Existentialism Is a Humanism


Jean-Paul Sartre

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Existentialism Is a Humanism Study Guide

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Brief Biography of Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris, where he would go on to live most of his life. He studied philosophy at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure until 1929, the same year he met the existentialist feminist philosopher and his eventual lifelong partner Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre spent most of the 1930s teaching in the northern French port city of Le Havre, returned to Paris in 1937 and then was drafted into the French army at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. He served as a meteorologist in the eastern border region of Alsace (where his mother’s family had roots) but was captured and held as a prisoner of war until 1941. After returning to German-occupied Paris, he participated to a limited extent in the underground resistance to the occupation and wrote many of his best-known works, including his philosophical magnum opus Being and Nothingness, the plays No Exit and The Files, and the novel The Age of Reason. In 1946—at the apex of his fame—he quit teaching and moved back in with his mother. From this period onward, Sartre’s work and public image turned far more political and especially anti-colonial in tone. He became an avowed Marxist, although he lost sympathy for the Soviet Union after 1956, and spent much of the 1950s striving to combine his existentialism with Marxism in works like the 1957 Search for a Method and the 1960 Critique of Dialectical Reason. During Algeria’s War of Independence from France, Sartre openly supported the National Liberation Front and cultivated a friendship with the renowned psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon. He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, but he became the first to turn it down, citing the Prize’s bias against intellectuals from outside Western Europe and declaring that a writer should “refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution.” He spent most of the 1960s writing a monumental biography of the 19th century French novelist Gustave Flaubert, but abruptly retired in 1971 to focus on political organizing and never finished the last volume. Around the same time, Sartre’s health began to deteriorate, worsened by his lifetime of chain smoking and heavy drinking. He was almost completely blind by 1973 and died of pulmonary edema in April of 1980.
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Historical Context of Existentialism Is a Humanism

Sartre became a global celebrity in the shadow of World War II; he delivered this lecture barely a year after Paris was liberated from German occupation. The time he spent in the French army and then as a prisoner of war in Germany was transformative, both personally and philosophically: seeing the conflict firsthand led Sartre to the sense of political urgency that pervaded his later work, and he began writing his existentialist manifesto Being and Nothingness while imprisoned. He considered existentialism a crucial and powerful antidote to the systematized control of the Nazi regime and believed that, if individuals realized their absolute power over their choices and moral responsibility for those choices, atrocities of the sort that transpired during World War II might be harder for states to impose. In his later life, Sartre was often criticized for portraying the fighters of the French Resistance (in which he played a more intellectual than practical role) as experiencing an authentic freedom in their absolute commitment to fighting the occupation.

Other Books Related to Existentialism Is a Humanism

The ideas Sartre explains in Existentialism is a Humanism are also reflected in his other works of fiction and nonfiction, such as Being and Nothingness, Nausea, and his plays No Exit, The Flies and Dirty Hands. Sartre’s thought was also deeply intertwined with his partner, Simone de Beauvoir’s. Her best-known book is the feminist history The Second Sex, and her second most famous work, The Ethics of Ambiguity, attempts to develop an ethical system based on her and Sartre’s existentialism. Sartre’s other close intellectual friends included Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose Phenomenology of Perception has widely influenced the way philosophers think about the body; Jacques Lacan, to whom Sartre briefly went for psychoanalysis and whose Seminars are essential to the history of that discipline; Raymond Aron, whose book The Opium of the Intellectuals was largely dedicated to attacking Sartre; and Albert Camus, the fellow existentialist best known for his novels The Stranger and The Rebel and his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Sartre’s existentialism is also indebted to the work of earlier philosophers, such as Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. Sartre was also an obsessive reader of the 19th century French realist writer Gustave Flaubert, who is best remembered today for his debut novel Madame Bovary. In Existentialism Is a Humanism, Sartre explicitly mentions several writers, including the naturalist novels of Émile Zola (specifically The Earth) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Sartre’s examples of authentic morality near the end of his lecture borrow from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma.
Key Facts about Existentialism Is a Humanism
  • Full Title: Existentialism Is a Humanism (L’Existentialisme est un humanisme)
  • When Written: Lecture delivered and transcribed on October 29, 1945
  • Where Written: The Club Maintenant [literally “Now Club”] in Paris
  • When Published: 1946
  • Literary Period: Existentialism
  • Genre: Philosophical lecture
  • Setting: The Club Maintenant, Paris
  • Climax: Sartre declares that, contrary to popular belief, existentialism actually is a humanism.
  • Antagonist: The critics who act in “bad faith,” including members of Sartre’s audience
  • Point of View: First-person

Extra Credit for Existentialism Is a Humanism

Sartre’s Appearance. Sartre was well-known for his peculiar appearance, mannerisms and sense of style. He was barely five feet (1.5m) tall, wore ill-fitting clothes, had a lazy eye from childhood, and was often the first to proclaim his own ugliness.

Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre and de Beauvoir were famous for their aversion to bourgeois relationship norms. They never married and continued to pursue other relationships in parallel with their own throughout their lives. They even worked together to seduce younger women and exchanged thousands of letters recounting their relationships.