Jean-Paul Sartre: the Most Influential Philosopher of the Twentieth Century


article #351

by Bill Nugent


Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is considered by many to be the single most persuasive and enigmatic philosopher of the 20th century. He was a radical atheist existentialist and towards the end of his life, an anarchist philosopher. He spoke into the hearts and minds of millions of college students and professors.

One reason why he made a profound impact on society is because he wrote novels and plays that taught his radical existentialist philosophy to the masses of the people. He was not an isolated ivory tower type. I was taught about one of Sartre’s plays when I was in the seventh grade.

Also contributing to his fame was his partnership with radical feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). They were a couple from 1929 until Sartre’s death in 1980. Simone de Beauvoir was also a novelist philosopher and very famous in her own right. They never married. They had an “open” relationship and were involved with other people. Neither Sartre or de Beauvoir ever married or had children. De Beauvoir was considerably taller than Sartre who was just five feet tall.

Sartre had a blind right eye. His sight deteriorated so much in his other eye that he was nearly blind the last seven or or so years of his life.

Sartre was also closely associated with the famous novelist philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960). Camus was an important contributor to the absurdist school of philosophy. Absurdism is a philosophy that seeks to reconcile the contradiction between the tendency of human beings to desire to have a purpose in life and what the atheist existentialist philosophers see as the absurdity and purposelessness of the universe. It’s the contradiction between desire for purpose and the atheist purposelessness of the universe.

The radical atheistic existentialism of Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus is postmodern. More on that later.The three were born in France, lived out their lives there and died there. They contributed to the tragic falling away from the Christian faith in France.

These three philosophers were like armchair quarterbacks viewing humanity, society and philosophy from an atheist perspective. They fumbled the ball. They viewed from a perspective of atheism, hence no creator, no sovereign, no lawgiver and no judge. They claimed there’s no purpose or meaning for the universe, no goal for the universe and very importantly: they implicitly deny any conscious existence after death. They claimed there’s no God to give meaning to the universe and no God to which we are accountable in the afterlife.

Atheistic secular humanism claims that human consciousness ceases to exist at death (Humanist Manifesto II, 1973, Section Two). The radical atheists therefore claim that there is no future, after death, for any human being.

To the Christian the future is big and the present is small. To The atheist the present is all there is and the future is non-existent. The worldviews of each could not possibly be more different. The hopelessness, purposelessness and futility of Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus is really the end product of their atheism.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s most famous works are his novel “Nausea” (1938), his treatise “Being and Nothingness” (1943) and his play “No Exit” (1944). Sartre’s novel, Nausea is really a manifesto of existentialism. Sartre is famous for saying that “existence precedes essence.” I’m getting a little technical here but let me just briefly explain that since atheists reject the Creator no essence (essence = purpose) can exist for any human being. They claim there’s no Creator in heaven planning or giving purpose to a human life and therefore there’s no essence. When a person is born and grows up he has existence. Then that person creates his own essence, his own purpose by his own mind. This is essentially man being his own god. Man being his own god is what existentialism is all about.

The nausea, which is the title of Sartre’s book “Nausea” is freedom. Existentialism means that man is totally free to create his own purpose and his own independence. Man is totally free and that very freedom is a burden on man. The phrase “condemned to be free” is a phrase used by existentialists. They say that this existential total freedom is nauseating.

This is in contrast to the Christian view of freedom in which every human being has an essence, in other words a purpose, given by God for our lives. We are created in God’s image and we each have a God-given purpose to serve God and bless people during our lifetimes on this earth. Then for all eternity we continue to serve God, know God and enjoy Him forever. We exercise our freedom within the confines of God’s Will and God’s law. In other words our freedom is not unlimited. Yet we are free to serve God and to serve others and to love others. We have a future that lasts to eternity.

In Sartre’s other famous work, “Being and Nothingness” Sartre made the famous statement “man is a useless passion.” This encapsulates the the futility and absurdity of the radical existentialism of Sartre. Sartre is a man who has led multitudes of people astray into the false belief that life is meaningless.

Respected historian Paul Johnson is a strong critic of Sartre. Johnson goes so far as to say that the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia were essentially a group of intellectuals who were followers of Sartre and embraced his radical existentialism and applied it to Marxist governmental political philosophy. They led a Marxist revolution in Cambodia that led to the deaths of about a quarter of the total population of that country. Ideas have consequences. (Wikipedia)

Towards the end of his life Sartre embraced anarchism in which he called for the abolition of the state. He regarded governments as absurd, unnecessary and oppressive. He was a notorious chainsmoker who ultimately died of lung cancer. He was nearly blind at that time. He was morally and philosophically blind as well.

Atheist existentialism is the dominant religion of the ruling classes of western civilization today. Out of it flows all aspects of the culture of death which is killing children in the womb (abortion), killing the elderly (euthanasia), drug abuse, sodomy, rebellion, lawlessness and suicide.

Existentialism is a form of postmodernism. Postmodern philosophy really came of age and went mainstream in the 1960s yet fewer than one in ten people can succinctly explain what postmodernism actually is.  Postmodernism, as its name suggests, is that which comes after modernism. Modernism came out of the  Enlightenment ” age of reason” of the 18th century. Postmodernism is an emotional rebellion against modern reason, rationality and order. Postmodernism, when you boil it all down, is moral relativism.

Moral relativism is the idea that each person makes up his or her own morals and no moral code is better than any other moral code. In contrast to that is the biblical Judeo-Christian worldview which is that morals are given to us by God in the Bible and include the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus. Christian morals are not relative but apply equally to all people in all cultures at all times. God’s standards do not change.

A worldview must answer each of four questions:

1) Origin: Where do I come from? Do I come from random collisions of atoms on the prebiotic earth or was I brought into being by an intelligent Creator who designed and built the universe?

2) Meaning of Life: What is the purpose of my existence? What am I here on earth to accomplish? Does my life have any real value?

3) Morality: Is there right and wrong? Does it matter what I do to hurt or help? Is there a difference between kindness and cruelty? Is there a transcendent lawgiver and judge?

4) Destiny: Where will I be in the future when my brief life on this earth is over? Will I descend into the void? Will I dissolve into spinning atoms? Will I be conscious and happy or will I be conscious and miserable?

The dominant worldview of the ruling classes of western civilization is the postmodernist materialistic worldview. This worldview claims: 1) humans evolved from animals and have no souls, 2)  humans have no real purpose for living other than self-gratification, 3) there is no transcendent moral lawgiver or any objective standard of right and wrong or absolute truth, 4) human consciousness ends at death and therefore there is no future for any human being.

The philosophies of Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus can be summed up as simply meaninglessness. They contributed to the philosophy of nihilism which means nothingness. Many people have followed them and embraced this purposelessness and have ultimately come to the end of themselves. Many of these people have seen the error of their ways and have begun to look to God.

The Bible teaches that God created human beings in his own image and that He has given us a purpose and that purpose is to love God and to enjoy him forever (Westminster Catechism). We are born into this world with a purpose and that purpose lasts into all eternity.

God has given us moral laws by which we must conduct our lives. Yet the Bible plainly teaches that we cannot earn salvation by keeping moral laws. The sinfulness of human beings is such that all of us fall short of God’s holiness. The Bible says that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

God in his great love for us has sent his son Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel, to die in our place and redeem us from our sins. By His death and suffering in our place, Jesus took the penalty of our sins, upon Himself, so that we can receive forgiveness of sins. This is called substitutionary atonement. Christ came in fulfillment of over 300 prophecies that gave details about his life, ministry, suffering and death.

The prophecies also foretold that Christ would rise from the dead. Christ offers salvation to all who turn to Him in repentance and ask for forgiveness on the basis of His death and resurrection on our behalf. I invite you to turn to Christ today to receive forgiveness of sins.

Steps to salvation:

Jesus said “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7).

  • 1) Believe that God created you and loves you and sent the Messiah (Messiah is Hebrew for Christ) to redeem you.
  • 2) Believe that Jesus Christ came in fulfillment of over 300 Bible prophecies to die for you, to take upon Himself the penalty of your sins (Isaiah 53:5-6, John 6:29, Romans 4:5, First Peter 3:18).
  • 3) Turn from sin and call on the name of Jesus to receive forgiveness of sins (Romans 10:13).
  • 4) Receive Jesus as Savior and experience the new birth (John 1:12, Acts 2:38).
  • 5) Follow Jesus Christ as Lord (John 14:21).

Prayer to receive salvation:

“Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).

To receive the salvation that Jesus purchased for us at the terrible cost of His suffering and death on our behalf I invite you to pray this simple prayer:

“Dear heavenly Father, I thank you for sending Jesus, the promised Messiah, to die for my sins. I admit that I am a sinner. I repent of my sins and I ask for your forgiveness on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I ask you to fill me with your Holy Spirit to empower me to serve you under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

If you prayed this prayer in the humble sincerity of your heart then you have received everlasting life, which includes power to live right in this life and entrance into heaven in the afterlife!

(C) 2016 William P. Nugent, permission granted to email or republish for Christian outreach.

One thought on “Jean-Paul Sartre: the Most Influential Philosopher of the Twentieth Century

  1. Jean-Paul Sartre, (born June 21, 1905, Paris, France—died April 15, 1980, Paris), French philosopher, novelist, and playwright, best known as the leading exponent of existentialism in the h century. In 1964 he declined the Nobel Prize for Literature, which had been awarded to him “for his work which, rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age.”

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