Jean-Paul Sartre was a novelist, playwright, and philosopher. His major contribution to twentieth-century thinking was his system of existentialism, an ensemble of ideas describing humans' freedom and responsibilities within a framework of human dignity. That is, he evolved a philosophy which concerned itself with existence in all its forms: social, political, religious, and philosophical.
All of Sartre's works, whether they be novels, plays, essays, or major philosophical treatises, are media through which he presented his ideas. Sartre was not a stylist, and aesthetics were of limited interest to him. His plays have even been called "black and white." More important to him than aesthetics was the thinking behind the works; he shifted back and forth between literary genres more to suit his ideological needs than to satisfy any aesthetic purpose.
Sartre was born on June 21, 1905, in Paris. The son of Jean-Baptiste Sartre, a French naval officer, and Anne Marie Schweitzer, first cousin of Albert Schweitzer, the young Sartre was to lose his father shortly after birth, making it necessary to move into the home of his maternal grandfather, Charles Schweitzer.
As a child, Sartre was small and cross-eyed — features which followed him through life — and thus he was generally unsuited for the activities of more ordinary children. Perhaps because of his physical limitations and irregular family life, he learned early to assess people and events from a detached, systematic viewpoint. He would talk with his mother in the park each day in search of new friends, and on discovering that children his age weren't much interested in him, he would return sadly to his apartment and launch into dreams. Such is the background for what would become a career based on serious and profound thinking tempered by a creative, artistic talent.
After attending the Lycée Henri IV for a while in Paris, he transferred to the Lycée in La Rochelle after his mother remarried. Upon graduation, he entered the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris and graduated first in his class — an extraordinary feat because of the demanding requirements of the school. While at the École, he formed a friendship with the young Simone de Beauvoir, who continually placed second behind him on all the exams. This friendship, which developed into a lifelong relationship of love and support, was to provide Sartre with one of his most stimulating and trustworthy colleagues and future co-workers.
Sartre did not believe in official marriage, and his friendship with Simone de Beauvoir was the closest he came to formalizing a lifestyle with another person. She provides an intimate account of their early years in two of her best-selling books, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1959) and The Prime of Life (1962).
At the École, and also at the Sorbonne, Sartre formed many important friendships with thinkers and writers who later became well known in their respective fields — people such as the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and the philosopher Simone Weil.
Between 1931 and 1934, he taught high school in Le Havre, Lyon, and Paris. It was a period during which he began to feel the need for focusing his ideas in a way that would make them accessible to large groups of people. A one-year sabbatical in 1934 at the French Institute in Berlin enabled him to immerse himself in modern German philosophy, particularly the works of Heidegger and Husserl. The atheistic nature of Heidegger's thinking was attractive to Sartre as he emerged from his Catholic background into a godless universe. Upon his return to France, he spent the years from 1934 to 1945 teaching at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris.
His first major breakthrough as a writer came in 1938 with his novel Nausea, which some critics feel is his best work. Based on the principle that man experiences a sensation of "nausea" when confronted with a meaningless and irrational universe, the novel was the genesis for a series of writings in which Sartre propounds similar ideas. The literary genres vary, but the ideas are the same.
Sartre was an extremely practical man in the sense of putting into practice his thoughts and ideas. He thought nothing of becoming involved in political rallies which supported his beliefs, and the meaning of "action," for him, would increasingly take on a capital importance in his works. This is particularly true in the works which he produced during the World War II era. Having been drafted into the French Army in 1939, Sartre was taken prisoner-of-war in 1940 with the fall of France. This experience was important for two reasons: (1) it sharpened his political position as a leftist thinker who decried the fascism that threatened Europe at that time, and (2) it provided the occasion for his first venture into playwriting; he wrote a Christmas play based on a biblical theme and addressed it to his fellow prisoners-of-war. He was released in 1941, and from that moment he committed himself firmly to the activities of the Resistance. In 1946, Sartre gave up teaching and devoted himself entirely to his writing; his busy schedule would no longer permit the drudgery of traditional employment.
Sartre's pre-war work is largely a defense of individual freedom and human dignity; in his post-war writing, he elaborates on these themes and strongly emphasizes the idea of social responsibility; this latter development was influenced by his growing admiration of Marxist thinking. In 1943, Sartre presented his first play, The Flies, as well as his monumental philosophical treatise, Being and Nothingness, both of which established him as one of France's most profound and gifted writers. A year later, he wrote No Exit, another attempt to reveal his ideas about freedom and the human condition.
As the leading French exponent of existentialism, Sartre was prepared to use any literary form or genre to communicate his ideas widely. The theater was a good way of doing this, but he also felt that the novel might also prove to be useful. So in 1945, he published the first two volumes of a proposed four-volume series entitled The Roads to Freedom. The first two volumes, The Age of Reason and The Reprieve, were the only ones which he completed until 1949, when he finished Iron in the Soul. At that time, he decided that the novel was not as effective a genre as the theater, so he abandoned plans to write a fourth installment. The years between volumes two and three were feverish ones for Sartre; he wrote plays (The Respectable Prostitute, 1946; The Chips are Down, 1947; and Dirty Hands, 1948), literary criticism, and a significant philosophical essay delivered originally as a lecture to the "Club Maintenant" (Existentialism Is a Humanism, 1946).
All of this work served to reinforce the basic principles of existential thought which Sartre had announced earlier, and it prepared him for a decade during which he again returned to the theater as a means of popularizing his ideas. He wanted to show humanity as it is, and he realized that the theater was the best place to demonstrate man in action, in dramatic circumstance, and in the midst of living. All of Sartre's plays show the raw passions of frustrated humankind — and although the plays sometime seem pessimistic, Sartre defended them vehemently on the grounds that they do not exclude the notion of salvation.
As an atheist and as a Marxist, Sartre often wrote about "scarcity" (la rareté) as a motivator of human progress. He believed, as we shall see elsewhere in these Notes, that commitment was essential for human freedom and dignity, and that commitment was "an act, not a word." He often went out into the streets to participate in riots and protests, selling leftist pamphlets and so on, in order to verify through action that he believed in the "revolution." The war had perhaps the greatest influence on his writings of the 1940s as Sartre moved progressively further to the left.
In 1960, he wrote the extremely dense and complicated Critique of Dialectical Reason, a political treatise which contains the essay "Search for a Method." This essay rivals, and even surpasses, the complexity of Being and Nothingness, but it is of interest today mostly to students of political science and philosophy.
In 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for his literary achievements. His autobiographical work, The Words, was hailed by readers and critics alike as being "one of the most remarkable books of the twentieth century" (Washington Star). But Sartre refused the Nobel Prize, eschewing it as a cultural symbol with which he did not wish to be associated.
The last years of Sartre's life were consumed with his work on Flaubert, the nineteenth-century French novelist. He sought to present a "total biography" of Flaubert through the use of Marx's ideas on history and class as well as of Freud's explorations of the psyche. At Sartre's death in 1980, only three of the proposed four volumes had been completed.
Sartre was one of the most substantial thinkers and writers of the twentieth century and will remain known for his tireless contributions to existentialism. Time will decide whether or not his plays are to survive, but regardless of their interest to future readers and/or spectators, they will always hold value as poignant illustrations of Sartre's philosophy. By writing them, he chose to create visual pictures, containing his philosophical ideas, for audiences to hear and see.
Sartre's Major Works
1936 Imagination: A Psychological Critique
1939 "The Wall" (in Intimacy); "The Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions"
1940 The Psychology of Imagination
1943 The Flies; Being and Nothingness
1944 No Exit
1945 The Age of Reason (first volume of trilogy: The Roads to Freedom); The Reprieve (second volume of trilogy)
1946 The Respectful Prostitute Existentialism and Humanism The Victors (Morts sans sépulchre)
1947 The Chips Are Down (Les Jeux sont faits) What Is Literature? Baudelaire Situations I
1948 Dirty Hands Situations II
1949 Iron in the Soul (often translated as Troubled Sleep; third volume of trilogy); Situations III
1951 The Devil and the Good Lord
1952 Saint Genet: Comédien et Martyr
1959 The Condemned of Altona
1960 Critique of Dialectical Reason (containing "Search for a Method")
1963 The Words
1971 Flaubert (Vols. 1 & 2)
1972 Flaubert (Vol. 3: The Family Idiot)