Jean-Paul Sartre: Conscience to the World

EDP180, Fall, 2001

John Detwiler

At the time of his death on the fifteenth of April, 1980, at the age of seventy-four, Jean-Paul Sartre’s greatest literary and philosophical works were twenty-five years in the past.  Although the small man existed in the popular mind as the politically inconsistent champion of unpopular causes and had spent the last seven years of his life in relative stagnation, his influence was still great enough to draw a crowd of over fifty thousand people – admirers or otherwise – for his funeral procession.  Sartre was eminently quotable, a favorite in the press, because his statements were always controversial.  He was the leader of the shortly popular Existential movement in philosophy which turned quickly into a fad for the disillusioned post-World War I generation, so even when the ideas criticized were not the ideas of Sartre’s Existentialism, he still came to the public mind.  Sartre was alternately celebrated and vilified, depending on which side of the issue the speaker or writer was on, and whether or not Sartre had early espoused – and possibly later turned against – the ideals in question.  Despite Sartre’s many political and philosophical about-faces, fellow Marxist political philosopher Herbert Marcuse said of him, “He may not want to be the world’s conscience, but he is.” [Hayman, 458]



            Jean-Paul Sartre was born on June 21, 1905, and lost his father a little over a year later.  His mother, Anne-Marie was raised uneducated in an educated family and moved back in with her own father, the teacher Karl Schweitzer, uncle of the famous philosopher and missionary, Albert Schweitzer.  She promptly lost control of her infant son.  Jean-Paul became the immediate favorite of his grandfather, who called him Poulou and raised him to be a small adult.  Although the young Sartre lived his early life in Paris, he had very little contact with other children his own age; instead, his world of adventure was his grandfather’s library.  He learned to read at age four and was soon reading voraciously books in French and German, including the Encyclopedia and such authors as Voltaire, Hugo, and Flaubert (about whom he would write an enormous biography late in life).  Though he couldn’t understand the meaning behind these works, the young Sartre felt his place was in words, and began to write his own, usually adventure stories with himself cast as the hero, diary entries, and letters in verse to his delighted and proud grandfather. [Madsen, 29-32]

            While Karl Schweitzer was turning his grandson into an adult, he was turning his daughter back into a child.  She had been little educated in her youth and her father believed that she could not handle herself as an adult.  The two were raised, in effect, as brother and sister.  Anne-Marie loved Jean-Paul as a son, but she had no control over his doings, and often fought over his upbringing with Karl.  She did not want to see her son turned into an adult at so young an age, and so she smuggled comic books and children’s novels to him.  These interactions between mother and grandfather, the constant struggle for little Poulou’s attention and affection built up his ego and gave him an enormous self-confidence that supported him throughout life. [Gerassi, 46-8]. 


Relation to Gardner’s Model

            All of Gardner’s creators were educated in middle to upper-middle class households in which knowledge was valued for the sake of knowledge, and Jean-Paul Sartre was no exception.  His grandfather held the highest regard for the literary classics, and while he was intellectually conservative, he believed that education was of the highest importance in life.  Karl Schweitzer, by far the person with the most influence on Sartre’s early life and future career as a writer, came from outside the child’s immediate family, as did most all of the seven creators’ main influences.  Sartre was intellectually and artistically precocious, like most of Gardner’s creators, expressing his desire to live his life through words at an early age.  Finally, as the little Poulou, Sartre developed a self-confidence that quite often crossed the border into arrogance, but which would help him greatly throughout his philosophical and political careers.  Sartre changed his mind many times in his life, but every time he stuck by his decision and stood confidently against his detractors.  This characteristic is, according to Gardner, a necessity for the creative individual.


School and Individualism

            When Sartre went to school, he experienced for the first time the shock of being scolded.  He flunked a composition test mostly because of poor spelling, so his grandfather quickly hired a private tutor to teach him spelling.  Jean-Paul was soon pulled out of school because Karl was dissatisfied with the school’s teaching (and, just as likely, because his grandson was not treated as the center of the universe).  Sartre moved from school to school, and never stayed for more than a single semester until he was registered at the Lycee Henri IV.  It was here that Jean-Paul learned to accept the advice of superiors and consciously realize the even he, the wonder child, was in need of improvement.  He was criticized by teachers for his poorly written papers, and within a semester had improved them to the level of his classmates.  He never again had trouble with writing – unless the authority had trouble with him, as when he later wrote a doctoral dissertation that outstandingly disagreed with the judges’ philosophy.  The paper was awarded the lowest rank of the fifty students at his college.  The following year, he was ranked first in his class.  While at the Lycee Henri IV, Jean-Paul met, for the first time, friends his age, including Paul Nizan, a communist activist and writer who would stay friends with Sartre until an ideological difference caused them to split in 1927, their final year of college. [Gerassi, 82-3]

            In addition to these other discoveries, Jean-Paul learned while at school that he was ugly.  At a young age, Sartre lost all vision in his right eye to the disease strabismus and lost control over the nerves in that eye as well.  He never allowed surgery to fix this disfiguration and as a consequence, Jean-Paul grew up walleyed.  He was also smaller than most of the other boys.  As a result of these two factors and his intellectualism, Jean-Paul was unpopular at school.  At the same time that he discovered his faults, Jean-Paul’s mother, Anne-Marie, remarried, an engineer by the name of Joseph Mancy.  The years between this marriage, when Sartre was eleven, and his departure for boarding school were the unhappiest of his childhood and possibly the unhappiest of his entire life.  During this time, he stole from his mother in an attempt to win popularity and acceptance from the other students.  He was found out, however, and temporarily outcast by his grandfather, who was severely disappointed in his young adult grandson.  Sartre’s stepfather tried to force Jean-Paul to become an engineer like himself, but only succeeded in more greatly distancing his son who already had little love for Mancy.  These attempts finally convinced the young Jean-Paul that his place, without a doubt, was with writing. 

            When he moved away to boarding school and later to college, Sartre began his philosophical studies in earnest.  He had group of compatriots with similar studies and outlooks on life.  All came from bourgeois households, all lived in various degrees of marginality from the mainstream, and all were interested in freedom.  It was in college that Sartre first looked into philosophy of Heidegger, his greatest influence, and also where he first learned to influence people through words.  Sartre was a wonderful speaker, and throughout his life he reveled in his ability to dominate a conversation and utterly enrapture his audience – especially the female members.  He always was ashamed of his ugliness, yet would seduce women with his silver tongue.  He grew frustrated in foreign cities, because there he was powerless and grew ever more conscious of his ugliness.  In college, he also took part in several radical displays and published numerous satires in school papers.  He learned, in college, the position that he would occupy even as his popularity grew – the outsider. [Gerassi]


Relation to Gardner’s Model

            Sartre’s ability to criticize and improve himself was a necessity for continued success.  In fact, Sartre’s success rests on his changeability more than anything else.  His philosophy is based on the ability of man to create his world at any given time – man as utterly free.  Sartre learned, during his school days, first, that he could change, and second, that he was free.  He and his small coterie were, in his words, anarchists.  They were not yet politically motivated, but instead were spoiled children of wealthy families.  This situation, however, and his friends’ support are what inspired Sartre to think on and attach such importance to man’s individual freedom.  Sartre also learned the place of the outsider while at school, which, according to Gardner, is a necessity for a creator.  The creator must either be alone, like Einstein and Stravinsky, or controversial, like Freud and Picasso.  Sartre always had a group of admirers, but he was extremely controversial throughout his life, never allowing himself to become universally accepted.  He knew what buttons to push in order to get reactions, and he did this with abandon.  Because of his intelligence and his arrogance, Sartre lived his entire life on the margins of society.


Simone de Beauvoir

            In 1929, after falling back a year in school because of a well-written but unpopular final paper, Jean-Paul Sartre met a young student who was soon to become his “essential love.”  This woman was Simone de Beauvoir, known to her close friends as Castor – Beaver – and she was to become a famous writer and feminist philosopher in her own right.  Their relationship lasted fifty years, until Sartre’s death in 1980, and was celebrated by modern thinkers and feminists as the ideal love.  Jean-Paul and Simone stayed with each other for fifty years, but each – especially Jean-Paul – had many other lovers.  This sexual and emotional freedom echoed the freedom that Jean-Paul argued for in his philosophical works; this is the reason that Castor could stay close to him for so many years.  Of his many lovers, Castor meant the most to Jean-Paul.  She also had the most influence on him.  Sartre had the greatest respect for Beauvoir, allowing her to edit and criticize his own work that he would allow nobody else to criticize.  He wrote most a novel, his first draft of La Nausee, but when Castor told him it was no good, the novel was scrapped and Jean-Paul began again.  She was his main support from the time they met until Sartre passed away.


Relation to Gardner’s Model

All seven of Gardner’s creators had a strong support at the time of their greatest breakthrough, whether it was a wife, husband, close friend or family member, and Jean-Paul Sartre had Simone de Beauvoir.  It is almost unconscionable that Sartre could have kept up his frenetic pace of activity without burning himself out (more than he already did) if he had not had a supportive partner in his work.  They had the greatest respect for one another, and could, until the final years, be unabashedly critical of each other.  This criticism, too, was necessary for Sartre.  If he had not had the discerning mind of Simone de Beauvoir to look over his work, Sartre probably would have let nobody change his mind, and his work would be the worse for it.


The Breakthroughs

            In 1934, after his graduation from college and a couple of years as a provincial schoolteacher, Sartre published his first and arguably his greatest novel, La Nausee.  This book combined Sartre’s penchant for description with his unfolding existentialist philosophy.  Sartre believed that he could only tell the truth in works of fiction, of which this book is the earliest example.  Sartre’s philosophy cannot be stripped from his literature; only if the two are looked at together does Sartre’s development as both an author and a philosopher – and a human being – make sense.  La Nausee, or Nausea in the English translation, is about Anton Roquentin, a French author like Sartre who discovers that the world, and his very own existence, is contingent.  This idea, contingency, is of the highest importance to Sartre’s philosophy, and is contrasted with the idea of necessity.  The world is contingent – this leads Sartre, through Roquentin, to discover that there is no moral or rational basis for any action, and that all being is absurd.  Other philosophers had stated some sort of necessary reason for human existence, usually through the postulation of a higher power or moral order.  Sartre’s protagonist sees that all meaning, even the existence of a particular chestnut tree, is given to the world only by the choices of humans.  As this existential nausea overcomes him in the novel’s most famous passage, Roquentin sees in place of the tree trunk only a gnarled, knotted, lump of existence – only made a tree because he, as a human, thought it was a tree. 

            This idea of contingency is the basis for all of Sartre’s early ethical philosophy, his Existentialism.  Man is alone in the universe, free from the influence of a higher moral order.  Since there is no higher power in the universe than man, man is free.  Also, since no higher moral order exists, no person may claim any justification for any action; humans only act because they choose to act, and if they make a decision (which they must, since a decision not to make a choice is still a decision) they may only say in its defense: I did what I did because it was my choice, and my choice alone.  Sartre’s Existentialism lays the burden of responsibility upon the shoulders of man, and when man recognizes the weight of this burden and its sheer loneliness, quitting the interminable self-deception that categorizes almost all human life, man falls into Existential despair.  Yet, claims Sartre, Existential philosophy is the only philosophy that assigns the appropriate dignity to humanity; all others treat humanity as a machine or an animal.  A human is a human only when he or she is entirely free. [Priest]

            Existentialism quickly became a fad among dispossessed French youths yearning for freedom and is still embraced today, mainly by the young who feel they can and should take the weight of the world upon their shoulders.  It was also accepted for the wrong reasons – that because a higher morality does not exist, each person has the right to do whatever he or she wants, regardless of the consequences.  It is this latter view of Existentialism that was taken to task in the ten years following the publication of La Nausee, and in 1945, Sartre defended his philosophy in a famous lecture entitled “Existentialism Is A Humanism.”  Sartre argued that, instead of being amoral or immoral, as critics accused it of being, Existentialism is instead the most moral of philosophies.  Those arguing against Existentialism, claimed Sartre, were afraid of its bold agnosticism and were engaging in that very same self-deception that Sartre said denied people of their dignity as human beings. [Priest]

            He had spent four years in the war, though his posting had little to no military importance – every two hours, he took meteorological readings and radioed them to another station.  During this time, he read constantly and wrote his War Diaries, which were published posthumously by his adopted daughter (and former lover), Arlette.  When the war was over, Sartre found himself as the spokesperson for the recently burgeoned Existentialist movement.  Simultaneously, he was exploring the Marxist roots that had been planted by his former classmates, particularly Paul Nizan. [Hayman, 204-8]


Relation to Gardner’s Model

Sartre’s first creative breakthrough was his Existentialist novel, La Nausee, for which he would later win – and decline – a Nobel prize.  The book was finished in 1934, and he entered the military four years later.  In 1942 Sartre completed his philosophical magnum opus, Etre et Neant, or Being and Nothingness, which explained in a philosophical text what had been literarily implied by La Nausee.  These two are the most famous and influential of Sartre’s works, and the most cohesive explanation of his early philosophy.  Taken together with his “Existentialism Is A Humanism” lecture in 1945, these books show the ten-year cycle that is exemplified by Gardner’s seven creators.


Old Age and Sartre’s Life as a Creator

After this point, however, Sartre fails to continue the cycle.  This, I believe, is because once Sartre involved himself with Marxism, he entered another domain that he never fully mastered: the political.  This change, while it disrupts the ten-year cycle, shows that Sartre was able to re-invent himself, another characteristic found in all of Gardner’s creators.  Sartre, more than any other modern thinker, is the best example of self-creation and re-invention.  Sartre left unfinished manuscripts every year, because when his mind and intentions changed, he knew he was free (as in his philosophy) to do what he chose.  He changed from the apolitical youngster to a hyper-political old man.  He sided first with the Communists, then later against the Communists – while simultaneously being against the Capitolists – before siding again with the Communists.  He attempted a fusion of Existentialism with Marxism, and never succeeded.  He was always critical of his younger self, and by the Sixties had refuted the Existentialist claims of a decade earlier.  By the seventies, he was refuting his Marxist claims of the sixties.  When he died in 1980, Jean-Paul Sartre had become famous for changing his mind and political stances, even more than the political stances he held.  No matter what, though, he was always a radical, and ended his life believing in violence as the only possible way of affecting his Marxist revolution.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s life, from beginning to end, was characterized by contradictions.  His first solid ethical stand was that freedom must exist, and stood by free choice as the highest – the only – ethical imperative.  His final stand advocated violence, in which one man must deny freedom to another.  Even if a proletariat is rebelling against unjust slavery, she is still denying the bourgeois’ freedom.  He re-created himself more than any other thinker of the twentieth century – and in doing so, lived out the philosophy he created forty-five years before his death.  He was inconsistent in his views, but his life was still highly scheduled – he had specific hours for writing even when he didn’t hold a job, and kept these hours until the vision in his left eye began to go in 1973, starting to match his right eye’s blindness – and he consistently lived his life in connection with his views on freedom.  He strived, even while he worried about class struggles, to be an “authentic man,” the ultimately free man of his early plays.

Sartre was precocious, brilliant, controversial, changeable, stubborn, self-involved, arrogant, hated, worshiped, versatile, magnetic, and had an enormous effect on the world he lived in.  In short, he was a creator.


Gerassi, John.  Jean-Paul Sartre: Hated Conscience of His Century.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.


Hayman, Ronald.  Sartre: A Biography.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.


Madsen, Axel.  Hearts and Minds: The Common Journey of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre.  New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1977.


Priest, Stephen.  Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings.  London; New York: Routledge, 2001.