Existentialism Is a Humanism | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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Jean-Paul Sartre | Biography


Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris, France, on June 21, 1905, the only child of Jean-Baptiste Sartre, an officer in the French Navy, and Anne-Marie Schweitzer, the first cousin of Nobel Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer. Sartre's father died on a tour of duty when the boy was only 15 months old. He and his mother returned to her family home in Meudon, where Sartre led a solitary and bookish childhood, substituting reading and writing for human companionship.

In 1924 Sartre completed an education that consisted mostly of private tutoring by entering the École Normale Supérieure at the University of Paris. While at the university, Sartre met Simone de Beauvoir, the renowned feminist, philosopher, and novelist. Although they were neither married nor monogamous, the couple maintained a close relationship throughout Sartre's life.

After receiving a doctorate in philosophy in 1929, Sartre completed his required military service in France and went on to work as a secondary school teacher in Le Havre, a port city in the northern French region of Normandy. The setting of his novel Nausea (1938) is based on Le Havre. From 1933 to 1935 he traveled on a stipend from the Institute Français as a research student to Berlin and Freiburg, Germany. There, he discovered the works of German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl and became interested in the branch of philosophy known as phenomenology: the study of human awareness. Their theories shape some of Sartre's most seminal works, including his major philosophical study, Being and Nothingness (1943), and his collection of short stories, The Wall (1939).

Sartre's career as a school teacher was interrupted by the escalation of World War II (1939–45). He was drafted in the French army, serving as a meteorologist briefly until he was captured by the Germans in 1940 and held nine months as a prisoner of war. He returned to Paris and joined the Resistance, a secret group of activists committed to ending the Nazi occupation of France. During this time he also wrote prolifically, completing not just Being and Nothingness but also his first play, The Flies (1943).

Following the war Sartre gave up teaching in order to devote himself to writing and activism. He is the author of several plays, novels, works of literary criticism, and philosophy. His best-known play, No Exit (1947), touches on the suffocating banality of social conventions. Unable to take action, the characters remain trapped in a hell of their own making, a clear illustration of the "bad faith" Sartre discusses in "Existentialism Is a Humanism."

Later in life, with the publication of an autobiography, The Words (1964), Sartre renounced literature as a bourgeois substitute for committed action. The same year Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, an honor he refused.

A man of few worldly possessions, Sartre remained a principled activist throughout his life. He was committed to taking a stand on the important issues of his time, something he felt was the duty of public intellectual figures such as himself. Although his health declined in the last years of his life, he continued to be active in protests, including the Paris demonstrations of 1968, which protested authoritarian political and economic structures. He died from a lung edema on April 15, 1980, and shares a tombstone with longtime companion Simone de Beauvoir in Paris's famous Montparnasse Cemetery.

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