A leading figure in French culture after World War II, Sartre exerted an enormous influence on the intellectual life of his times through his development of the philosophical theory of existentialism, the study of the fundamental features of human existence. In his major work Being and Nothingness (1943), Sartre claimed that to be human was to be unconditionally free. Whatever meaning there is to be found in existence, he argued, stems from one’s own choices and actions, for which one is solely responsible, rather than from existing sources of meaning, such as God’s plan for human life. In literary works from the same time period, Sartre dramatized his philosophical ideas through characters such as Antoine Roquentin, the antibourgeois, perpetually alienated, hyperconscious “existentialist hero” of his 1938 novel Nausea.
A lecture that Sartre gave on existentialism and humanism in a café in 1945 brought his philosophy to popular attention. In it he identified himself as a representative of “atheistic existentialism,” and reaffirmed that the only hope human beings had lay in their own hands. As Sartre’s fame grew, and increasing controversy materialized around his views, existentialism attracted the attention of the Church of France, which proclaimed its evils in sermons to parishioners. In October, 1948, Sartre’s writings became the object of censorship by the Roman Catholic church when papal authority ordered all of...
(The entire section is 484 words.)