Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre

Jean Paul Sartre is an existentialist philosopher, author, playwright, and a political activist.  He was born in June 1905 in Paris, France.  His father was an officer in the French Navy, but died when Jean Paul was only 15 months old.  His mother, Anne-Marie, then raised him from her parent’s house in Meudon.  His grandfather was a professor of german, who introduced Jean Paul to classical literature.  At the age of 12 Jean Paul’s mother remarried and they moved to La Rochelle, where Jean Paul was unsocial and bullied.  Although being interested in literature from a young age, it was not until Jean Paul read “Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness” by Henri Bergson that he became interested in philosophy.  Jean Paul then studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure where he received a doctorate.  While in school he met philosopher, author, and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir.  They became intimate and lifelong friends.  Jean Paul served in the French army from 1929 to 1931.  When he returned he began to teach.  Jean Paul was drafted back into the army during WWII and captured in Germany, he was imprisoned for a year.

When he returned to Paris he joined the resistance, and founded the underground group “Socialisme et Liberté”.   He also wrote for magazines, newspapers and political reviews, he devoted himself to political activism through writing.  Albert Camus asserted that “Sartre was a writer who resisted, not a resistor who wrote” (Wikipedia) when he was criticized.  Throughout this time Sartre tried to fit existentialism, Marxism, and communism together (although he was never officially of the communist party).  Existentialists believe that the life is what you make it.  It has the value that you give it, there is no higher power giving you meaning.  In fact, atheism is assumed.  Marxism focuses on the conflicts between the social classes and incorporates capitalism.

In the 1940s Jean Paul published many of his most well known works.  “Being and Nothingness” or “L’etre et le neant” which argues that the appearance of something is our only reality, and “Dirty Hands” or “Les Mains Sales” addressed the issues accompanying being both an intellectual and a political activist, “Existentialism and Humanism” or “L’existentialisme est un humanisme”.  In the later 1940s he wrote a well known trilogy of novels based on his war experiences titled “The Roads to Freedom” or “Les Chemins de la Liberté”.

            “Critique of Dialectical Reason” or “Critique de la raison dialectique” is one of Jean Paul’s major works from 1960; this is a defense of Marxism.  Jean Paul travelled to Cuba to meet Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.  Jean Paul was very impressed by Guevara, professing him “the era’s most perfect man” (Wikipedia).  In 1964 Jean Paul was awarded the Nobel Prize, which he turned down because he didn’t want it to change him.  He wanted to be left more to himself, but he was famous by this time, so it must have been hard for him in the end.  In 1967 Jean Paul helped organize the Russell Tribunal, whose goal was to expose US war crimes.  In 1973 he lost his eyesight.  He died of edema of the lung in Paris in 1980.


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About mlleminor

Instructor in MCL French Division at the University of Kentucky
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