Born on June 21, 1905, in Paris, France, Jean-Paul Sartre was a pioneering intellectual and proponent of existentialism who championed leftist causes in France and other countries. He wrote a number of books, including the highly influential Being and Nothingness, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964, though he turned it down. He had a relationship with noted intellectual Simone de Beauvoir.
Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre was the only child of Jean-Baptiste Sartre, a naval officer, and Anne-Marie Schweitzer. Sartre lost his father in infancy. After her husband’s death, Anne-Marie moved back to her parents' house in Meudon to raise her son.
As a young man, Sartre became interested in philosophy after reading Henri Bergson’s essay “Time and Free Will.” He earned a doctorate in philosophy in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure, absorbing ideas from Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Husserl and Heidegger, among others.
In 1929 at the École Normale, he met Simone de Beauvoir, a student at the Sorbonne who went on to become a celebrated philosopher, writer and feminist. The two became lifelong companions, though they were not monogamous. Sartre and de Beauvoir, a feminist and philosopher, challenged the cultural and social expectations of their respective "bourgeois" backgrounds. The conflict between oppressive conformity and authenticity, which the pair openly addressed and confronted in their personal lives, became the dominant theme of Sartre's early career.
World War II and Politics
In 1939, Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist. He was captured by German troops in 1940 and spent nine months as a prisoner of war. Given civilian status in 1941, he was able to secure a teaching position at Lycée Pasteur, outside of Paris.
Upon returning to the city, Sartre participated with a number of other writers in the founding of the underground group Socialisme et Liberté. The group soon dissolved, and Sartre decided to write rather than participating in active resistance. Within a short time, he published Being and Nothingness, The Flies and No Exit, the existentialist works that would make him a household name. Sartre drew directly from his wartime experience in his work. After the liberation of Paris, he wrote Anti-Semite and Jew, in which he attempted to explain the concept of hatred by analyzing anti-Semitism.
Sartre prized his role as a public intellectual. After World War II, he emerged as a politically engaged activist. He was an outspoken opponent of French rule in Algeria. He embraced Marxism and visited Cuba, meeting with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. He opposed the Vietnam War and participated in a tribunal intended to expose U.S. war crimes in 1967. Sartre also continued to write. His major publication after 1955, the Critique de la raison dialectique (Critique of Dialectical Reason), appeared in 1960.
Later Life and Death
In 1964, Sartre renounced literature in an account of the first 10 years of his life. Literature, he explained, functioned ultimately as a bourgeois substitute for real commitment in the world. In October 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He declined the prize, becoming the first Nobel Laureate to do so.
Sartre’s principled mode of living involved few possessions. He remained actively committed to humanitarian and political causes until the end of his life, including participation in the Paris demonstrations of 1968.
Sartre's physical condition deteriorated in the 1970s, and he became almost completely blind in 1973. He died in Paris on April 15, 1980, from pulmonary edema. Jean-Paul Sartre is buried at Montparnasse Cemetery; he shares a grave with life-long partner Simone de Beauvoir.
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