On this day in 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, which he declines.
In his novels, essays, and plays, Sartre advanced the philosophy of existentialism, arguing that each individual must create meaning for his or her own life, because life itself had no innate meaning.
Sartre studied at the elite École Normale Supérieure between 1924 and 1929. He met Simone de Beauvoir, who became his lifelong companion, during this time. The pair spent countless hours in cafés, talking, writing, and drinking coffee. Sartre became a philosophy professor and taught in Le Havre, Laon, and Paris. In 1938, his first novel, Nausea, was published-the narrative took the form of a diary of a cafÉ-haunting intellectual. In 1939, he was drafted into World War II, taken prisoner, and held for about a year; he later fought with the French Resistance.
In 1943, he published one of his key works, Being and Nothingness, where he argued that man is condemned to freedom and has a social responsibility. Sartre and Beauvoir engaged in social movements, supporting communism and the radical student uprisings in Paris in 1968.
Also in 1943, he wrote one of his best-known plays, The Flies, followed by Huis Clos (No Exit) in 1945. In 1945, he began a four-volume novel called The Roads to Freedom but gave up the novel form after finishing the third volume in 1949. In 1946, he continued to develop his philosophy in Existentialism and Humanism.
In the 1950s and 60s, he devoted himself to studies of literary figures like Baudelaire, Jean Genet, and Flaubert. The Family Idiot, his work on Flaubert, was massive, but only three of four volumes were published. Sartre’s health and vision declined in his later years, and he died in 1980.