Jean-Paul Sartre

Who was Jean-Paul Sartre?

Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre (1905-1980) was the icon of twentieth century existentialism. Popular versions of his ideas gave existentialism its dark glamour of atheistic, nihilistic, cigarette-smoking, absinth-drinking, cafe-frequenting, French intellectuals, arguing about ideas, and practicing "free love." Sartre himself smoked a pipe, was short, stocky, near-sighted, and wall-eyed. He was well known by his contemporaries for his work in the French resistance against the Nazis, and later on, for his Marxism and opposition to the Vietnam conflict. Sartre refused to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 on the grounds of his political objections to the bourgeois militaristic culture that made such a prize possible.

Sartre's main existentialist works consisted of numerous plays and essays; the novel Nausea (1938); and the philosophical works The Imagination (1936), The Transcendence of the Ego (1937), and Being and Nothingness (1943). His Marxism was developed in the uncompleted, three-volume work The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1958-1959).

What was Jean-Paul Sartre's version of existentialism?

Sartre was an atheist, so he began with the premise that man is alone in the world and there is no higher power. There is no fixed human nature because man is the inventor

Jean-Paul Sartre was the icon of twentieth century existentialism (Art Archive).

Jean-Paul Sartre was the icon of twentieth century existentialism (Art Archive).

of the very idea of nature: "man makes himself." This ability to make oneself is accompanied by a responsibility for what one makes and it leads to considerable anguish because one must choose what to be on one's own. The living human being is always in a situation of varying degrees of difficulty from which there is no escape.

Others are also present in one's life, of course, and they have the same kind of freedoms you do, which renders cooperative and lastingly loving human relationships extremely difficult. One can never fully see the other as he or she is to himself or herself. Because others are in the same situation, the net effect is that "hell is other people." Sartre's view of intimate relationships was bleak because the person desired always eludes being the object desired. The desired person can never fully become an object because he or she has their own freedom.

To accept one's freedom and one's situation, or "facticity," are both necessary in order to be in "good faith." The person who lives in bad faith either denies his own freedom and responsibility or denies the reality of his situation. Everything is chosen, even emotions that carry one to extremes, or insanity. Even the most difficult situation, which one has not chosen, does not negate one's freedom. It is the individual who gives the situation the meaning it has for him or her as a difficult situation. With a gun to one's head, for instance, one still has the choice of whether or not to live.

What was Jean-Paul Sartre's basis for his idea of freedom?

Sartre argued that freedom was inherent in the very structure of human consciousness. To be conscious is to be free. Consciousness has no prior cause but is a spontaneous upsurge. Consciousness is nothing in itself, because it is always aware of something other than itself. Consciousness is freedom. Thus, consciousness is not a thing in itself. Sartre called consciousness the "for-itself," or pour-soi, and everything else is the "in-itself," or en-soi. At first glance, his division of the human cosmos into for-itself and in-itself resembles René Descartes' (1596-1650) doctrine of mental and physical substance, but Sartre went beyond Descartes' idea of the "mental substance."

For Sartre, as his hero in Nausea (1938) discovers in the course of a research project, even a person's past meritorious acts or traits of character have the status of en-soi. It is a form of bad faith, for example, to pretend that one is determined to fulfill his or her duty because that is how he or she was raised, or that one's laziness makes

Was Jean-Paul Sartre Jewish?

This question is deeply imbedded in the disputes among Sartre's closest followers that followed his death. Their disputes were not so much matters of philosophy as they were a competition for who would inherit Sarte's legacy and be able to speak for him after his death. According to Benny Levy, a former Maoist who had been Sartre's secretary for several years and transcribed 40 hours of taped conversations in Hope Now: The 1980 Interviews (1996), Sartre expressed hope for the coming of the Messiah.

disciplined work impossible. People are responsible for allowing their own background, weaknesses, or strengths to be motives for action in the immediate present.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >