Sartre and de Beauvoir with Che Guevara in 1960.
Jean Paul Sartre (1905-80) was a French philosopher, author and playwright who coined the term ‘existentialism’. He was influential in existentialist and European Marxist thought. A public intellectual, and a cultural icon and philosophical giant in France, he rejected the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. Arguably, his single biggest contribution to philosophy was claim that ‘existence precedes essence’.
Simone de Beauvoir (1906-86) was one of the first major female thinkers in France, and like Sartre, was also a cultural icon. Her 1949 book, The Second Sex, remains to this day as one of the most highly regarded feminist tracts. She made significant contributions to existentialism, even advancing the ideas proposed by Sartre. Her philosophical strength may also be found inside the works of Sartre, influencing him in conversations and letters between them. Alongside her contributions to feminism and existentialism, she also wrote successful novels which are still read to this day.
Some accounts offer a degree of notoriety to Sartre’s physical attractiveness. (Or possible lack of it.) Under five foot tall, with one eye facing a different direction than the other, he paid little attention to his own personal hygiene. This didn’t stop Sartre from having success with women. He was intelligent and charismatic, and was even successful with young women in his middle age. He was a character who reminds me of a quip by Voltaire: ‘Give me ten minutes to talk away my ugly face and I will bed the Queen of France!’.
Sartre fell for Simone de Beauvoir, (who was later also to be known as a seducer of young women), and she fell for him. Outside of the Louvre in 1929, Sartre decided to propose to de Beauvoir whilst sitting on a bench together. There and then, he told her: ’Let’s sign a two year lease.’ She declined, saying that she had no dowry to contribute. Sartre was to propose to her two more times, also to rejections.
Passionate lovers, they remained unmarried. They were also not monogamous.
Sartre offered a fantasy to de Beauvoir of having different women in different instances of passion, full of signification and meaning for each instance. Or, in other words, he wanted to sleep with multiple partners because it’d be rather fun. De Beauvoir agreed to this, and later became incredibly enthusiastic for it. They regarded each other as their foremost lovers. However, they permitted each other to have sexual, and even romantic, adventures with other people. There was only one condition attached: complete honesty, and to hold nothing back. From then onwards, the pair slept with multiple partners other than each other, with frankness and honesty to each other about it.
Hence, they became polyamorous lovers. They even went as far as sharing young female lovers together. Despite jealousy which arose, they were committed friends and lovers throughout their lives. Radical partners in ideas, the pair read over each other’s work, and shared philosophical ideas. The only book that de Beauvoir wrote which Sartre did not read before publication was her final one, Farewell to Sartre. De Beauvoir herself was an invisible editor for Sartre’s work. (Or, in his words, she ‘filtered’ his work.)
Many people may read this tale relatively unremarkable. They may see it as an eccentric, but acceptable adventure in non-conformism. However, Sartre and de Beauvoir entered a polyamorous relationship in 1929 - over three decades before the 1960s. Polyamory may seem a rare curiosity today to more liberal minds, but in the 1920s this was raging against the currents of custom. This was like being an atheist before the Enlightenment.