October 22, 2012
Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris on June 21, 1905.
His father died when he was two, and he lived with grandfather who taught him German, mathematics and classical literature, until his mother remarried and they moved to the west coast of France.
Sartre would have been nine when World War I erupted on July 28, 1914 and then watched as the German armies were finally halted on the banks of the Marne River, at the outskirts of Paris, six weeks later. He moved to the coast with his mother when he was 12. Nearly 4.5 percent of the French population died during the war.
Sartre was attracted to the musings of philosophers from an early age, and he received a degree in philosophy from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Though he might be more remembered for his pranks than his scholastic performance. In 1929, while still at the Normale, Sartre met and began his lifelong relationship with the decidedly independent Simone de Beauvoir, who was studying at the Sorbonne; they never married, were not monogamous, and they deliberately flaunted traditional behaviors and values.
Sartre was a French army conscript from 1929-31, and then became a professor of philosophy. He taught at Le Havre (where he wrote his first novel), Laon, and at the Lycée Pasteur in Paris until 1939.
As a second war with Germany dawned, Sartre was drafted into the French army, where he served as a meteorologist until he was captured by German troops in 1940. He spent nine months as a prisoner of war, and while in Stalag 12D, began to write extensively.
His first inquiry, published in 1943, was “Being and Nothingness.” In 1948, the Catholic Church put his works on the Index of prohibited books.
Sartre became a prolific and popular author, writing screenplays, novels and short stories, and he became a prominent social critic through his literary and philosophical essays. His essays formed a central core of inquiry into existential philosophy. Which examines philosophical thought through an individual’s experiences, that understanding comes from “authentically” living, not just the academic understanding of moral truth and scientific thought.
The core of existentialism is that the necessity of being true to your own personality, understanding and character, which is the sum of your experiences and learning. That the meaning of your life is not determined until you live it. As his Nobel Prize biography summarizes, “Man is condemned to freedom, a freedom from all authority, which he may seek to evade, distort, and deny but which he will have to face if he is to become a moral being.”
On Oct. 22, 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He declined to accept the honor and the lucre accompanying it; the first to voluntarily decline the honor (he had done the same when awarded France’s Legion of Honor in 1945). Sartre, a Marxist, said he did not want to take part in the East versus West cultural wars.
When Sartre passed away on April 15, 1980, it was said, “the conscience of France has died.”