Sartre`s Existentialism Jean-Paul Sartre . . . the name is one of the most popular in modern philosophy. But who was he? What did he write and what were his works about? What was his role with regard to Existentialism? What is Existentialism, really? What life influences affected the person as whom he became famous? How would Sartre assess various social topics that we face today? What are the problems with Sartre’s view of Existentialism and existence in general? These are the questions addressed in the following pages of this brief dissertation.
His life Upon reviewing several sources, it is apparent that Sartre was a very disorganized and inconsistent individual. Sartre was obsessed with his intellect to the point of abandon of all else in his life – personal hygiene, honesty, organization, thoroughness, and more. It seems that he felt he was of superior intelligence in comparison to all others who surrounded him. He was not necessarily a great and original thinker, but rather a superb media sensation of sorts. Rather than developing Existentialist thought, he merely promoted it to amazing popularity through his eccentric lifestyle.
Although he is best known for his association with Existentialism, it is interesting to note that he denounced its principles later in life and adopted Marxism, which he also later denounced. Jean-Paul-Charles-Aymard Sartre was born in Paris on June 21, 1905, the only child of Anne-Marie Schweitzer Sartre and Jean-Baptiste Sartre. Anne-Marie was the first cousin of Albert Schweitzer, the famed Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and the daughter of Karl Schweitzer, who had published texts on religion, philosophy, and languages. Jean-Baptiste was the son of Eymard Sartre, a doctor who had written several medical texts. Although his philosophy would deny it, it may have been fated that Jean-Paul would himself become a famous writer; it was in his genes. Jean-Baptiste and Anne-Marie were deeply in love. They married on May 5, 1904.
Jean-Baptiste was enlisted in the French Navy and was away on an assignment when Jean-Paul was born 13 months later. Sadly, hardly more than a year after the birth of their son, Jean-Baptiste had returned home from China in November only to fall ill in March and die on September 17, 1906. After the death of Jean-Baptiste, Anne-Marie moved herself and her young son into her father’s house, the Schweitzer home. Karl Schweitzer was a strict and domineering man and the year the two spent living there affected Sartre’s life forever. His mother kept his hair long and dressed him in effeminate clothing, probably as a means of escaping the oppressive nature of her father.
Schweitzer, however, disgusted by the child’s appearance, took him to the barber one day and had his hair cut. Jean-Paul’s ugliness then became apparent. Without the cloak of long hair and frilly clothes, his short stature, one eye that looked askance (from a juvenile illness), and awkward appearance were undeniable, even to his mother. He was ostracized by other children for his appearance. He was an outcast. At the age of eight he began to write scripts when he received puppets from his mom. Children tolerated him in order to be entertained by his shows.
He basked in the attention. He began a pattern of outrageous behavior that it seems he believed would earn him popularity. Apparently it worked. In October of 1913, Eymard Sartre died and Jean-Paul fell under near complete control of the Schweitzers. When war broke out in 1914, it fascinated Sartre, and he wrote some short stories about it.
In 1915 Jean-Paul was enrolled at Lycee Henri IV, a highly regarded school. Here he found children he could relate to: intellectually stimulating and of his class level, children who could respect him for himself. Yet, even at this early age, it was apparent to his teachers that Jean-Paul did not hone any of his thoughts; his intelligence was apparent, but he merely skimmed over many subjects without delving into any in depth. His mother remarried when he was twelve, to the apparent disapproval of Jean-Paul. The new family moved to LaRochelle in 1917, but after Sartre got into trouble on several occasions, he was returned to Lycee Henri IV where he was a boarding student.
At this time he became close with Paul-Yves Nizan, a quiet and shy boy of considerable intellect. Where Sartre was disorganized, slovenly, and incomplete, Nizan was orderly, stylish, and thorough. Nizan was prone to fits of depression and drinking, to the fascination of Sartre. The two were nearly inseparable throughout college and beyond. In 1922 the two enrolled at Lycee Louis-le-Grand, one of the best preparatory schools of the time.
The two went on to enroll together at one of the best French Universities, the Ecole Normale Superieure, a companion school to the Sorbonne. Here he also became close with Raymond Aron, another influential friend who would challenge him intellectually. While in college, Nizan became very political on the side of French Communism and Marxism. Sartre ridiculed him for this. However, it was apparent that Sartre’s main goal at Ecole Normale Superieure was to become the smartest person among the highest of competition.
Jean-Paul met Simone-Camille Sans at a funeral for his cousin. The first “Simone” in his life, she was from the Toulouse region of France and so he nicknamed her thus. “Toulouse” turned out to be a little too wild even for him. Rumored to have participated in orgies and to have experimented with various drugs, eventually their relationship fizzled out and she became the mistress of a well-known French actor. Sartre continued to be a rabble-rouser at school and became known as somewhat of a revolutionary.
However, when he took his agregation exam (graduation examination), he placed fiftieth out of fifty – dead last. Although the failure was hard for Sartre, it was crucial to his life that he had to stay and study to retake the examination. It was then that he met Simone deBeauvior, the love of his life. The two studied together and matched wits intellectually, and upon the next test administration, he placed first and she placed second. This is how the two would be for life: one right after the other.
The relationship between Sartre and deBeauvoir was unusual and unconventional. The two never married and often had other lovers, but beyond a doubt they held each other in the highest esteem. Sartre served in the military for 18 months beginning in 1929. Afterward he taught at the lycee LeHavre. In 1933 he studied the lectures of Edmund Husserl, one of the greatest influences of his life.
In February of 1935 he experimented with mescaline and consequentially he had hallucinations for the remainder of the year. In 1938, his novel Nausea was published. After the start of World War II, Sartre was again drafted into military service. On June 21, 1940, he was captured. He was a prisoner of war until he escaped in March of 1941.
He then returned to his teaching post. While imprisoned, he wrote much of what was to become Being and Nothingness, possibly his most famous work. In 1943, his anti-Nazi play The Flies earned him much notoriety. By 1945 Sartre had become widely popular and Existentialism had become the hottest philosophy to study, much to the credit of his work. The term existentialism became ingrained with pop culture, but as this happened, Sartre slowly began to disassociate himself with the philosophy which had earned him so much acclaim. In 1960, Sartre published The Critique of Dialectical Reason in support of Marxism.
In 1964 he was offered the Nobel Prize for literature, but he refused it on “political” grounds. Sartre became the frontman of sorts for all types of student rebellion …