Jean-Paul Sarte (1905–80) was a French author, playwright, political theorist, and literary critic who became famous for his promotion of atheistic existentialism. Along with Kierkegaard, Sarte is viewed as the primary promoter of existentialism.
Sarte believed that striving to be an authentic individual was the most important ideal to achieve in life. Living this authentic life means understanding that we are “condemned to be free.” According to Sarte, human beings are completely free and responsible for every decision and action they take in life. There is no God or predetermined nature that makes people who they are. This belief led to his declaration that “existence precedes essence.” A person appears on the scene (existence) and then chooses what he or she will become (essence). For Sarte the first principle of existentialism is this: “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” Thus, the task of existentialism, according to Sarte, is to make every person understand that the responsibility for his or her existence depends upon them.
The responsibility that Sarte calls for does not just involve the individual person—it also involves the human race. Whenever a person makes a choice, which contributes to who he is as a person, he is also choosing for everyone else. How is this so? According to Sarte when you make a decision you not only define yourself but you implicitly make a statement as to how other human beings should act when faced with a similar situation. As Sarte stated, “In choosing myself, I choose man.” This approach is similar to Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative in which a person is encouraged to act in such a way that, if possible, his action could become a universal law for others facing the same situation. Thus, Sarte believed that the actions a person takes define not only him but also the human race in general. For example, Sarte believed that when a man chooses to marry and have children, he is involving all mankind in monogamy, not just himself.
In a manner similar to Socrates, Sarte also believed that people never do evil intentionally If they do so it is because of ignorance and once enlightened they will choose the good every time because that is always in their best interest.
Sarte was extremely popular in France because of his plays and novels. During World War II he was a fighter for the French Resistance and was captured by the Nazis. Sarte rejected the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 because he said accepting it would jeopardize his integrity as a writer. Eventually, though, he did accept the prize. He was also sympathetic to the communism of the Soviet Union. Sarte is also famous for his love affair with the feminist and existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir.