Who Is Jean-Paul Sartre?
Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre (21 June 1905 – 15 April 1980) was a French philosopher, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, political activist, biographer, and literary critic. He was one of the key figures in the philosophy of existentialism and phenomenology, and one of the leading figures in 20th-century French philosophy and Marxism. His work has also influenced sociology, critical theory, post-colonial theory, and literary studies, and continues to influence these disciplines.
Sartre was also noted for his open relationship with prominent feminist and fellow existentialist philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir. Together, Sartre and de Beauvoir challenged the cultural and social assumptions and expectations of their upbringings, which they considered bourgeois, in both lifestyle and thought. The conflict between oppressive, spiritually destructive conformity (mauvaise foi, literally, “bad faith”) and an “authentic” way of “being” became the dominant theme of Sartre’s early work, a theme embodied in his principal philosophical work Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le Néant, 1943). Sartre’s introduction to his philosophy is his work Existentialism Is a Humanism (L’existentialisme est un humanisme, 1946), originally presented as a lecture.
He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature despite attempting to refuse it, saying that he always declined official honours and that “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution”.
Jean-Paul Sartre was born on 21 June 1905 in Paris as the only child of Jean-Baptiste Sartre, an officer of the French Navy, and Anne-Marie (Schweitzer). His mother was of Alsatian origin and the first cousin of Nobel Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer, whose father Louis Théophile was the younger brother of Anne-Marie’s father. When Sartre was two years old, his father died of an illness, which he most likely contracted in Indochina. Anne-Marie moved back to her parents’ house in Meudon, where she raised Sartre with help from her father Charles Schweitzer, a teacher of German who taught Sartre mathematics and introduced him to classical literature at a very early age. When he was twelve, Sartre’s mother remarried, and the family moved to La Rochelle, where he was frequently bullied.
As a teenager in the 1920s, Sartre became attracted to philosophy upon reading Henri Bergson’s essay Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. He attended the Cours Hattemer, a private school in Paris. He studied and earned certificates in psychology, history of philosophy, logic, general philosophy, ethics and sociology, and physics, as well as his diplôme d’études supérieures(roughly equivalent to an MA thesis) in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure, an institution of higher education that was the alma mater for several prominent French thinkers and intellectuals. (His 1928 MA thesis under the title “L’Image dans la vie psychologique: rôle et nature” [“Image in Psychological Life: Role and Nature”] was supervised by Henri Delacroix.) It was at ENS that Sartre began his lifelong, sometimes fractious, friendship with Raymond Aron. Perhaps the most decisive influence on Sartre’s philosophical development was his weekly attendance at Alexandre Kojève’s seminars, which continued for a number of years.
From his first years in the École Normale, Sartre was one of its fiercest pranksters. In 1927, his antimilitarist satirical cartoon in the revue of the school, coauthored with Georges Canguilhem, particularly upset the director Gustave Lanson. In the same year, with his comrades Nizan, Larroutis, Baillou and Herland, he organized a media prank following Charles Lindbergh’s successful New York City–Paris flight; Sartre & Co. called newspapers and informed them that Lindbergh was going to be awarded an honorary École degree. Many newspapers, including Le Petit Parisien, announced the event on 25 May. Thousands, including journalists and curious spectators, showed up, unaware that what they were witnessing was a stunt involving a Lindbergh look-alike. The public’s resultant outcry forced Lanson to resign.
In 1929 at the École Normale, he met Simone de Beauvoir, who studied at the Sorbonne and later went on to become a noted philosopher, writer, and feminist. The two became inseparable and lifelong companions, initiating a romantic relationship, though they were not monogamous. The first time Sartre took the agrégation, he failed. He took it a second time and virtually tied for first place with Beauvoir, although Sartre was eventually awarded first place, with Beauvoir second.
Sartre was drafted into the French Army from 1939 to 1941 and served as a meteorologist for some time. He later argued in 1959 that each French person was responsible for the collective crimes during the Algerian War of Independence.
From 1931 until 1945, Sartre taught at various lycées of Le Havre (at the Lycée de Le Havre, the present-day Lycée François-Ier (Le Havre), 1931–36), Laon (at the Lycée de Laon, 1936–37), and, finally, Paris (at the Lycée Pasteur, 1937–39, and at the Lycée Condorcet, 1941–44; see below).
In 1932, Sartre discovered Voyage au bout de la nuit by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a book that had a remarkable influence on him.
In 1933–34, he succeeded Raymond Aron at the Institut français d’Allemagne in Berlin where he studied Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological philosophy. Aron had already advised him in 1930 to read Emmanuel Levinas’s Théorie de l’intuition dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (The Theory of Intuition in Husserl’s Phenomenology).
The Neo-Hegelian revival led by Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hyppolite in the 1930s inspired a whole generation of French thinkers, including Sartre, to discover Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.
World War II
In 1939 Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 in Padoux, and he spent nine months as a prisoner of war—in Nancy and finally in Stalag XII-D, Trier, where he wrote his first theatrical piece, Barionà, fils du tonnerre, a drama concerning Christmas. It was during this period of confinement that Sartre read Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, later to become a major influence on his own essay on phenomenological ontology. Because of poor health (he claimed that his poor eyesight and exotropia affected his balance) Sartre was released in April 1941. According to other sources, he escaped after a medical visit to the ophthalmologist. Given civilian status, he recovered his teaching position at Lycée Pasteur near Paris and settled at the Hotel Mistral. In October 1941 he was given a position, previously held by a Jewish teacher who had been forbidden to teach by Vichy law, at Lycée Condorcet in Paris.
In his essay “Paris under the Occupation”, Sartre wrote that the “correct” behaviour of the Germans had entrapped too many Parisians into complicity with the occupation, accepting what was unnatural as natural:
The Germans did not stride, revolver in hand, through the streets. They did not force civilians to make way for them on the pavement. They would offer seats to old ladies on the Metro. They showed great fondness for children and would pat them on the cheek. They had been told to behave correctly and being well-disciplined, they tried shyly and conscientiously to do so. Some of them even displayed a naive kindness which could find no practical expression.
Sartre noted when Wehrmacht soldiers asked Parisians politely in their German-accented French for directions, people usually felt embarrassed and ashamed as they tried their best to help out the Wehrmacht which led Sartre to remark “We could not be natural“. French was a language widely taught in German schools and most Germans could speak at least some French. Sartre himself always found it difficult when a Wehrmacht soldier asked him for directions, usually saying he did not know where it was that the soldier wanted to go, but still felt uncomfortable as the very act of speaking to the Wehrmacht meant he had been complicit in the Occupation. Ousby wrote: “But, in however humble a fashion, everyone still had to decide how they were going to cope with life in a fragmenting society … So Sartre’s worries … about how to react when a German soldier stopped him in the street and asked politely for directions were not as fussily inconsequential as they might sound at first. They were emblematic of how the dilemmas of the Occupation presented themselves in daily life”. Sartre wrote the very “correctness” of the Germans caused moral corruption in many people who used the “correct” behavior of the Germans as an excuse for passivity, and the very act of simply trying to live one’s day-to-day existence without challenging the occupation aided the “New Order in Europe”, which depended upon the passivity of ordinary people to accomplish its goals.
Throughout the occupation, it was German policy to plunder France and food shortages were always a major problem as the majority of food from the French countryside went to Germany. Sartre wrote about the “languid existence” of the Parisians as people waited obsessively for the one weekly arrival of trucks bringing food from the countryside that the Germans allowed, writing: “Paris would grow peaked and yawn with hunger under the empty sky. Cut off from the rest of the world, fed only through the pity or some ulterior motive, the town led a purely abstract and symbolic life”. Sartre himself lived on a diet of rabbits sent to him by a friend of de Beauvior living in Anjou. The rabbits were usually in an advanced state of decay full of maggots, and despite being hungry, Sartre once threw out one rabbit as uneatable, saying it had more maggots in it than meat. Sartre also remarked that conversations at the Café de Flore between intellectuals had changed, as the fear that one of them might be a mouche (informer) or a writer of the corbeau (anonymous denunciatory letters) meant that no one really said what they meant anymore, imposing self-censorship. Sartre and his friends at the Café de Flore had reasons for their fear; by September 1940, the Abwehr alone had already recruited 32,000 French people to work as mouches while by 1942 the Paris Kommandantur was receiving an average of 1,500 letters/per day sent by the corbeaux.
Sartre wrote under the occupation Paris had become a “sham”, resembling the empty wine bottles displayed in shop windows as all of the wine had been exported to Germany, looking like the old Paris, but hollowed out, as what had made Paris special was gone. Paris had almost no cars on the streets during the occupation as the oil went to Germany while the Germans imposed a nightly curfew, which led Sartre to remark that Paris “was peopled by the absent”. Sartre also noted that people began to disappear under the occupation, writing:
One day you might phone a friend and the phone would ring for a long time in an empty flat. You would go round and ring the doorbell, but no-one would answer it. If the concierge forced the door, you would find two chairs standing close together in the hall with the fag-ends of German cigarettes on the floor between their legs. If the wife or mother of the man who had vanished had been present at his arrest, she would tell you that he had been taken away by very polite Germans, like those who asked the way in the street. And when she went to ask what had happened to them at the offices in the Avenue Foch or the Rue des Saussaies she would be politely received and sent away with comforting words” [No. 11 Rue des Saussaies was the headquarters of the Gestapo in Paris].
Sartre wrote the feldgrau (“field grey”) uniforms of the Wehrmacht and the green uniforms of the Order Police which had seemed so alien in 1940 had become accepted, as people were numbed into accepting what Sartre called “a pale, dull green, unobtrusive strain, which the eye almost expected to find among the dark clothes of the civilians”. Under the occupation, the French often called the Germans les autres (“the others”), which inspired Sartre’s aphorism in his play Huis clos (“No Exit”) of “l’enfer, c’est les Autres” (“Hell is other people”). Sartre intended the line “l’enfer, c’est les Autres” at least in part to be a dig at the German occupiers.
After August 1944 and the Liberation of Paris, he wrote Anti-Semite and Jew. In the book he tries to explain the etiology of “hate” by analyzing antisemitic hate. Sartre was a very active contributor to Combat, a newspaper created during the clandestine period by Albert Camus, a philosopher and author who held similar beliefs. Sartre and de Beauvoir remained friends with Camus until 1951, with the publication of Camus’s The Rebel. Later, while Sartre was labeled by some authors as a resistant, the French philosopher and resistant Vladimir Jankelevitch criticized Sartre’s lack of political commitment during the German occupation, and interpreted his further struggles for liberty as an attempt to redeem himself. According to Camus, Sartre was a writer who resisted; not a resister who wrote.
In 1945, after the war ended, Sartre moved to an apartment on the rue Bonaparte which was where he was to produce most of his subsequent work, and where he lived until 1962. It was from there that he helped establish a quarterly literary and political review, Les Temps modernes (Modern Times), in part to popularize his thought. He ceased teaching and devoted his time to writing and political activism. He would draw on his war experiences for his great trilogy of novels, Les Chemins de la Liberté (The Roads to Freedom) (1945–1949).
Cold War politics and anticolonialism
If we want French civilization to survive, it must be fitted into the framework of a great European civilization. Why? I have said that civilization is the reflection on a shared situation. In Italy, in France, in Benelux, in Sweden, in Norway, in Germany, in Greece, in Austria, everywhere we find the same problems and the same dangers … But this cultural polity has prospects only as elements of a policy which defends Europe’s cultural autonomy vis-à-vis America and the Soviet Union, but also its political and economic autonomy, with the aim of making Europe a single force between the blocs, not a third bloc, but an autonomous force which will refuse to allow itself to be torn into shreds between American optimism and Russian scientificism.
About the Korean War, Sartre wrote: “I have no doubt that the South Korean feudalists and the American imperialists have promoted this war. But I do not doubt either that it was begun by the North Koreans”. In July 1950, Sartre wrote in Les Temps Modernes about his and de Beauvoir’s attitude to the Soviet Union:
As we were neither members of the [Communist] party nor its avowed sympathizers, it was not our duty to write about Soviet labor camps; we were free to remain aloof from the quarrel over the nature of this system, provided that no events of sociological significance had occurred.
Sartre held that the Soviet Union was a “revolutionary” state working for the betterment of humanity and could be criticized only for failing to live up to its own ideals, but that critics had to take in mind that the Soviet state needed to defend itself against a hostile world; by contrast Sartre held that the failures of “bourgeois” states were due to their innate shortcomings. The Swiss journalist François Bondy wrote that, based on a reading of Sartre’s numerous essays, speeches and interviews “a simple basic pattern never fails to emerge: social change must be comprehensive and revolutionary” and the parties that promote the revolutionary charges “may be criticized, but only by those who completely identify themselves with its purpose, its struggle and its road to power”, deeming Sartre’s position to be “existentialist”.
While a Marxist, Sartre attacked what he saw as abuses of freedom and human rights by the Soviet Union. In 1954, Sartre visited the Soviet Union, which he stated he found a “complete freedom of criticism” while condemning the United States for sinking into “prefascism”. Sartre wrote about those Soviet writers expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union “still had the opportunity of rehabilitating themselves by writing better books”. He was one of the first French journalists to expose the existence of the labor camps, and vehemently opposed the invasion of Hungary, Russian anti-Semitism, and the execution of dissidents. About the Hungarian revolt of 1956, Sartre wrote: “In spite of everything, the Rakosi regime stood for socialization. Only it did it badly and that is worse than not to do so at all”. Sartre came to admire the Polish leader Władysław Gomułka, a man who favored a “Polish road to socialism” and wanted more independence for Poland, but was loyal to the Soviet Union because of the Oder-Neisse line issue. Sartre’s newspaper Les Temps Modernes devoted a number of special issues in 1957 and 1958 to Poland under Gomułka, praising him for his reforms. Bondy wrote of the notable contradiction between Sarte’s “ultra Bolshevism” as he expressed admiration for the Chinese leader Mao Zedong as the man who led the oppressed masses of the Third World into revolution while also praising more moderate Communist leaders like Gomułka.
As an anti-colonialist, Sartre took a prominent role in the struggle against French rule in Algeria, and the use of torture and concentration camps by the French in Algeria. He became an eminent supporter of the FLN in the Algerian War and was one of the signatories of the Manifeste des 121. Consequently, Sartre became a domestic target of the paramilitary Organisation armée secrète (OAS), escaping two bomb attacks in the early ’60s. (He had an Algerian mistress, Arlette Elkaïm, who became his adopted daughter in 1965.) He opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and, along with Bertrand Russell and others, organized a tribunal intended to expose U.S. war crimes, which became known as the Russell Tribunal in 1967.
Sartre went to Cuba in the 1960s to meet Fidel Castro and spoke with Ernesto “Che” Guevara. After Guevara’s death, Sartre would declare him to be “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age” and the “era’s most perfect man”. Sartre would also compliment Guevara by professing that “he lived his words, spoke his own actions and his story and the story of the world ran parallel”. However he stood against the persecution of gays by Castro’s régime, which he compared to Nazi persecution of the Jews, and said: “In Cuba there are no Jews, but there are homosexuals”.
During a collective hunger strike in 1974, Sartre visited Red Army Faction member Andreas Baader in Stammheim Prison and criticized the harsh conditions of imprisonment.
Towards the end of his life, Sartre began to describe himself as a “special kind” of anarchist.
Late life and death
In 1975, when asked how he would like to be remembered, Sartre replied:
I would like [people] to remember Nausea, [my plays] No Exit and The Devil and the Good Lord, and then my two philosophical works, more particularly the second one, Critique of Dialectical Reason. Then my essay on Genet, Saint Genet. … If these are remembered, that would be quite an achievement, and I don’t ask for more. As a man, if a certain Jean-Paul Sartre is remembered, I would like people to remember the milieu or historical situation in which I lived, … how I lived in it, in terms of all the aspirations which I tried to gather up within myself.
Sartre’s physical condition deteriorated, partially because of the merciless pace of work (and the use of amphetamine) he put himself through during the writing of the Critique and a massive analytical biography of Gustave Flaubert (The Family Idiot), both of which remained unfinished. He suffered from hypertension, and became almost completely blind in 1973. Sartre was a notorious chain smoker, which could also have contributed to the deterioration of his health.
Sartre died on 15 April 1980 in Paris from edema of the lung. He had not wanted to be buried at Père-Lachaise Cemetery between his mother and stepfather, so it was arranged that he be buried at Montparnasse Cemetery. At his funeral on Saturday, 19 April, 50,000 Parisians descended onto boulevard du Montparnasse to accompany Sartre’s cortege. The funeral started at “the hospital at 2:00 p.m., then filed through the fourteenth arrondissement, past all Sartre’s haunts, and entered the cemetery through the gate on the Boulevard Edgar Quinet”. Sartre was initially buried in a temporary grave to the left of the cemetery gate. Four days later the body was disinterred for cremation at Père-Lachaise Cemetery, and his ashes were reburied at the permanent site in Montparnasse Cemetery, to the right of the cemetery gate.
Sartre’s primary idea is that people, as humans, are “condemned to be free”. This theory relies upon his position that there is no creator, and is illustrated using the example of the paper cutter. Sartre says that if one considered a paper cutter, one would assume that the creator would have had a plan for it: an essence. Sartre said that human beings have no essence before their existence because there is no Creator. Thus: “existence precedes essence”. This forms the basis for his assertion that because one cannot explain one’s own actions and behavior by referring to any specific human nature, they are necessarily fully responsible for those actions. “We are left alone, without excuse.” “We can act without being determined by our past which is always separated from us.”
Sartre maintained that the concepts of authenticity and individuality have to be earned but not learned. We need to experience “death consciousness” so as to wake up ourselves as to what is really important; the authentic in our lives which is life experience, not knowledge. Death draws the final point when we as beings cease to live for ourselves and permanently become objects that exist only for the outside world. In this way death emphasizes the burden of our free, individual existence.
As a junior lecturer at the Lycée du Havre in 1938, Sartre wrote the novel La Nausée (Nausea), which serves in some ways as a manifesto of existentialism and remains one of his most famous books. Taking a page from the German phenomenological movement, he believed that our ideas are the product of experiences of real-life situations, and that novels and plays can well describe such fundamental experiences, having equal value to discursive essays for the elaboration of philosophical theories such as existentialism. With such purpose, this novel concerns a dejected researcher (Roquentin) in a town similar to Le Havre who becomes starkly conscious of the fact that inanimate objects and situations remain absolutely indifferent to his existence. As such, they show themselves to be resistant to whatever significance human consciousness might perceive in them.
He also took inspiration from phenomenologist epistemology, explained by Franz Adler in this way: “Man chooses and makes himself by acting. Any action implies the judgment that he is right under the circumstances not only for the actor, but also for everybody else in similar circumstances.”
This indifference of “things in themselves” (closely linked with the later notion of “being-in-itself” in his Being and Nothingness) has the effect of highlighting all the more the freedom Roquentin has to perceive and act in the world; everywhere he looks, he finds situations imbued with meanings which bear the stamp of his existence. Hence the “nausea” referred to in the title of the book; all that he encounters in his everyday life is suffused with a pervasive, even horrible, taste—specifically, his freedom. The book takes the term from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where it is used in the context of the often nauseating quality of existence. No matter how much Roquentin longs for something else or something different, he cannot get away from this harrowing evidence of his engagement with the world.
The novel also acts as a terrifying realization of some of Immanuel Kant’s fundamental ideas about freedom; Sartre uses the idea of the autonomy of the will (that morality is derived from our ability to choose in reality; the ability to choose being derived from human freedom; embodied in the famous saying “Condemned to be free”) as a way to show the world’s indifference to the individual. The freedom that Kant exposed is here a strong burden, for the freedom to act towards objects is ultimately useless, and the practical application of Kant’s ideas proves to be bitterly rejected.
Also important is Sartre’s analysis of psychological concepts, including his suggestion that consciousness exists as something other than itself, and that the conscious awareness of things is not limited to their knowledge: for Sartre intentionality applies to the emotions as well as to cognitions, to desires as well as to perceptions. “When an external object is perceived, consciousness is also conscious of itself, even if consciousness is not its own object: it is a non-positional consciousness of itself.”
Career as public intellectual
Sartre portrayed his own pre-war situation in the character Mathieu, chief protagonist in The Age of Reason, which was completed during Sartre’s first year as a soldier in the Second World War. By forging Mathieu as an absolute rationalist, analyzing every situation, and functioning entirely on reason, he removed any strands of authentic content from his character and as a result, Mathieu could “recognize no allegiance except to [him]self”, though he realized that without “responsibility for my own existence, it would seem utterly absurd to go on existing”. Mathieu’s commitment was only to himself, never to the outside world. Mathieu was restrained from action each time because he had no reasons for acting. Sartre then, for these reasons, was not compelled to participate in the Spanish Civil War, and it took the invasion of his own country to motivate him into action and to provide a crystallization of these ideas. It was the war that gave him a purpose beyond himself, and the atrocities of the war can be seen as the turning point in his public stance.
The war opened Sartre’s eyes to a political reality he had not yet understood until forced into continual engagement with it: “the world itself destroyed Sartre’s illusions about isolated self-determining individuals and made clear his own personal stake in the events of the time.” Returning to Paris in 1941 he formed the “Socialisme et Liberté” resistance group. In 1943, after the group disbanded, Sartre joined a writers’ Resistance group, in which he remained an active participant until the end of the war. He continued to write ferociously, and it was due to this “crucial experience of war and captivity that Sartre began to try to build up a positive moral system and to express it through literature”.
The symbolic initiation of this new phase in Sartre’s work is packaged in the introduction he wrote for a new journal, Les Temps modernes, in October 1945. Here he aligned the journal, and thus himself, with the Left and called for writers to express their political commitment. Yet, this alignment was indefinite, directed more to the concept of the Left than a specific party of the Left.
Sartre’s philosophy lent itself to his being a public intellectual. He envisaged culture as a very fluid concept; neither pre-determined, nor definitely finished; instead, in true existential fashion, “culture was always conceived as a process of continual invention and re-invention.” This marks Sartre, the intellectual, as a pragmatist, willing to move and shift stance along with events. He did not dogmatically follow a cause other than the belief in human freedom, preferring to retain a pacifist’s objectivity. It is this overarching theme of freedom that means his work “subverts the bases for distinctions among the disciplines”. Therefore, he was able to hold knowledge across a vast array of subjects: “the international world order, the political and economic organisation of contemporary society, especially France, the institutional and legal frameworks that regulate the lives of ordinary citizens, the educational system, the media networks that control and disseminate information. Sartre systematically refused to keep quiet about what he saw as inequalities and injustices in the world.”
Sartre always sympathized with the Left, and supported the French Communist Party (PCF) until the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. Following the Liberation the PCF were infuriated by Sartre’s philosophy, which appeared to lure young French men and women away from the ideology of communism and into Sartre’s own existentialism. From 1956 onwards Sartre rejected the claims of the PCF to represent the French working classes, objecting to its “authoritarian tendencies”. In the late 1960s Sartre supported the Maoists, a movement that rejected the authority of established communist parties. However, despite aligning with the Maoists, Sartre said after the May events: “If one rereads all my books, one will realize that I have not changed profoundly, and that I have always remained an anarchist.” He would later explicitly allow himself to be called an anarchist.
In the aftermath of a war that had for the first time properly engaged Sartre in political matters, he set forth a body of work which “reflected on virtually every important theme of his early thought and began to explore alternative solutions to the problems posed there”. The greatest difficulties that he and all public intellectuals of the time faced were the increasing technological aspects of the world that were outdating the printed word as a form of expression. In Sartre’s opinion, the “traditional bourgeois literary forms remain innately superior”, but there is “a recognition that the new technological ‘mass media’ forms must be embraced” if Sartre’s ethical and political goals as an authentic, committed intellectual are to be achieved: the demystification of bourgeois political practices and the raising of the consciousness, both political and cultural, of the working class.
The struggle for Sartre was against the monopolising moguls who were beginning to take over the media and destroy the role of the intellectual. His attempts to reach a public were mediated by these powers, and it was often these powers he had to campaign against. He was skilled enough, however, to circumvent some of these issues by his interactive approach to the various forms of media, advertising his radio interviews in a newspaper column for example, and vice versa.
The role of a public intellectual can lead to the individual placing himself in danger as he engages with disputed topics. In Sartre’s case, this was witnessed in June 1961, when a plastic bomb exploded in the entrance of his apartment building. His public support of Algerian self-determination at the time had led Sartre to become a target of the campaign of terror that mounted as the colonists’ position deteriorated. A similar occurrence took place the next year and he had begun to receive threatening letters from Oran, Algeria.
Sartre wrote successfully in a number of literary modes and made major contributions to literary criticism and literary biography. His plays are richly symbolic and serve as a means of conveying his philosophy. The best-known, Huis-clos (No Exit), contains the famous line “L’enfer, c’est les autres”, usually translated as “Hell is other people.” Aside from the impact of Nausea, Sartre’s major work of fiction was The Roads to Freedom trilogy which charts the progression of how World War II affected Sartre’s ideas. In this way, Roads to Freedom presents a less theoretical and more practical approach to existentialism.
John Huston got Sartre to script his film Freud: The Secret Passion. However it was too long and Sartre withdrew his name from the film’s credits. Nevertheless, many key elements from Sartre’s script survive in the finished film.
Despite their similarities as polemicists, novelists, adapters, and playwrights, Sartre’s literary work has been counterposed, often pejoratively, to that of Camus in the popular imagination. In 1948 the Roman Catholic Church placed Sartre’s oeuvre on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books).
Some philosophers argue that Sartre’s thought is contradictory. Specifically, they believe that Sartre makes metaphysical arguments despite his claim that his philosophical views ignore metaphysics. Herbert Marcuse criticized Being and Nothingness for projecting anxiety and meaninglessness onto the nature of existence itself: “Insofar as Existentialism is a philosophical doctrine, it remains an idealistic doctrine: it hypostatizes specific historical conditions of human existence into ontological and metaphysical characteristics. Existentialism thus becomes part of the very ideology which it attacks, and its radicalism is illusory.” In Letter on Humanism, Heidegger criticized Sartre’s existentialism:
Existentialism says existence precedes essence. In this statement he is taking existentia and essentia according to their metaphysical meaning, which, from Plato’s time on, has said that essentia precedes existentia. Sartre reverses this statement. But the reversal of a metaphysical statement remains a metaphysical statement. With it, he stays with metaphysics, in oblivion of the truth of Being.
The philosophers Richard Wollheim and Thomas Baldwin have argued that Sartre’s attempt to show that Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious is mistaken was based on a misinterpretation of Freud. Richard Webster considers Sartre one of many modern thinkers who have reconstructed Judaeo-Christian orthodoxies in secular form.
Intellectuals associated with the political right allege that Sartre’s politics are indicative of authoritarianism. Brian C. Anderson denounced Sartre as an apologist for tyranny and terror and a supporter of Stalinism, Maoism, and Castro’s regime in Cuba. The historian Paul Johnson asserted that Sartre’s ideas had inspired the Khmer Rouge leadership: “The events in Cambodia in the 1970s, in which between one-fifth and one-third of the nation was starved to death or murdered, were entirely the work of a group of intellectuals, who were for the most part pupils and admirers of Jean-Paul Sartre – ‘Sartre’s Children’ as I call them.”
Sartre, who stated in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth that, “To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remains a dead man and a free man”, has been criticized by Anderson and Michael Walzer for supporting the killing of European civilians by the FLN during the Algerian War. Walzer suggests that Sartre, a European, was a hypocrite for not volunteering to be killed.
The critic, poet, essayist and philosopher Clive James excoriated Sartre in his book of mini biographies Cultural Amnesia (2007). James attacks Sartre’s philosophy as being “all a pose”.
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