Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosopher, Author, Pipe Smoker

A portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre by Artur Lopes

You've completed a weeks-long project and you're justifiably proud of it. It took some creative thinking and long nights, but the result is exemplary. What you have created surpasses its requirements. And your boss has just told you that a shift in departmental direction makes your beloved project obsolete before launch. It's appreciated, though. Take the rest of the day off.

Or it may spontaneously occur to you that there's no evolutionary justification for a duck's quack, and that toxic idea is making you question the scientific process. Either way, you eventually find yourself standing in the driveway wondering what it all means, and you may expand on that mental inquiry, asking no one in particular, why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Is there a reason for all of all this?

That odd discontent that accompanies the need to fulfill a decipherable purpose, and the recognition of the unknowability of life, is an existential crisis. They can be alarming in severity, but most often they are passing acknowledgements of our confusion in a universe scaled beyond comprehension.

At least we know what to call these occasional interludes, which is somewhat comforting, and for that we can most thank a man whose contributions to philosophy and literature brought him worldwide admiration: Jean-Paul Sartre.

Through his writing, teaching and lectures, he made existentialism part of popular culture. "Existence precedes essence," he wrote in his book, Existentialism and Humanism (1946). Sartre's argument reversed traditional philosophical thinking whose default position most often inferred that essence, the nature of an individual or thing, is more fundamental and unalterable than that thing's existence. Sartre posed that humans, through consciousness, determine our own meaning, from which our existence may be defined. We humans are "condemned to be free."

"Man simply is," said Sartre in "Existentialism is a Humanism." "Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but that he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing — as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes himself. That is the first principle of existentialism."

It's a branch of philosophy that he did much to forward in his many critical and philosophical essays, lectures, novels, plays, books, and short stories. No Exit is perhaps his most famous play, and it contains one of his most often-quoted lines: "L'enfer, c'est les autres," generally translated as, "Hell is other people."

In Being and Nothingness, (1943) Sartre places human consciousness, or no-thingness (néant), in opposition to being, or thingness (être); it is "not-matter" and therefore is not subject to determinism, which attributes behavior to causal origins. It's actually quite a hopeful message, despite the book's theme that human endeavors are inconsequential.

A prolific writer and acclaimed thinker, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 even though he had posted a letter declining nomination. He explained himself in a subsequent letter to the Nobel committee:

I have always declined official honors. In 1945, after the war, when I was offered the Legion of Honor, I refused it, although I was sympathetic to the government. Similarly, I have never sought to enter the Collège de France, as several of my friends suggested.

This attitude is based on my conception of the writer's enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.

Sartre's Early Life

Sartre was born in France in 1905 and received his education from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he earned a reputation as a prankster; the University of Fribourg, Switzerland; and the French Institute in Berlin. While teaching, he published his first novel, Nausea (1938). Written in the form of a diary, it relates the revulsion of the narrator upon discovering the world of matter and the physicality of his own body. Appreciated for its originality and anti-social themes, the book contains many philosophical ideas that Sartre would later develop more fully.

He taught philosophy in France until being drafted as a meteorologist in the French Army with the beginning of the Second World War in 1939.

In 1940, he was captured by German troops and spent nine months as a prisoner of war. There are two stories about his release. One says that his vision was poor to the point of affecting his balance, and because of that medical issue he was released by the Germans in 1941. A second story says that he escaped during an appointment to see an ophthalmologist.

Back in Paris, which was occupied by the Germans, Sartre and several other writers formed an underground organization called Socialism and Liberty. He had a particular dislike for collaborators and suggested at a meeting that a known collaborator be executed, but the proposal was met with little approval. The group soon disbanded and Sartre decided to pursue passive resistance through his writing.

During the occupation of Paris, the Germans plundered everything of value and shortages of food were common. Worse for Sartre, though, was the difficulty in obtaining pipe tobacco. He often searched the streets and gutters for cast-off cigarettes, removing their tobacco and smoking it in his pipe.

Sartre was known for his open relationship with existential philosopher, writer, and feminist Simon de Beauvoir, whom he met in 1929. They were nearly inseparable lifelong companions, and though they were romantically involved, their relationship was not monogamous. Their philosophical views didn't see the point in artificial constructs such as monogamy and they defined their own relationship, continuously challenging social and cultural norms. It was a scandalous relationship to most, and simply rational to those who better understood their thinking.

During the occupation, food shortages were common and Sartre was able to fortify his rations with rabbits sent to him by a friend of de Beauvoir. They weren't live rabbits and were often in a state of decomposition; he once regretfully threw one away because its maggot content outweighed its meat. Tobacco was harder to come by, however. He did manage through influential friends at one point to have 100 grams of pipe tobacco sent to him via diplomatic pouch. It was a very rare treat.

Sartre's Pipe Smoking

We know little about Sartre's pipes. It was a time when they were thought of as relatively disposable, nearly invisible accessories, so little note was taken. Most of the photos of Sartre show him with a pipe, however.

In fact, Sartre may have been an instrumental element in the cultural impression of pipe smokers as intellectual professor types. Cigarettes were gaining enormous popularity in the 1920s and '30s; they were easy and convenient, while pipes were bulky and old fashioned. But intellectuals such as Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, Bertrand Russell, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Jean-Paul Sartre all smoked pipes and were all college professors admired world-wide. This was the generation of thinkers who impressed the public with their intellectual accomplishments as well as their pipes, and it was perhaps inevitable that the two would overlap in the public consciousness.

Sartre's personal philosophy eschewed possessions; he did not acquire things (his wardrobe was atrocious), and chose not to own objects, though he made an exception of his pipes. He admitted that he owned his pens as well, and both pipes and pens are repetitively mentioned in his writings, but he often used pipes as examples of being:

Objects are revealed to us at the heart of a complex of instrumentality in which they occupy a determined place. This place is not defined by pure spatial co-ordinates but in relation to axes of practical reference. "The glass is on the coffee table"; this means that we must be careful not to upset the glass if we move the table. The package of tobacco is on the mantle piece; this means that we must clear a distance of three yards if we want to go from the pipe to the tobacco while avoiding certain obstacles—end tables, footstools, etc.—which are placed between the mantle piece and the table. In this sense perception is in no way to be distinguished from the practical organization of existents into a world. Each instrument refers to other instruments, to those which are its keys and to those for which it is the key. (Being and Nothingness).

This relationship of objects defined by their relationship with other objects or beings continues with a discussion of the limitations of creation:

The tragedy of the absolute Creator, if he existed, would be the impossibility of getting out of himself, for whatever he created could be only himself. Where could my creation derive any objectivity and independence since its form and its matter are from me? Only a sort of inertia could close it off from my presence, but in order for this same inertia to function, I must sustain it in existence by a continuous creation. Thus to the extent that I appear to myself as creating objects by the sole relation of appropriation, these objects are myself. The pen and the pipe, the clothing, the desk, the house—are myself. The totality of my possessions reflects the totality of my being. I am what I have. It is I myself which I touch in this cup, in this trinket. This mountain which I climb is myself to the extent that I conquer it; and when I am at its summit, which I have "achieved" at the cost of this same effort, when I attain this magnificent view of the valley and the surrounding peaks, then I am the view; the panorama is myself dilated to the horizon, for it exists only through me, only for me.

He further explores his pipe as taking on real meaning only in its relationship to himself, something we pipe smokers easily recognize:

The pipe there on the table is independent, indifferent. I pick it up, I feel it, I contemplate it so as to realize this appropriation; but just because these gestures are meant to give me the enjoyment of this appropriation, they miss their mark. I have merely an inert, wooden stem between my fingers. It is only when I pass beyond my objects toward a goal, when I utilize them, that I can enjoy their possession.

A pipe is defined by its use, not by its inherent being. It isn't really the object we recognize until it is fulfilling its purpose and enters into a working relationship with the smoker. As we pipe smokers recognize, a well-loved and well-smoked pipe is defined by its relationship with the smoker, not by its state of pipe-ness.

Our relationships with our pipes are cherished and unexplainable to those who do not also experience the remarkable interconnectedness that is achieved with a smoking instrument as it combusts tobacco. One wonders how much Sartre's pipe smoking influenced his philosophical thought. As pipe smokers ourselves, we recognize the ideas that evolved into Sartre's philosophical musings, and certainly understand the importance of these objects.

Sartre smoked quite a bit, when he could get tobacco. While he did not claim to possess much in the way of objects, he was a consumer of impressive quantities. According to Annie Cohen-Solal's biography, Sartre: A Life (1987), any 24-hour period in Sartre's daily life included "two packs of cigarettes and several pipes stuffed with black tobacco, more than a quart of alcohol — wine, beer, vodka, whisky, and so on — two hundred milligrams of amphetamines, fifteen grams of aspirin, several grams of barbiturates, plus coffee, tea, rich meals." It seemed that Sartre's elevated intellect required abundant and diverse fuel, though that lifestyle would occasionally cause him to step back and slow down or quit, as he details in Being and Nothingness:

Some years ago I brought myself to the decision not to smoke any more. The struggle was hard, and in truth, I did not care so much for the taste of the tobacco which I was going to lose, as for the meaning of the act of smoking. A complete crystallization had been formed. I used to smoke at the theater, in the morning while working, in the evening after dinner, and it seemed to me that in giving up smoking I was going to strip the theater of its interest, the evening meal of its savor, the morning work of its fresh animation. Whatever unexpected happening was going to meet my eye, it seemed to me that it was fundamentally impoverished from the moment that I could not welcome it while smoking. To-be-capable-of-being-met-by-me-smoking: such was the concrete quality which had been spread over everything. It seemed to me that I was going to snatch it away from everything and that in the midst of this universal impoverishment, life was scarcely worth the effort. But to smoke is an appropriative, destructive action. Tobacco is a symbol of "appropriated" being, since it is destroyed in the rhythm of my breathing, in a mode of "continuous destruction," since it passes into me and its change in myself is manifested symbolically by the transformation of the consumed solid into smoke. The connection between the landscape seen while I was smoking and this little crematory sacrifice was such that as we have just seen, the tobacco symbolized the landscape. This means then that the act of destructively appropriating the tobacco was the symbolic equivalent of destructively appropriating the entire world. Across the tobacco which I was smoking was the world which was burning, which was going up in smoke, which was being reabsorbed into vapor so as to reenter into me. In order to maintain my decision not to smoke, I had to realize a sort of decrystallization; that is, without exactly accounting to myself for what I was doing, I reduced the tobacco to being nothing but itself—an herb which burns. I cut its symbolic ties with the world; I persuaded myself that I was not taking anything away from the play at the theater, from the landscape, from the book which I was reading, if I considered them without my pipe; that is, I rebuilt my possession of these objects in modes other than that sacrificial ceremony. As soon as I was persuaded of this, my regret was reduced to a very small matter; I deplored the thought of not perceiving the odor of the smoke, the warmth of the bowl between my fingers and so forth. But suddenly my regret was disarmed and quite bearable. (Being and Nothingness)

Despite his efforts to philosophically accept not smoking, he always returned, and his pipe remained integral to his character to the end of his life.

Later Life

In the same year he refused the Nobel Prize, 1964, Sartre published The Words, a book repudiating literature. It is a satiric counterpoint to Marcel Proust's popular Remembrance of Things Past. In it, Sartre observes that literature is merely a substitute for legitimate commitment in the world. Leave it to Sartre to undermine that which he was best known for.

For the rest of his life he would maintain a simple existence with few possessions, being more interested in the world of ideas than in anything else and actively committed to political and social issues. In the Paris worker strikes of 1968, Sartre was arrested for civil disobedience. French President Charles de Gaulle intervened with a pardon, saying, "You don't arrest Voltaire."

He continued his use of amphetamines to pursue work on a massive, unfinished, three-volume analytical biography of Gustave Flaubert. Almost completely blind by 1973, his hypertension exacted a heavy toll, and he passed away in 1980 due to edema of the lungs. He was buried in a temporary grave until four days later when he was disinterred for cremation and his ashes were buried at Montparnasse Cemetery, where six years later the remains of his companion Simone de Beauvoir joined him.

Sartre believed that humans are "condemned to be free." There is no Creator, he espoused, and therefore one's purpose is self-determined. Humans are fully responsible for their own behavior and actions; they are not the result of a divine plan or purpose. For Sartre, freedom is the overriding framework upon which is placed the lives and actions of all humanity. He lived his own life according to his philosophy, and while we may or may not agree with his conclusions, we can certainly admire the importance and influence of the ideas so eloquently presented by Jean-Paul Sartre.


    • Arpie55 on November 27, 2020
    • When you consider the long list of notable pipe smokers you must admit, pipe smokers are a diverse group.

    • D on November 28, 2020
    • The Matrix has you

    • Stephen on November 29, 2020
    • In the words (almost) of René Descarte, "Je fumer, donc je suis".I had to read all of the philosophers in high school and did not care for Sartre. Always seemed to me that he missed the basic premise of our creation, i.e. free will or self-determination. However, I did smoke a pipe in high school...Thanks, Chuck; good read.

    • Paul Schmolke on November 29, 2020
    • Required reading back in my college days and well worth doing. What he said was much better than how he said it. A follower of the “smoke what you’ve got” school it seems. Nice bit of biography of an important modern philosopher who grew up in a troubled time. I always enjoy this Sunday read, always thought provoking and rarely mainstream. Thanks!

    • Coy on November 29, 2020
    • One of my favorite philosophers. A well written article. Thank you.

    • Paul Elliott on November 29, 2020
    • This is an excellent fundamental discussion of Sartres' concepts. Philosophy can certainly travel in circles as the philosopher works out his ideas,but this gives a true point of reference. Both of his thoughts and pipe smoking.

    • nathan meek on November 29, 2020
    • Thanks for a very good article about Sartre. Its unfortunate he played the mind game with his pipe smoking -what a sacrifice. Very intelligent, but I think he missed the boat. "Existence precedes existence -thus Essence." He did live in a brutal time and his experience colored his perceptions. The sheer existence that one faces -and to decide how one sees and chooses to interact with this world is fundamental. But there is also the state beyond one's own designs -a connection with the All and transcending beyond oneself from the considered expression. So much of western philosophy is "what the self can know" or even "what is the nature of the self" that oneself becomes the measuring stick for what man knows as "truth.". That's where eastern philosophy is so good. Thanks again for the thought-provoking article.

    • William Kotys on November 29, 2020
    • I think I read his plays in 1963, but never a biography. Thank you for this delightful summary. I will now view my pipe as did he.

    • Walkman on November 29, 2020
    • Excellent article. Thanks.

    • Dan on November 29, 2020
    • This was a thought provoking Sunday read, especially reading after a long day working out in the cold brain was alittle spent. My mother, being a devout Christian, forced me to go to church until I was about 16; the Bible was my only source of stimulation for existential thought (The book of Ecclesiastes, one of my favorites). Later I would go on to read other philosophers, i.e. Kant, some Chinese works (Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu), some of the Greek stoics, and later in life I would read about the different schools of Buddhism (feeling drawn towards the branch of Soto Zen). I can see some similarities in Jean-Paul's take on oneness and eastern thought. And we do share the same diverse fuel diet, also, minus the cigarettes, amphetamines, aspirin, and barbiturates. I really enjoyed reading this and learning something new. L'enfer, c'est Les autres- So true.

    • Ron Hoy on November 29, 2020
    • Nice article. Everyday consciousness might best be characterized in functional (instrumental) terms, rather than as just a material thing or process. But it would seem that Sartre continued to wrestle with "the world of matter and the physicality of his own body." Witness his sometime "choice" to give up tobacco. Apparently this choice failed. And however pleasant and artful pipe smoking can be, it would be silly to deny the evidence for physical mechanisms whereby the chemical nicotine can move consciousness to the thought: "a pipe would. be nice now." The art and craft of pipe smoking is a human innovation (a kind of culturally-defined "essence"), but it is one rooted in the existence of matter.

    • Joseph Kirkland on November 29, 2020
    • Chuck, another excellent article. Thank you for your hard work. Remember, Hemingway once said, good writing is the hardest work.Sartre’s The Wall is still one of my favorite short stories.Kudos!

    • Pierre Vaillancourt on November 29, 2020
    • I just want to say how much i like and find interesting these articles and the beautiful drawings that Artur Lopes creates. They embellish oh! so very well, the presentation of these articules.

    • Dan on November 29, 2020
    • @Pierre: I, also, am an admirer of Artur Lopes. I think it would be pretty awesome if Smokingpipes would put together an illustrated book with all his work on this site and sell it here. I've been drawing since I was a kid and consider myself pretty good at it; I really like his style.

    • Don Ward on November 29, 2020
    • I have no idea as to who you are. Nor would I recognize you should you jump through my window. But I wish you were my neighbor!

    • Don Ward on November 29, 2020
    • I don’t know who you are, nor have I ever met you. I wouldn’t recognize you if you jumped through my window. But I wish you were my neighbor!

    • KA on November 29, 2020
    • A good read, certainly. But in the end, it leaves me sad for Sartre. Not only did he miss the goodness of 'thingness,' but it seems his pipes were just a metaphorical furnace for his ideas. On top of that, he never had any really good tobacco. This could be soul crushing in itself, let alone the booze and drugs, specifically speed, which produces a dysphoria far worse than the euphoria it provides. No wonder he suffered from despair. Perhaps even worse, when he speaks of a Creator trapped in an existence of his own making or the 'impossibility of getting out of Himself,' he is rather only speaking of himself, the thinker. He confuses himself with the Creator, sees his own limitations, and then says it can't be true.

    • Bill Wright on November 29, 2020
    • I read Sartre at the same time I was reading Whitman, Ginsberg, and Kerouac. I knew Sartre was a pipester, not to the level, though, as this article brings out. The one element that seems to elude the official/unofficial biographers of many of these pieces (with the possible exception of Bing Crosby) is the tobacco they smoked. Sartre's "black tobacco" could have been a black Cavendish or straight Latakia (which is not bad, by the way). In the alternative, it could be a blend that simulates the noxious filler in a Gauloises cigarette.

    • Dan on November 29, 2020
    • @Don: My first good laugh of the day!

    • Mark Irwin on November 29, 2020
    • Chuck, what a superb overview of a great "Thinking Man" (even if he didn't smoke a Peterson System)! LOL. Thanks for the sympathetic, insightful look at one of the greatest "prophets" of the 20th century.

    • james hagan on November 30, 2020
    • Orwell said that Satre was nothing but a windbag and this excellent article proved it.I do not have to smoke my pipes in order to apreciate them.The very sight of them inert in my ash tray gives me pleasure.

    • Jack Justus on November 30, 2020
    • Chuck, you are a national treasure. I'm a philosophy professor, avid pipe smoker, and I've been waiting for your witty narrative about Sartre since your post on Russell. Well done.

    • Phil Wiggins on November 30, 2020
    • Pipes Smokers Heaven!!! A!!!

    • Morley Surcon [aka: Moe-Smoke] on December 1, 2020
    • @JamesHagen... I thought much the same thing. Sartre seems to believe that a pipe doesn't "become" until it is used for its intended purpose. And, while I get his gist, I also know that I have a number of pipes that are still unsmoked in my collection and they are no less a "pipe" to me than are my daily smokers. His philosophy neglects to encompass the "collecting" aspect within the hobby.

    • Old Timer... on December 1, 2020
    • Great article...but...what is Sykes smoking?

    • D on December 1, 2020
    • I will have to admit, some philosophers come across as grossly pretentious..."As I smoke my pipe "I" realize that the stem attached to the briar is "me", it's all "me", and I'm smoking "me" and the whole universe is in "my" pipe. All that read this and agree or disagree are "me" and "I" am "them". Maybe there's something to the entanglement theory and Einstein's spooky action at a distance, maybe everything is interconnected and science is finally catching up with spirituality. Then again, I'm just a rooster illusion...

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