June History Hits: The Father of Existentialism

On June 21, 1905, Jean-Paul Sartre, a towering figure in twentieth-century philosophy and literature, was born. His insights into human existence, freedom, and responsibility continue to challenge readers and thinkers to this day.

As a child, Sartre excelled academically and earned scholarships to prestigious institutions, the education from which allowed him to cultivate passions for philosophy and writing and be introduced to phenomenology, or the study of the consciousness as experienced from a first-person point of view. This shaped his philosophical perspective, leading him to reject the idea of predestination and assert that individuals create their own fate through their choices and actions.

One of Sartre’s most famous concepts is the idea of radical freedom. According to Sartre, humans are condemned to be free, meaning that we are fully responsible for our choices and their subsequent consequences. This type of freedom is both exhilarating and daunting, as it demands that individuals confront the weight of their decisions without the comfort of predetermined values or moral absolutes. Sartre’s existentialism also delves into what we call anguish, existential dread, or ennui, which arises from the realization of our freedom and attendant responsibility. Essentially, these are caused by the fear of making the wrong choices. However, Sartre also argued that embracing this feeling is key to living an authentic life.

Beyond his philosophy, Sartre was a prolific writer who penned plays, novels, and essays that explored his existential themes as they worked among human relationships. One of his most renowned works is the play “Huis clos” or “No Exit,” where he famously declared that “hell is other people.” In this play, Sartre addresses the complexities of human interactions and the consequences of our actions on others. Sartre was also a political advocate committed to social justice. He believed that intellectuals had a moral obligation to participate in public life and actively challenge oppressive structures.

Learn more here: