Jean-Paul Sartre & Albert Camus: Their Friendship and the Bitter Feud That Ended It

At the end of World War II, as Europe lay in ruins, so too did its “intel­lec­tu­al land­scape,” notes the Liv­ing Phi­los­o­phy video above. In the midst of this “intel­lec­tu­al crater” a num­ber of great thinkers debat­ed “the blue­print for the future.” Fem­i­nist philoso­pher and nov­el­ist Simone de Beau­voir put it blunt­ly: “We were to pro­vide the post­war era with its ide­ol­o­gy.” Two names — De Beau­voir’s part­ner Jean-Paul Sartre and his friend Albert Camus — came to define that ide­ol­o­gy in the phi­los­o­phy broad­ly known as Exis­ten­tial­ism.

The two first met in Paris in 1943 dur­ing the Nazi occu­pa­tion. They were already “deeply acquaint­ed” with one another’s work and shared a mutu­al respect and admi­ra­tion as crit­ics and review­ers of each oth­er and as fel­low resis­tance mem­bers. Both “intel­lec­tu­al giants” were tar­get­ed by the FBI, and both would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture (though Sartre reject­ed his). Their fame would con­tin­ue into the post­war years, despite Camus’ retreat from philo­soph­i­cal writ­ing after the pub­li­ca­tion of The Rebel.

While we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly brought you sto­ries of their friend­ship, and its bit­ter end, the video above digs deep­er into the Sartre-Camus rival­ry, with crit­i­cal his­tor­i­cal con­text for their think­ing. Their ini­tial falling out took place over The Rebel, which cham­pi­oned an eth­i­cal indi­vid­u­al­ism and cri­tiqued the moral­i­ty of rev­o­lu­tion­ary vio­lence. Instead of explor­ing sui­cide, as he had done in The Myth of Sisy­phus, here Camus explores the prob­lem of mur­der, con­clud­ing that — out­side of extreme cir­cum­stances like a Nazi inva­sion — vio­lent polit­i­cal means do not jus­ti­fy their ends.

The book pro­voked Sartre, a doc­tri­naire Marx­ist, who had issued what Camus con­sid­ered fee­ble defens­es for Joseph Stal­in’s purges and gulags. A series of scathing reviews and angry ripostes fol­lowed. The per­son­al tone of these attacks chilled what lit­tle warmth remained between them. When the Alger­ian war for inde­pen­dence erupt­ed a few years lat­er, the staunch­ly anti-colo­nial­ist Sartre took the side of Alge­ri­a’s Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front (FLN), excus­ing acts of vio­lence against civil­ians and rival fac­tions as jus­ti­fied by French oppres­sion. Such events “were beyond jus­ti­fi­ca­tion in the mind of Camus.”

While Sartre belit­tled Camus as “a crook,” the “acute­ness of the sit­u­a­tion was all the stronger for Camus since Alge­ria was his home­land. He could not see it in the ide­o­log­i­cal warped black and white of Sartre’s cir­cle or the con­ser­v­a­tive French gov­ern­ment.” The state­ment might sum up all of Camus’ thought. As Sartre final­ly con­ced­ed in a posthu­mous trib­ute; he “rep­re­sent­ed in our time the lat­est exam­ple of that long line of moral­istes whose works con­sti­tute per­haps the most orig­i­nal ele­ment in French let­ters.… he reaf­firmed… against the Machi­avel­lians and against the Idol of real­ism, the exis­tence of the moral issue,” in all its com­plex ambi­gu­i­ty and uncer­tain­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sartre Writes a Trib­ute to Camus After His Friend-Turned-Rival Dies in a Trag­ic Car Crash: “There Is an Unbear­able Absur­di­ty in His Death”

The Exis­ten­tial­ism Files: How the FBI Tar­get­ed Camus, and Then Sartre After the JFK Assas­si­na­tion

Albert Camus Writes a Friend­ly Let­ter to Jean-Paul Sartre Before Their Per­son­al and Philo­soph­i­cal Rift

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • د. شهاب القاضي، says:

    مقال متوازن موضوعي في سرد العلاقة بين الفيلسوف جان بول سارتر والروائي البير كامو

  • Ternot MacRenato says:

    Excel­lent I go with Camus on the issue of wan­ton vio­lence. Blow­ing up inno­cent bystanders is not a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary act. It’s mur­der. The term rev­o­lu­tion is just an excuse.
    I wish you had slowed your deliv­ery a bit but it was clear and under­stand­able.
    Thank you

  • Timothy Dugan says:

    Excel­lent out­lay on these two enig­mat­ic per­son­al­i­ties. The idiom “use­ful idiots” was actu­al­ly Stal­in explain­ing the neces­si­ty of Sartre. Stal­in well knew of the utter inhu­man­i­ty and futil­i­ty of mur­der­ous rev­o­lu­tion, but with Sartre car­ry­ing water for the rev­o­lu­tion Sartre pro­vid­ed a fire­wall. Because of Sartre, Stal­in could not be attacked or even dis­cussed in cafe soci­ety with­out severe ret­ri­bu­tion for the attack­er. If you got Sartre’s atten­tion he would come look­ing for you. Your video reveals the shame­ful and even sin­is­ter “fel­low trav­el­er” sta­tus of the post-war intel­li­gentsia in France, Spain, Italy and Eng­land. Last­ly, beyond his eulo­gy of Camus, Sartre’s com­ments about the crook Alger­ian liv­ing in the urine-stained cas­bah are the true mea­sure of Sartre’s vit­ri­ol and hatred for any­thing true or con­sis­tent. I think Sartre was self-loathing. His unat­trac­tive atti­tude and dis­po­si­tion were self-evi­dent. His esti­ma­tion of the blood-thirsty Che Gue­vara is intel­lec­tu­al­ly con­sis­tent with his view of the world: “[Che] is the com­plete per­son…” What bile. Thank God for Camus, Orwell and Mal­colm Mug­geridge, as long as they con­tin­ue to appear on the radar, Sartre is sub­tract­ed.

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