Jean-Paul Sartre: Conscience to the World

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Jean-Paul Sartre: Conscience to the World

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 g...

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...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.

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