Sartre - Existentialism - Jean-Paul Sartres
Welcome to Study Guides!



After World War I, many people in Europe felt that the old world had ended and a new world was beginning. Jean-Paul Sartre grew up at the beginning of that new world.

Sartre's father died of a fever when Sartre was two years old, and his mother and grandparents raised him. He suffered from bullying at school. He studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale in Paris, where he met his girlfriend, Simone de Beauvoir - also a philosophy student. They never married, and, like most European philosophers, Sartre never had children.

Sartre served in the French army in World War II and spent months as a German prisoner of war. After he was freed, he taught high school. In 1943, Sartre published "Being and Nothingness". Like Marx, Sartre didn't believe in God. Without God, Sartre said, "We are left alone, without excuse." - we are responsible for the choices we make. But if there is no God, he asks, what difference do our choices make? How can there be good or bad? Should we just act completely selfishly all the time?

Sartre's answer was that selfishness itself forces us to be good, because in the end we all live better when we live in a better world. This idea has a lot in common with Marx's idea that people need to work in communities and cooperate with each other. So for a while Sartre hung out with Marxists. But Marxist leaders were always taking charge and telling people what to do. Sartre didn't think that was really free cooperation, and he began to call himself an anarchist instead.

Sartre also worried that bourgeois people like himself - people with education and money - had too much power in the new democracies of Europe. Working class people like construction workers, nurses, and factory workers weren't much aware of politics. They weren't using their new voting power. Sartre tried to figure out ways to use the new television shows to reach these people and get them more involved, just as people try to use the Internet that way now. But he saw that television was more and more controlled by big corporations and the government.

A lot of people really hated Sartre for these ideas. When Sartre argued that France should leave Algeria and let it be its own country, someone tried to kill him with a bomb. But in the end, Sartre lived to be 75 years old. He died in 1980 from smoking too much.

Go on to de Beauvoir

Bibliography and further reading about Sartre:

Go on to de Beauvoir
Modern Europe home

LIMITED TIME OFFER FOR TEACHERS: Using this article with your class? Show us your class page where you're using this article, and we'll send you a free subscription so all your students can use Study Guides with no distractions! (Not a teacher? Paid subscriptions are also available for just $16/year!)
Please help other teachers and students find us: link to this page from your class page.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Cite this page
  • Author: K.E. Carr
  • Title:
  • Site Name: Study Guides
  • Publisher:
  • Date Published:
Did you find what you needed? Ask your teacher to link to this page so other people can use it too! Send it in and win a "Great Page!" award!
Sign up for more free articles and special offers in' weekly newsletter:
We will never share your e-mail address unless you allow us to do so. View our privacy policy. Easy unsubscribe links are provided in every email.
Comment on This Article

Does your class page honor diversity, celebrate feminism, and support people of color, LBGTQ people, and people with disabilities? Let us know, and we'll send you a Diversity Banner you can proudly display!
Looking for more? is loading comments...
(Comments will appear after moderation, if they are kind and helpful. Feel free to ask questions, and we'll try to answer them.)
Cite this page
  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 30 March, 2017