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Who is Jean-Paul Sartre?

By Garry Crystal
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Jean-Paul Sartre was born in 1905 in Paris. Sartre is best known for his philosophical theories on existentialism and its connections to social and political struggle. Jean-Paul Sartre not only concentrated on these theories, but also wrote novels, plays and political pamphlets. He was regarded as one of the most prominent leaders of post-war French culture.

In 1924, Jean-Paul Sartre began studying philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. In 1931, he became a Professor of Philosophy and taught at Le Havre. In 1932, he moved to Berlin to study the philosophies of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. He also taught at Le Havre and the Lycée Pasteur in Paris from 1937 to 1939. From the end of the Second World War to his death, Sartre made his living as an independent writer.

To Jean Paul-Sartre, his philosophies on existentialism were the center of his writing and the core of his identity. Drawing on the teachings he had learned from Husserl and Heidegger, Sartre popularized existentialist theories that were highly original in their own right. Although the popularity of his writing reached its peak in the forties, his writings, novels and plays were to become classics of modern literature.

Jean-Paul Sartre took the view that atheism is taken for granted and the loss of God is not something to be mourned. Man is condemned to freedom, a freedom from all authority. He may seek to evade, deny and distort this freedom, but it is only when he has the courage to face it that he becomes a moral human being. Once this freedom is recognized, man has to commit himself to a role in the world. Man’s attempt to commit to freedom is futile without the solidarity of other people.

Jean-Paul Sartre presented these theories to the world in 1948 with Qu'est-ce que la littérature? (What Is Literature?). In this book, he explained that literature was not just concerned with stories, characters and situations, but should be focused on freedom and the author’s commitment to freedom. Artistic creation is a moral activity, and therefore literature should be committed to those (Sartre’s) theories.

Sartre’s early works were mainly psychological studies and were not a great success at the time. It was with his first novel, La Nausée (Nausea), in 1938 and a collection of short stories, Le Mur(Intimacy), published the same year, that the name of Jean-Paul Sartre was finally recognized. The books use dramatic terms to express his themes of alienation, commitment and finding salvation through art.

In 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote his most central philosophical work, L'Etre et le Néant (Being and Nothingness), his huge formula on the concept of being. Most of modern existentialist thought is derived from the concepts and theories Jean-Paul Sartre delineated in this book. Sartre died in 1980 at the age of 75. His funeral drew one of the largest crowds France has seen. Sartre's influence changed thoughts and attitudes the world over.

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Discussion Comments

By anon328459 — On Apr 03, 2013

@robert13: It was because he disagreed with Nobel's ideas and what he had done in life (inventing TNT which led to bomb making).

By hidingplace — On May 11, 2011

Jean Paul Sartre quotes are almost like aphorisms. I especially like "If you are lonely when you're alone, you are in bad company" and "One always dies too soon or too late. And yet, life is there, finished: the line is drawn, and it must all be added up. You are nothing other than your life." His books Nausea and the play No Exit are essential works of philosophy.

By roser — On May 10, 2011

@robert13 - Sartre actually released a statement after he declined it in the magazine La Figaro where he said that he thought the prize would "institutionalize" him as a writer. He also regarded the prize as bourgeoisie.

By robert13 — On May 10, 2011

Jean-Paul Sartre is also famous for being the first person to voluntarily decline the Nobel Prize in Literature although I'm not sure he ever explained why.

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