Jean Paul Sartre was born in Paris, June 21, 1905 as the first child of a marriage entered into a little over a year previously. His father, Jean-Baptiste, had meanwhile died of an infection contracted whilst serving in the French navy, Jean Paul grew up in the home of his maternal grandfather, Karl Schweitzer.
This Karl Schwietzer was a professor of German language at the Sorbonne, the author of numerous published works, and also an uncle of the celebrated medical missionary Albert Schwietzer.
Other circumstances than the demise of his father also conspired to make Sartre's childhood difficult. He was noticeably small in stature and obviously cross-eyed besides being over-intelligent and bookish. His mother was also cloyingly affectionate.
The difficulty Sartre found in gaining acceptance, and his precociousness, together with grandfather Karl's tutoring, led to his putting together a book entitles Les Mots (The Words) which related the experience of himself and his mother in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris in search of childhood playmates.
Sartre attended the Lycée Henri IV in Paris for a time from the autumn of 1915 and then, after his mother's re-marriage to Joseph Mancy, the lycée in La Rochelle where he proved to be an ill-behaved pupil. In an attempt to achieve some reform in Sartre's behavior it was arranged that he would re-attend the Lycée Henri IV as a boarder. His best friend at this school, Paul-Yves Nizan, was notable for his deep distress at the existence of social injustices. In the autumn of 1922 the two friends were among those that transferred from their Lycée to the select Lycée Louis-le-Grand.
Sartre was subsequently educated at the prestigious Écôle Normale Supérieure in Paris where he principally studied philosophy taking some of his classes at the Sorbonne.
During his years of education in Paris he met Simone de Beauvoir (with whom he formed a settled long term relationship without actually living together), Raymond Aron, Simone Weil, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Claude Lévi-Strauss and others who were later prominent in the Beaux Arts or politics.
Following a period of conscripted military service he taught philosophy at various lycées from 1931. These teaching duties were interrupted in 1933 by his spending a year in Berlin studying an emergent philosophy - phenomenology - and attending lectures given by its founder Edmund Husserl. Phenomenology exhibits a concern with the "properties and essence" of things.
Sartre's novel La Nausée (Nausea) was published in 1938.
He was inducted into the French military following the outbreak of European war in 1939 and was detailed to serve in a meterological section charged with the management of weather balloons. He was subsequently captured in June 1940 and imprisoned into 1941 by the Germans.
After his release on the grounds that the Germans did not think he was physically fit for military service, Sartre taught in Neuilly, France, and later in Paris, and was active in the French Resistance.
The German authorities, unaware of his underground activities, permitted the production of his anti-authoritarian play The Flies (1943) and the publication of his major philosophic work Being and Nothingness (1943).
The atheistic, humanistic, and socialistic, approach to existentialism attributable to Sartre received a cult following amongst a substantial section of the European youth and intelligentsia from circa 1945 so it might be as well at this stage to attempt to relate some slight intimations as to what Sartre's approach to Existential philosophy involved at this time.
The word nausea is used for the individual's recognition of the pure contingency of the universe, and the word anguish is used for the recognition of the total freedom of choice that confronts the individual at every moment.
In his early philosophic work, Being and Nothingness, written whilst a prisoner of war, humans were conceived as beings who create their own world by rebelling against authority and by accepting personal responsibility for their actions, unaided by society, traditional morality, or religious faith.
In terms of phenomenology Jean Paul Sartre's Existentialism maintains that in man, and in man alone, existence preceded essence. This simply means that man first is, and only subsequently is this or that. In a word, man must create his own essence: it is in throwing himself into the world, suffering there, struggling there, that he gradually defines himself. And the definition always remains open ended: we cannot say what this man is before he dies, or what mankind is before it has disappeared.
Sartre based his Existentialism on human free will. As individuals are free, from the moment of conception, they define their essence throughout their existence. A person's nature is what he or she has done in the past and what that person is doing at the moment. No one is complete until death, when self-definition ceases. Then, how others interpret the individual is based upon the individual's accomplishments and failings.
Existential morality arises from the fact that all choices affect others, physically and emotionally. Social responsibility results from the interdependencies of individuals. Since any living person is engaged in the process of defining self and others, ethics develop accordingly. Since the existentialist values free will and wants others to respect his or her freedom, the ethical system developed is based upon free expression.
Sartre's philosophy is explicitly atheistic and pessimistic; he declared that human beings require a rational basis for their lives but are unable to achieve one, and thus human life is a "futile passion." He nevertheless insisted that his Existentialism is a form of humanism, and he strongly emphasized human freedom, choice, and responsibility. This approach, which relates philosophical theory to life, literature, psychology, and political action, stimulated so much popular interest that it became a worldwide movement.
Sartre gave up teaching in 1945 and founded the political and literary magazine Les Temps Modernes, of which he became editor in chief. This magazine seemingly took its name from the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times.
Although after the Second World War Jean Paul Sartre's philosophical approach enjoyed a cult status and was taken up by the young and trendy and many intellectuals he himself moved somewhat away from the philosophy that he had helped to make famous and towards a greater involvement with leftist politics of a Marxist tendency.
He was active after 1947 as an independent Socialist, critical of both the USSR and the United States in the so-called cold war years. Later, he supported Soviet positions but still frequently criticized Soviet policies.
Most of Sartre's writing of the 1950s deals with literary and political problems. Sartre rejected the 1964 Nobel Prize in literature, explaining that to accept such an award would compromise his integrity as a writer. He offered moral support to the students of Paris during those 1968 events when they were in open conflict with the authorities.
Jean Paul Sartre impaired his health by smoking and drinking immoderately and on 15 April 1980 he died of a smoking related complaint. More than 25,000 people lined the streets of Paris for the funeral procession on 19 April 1980. Sartre's ashes were buried at the Montparnasse Cemetery. Later, Simone de Beauvoir's ashes were buried next to his.