Sartre, Jean-Paul

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) was a French novelist, activist and philosopher. Sartre was a leading exponent of the 20th century existentialist movement as well as a vocal proponent of Marxism and socialism (see: la-ville-lumiere). Sartre’s ideas took on increased importance during this time, as did his actions. Sartre became active in the socialist resistance, which aimed its activities at French Nazi collaborators. Of note, one of his activist collaborators was both a romantic partner and a fellow major cohort of existentialism, Simone de Beauvoir. Following the war, Sartre’s writing and political engagement centered on efforts at anticolonialism, including involvement in the resistance to French colonisation of Algeria. In fact, his involvement earned Sartre two near-miss bomb attacks at the hands of French paramilitary forces. Also notable, Sartre was supportive of the Soviet Union throughout his lifetime. Though occasionally serving to raise issues regarding human rights abuses as an outside observer, he praised the Soviet Union’s attempt at manifesting Marxism.

Sartre’s Big Ideas

  • Believed that human beings are “condemned to be free,” that because there is no Creator who is responsible for our actions, each of us alone is responsible for everything we do;
  • Called for the experience of “death consciousness,” an understanding of our mortality that promotes an authentic life, one spent in search of experience rather than knowledge;
  • Argued that the existence of free will is in fact evidence of the universe’s indifference to the individual, an illustration that our freedom to act toward objects is essentially meaningless and therefore of no consequence to be intervened upon by the world.

Sartre’s Key Works