The Voltaire of the Twentieth Century

By Gabriel Blanchard

In Sartre, we meet an enigma—and a firebrand.

Jean-Paul Sartre is perhaps the single most prominent existentialist philosopher in history. This is a difficult school of thought to discuss precisely, as it encompasses figures with radically different views. Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, was a devout Lutheran, while Sartre was not only an atheist himself but considered the question of God’s existence inherently irrelevant to human life. Existentialism is more a series of themes than of doctrines, revolving around the human experiences of meaning versus meaninglessness, freedom, emotion (especially dread or anxiety), and authenticity versus bad faith.

Let us begin at the beginning. For Sartre, this means beginning with the difference between essence and existence. In this context, existence means the bare fact that an object is there; essence means its nature, purpose, or value. One of Sartre’s main principles is that “Existence precedes essence,” i.e., the bare fact of existence is primary, and essence is something brought in later, imposed upon things by human choice—not an innate property of things themselves. This is true of literally everything, including human beings; everything, up to and including the meaning of life, is not given but created by human freedom.

This would appear to justify any behavior or scheme of values no matter how vile, and on paper, Sartre assented to this, but he also asserted certain other principles that are far more morally robust. One of his most famous remarks, from the lecture Existentialism Is a Humanism, is that “I am obliged to will the liberty of others at the same time as my own,” and, whatever logical inconsistency it may have involved him in, he did stick to this idea. (This also proved influential upon his lifelong partner and feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir.) He fought against the Nazis for a brief time in 1940 (though he was prevented from doing much for the war effort by severe exotropia), and helped found an underground society of anti-Nazi French academics in 1941; he proposed that they assassinate Vichy-type collaborators, though the group felt unequal to the task. Even the famously misanthropic line from his play No Exit, “Hell is other people,” was intended partly as a dig against the occupying Wehrmacht, whom the French referred to as les Autres, “the others.”

I exist because I think ... and I can't prevent myself from thinking.

In 1946, as part of a larger literary campaign against racism, he published one of his most influential essays, Anti-Semite and Jew. Despite the horrors inflicted upon the Jewish people during the war, anti-Semitism was still socially acceptable to most French people (and many people elsewhere in Europe), to a degree that would shock us today. Sartre picked the phenomenon to pieces, saying, among other things:

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. … They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.

This idea of “bad faith” is another of Sartre’s key concepts. It is a kind of combination of irresponsibility with insincerity—a refusal of the human condition of radical freedom, and primarily a deception of oneself, with the deceit of others being only a secondary result of this. Acting in good faith requires accepting that all one’s values are chosen, rather than objective. Relativistic though this sounds, there may be an echo here once again of Sartre’s experiences with the Nazis—it is hard not to think of the sorry excuses put forward by war criminals at Nuremberg that they were “just following orders” when we read him writing about people pretending in bad faith that they have no choice in life.

Between the end of the war and his death in 1980, Sartre continued to teach, to write plays and novels, and to give lectures, often dealing with Marxism and anti-colonialism. He was a Marxist himself, though he never joined the Communist Party and seems to have been ambivalent, if not downright vacillating, about the Soviet Union (which many Marxists gave up on either due to the crimes of Stalin or during the Eastern Bloc uprisings of the 1950s and ’60s, which were crushed by Soviet forces). Among other activities, he refused the Nobel Prize in Literature, stating he did not wish to take sides between western democracies and the USSR by accepting a western honor, and even hid from media attempting to cover the issue. As late as the spring of 1968, Sartre was an active participant in demonstrations and protests, and was arrested for civil disobedience; however, Charles de Gaulle, the former leader of the French Resistance and President of France, intervened and pardoned him with the words: “You don’t arrest Voltaire.”


Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.

If you liked this piece, take a look at some of our other content here at the Journal, like these author profiles of Ovid, Michel de Montaigne, and Jane Austen. You might also enjoy our podcast on education and culture, Anchored.

Note: This author was included in a previous version of the Author Bank, but is not present on the current edition (though passages from his work may still appear on CLT exams). A discussion of the latest revisions to the Bank, courtesy of Dr. Angel Adams Parham, can be found here.

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