Jean-Paul Sartre Essay, Research Paper
Jean-Paul Sartre and Existentialism
Jean-Paul Sartre . . . the name is one of the most popular in modern philosophy. But who was he? What did he write and what were his works about? What was his role with regard to Existentialism? What is Existentialism, really? What life influences affected the person as whom he became famous? How would Sartre assess various social topics that we face today? What are the problems with Sartre’s view of Existentialism and existence in general? These are the questions addressed in the following pages of this brief dissertation.
Upon reviewing several sources, it is apparent that Sartre was a very disorganized and inconsistent individual. Sartre was obsessed with his intellect to the point of abandon of all else in his life – personal hygiene, honesty, organization, thoroughness, and more. It seems that he felt he was of superior intelligence in comparison to all others who surrounded him. He was not necessarily a great and original thinker, but rather a superb media sensation of sorts. Rather than developing Existentialist thought, he merely promoted it to amazing popularity through his eccentric lifestyle. Although he is best known for his association with Existentialism, it is interesting to note that he denounced its principles later in life and adopted Marxism, which he also later denounced.
Jean-Paul-Charles-Aymard Sartre was born in Paris on June 21, 1905, the only child of Anne-Marie Schweitzer Sartre and Jean-Baptiste Sartre. Anne-Marie was the first cousin of Albert Schweitzer, the famed Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and the daughter of Karl Schweitzer, who had published texts on religion, philosophy, and languages. Jean-Baptiste was the son of Eymard Sartre, a doctor who had written several medical texts. Although his philosophy would deny it, it may have been fated that Jean-Paul would himself become a famous writer; it was in his genes.
Jean-Baptiste and Anne-Marie were deeply in love. They married on May 5, 1904. Jean-Baptiste was enlisted in the French Navy and was away on an assignment when Jean-Paul was born 13 months later. Sadly, hardly more than a year after the birth of their son, Jean-Baptiste had returned home from China in November only to fall ill in March and die on September 17, 1906.
After the death of Jean-Baptiste, Anne-Marie moved herself and her young son into her father’s house, the Schweitzer home. Karl Schweitzer was a strict and domineering man and the year the two spent living there affected Sartre’s life forever. His mother kept his hair long and dressed him in effeminate clothing, probably as a means of escaping the oppressive nature of her father. Schweitzer, however, disgusted by the child’s appearance, took him to the barber one day and had his hair cut. Jean-Paul’s ugliness then became apparent. Without the cloak of long hair and frilly clothes, his short stature, one eye that looked askance (from a juvenile illness), and awkward appearance were undeniable, even to his mother. He was ostracized by other children for his appearance. He was an outcast.
At the age of eight he began to write scripts when he received puppets from his mom. Children tolerated him in order to be entertained by his shows. He basked in the attention. He began a pattern of outrageous behavior that it seems he believed would earn him popularity. Apparently it worked.
In October of 1913, Eymard Sartre died and Jean-Paul fell under near complete control of the Schweitzers. When war broke out in 1914, it fascinated Sartre, and he wrote some short stories about it. In 1915 Jean-Paul was enrolled at Lycee Henri IV, a highly regarded school. Here he found children he could relate to: intellectually stimulating and of his class level, children who could respect him for himself. Yet, even at this early age, it was apparent to his teachers that Jean-Paul did not hone any of his thoughts; his intelligence was apparent, but he merely skimmed over many subjects without delving into any in depth.
His mother remarried when he was twelve, to the apparent disapproval of Jean-Paul. The new family moved to LaRochelle in 1917, but after Sartre got into trouble on several occasions, he was returned to Lycee Henri IV where he was a boarding student.
At this time he became close with Paul-Yves Nizan, a quiet and shy boy of considerable intellect. Where Sartre was disorganized, slovenly, and incomplete, Nizan was orderly, stylish, and thorough. Nizan was prone to fits of depression and drinking, to the fascination of Sartre. The two were nearly inseparable throughout college and beyond. In 1922 the two enrolled at Lycee Louis-le-Grand, one of the best preparatory schools of the time. The two went on to enroll together at one of the best French Universities, the Ecole Normale Superieure, a companion school to the Sorbonne. Here he also became close with Raymond Aron, another influential friend who would challenge him intellectually.
While in college, Nizan became very political on the side of French Communism and Marxism. Sartre ridiculed him for this. However, it was apparent that Sartre’s main goal at Ecole Normale Superieure was to become the smartest person among the highest of competition.
Jean-Paul met Simone-Camille Sans at a funeral for his cousin. The first “Simone” in his life, she was from the Toulouse region of France and so he nicknamed her thus. “Toulouse” turned out to be a little too wild even for him. Rumored to have participated in orgies and to have experimented with various drugs, eventually their relationship fizzled out and she became the mistress of a well-known French actor.
Sartre continued to be a rabble-rouser at school and became known as somewhat of a revolutionary. However, when he took his agregation exam (graduation examination), he placed fiftieth out of fifty – dead last. Although the failure was hard for Sartre, it was crucial to his life that he had to stay and study to retake the examination. It was then that he met Simone deBeauvior, the love of his life. The two studied together and matched wits intellectually, and upon the next test administration, he placed first and she placed second. This is how the two would be for life: one right after the other.
The relationship between Sartre and deBeauvoir was unusual and unconventional. The two never married and often had other lovers, but beyond a doubt they held each other in the highest esteem.
Sartre served in the military for 18 months beginning in 1929. Afterward he taught at the lycee LeHavre. In 1933 he studied the lectures of Edmund Husserl, one of the greatest influences of his life. In February of 1935 he experimented with mescaline and consequentially he had hallucinations for the remainder of the year. In 1938, his novel Nausea was published.
After the start of World War II, Sartre was again drafted into military service. On June 21, 1940, he was captured. He was a prisoner of war until he escaped in March of 1941. He then returned to his teaching post. While imprisoned, he wrote much of what was to become Being and Nothingness, possibly his most famous work. In 1943, his anti-Nazi play The Flies earned him much notoriety. By 1945 Sartre had become widely popular and Existentialism had become the hottest philosophy to study, much to the credit of his work.
The term existentialism became ingrained with pop culture, but as this happened, Sartre slowly began to disassociate himself with the philosophy which had earned him so much acclaim. In 1960, Sartre published The Critique of Dialectical Reason in support of Marxism. In 1964 he was offered the Nobel Prize for literature, but he refused it on “political” grounds.
Sartre became the frontman of sorts for all types of student rebellion as both right-wing and left-wing parties shunned him and his revolutionary attitude. He became immensely popular both in France and in America. Sartre died on April 15, 1980, having lived a completely inconsistent and disorderly life. However, his outlandish ways had spread the fame of Existentialism and he had left his ineraseable mark on the world forever.
Sartre wrote several books, plays, and articles on several subjects, primarily political and philosophical. Some are listed below:
A novel which dealt with one character, Roquentin, on his search to understand existence and essence. He finds himself unable to associate things as commonly known, and the reader is left to determine whether this is a breakthrough or a fault.
The Transcendence of the Ego (1937)
A phenomenological study of human consciousness
Being and Nothingness (1943)
Sartre’s famed dissertation on the relationship between being-in-itself and being-for-itself. The first part of his non-fictional works on Existentialism. Here he delved briefly into the idea of human “existence preceding essence” and more in depth into the concept of forlornness and anguish as they relate to consciousness and freedom.
Existentialism and Human Emotion / Existentialism is a Humanism (1946)
Apparently two translations of the same title, his most famous work in America. In this text he dealt in greater depth with the idea that humanity has the unique position of existence which precedes essence, and here he basically disqualifies the concept of God.
The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960)
His essay in support of “pure” Marxism as it ideally protects human freedom. Meant to be two volumes, he abandoned the second before completion.
Emotions: Outline of a Theory (1936)
The Flies (1943)
His anti-Nazi play produced during WWII.
No Exit (1944)
The Age of Reason (1945)
Anti-Semite and Jew (1946)
The Respectful Prostitute (1947)
Dirty Hands (1948)
Saint Genet (1952)
The Family Idiot (1982)
Sartre and Existentialism
It is true that Sartre did not originate Existentialism, he merely popularized it. Without Sartre, Existentialism, today many people may never have heard of the philosophy and it certainly would not have become ingrained in the pop culture that it helped to define. An explanation of Existentialism is appropriate.
Existentialism is defined as the “term used to refer to any philosophy that emphasizes fundamental questions of meaning and choice as they affect existing individuals” (Soccio, 477). Pojman outlines “three theses of Existentialism” on pages 351-355:
1. Existence precedes essence. In other words, man is the only species that can define himself. We can decide our own definitions by the choice we make and the actions we take.
2. The Absurdity of Existence. Existence is absurd, as we can make any choice and most people make inferior choices in life. The amount of possibilities at any time is countless; if nothing else, we always have the option of life or death. There is no meaning apart from humanity.
3. Freedom. As Sartre says, we are “condemned to freedom.” We have ultimate choice in everything. Because of this we feel ungrounded, a sense of anguish. Because we have existence before essence, we must create our essence with the freedom we have. We must define ourselves.
Existentialist themes often include “choice, freedom, identity, alienation, inauthenticity, despair, and awareness of our own mortality” (Soccio, 477).
There are two main schools of Existentialism: religious Existentialism, which would include the principles of Kierkeegard and Heidegger, and secular Existentialism, which includes the philosophy of Nietzsche and Sartre. Obviously, the religious existentialists did not dismiss the existence of God but rather attributed the absurdity of existence to the inner voice of God calling us to higher forms of self. The secular Existentialists, or atheist Existentialists, totally disavowed the existence of God and dismissed the importance of one, implying that such a being is impossible – a being “in-itself-for-itself” in the words of Sartre – and paradoxical as well as useless.
In reality, all Sartre did was take the ideas of Nietzsche and other great Existentialists and use it to fuel his works of fiction and his essays. It was these works that earned popularity for the school of thought, and that can be considered his greatest achievement: the promotion of Existentialism.
Problems with Existentialism and Modern Applications
So what are the weaknesses of his theory? How would we apply his thoughts to contemporary social issues? Let’s try to take a stab at these issues . . .
One problem with Existentialism has come into the spotlight as of late: genetics. The study of genetics is a widely expanding field. Through science we have learned that genes and DNA are responsible for traits from hair color and height to alcoholism and probably homosexuality. What were once considered “choices” are now being found to be much more hereditary than we have been comfortable to admit. There may be a certain degree of freedom of choice, but as time passes we learn that more and more of our behavior is genetically coded into our DNA and we are merely acting it out. And if this is the case, how do we philosophize on the issue of other primates? Some primates have 97-99% and possibly greater similarity of genetic sequences compared to humans. How much of their behavior is choice?
The topic of genetic engineering could be a point for either side: on one hand, we can define ourselves on a much greater scale, but on the other hand we are admitting that we are patterned after our genes, as all other creatures are.
How would Sartre feel about the topic of genetic engineering? How would Existentialism deal with it? I think that Existentialists would say that such freedom would lead us to a greater sense of anguish as we are faced with a greater sense of freedom to define ourselves and mankind. But since Sartre says that “as we Daphne ourselves we define all of humankind,” we should likely avoid the pursuit of such a field, as we have a responsibility to our fellow humanity. As most human life is absurd and most people make inferior choices, it would be best to avoid the topic, although we have the freedom to pursue it if we desire.
How would he feel about abortion? Since in choosing for ourselves we choose for humanity, our responsibility should dictate that abortion is wrong. This part of the philosophy is reminiscent of Kant’s categorical imperative, but it does not imply that we should necessarily do what is right. However, for the proliferation of mankind as the only species where existence precedes essence, it would only make sense that (secular)
Existentialists should decide against abortion. But again, we must never forget that the option exists.
Likewise, the secular Existentialists would decide on various issues. As Sartre averred, we always have the choice of life or death. However, through his actions it is apparent that we should choose life, because to choose death would exterminate consciousness. A being can not be conscious in death, as there is nothing to be conscious of. Consciousness can only exist as it is conscious of something. A being conscious of its own unconsciousness is impossible to Sartre.
Thus sums up the life and philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. Although this essay can in no way be considered a thorough examination of his life and of the philosophy of Existentialism or even secular Existentialism, it serves the purpose of identifying the general ideas the man popularized in his works and spread into an entire world and consciousness.