Jean-Paul Sartre: Biography of an Existentialist Philosopher

January 28, 2019
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote one of the world's best literary works: Nausea. In this novel, he invites us to rebel against tyranny and to make use of our innate freedom, always remembering that nothing in the world has meaning.

Philosopher, activist, journalist, politician, writer… Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the foremost representatives of existentialism and humanist Marxism. His works essentially reflect the beliefs of his contemporaries. His ideas and his legacy have really influenced psychology.

Influenced by great German thinkers, such as Husserl and Heidegger, Sartre won the Nobel Prize and then decided not to accept it. He did this because he had the unwavering need to live in accordance with his ideological principles. Sartre was also the type of man who took up arms to fight for the liberation of an African people. With this, he showed us that freedom demands true commitment.

Beyond his work as a philosopher, activist, and writer, it’s fascinating to examine his impact on psychology. Jean-Paul Sartre set the foundations for a new trend in the field: existential humanism. Its ideas on the responsibility of humans over their own actions, self-knowledge, and its mantra “I think, therefore I am” marked a new era in psychology.

“Happiness is not doing what you want but wanting what you do.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre-

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre as a teenager.

Sartre was born in Paris on June 21, 1905. He was the son of a naval military officer. He lost his father at an early age, so his mother and grandfather raised him. Anna Marie Schweitzer instilled her love of literature in him. His grandfather, Albert Schweitzer, on the other hand, got him interested in philosophy.

In 1929, he became Doctor of Philosophy. He met Simone de Beauvoir as a student. She eventually became his lifelong partner and indispensable intellectual ally.

Everything changed significantly when World War II began. In fact, Sartre was even captured by the Germans. This significantly impacted his work after he regained his freedom in 1941. He started working soon afterward, collaborating with Albert Camus on Combat, the newspaper of the Resistance.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

A man committed to social activism

In 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir started a great social project together: the political and literary journal Les Temps Modernes. Their socialist ideals were already well-cemented in this decisive period of their lives.

He was a fierce critic of the Vietnam War. In fact, he made it his mission to show the world the crimes and injustices propagated by the United States. Later on, in 1964, Sartre received the Nobel Prize for his contributions to philosophy. Nevertheless, as we stated above, he didn’t accept it.

According to Sartre, accepting the Nobel Prize would have made him lose his critical vision as a philosopher. He spent his whole life dedicating himself to many causes and lived humbly.

Sartre died on April 15th, 1980 at the age of 74. Thousands of people came to his funeral. Currently, his body rests in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

Nausea – Jean-Paul Sartre’s major literary contribution

In order to understand the legacy of Jean-Paul Sartre and his contribution to existential humanism, you have to look at his first work: Nausea. This book, beyond its indisputable literary quality, introduced society to a new way of understanding the world.

Nausea‘s influences

Sartre wrote this book when he was a little over 26 years old and living in Berlin. It coincided with Hitler‘s ascension to power. During that time, he only read Husserl and Heidegger. He felt really fascinated with Husserl’s phenomenology and his way of describing events.

That’s why Sartre’s most renowned work is an exercise in phenomenology. In it, he describes his own experiences as a high school professor. In this environment, the only thing he felt and sensed was darkness, emptiness, and a lack of meaning.

Jean-Paul Sartre sitting in a beach chair.

Antoine Roquentin, Sartre’s alter ego

Nausea‘s protagonist is Antoine Roquentin, Sartre’s alter ego. In Antoine, we see a young man who comes to Indochina to settle in an imaginary city with a very concrete goal. He wants to finish a biography about an 18th-century aristocrat. The only things our protagonist does are write, interact with the owner of the hotel, listen to jazz, and speak with an autodidact.

The protagonist is very apathetic. When you read the book, you notice that he doesn’t understand anything that’s happening around him.

“My thought is me: that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think… and I can’t stop myself from thinking. At this very moment, it’s frightful, if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

There’s something you have to keep in mind about this book if you want to understand it. What Sartre describes in the book takes place between 1936 and 1938. This is the time when Nazism was rising in Germany. It’s also when the French society was undergoing a profound moral crisis. Sartre witnessed this very crisis and reflected it masterfully in Nausea.

Final thoughts

In this book, Sartre wanted to make us understand that a person can rebel against tyranny and choose their own path once they have accepted the undeniable truth that nothing has any meaning.

  • Cohen Sola, Annie (2005) Sartre. Madrid: Edhasa
  • Sartre, J. P. (2006). El existencialismo es un humanismo (Vol. 37). UNAM.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul (2011) La náusea. Alianza