Jean Paul Sartre had a great influence on many areas of modern thought. A writer of prodigious brilliance and originality, Sartre worked in many different genres: as a philosopher, a novelist, and a cultural critic.
Sartre is one of the key figures in the philosophy of Existentialism, which emphasises the existence of the individual or human subject who faces existential angst in an apparently absurd world. He is credited for revivifying and popularising Existentialism to the world after it had remained quite stagnant since the death of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
It was no accident that his philosophy reached a wide public for the first time during the immediate aftermath of World War Two, France was an exhausted country and Sartre’s ideas brought a message of hope, the old frameworks of value on which people lived on were collapsing, including family values and Christian beliefs. Sartre saw that people were starting to take responsibility for their actions and for him this was a great opportunity for his philosophy.
Sartre was born in Paris, in 1905. The only child of his father, an officer of the French Navy, who died when he was just two years old. He was raised by his mother Anne-Marie, whom he was very fond of and his grandfather Charles Schweitzer, who introduced Sartre to classical literature at an early age.
As a teenager, he was frequently bullied, in part for having a strabismus in his right eye, a problem with eye alignment. He was also very short, standing at around 5 feet tall in his adulthood, he felt that he had an ugly physically appearance and focused all his energy on his mind.
He studied philosophy and psychology at the École Normale Supérieure, one of the most prestigious graduate schools in Paris that was the alma mater for several prominent French thinkers and intellectuals.
He quickly developed a reputation as an unconventional bohemian figure. The student who came second to him in their final philosophy exams was the writer Simone de Beauvoir, a prominent feminist and fellow existentialist philosopher. The two became inseparable and lifelong companions, initiating a romantic relationship, although it was quite open and they were not monogamous.
Sartre served as a meteorologist in World War Two and was captured by German troops, spending nine months in prison. During this time, he read Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and was greatly influenced by it.
Sartre was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, but he declined it. He was the first Nobel laureate to voluntarily decline the prize. He was horrified by the idea of being incorporated into the establishment.
By this time, Sartre had become a household name. He was often seen frequenting cafés where he wrote while he chatted with his colleagues. He remained a simple man with few possessions and was actively committed as an activist, taking part in various strikes.
On one occasion he was arrested for civil disobedience. French president Charles de Gaulle intervened and pardoned him, saying that “you don’t arrest Voltaire”.
Although Sartre spend much of his later life trying to reconcile the individualist philosophy of Existentialism with the collective vision of Marxism, ending up in a sort of anarchism, we’ll be focusing on thoughts of the Existentialist Sartre, not his later controversial political life.
We’ll be exploring his main ideas which include: Nausea, the Absurdity of the World, Existence precedes Essence, Freedom, Bad Faith, The Look and Hell is Other People, among others.
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