Jean-Paul Sartre


Jean-Paul Sartre : biography

21 June 1905 – 15 April 1980

Sartre died 15 April 1980 in Paris from edema of the lung. He lies buried in Cimetière de Montparnasse in Paris. His funeral was well attended, with estimates of the number of mourners along the two hour march ranging from 15,000 to over 50,000.

Career as public intellectual

While the broad focus of Sartre’s life revolved around the notion of human freedom, he began a sustained intellectual participation in more public matters in 1945. Prior to this—before the Second World War—he was content with the role of an apolitical liberal intellectual: "Now teaching at a lycée in Laon […] Sartre made his headquarters the Dome café at the crossing of Montparnasse and Raspail boulevards. He attended plays, read novels, and dined [with] women. He wrote. And he was published".Gerassi 1989: 134 Sartre and his lifelong companion, de Beauvoir, existed, in her words, where "the world about us was a mere backdrop against which our private lives were played out".de Beauvoir 1958: 339

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",Sartre 1942: 13 though he realized that without "responsibility for my own existence, it would seem utterly absurd to go on existing".Sartre 1942: 14 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".Aronson 1980: 108 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,Aronson, Ronald (2004). Camus & Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It. University of Chicago Press. p. 30. ISBN 0-226-02796-1, ISBN 978-0-226-02796-8. 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".Thody 1964: 21

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.Aronson 1980: 10 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".Kirsner 2003: 13 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".Scriven 1999: xii