UNITED STATES—Sunday, June 21, marked what would be the 115th birthday of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Known as one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, Sartre aimed to illuminate the lives of humankind through his conception of individual freedom. The importance and relevance of his voice persists as it integrates itself within the modern era.
Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre was born in 1905. His father, Jean-Baptiste Sartre, was an officer in the French Navy who died of illness in Sartre’s infancy. Raised by his mother and grandfather, he was exposed to mathematics and classical literature. He taught himself to play piano compositions by Chopin, Franck, and Bach. His mother remarried when he was 12, Sartre had a disdain for his stepfather, deeming him an “intruder.” In his youth, Sartre was frequently bullied by schoolmates because of the exotropia of his right eye, which was caused by influenza and corneal leukoma he contracted at age 4.
His initial interest in philosophy stemmed from reading Henri Bergson’s doctoral thesis, “Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness.” In the 1920s, he attended the École Normale Supérieure, an esteemed institution of higher education in Paris. Earning a doctorate in philosophy, his influences stemmed from Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Husserl and Heidegger.
In 1929, he met Simone de Beauvoir, a student at the Sorbonne who later became a philosopher herself. Sartre and Beauvoir obtained the agrégation in philosophy. Sartre proposed marriage to Beauvoir sitting on a bench outside the Louvre. Beauvoir denied the marriage, but the two became each other’s romantic and intellectual partners until his death. They then taught at various lycées throughout France.
World War II
In 1938, Sartre wrote “Nausea.” In 1939, he was drafted into the French army to serve as a meteorologist, only to be captured by German troops as a prisoner of war for nine months. He was later released due to his poor health and granted civilian status.
Upon his return, he once again taught and founded the underground group Socialisme et Liberté (Socialism and Liberty) with Beauvoir and other writers. When it faded, Sartre engaged in active resistance by writing his now well-known works under and after German occupation in France. These are: “Being and Nothingness” (1943), “The Files” (1943), “No Exit” (1944). “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1946), and “Anti-Semite and Jew” (1946).
The Importance of Beauvoir
Canyon News spoke to Dr. Jay Conway of California State University, Los Angeles’ Department of Philosophy. Dr. Conway has taught the works of Sartre for over two decades, he is in the process of producing an essay on Sartre dealing with “Anti-Semite and Jew” and “Black Orpheus” (1948).
Throughout his teaching, Dr. Conway emphasizes the importance of understanding Sartre with Beauvoir. The unconventional relationship between the two has been scrutinized, this caused Beauvoir to be negated to the sidelines for years. They strayed from the norm, each having other serious relationships. Beauvoir most notably with American writer Nelson Algren and French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann.
“There’s a whole industry of attempting to present their lives, their erotic lives, as scandalous. Because they had multiple partners, because they were not monogamous, because neither of them ever got married, because they weren’t always honest in their relationships with other people… Where others see a scandal, I see people attempting to make of their lives something different, something original, with all the messiness that it entails,” said Dr. Conway.
He added that in terms of their intellectual relationship, Sartre and Beauvoir “were one another’s first readers; they were very upfront about the influence they had on one another. What I find so moving about their relationship is the way in which each of their works is their own. You can’t confuse a Sartre text with a Beauvoir text, but when looking, you can see the influence of each other. Beyond what we just see on the page, these are people that wrote side by side, critical of one another’s work before they came out in their final form. Sartre talked about Beauvoir having veto power over his work… When we talk about one, we talk about the other, but not because one is the foundation.”
Sartre and Beauvoir were existentialists, their philosophy emphasized the existence of the individual as a free and responsible agent. In other words, Sartre and Beauvoir were philosophers of freedom. The two were against the notion that dominant values reign best, as though they were written into the order of things. What existentialism advocates for is choosing one’s own good and having awareness of this choice in its respective situation, as opposed to giving into self-deception and inauthenticity (also known as acting in “bad faith”).
Sartre expresses this most notably in “Existentialism is a Humanism” stating: “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.”
Sartre and Beauvoir identified the freedom of the existential individual, but concentrated on socioeconomic and historical conditions which may limit and modify that very freedom.
Within the past decade, Dr. Conway has gravitated toward teaching “Anti-Semite and Jew” rather than the more standard texts of Sartre. Sartre had great range as a writer, he connected writing literary and philosophical works to demonstrate concrete lives and situations. In his philosophical “Anti-Semite and Jew”, Sartre addresses the perpetrator of racism as capitalism through his notion of freedom and the avenue of flight toward irrationality. In “Childhood of a Leader” (1939), which Dr. Conway assigns as a precursor to “Anti-Semite and Jew”, Sartre exemplified his theoretical character as the fictional character of Lucien. Respectively, Beauvoir did this with the philosophical “The Second Sex” (1949) and the fictional “The Woman Destroyed” (1967).
Sartre’s existentialist thought also fused Marxism in critiquing the systematic exploitation of people in capitalist and colonialist systems.
In 1954, Sartre and Beauvoir traveled to the Soviet Union, Scandinavia, Africa, the United States, and Cuba (where they met with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara). In the article “Le Fantôme de Staline” (1956), Sartre condemned Soviet intervention. He distanced himself from it and reaffirmed his distinct existentialist Marxism in “The Problem of Method” (1957) and “Critique of Dialectical Reason” (1960). In 1964, Sartre declined the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Sartre committed to humanitarian and political causes, he spoke out against French rule in Algeria and the Vietnam War. He participated in the Paris demonstrations of 1968 and others after with fellow philosopher Michel Foucault.
In the 1970s, his physical condition deteriorated and he lost his sight. Beauvoir documented the last years of Sartre’s life in “Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre” (1981) through conversations with him.
Sartre died on April 15, 1980 from pulmonary edema. Over 50,000 Parisians attended his funeral. Beauvoir died on April 14, 1986 from pneumonia. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir share a grave in Paris’ Montparnasse Cemetery.
Legacy in Philosophy
Sartre’s work and influence did not end with his death.
Dr. Conway, in explaining Sartre’s influence on his own academic career, stated: “I read so much philosophy and so much literature but there’s a few figures that have been long time companions of mine… As I make my way through the world they’re with me, they’re challenging me, they’re there for me to think with and against, in a way that’s enabled me to do things intellectually I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. Sartre is definitely one of those long time companions. Even if I’m not teaching a class on Sartre, I feel like that relationship with him is at play…”
French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) is now “regarded as a philosophical giant,” said Dr. Conway. Deleuze was very critical of relegating Sartre’s thought to the past, and has acknowledged his indebtedness to him.
As an initial introduction to Sartre, Dr. Conway assigns Deleuze’s “He Was My Teacher” to his students. In the short piece, Deleuze addresses Sartre’s denial of the Nobel Peace Prize, which had caused much scandal. The refusal was not an act of drawing attention to himself, but “his revulsion at the idea of being institutionalized.”
Deleuze advanced Sartre’s unwavering importance, saying: “We speak of Sartre as though he belonged to a bygone era. Alas, we are the ones who in today’s conformist moral order are bygone. At least Sartre allows us to await some vague future moment, a return, when thought will form again and make its totalities anew, like a power that is at once collective and private. This is why Sartre remains my teacher.”
Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, and Angela Davis all drew from Sartre’s work, and each align with Deleuze in acknowledging their indebtedness to him.
Legacy in Popular Culture
Sartre’s impact extends beyond philosophical academia, he has intersected popular culture through art, literature, music, film, and theatre.
There are murals of Jean-Paul Sartre in Lyon, France and Yerevan, Armenia. In Yerevan, there is also the Jean-Paul Existential Café on Arami Street. Phillip Roth’s novel, “The Dying Animal” (2001), tackled Sartrean concepts of consciousness, the existential question of selfhood, and the emancipation from dominant values. In 2015, “Childhood of a Leader” was made into a film. Additionally, his play, “No Exit,” is performed worldwide. Father John Misty’s music is rooted in themes of existentialism, his song, “I’m Writing a Novel” directly references Sartre and Heidegger.
When asked why he thinks Sartre’s legacy has prevailed throughout the years, Dr. Conway said, “Sartre has been in fashion and fallen out of it. There is no shortage of voices dismissing his work but he never lacked readers, people gravitate toward him, he is found indecently of a college class or structure… Sartre has this basic message that we should think very critically about… what our future is going to be like, encouraging us to make of our life something that is more original, less generic… And who among us doesn’t need that validation?”