Dad's Classmates
at the Sorbonne:
Jean-Paul Sartre &
Simone de Beauvoir

Jean-Paul Sartre (6/21/05-4/15/80) was born today in Paris. records 12,700 web links to "Jean-Paul Sartre"
and 8,700 links to "Simone de Beauvoir."

Ever competitive, I could hear Sartre's ghost telling Beauvoir's
"Just go on the web and see— I beat you by 4000 points!"

Here are some interesting web pages on Sartre:

The New York Times obituary of Sartre (April 16, 1980)
Boston Globe report on Sartre's Funeral Cortege (April 20, 1980)
Press Release & Biography of Sartre from the Nobel Foundation
A Literary Biography of Sartre with list of his selected works

Here are some interesting web pages on Beauvoir:

Biography on Simone de Beauvoir from Trinity College, Hartford, CT
"Simone de Beauvoir's Creativity" by Molly Beverstein (1996)
Simone de Beauvoir: Chronology, Essays, Picture Gallery
The Relationship of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre turned my mind topsy-turvy when I read his existentialism as a college freshman at Columbia. His statement that "existence precedes essence in man, and that man created God, so that we have to be responsible for the state of the world" shook my belief system, and led me to my search for heroes. I guess Sartre was responsible for initiating my quest. Soon I found Albert Schweitzer and Goethe as my mentors and met many other positive spiritual guides in my journey. I was surprised to learn today that Sartre and Schweitzer were cousins.

Sartre was scheduled to lecture at Cornell in 1964, and I recall buying an extra copy of his autobiograhy The Words from the Book-of-the-Month Club, so I could get autographed copies for my Dad and myself. However when Sartre declined the Nobel Prize for literature in October 1964, he also cancelled his Cornell visit.

My admiration for Sartre diminished when I read in Beauvoir's memoirs— "I take solace that when I die, I'll be buried next to Sartre. But between the dead and the dead, there is no bond." I thought to myself that if Sartre had experienced the cosmic consciousness of the sages, Beauvoir would not have been so pessimistic.

My favorite Sartre story is from my Dad, Tsien Chung Chou. He'll be 98 years old on July 29, 2000. Dad's eyesight is excellent, and reads The New York Times daily without glasses. Dad told me that in one of his classes at the Sorbonne, University of Paris, Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir were kissing in the back of the room. The professor reprimanded them for not paying attention to his lecture.

I didn't believe in Dad at first, but when I checked the dates, I found that Sartre met Beauvoir at the Sorbonne in 1929. He graduated first, and Beauvoir was second in 1929, their exam grades (agrégation) were better than all of the previous students on record.

Another stellar student at the Sorbonne during that time was Simone Weil, who later became a writer & mystic. In Axel Madsen's Hearts and Minds: The Common Journey of Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre (1977), we find this interesting story on page 24:

Simone Weil was concerned about the famine in China. When the two Simones got into a conversation, Weil said the only important thing was revolution, which would feed all starving people, and Beauvoir retorted that the problem was not so much making people happy as finding the reason for their existence. "It's easy to see you've never gone hungry," Weil snapped. In the philosophy exams, Weil was #1, Beauvoir #2.

Dad was at the Sorbonne from 1928-1930, writing his thesis on the "Irish Rebellion: April 26, 1916" with Professor Pierre Renouvin.

Martin Seymour-Smith in his The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written: The History of Thought from Ancient Times to Today (1998), ranked Sartre's Being and Nothingness as #89 and Beauvoir's The Second Sex as #91. I showed Dad this list, and joked with him that two students not paying attention in the classroom graduated #1 and #2 at the Sorbonne and went on to write books that made the top 100 of all time.

When I asked Dad which class did he share with Sartre & Beauvoir, he said: "Prof. Albert Mathiez's lecture on the French Revolution. Always a big class, maybe 200 students. Some were on the window sill or outside the room to hear the lecture."

Mathiez had just finished writing a definitive three-volume series on the French Revolution, and was the foremost scholar in the field. Yet for two young students, Sartre & Beauvoir, the topic was boring, perhaps because they were in love and had eyes only for each other. Perhaps they knew even then, that they would create an intellectual revolution for the 20th century with their combined creative energies.

— Peter Y. Chou
Mountain View, 6-21-2000

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (6-23-2000)