Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre was born on June 21, 1905. He was a man of a million talents and interests, but he is primarily known as an existentialist philosopher. His father was a French Naval officer and his mother was first-cousin to medical missionary and Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer. His father died when he was very little and his mother moved back home to her parents. She and her father began a precocious program of education with young Jean-Paul. When his mother remarried, the family moved from one side of France to another where Sartre was the victim of bullying. Even as an adult, he was barely five feet tall. I can just imagine the geeky little kid getting picked on. Things don’t change much, do they?
Sartre became interested in philosophy as a teen. He enrolled at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris where he earned a doctorate in Philosophy. While there, he met Simone de Beauvoir, who was attending classes at ENS while enrolled at the Sorbonne. The two began a life-long relationship that was highly unconventional. They openly engaged in other relationships and sometimes shared lovers. This was part of their rejection of anything they considered bourgeois, which became a fundamental part of Sartre’s first work Being and Nothingness (L’Être et le Néant).
Briefly incarcerated as a POW during World War II, Sartre was released due to some health problems. He returned to Paris as a civilian and worked at a high school. He poured his energy into writing plays and philosophical works. After the war, he took a strong position against the French in Algeria and the United States in Vietnam. He traveled to Cuba where he met both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. He also supported Andraes Baader’s (Red Army Faction) hunger strike and denounced the prison conditions. Unsurprisingly, by the end of his life he was identified with anarchism rather than Marxism. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he declined it because he believed that literature was a cop-out for political engagement. Similarly, he had earlier turned down the Légion d’Honneur. He was arrested for his participation in the student riots in 1968. President de Gaulle had him pardoned, saying “You don’t arrest Voltaire.” His health deteriorated due to overwork and the amphetamines he used to fuel himself. He lost almost all of his sight. He died of an edema of the lung on April 15, 1980. He and de Beauvoir are buried together, without any extra lovers.
Today’s expression, aller contre le vent (ahlay contruh luh vehn) means “to go against the wind.” This is exactly what Jean-Paul Sartre did – in his relationships, in his writings, and in his public activism.