The boy had conflicting religious training. Officially, he was Catholic, but his grandfather's Protestantism influenced him greatly. He learned little of the major philosophers of the day because they were not given attention at the French university of the time, but he would encounter them later when he was in his twenties. He passed his written examination for the agregation on his second try and fulfilled his military service from 1929 to 1931, doing so in the meteorological section. He then became professor of philosophy at the lycee in Le Havre and later taught at Laon. By then he had met his lifetime companion, Simone de Beauvoir. They never married, for marriage ran counter to their ideas of personal independence. Sartre's political views in the 1930s were radical, anticapitalist, antielitist, and proworker, and he was more of an anarchist than a revolutionary (Brosman 107).
Sartre's literary career began when he contributed to and acted in a student revue. He then wrote two novels, unpublished, a story published in 1923, an essay on the theory of the state in French thought (also published), and other pieces. He would continue to write during his military career. He wrote his first philosophical treatise -- L'Imagination (Imagination) -- in 1936, followed by the Transcendence of the Ego in 1937. His first novel, La Nausee (Nausea), was published in 1937 as well. His stories were published in 1939 under the title the Wall and were well-received (Brosman 8-9).
Walter Kaufmann notes that no philosopher in all of history has reached as large an audience in his lifetime as has Sartre, and he has also reached a wide audience as a novelist, playwright, and journalist (Kaufmann "Preface"). Sartre's existentialism was tremendously successful from its first appearance in contemporary thought, and in part Sartre benefited by finding a receptive audience in the days of World War II when most traditional values were treated with scorn (Lafarge 1). Sartre indeed was instrumental in bringing existentialism to such a wide audience that people with only a vague idea of his tenets understand that this is a modern philosophical approach that has infused much of modern thought and philosophical and artistic expression in the last 50 years or more.
Arland Ussher notes Sartre's position on fear, and especially on the fear of death, and finds fault with in part, writing,
Sartre, however, just for fear we should take him seriously, at once proceeds to cheapen and sensationalize his idea. Suppose, he says, I am doing something held to be discreditable -- say listening at a key-hole. Suddenly I become aware of an eye behind me, fixing me -- perhaps an accusing voice and outstretched finger. For the first time I experience, along with terror, shame; and Sartre will have it that all guilt-feelings originated in this way -- a very obvious cart-before-horse argument. In his massive analysis of Genet, the pederast and thief of genius (where the vision of the accusing finger is again called up), we find something like the ancient theory that it is the Law which brings Sin into the world, and not the other way; and it is suggested that the thief (who was not one until he was detected) does well to take up the challenge, and show that one Absolute of conduct is as good -- or bad -- as another. (Ussher 111) the primary critique of Sartre was Marxist, given that Sartre's philosophy of freedom was directly opposed to the Marxist doctrine of historical necessity: "He tried to make the two cohere in his Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) but ended up drowning in a sea of verbiage" (Holt para. 8).
Given that the human being creates and then re-creates himself, a high degree of self-awareness is necessary for the human being to function. A cardinal sin, therefore, would be self-deception, a falsehood that would shape the choices made and that would negate freedom. Sartre explored this idea in Being and Nothingness (1943). Sartre saw the central feature of human existence in the capacity to choose in full awareness of one's own non-being, and therefore it has to be asked whether or not I will be true to myself in making choices:
Self-deception invariably involves an attempt to evade responsibility for myself. if, for example, I attribute undesirable thoughts and actions to the influence upon me of the subconscious or unconscious, I have made part of myself into an "other" that I then suppose to control the real me. Thus, using psychological theory to distinguish between a "good I" and a "bad me" only serves to perpetuate my evasion of responsibility and its concomitants. ("Sartre: Existential Life" para. 7)
Sartre offered examples of mauvaise foi (bad faith) in action, referring to people "who pretend to keep all options open while on a date by deliberately ignoring the sexual implications of their partners' behavior, for example, [to] illustrate the perpetual tension between facticity and transcendence" ("Sartre: Existential Life" para. 8). Sartre says that the ability to accept ourselves for what we are and to do so without exaggeration is the key, noting that since the chief value of human life is fidelity to our selves, this is sincerity in the most profound sense:
In our relationships with other human beings, what we truly are is all that counts, yet it is precisely here that we most often betray ourselves by trying to be whatever the other person expects us to be. This is invidious, on Sartre's view, since it exhibits a total lack of faith in ourselves: to the extent that I have faith in anyone else, I reveal my lack of the courage to be myself. There are, in the end, only two choices -- sincerity or self-deception, to be or not to be. ("Sartre: Existential Life" para. 9)
In part, Sartre's discussion of self-deception was part of a critique of Freud, who had a different view of these issues. Sartre's view of self-deception was that it was something essentially paradoxical, though Paul Arthur Schilpp finds that "there is no such thing as Sartre describes" and that "Sartre shrinks from drawing this conclusion" (Schilpp 572). Sartre does manage to incorporate this paradox into the very essence of the phenomenon to be explained, as Schilpp points out:
According to him, self-deception names "a double activity at the heart of unity tending on the one hand to maintain and locate the thing to be concealed and on the other hand to repress and disguise it." Disregarding for a moment the Freudian terms in which he puts the point, this is presumably tantamount to defining self-deception as a process in which one belief just is maintained in the face of a belief in the contrary. If these are indeed the facts which are definitive of the phenomenon, it is, of course, impossible for any analysis to escape them, as Sartre contends Freud's analysis is trying to do. So viewed, Freud's theories would be inadequate. Indeed, they would be pathetically inadequate. (Schilpp 572)
Schilpp is not certain that self-deception as Sartre describes it even exists and that even if it is shown that it does, investigating it becomes a circular matter in that "it merely repeats the problem to be solved" (Schilpp 573).
Sartre's view is described as a contemporary form of humanism, with the individual at the center and with a belief in the ability of each individual to shape his or her own existence. Sartre begins with the human-centered situation of life and rejects the view that defines human essence or being and then tries to determine the purpose and values of human existence from that identity. Sartre asserts that existence is prior to essence and that our condition is what defines human nature rather than the other way round. We do not live by preexisting values and meaning but instead have the responsibility of creating our own, and through the choices we make we determine values for all.
The responsibility to create oneself is staggering and can produce a sense of fear, and this fear can lead in turn to not engaging in sufficient self-awareness and instead operating on the basis of self-deception. Operating on the basis of self-deception would negate the validity of choices made as to values and behaviors, and clearly self-awareness is an essential element for existentialist thought and for taking responsibility for one's life and one's choices. Such choices have to be made on the basis of self-knowledge and also without fear in order to be valid and effective both for one's life and as an example to others as to what choices can be made and what the consequences might be. In much of his thought, Sartre followed the lead of Heidegger and Kierkegaard, and echoes of both can be found in what Sartre writes about the topic of fear and the problem of self-deceptoin.