relationship that lasted thereafter. After completing required military service, Sartre took a teaching job at a lycée (public secondary school) in Le Havre, France. There he wrote his first novel, Nausea (1938), which some critics have called the century's most influential French novel.

World War II

From 1933 to 1935 Sartre was a research student at the Institut Français in Berlin and Freiburg, Germany. He discovered the works of Edmund Husserl (18591938) and Martin Heidegger (18891976) and began to philosophize on phenomenology, or the study of human awareness. A series of works on the models of consciousness poured from Sartre's pen: two works on imagination, one on self-consciousness, and one on emotions. He also produced a first-rate volume of short stories, The Wall (1939).

Sartre returned to Paris to teach in a lycée and to continue his writing, but this was interrupted by World War II (193945; a war in which France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States and other countries fought against Germany, Italy, and Japan). Called up by the army, he served briefly on the Eastern front and was taken prisoner. After nine months he secured his release and returned to teaching in Paris, where he became active in the Resistance, a secret French group dedicated to removing the occupying German army. During this period he wrote his first major work in philosophy, Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology (1943).

After the war Sartre abandoned teaching, determined to support himself by writing. He was also determined that his writing and thinking should be engaging, or intellectually activating. Intellectuals, he thought, must take a public stand on every great question of their day. He thus became fundamentally a moralist (a teacher of right and wrong), both in his philosophical and literary works.

Other works

Sartre had turned to playwriting and eventually produced a series of theatrical successes which are essentially dramatizations of ideas, although they contain some finely drawn characters and lively plots. The first two, The Flies and No Exit, were produced in occupied Paris. They were followed by Dirty Hands (1948), usually called his best play; The Devil and the Good Lord (1957), an insulting, anti-Christian rant; and The Prisoners of Altona (1960), which combined convincing character portrayal with telling social criticism. Sartre also wrote a number of comedies: The Respectful Prostitute (1946), Kean (1954), and Nekrassov (1956), which the critic Henry Peyre claimed "reveals him as the best comic talent of our times."

During this same period Sartre also wrote a three-volume novel, The Roads to Freedom (19451949); formal writings on literature; lengthy studies of Charles Baudelaire (18211867) and Jean Genet (19101986); and a large number of reviews and criticisms. He also edited Les Temps modernes.

Though never a member of the Communist Party (a political party that believes goods and services should be controlled by a strong government), Sartre usually sympathized with the political views of the (liberal) far left. Whatever the political issue, he was quick to publish his opinions, often combining them with public acts of protest.

Later work

In 1960 Sartre returned to philosophy, publishing the first volume of his Critique ofDialectical Reason. It represented essentially a modification of his existentialist ideas, or a philosophy that stresses the importance of the individual experience. The drift of Sartre's earlier work was toward a sense of the uselessness of life. In Being and Nothingness he declared man to be "a useless passion," forced to exercise a meaningless freedom. But after World War II, his new interest in social and political questions gave way to more optimistic and activist views.

Sartre was always controversial yet respected. In 1964 he was awarded but refused to accept the Nobel Prize in literature. Sartre suffered from declining health throughout the 1970s and died from lung problems in 1980. He is remembered as one of the most influential French writer of the twentieth century.

For More Information

Cohen-Solal, Annie. Sartre: A Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1987.

Hayman, Ronald. Sartre: A Biography. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1992.

Kamber, Richard. On Sartre. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2000.

Sartre, Jean-Paul

views updated May 23 2018

Sartre, Jean-Paul

Traditional European Christian philosophy, particularly in the eighteenth century, was filled with images of and sermons on the fear of the judgment that would come upon the time of death. Characterized by Plato as the need to free the soul from the "hateful" company of the body, death was seen as the entrance into another world. By contrast, the efforts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century existentialists were to humanize and individualize death as the last stage of life rather than the entrance into that which is beyond life. This shift historically helped to make death conceptually a part of life, and therefore could be understood as a human phenomenon rather than speculation as to the nature of a spiritual life.

If death is the last stage of life, then one philosophical question is, What is the nature of the experience? It is to this question that the phenomenological analysis of Jean-Paul Sartre contributed significant insight. It can be said that when a child dies, the child becomes frozen in time. Always a child, the potential of that child is never realized and the experience of the life of that child ends. Sartre explains in his analysis of time that the past is fixed in the experiential history of the person. Whatever the person did, or even did not do, is simply the way it is. If a person was a coward when he or she died, then the image of that person as a coward is how the individual is remembered.

In his book Being and Nothingness (1956) Sartre established his early phenomenological method, exploring the nature of the human experience. Since Socrates, Western philosophers have suggested that essence or those basic aspects that make up the person are divinely preordained or predesigned prior to birth. Sartre, on the other hand, understood that the person must first exist before that which makes up the person can be identified, as human beings are not objective objects but rather subjective in their dynamic ability to change. Thus for Sartre, existence precedes essence. If analysis starts with the first human experience and ends with the last, then one's past is the past that was experienced by the individual, the present is the current reality, and the future reflects his or her potential. For Sartre, at the point of death the person does not have a past, as he or she is now dead and cannot continue to write in the log of the present. Rather, a person then becomes his or her past. Like the child who has died, in death the person is frozen in the minds of those persons who remember him or her.

Sartre used the concept of a wall to explain the transition from life to death. This concept is best understood by persons in a hospice who find that their comrades in death often understand them better than their families or those who do not understand their own finite nature. As he often did, Sartre offered his existentialist philosophy in a more academic volume and then explained it in his plays and novels. In his story The Wall (1964) Sartre writes about Pablo, a Spanish loyalist in his cell with two other republicans waiting execution by Generalissimo Franco's soldiers. He reflects as follows: "For twenty-four hours I have lived at Tom's side, I had heard him, I had talked to him, and I knew that we had nothing in common. And now we resemble each other like twins, only because we shall die together" (Stern 1967, p. 174). Persons faced with their own finitude often see the meaning of both their experiences and their lives from a larger perspective.

Sartre would say that as he has not experienced death, he does not know what it is, but he can see that it must have some reality as others seem to experience its presence. An atheist, he believed that there is no divine being and therefore no heaven or an afterlife. Rather, there are only those aspects of the conscious choices made by the individual that live on in the lives of those the person has touched. Sartre's understanding of life is that it reflects the experience of one's existence. When the person is dead, he or she is only memories held by those who are in some way a part of the life of the individual. These contributions to the humanizing of the dying experience and the philosophical understanding of the role of death offer benchmarks in the history of the philosophy of death.

See also: Frankl, Viktor; Freud, Sigmund; Immortality; Philosophy, Western; Plato


Sartre, Jean-Paul. Truth and Existence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea/The Wall and Other Stories: Two Volumes in One. New York: Fine Communications Books, 1964.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

Stern, Alfred. Sartre: His Philosophy and Existential Psychoanalysis. New York: Delta, 1967.


Sartre, Jean-Paul

views updated Jun 27 2018

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905–80) French philosopher and writer. Sartre was the leading advocate of existentialism. His debut novel, Nausea (1939), depicted man adrift in a godless universe, hostage to his own angst-ridden freedom. Sartre was a fighter in the French Resistance during World War 2. During the war, he began to write plays, such as Huis Clos (No Exit) (1944). His major philosophical work is Being and Nothingness (1943). After the war, Sartre wrote a trilogy of novels, The Roads to Freedom (1945–49), and founded (1945) the philosophy periodical Modern Times. His complex relationship with Marxism is explored in Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960). Sartre refused the 1964 Nobel Prize in literature on ‘personal’ grounds, but is later said to have accepted it. He had a long-term relationship with Simone de Beauvoir.

Sartre, Jean-Paul

views updated May 14 2018

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1905–80) A French existentialist writer and philosopher who attempted to develop a humanist critique of and philosophical foundation for Marxism. His most accessible work of interest to the social sciences is The Problem of Method (1957) but see also Bein and Nothingness (1943) and The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960).

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