Existence Precedes Essence
In Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) presents an accessible description of existentialism. A key idea of existentialism—and of the human condition—is that existence precedes essence.
The essence of something is its meaning, its intended purpose. A paper cutter is made to cut paper; that is its point. Humans, however, do not have an essence.
Man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself.1
We have no greater purpose, no pre-determined plan, no ultimate meaning. We have, in Sartre’s words, no human nature, since there is nothing (e.g. God) outside of us which would conceive of it for us. We are simply here, and it is up to us to define ourselves.
Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.
We have choice, we have subjectivity, and we choose what we will make ourselves to be; we are entirely responsible for our existence:
Thus, existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him.
This thought is often not easily accepted. ‘Subjectivity’ is a word that riles up many. “If everything is subjective then nothing is objective; nothing is absolute! Our values are nothing more than our whims! Nothing is right or wrong! Rabble, rabble, rabble!”
Sartre replies that, “it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity.” He isn’t saying “I prefer subjectivity over objectivity,” he’s asking, “how can we possibly not be subjective?” Even the religious individual who believes that morality is absolute and comes from God must, at some point, choose to believe that this is the case.
Our responsibility is a blessing and a curse. It leads us to feel things like anguish, forlornness, and despair.
We experience anguish in the face of our subjectivity, because by choosing what we are to do, we ‘choose for everyone’. When you make a decision you are saying “this is how anyone ought to behave given these circumstances.”
Many people don’t feel anguish, but this is because they are “fleeing from it.” If you don’t feel a sense of anxiety when you make decisions, it’s because you are forgetting about your “total and deep responsibility” toward yourself and all of humanity.
Forlornness is the idea that “God does not exist and that we have to face all the consequences of this.” There is no morality a priori. There is no absolute right or wrong. There is no ultimate judge.
This is a very distressing idea. As Dostoievsky said, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible [permissible].” Without God we have nothing to cling to.
“There is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom. [...] We have no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct.” In other words, we have no excuses, and we are entirely responsible for our decisions.
What are our values? The only way to determine them is to make a decision. At the end of the day, your ideals aren’t what matter; what matters is what you actually did.
Despair arises because we only have power to change things that are within our power to change—and there is a lot we cannot change. Reality is impartial and out of your control, except for small aspects of it here and there. We despair because we can never have full control of the future.
What Will Happen Will Happen
Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to set up Fascism, and the others may be cowardly and muddled enough to let them do it. Fascism will then be the human reality, so much the worse for us.
Regardless of what is right or wrong, good or bad, and regardless of whether these are absolutes or not, “things will be as man will have decided they are to be.” What will happen will happen and humanity will be entirely responsible for what it does.
Does this mean we ought to become passively accepting of what will happen? Sartre says the exact opposite.
Does that mean that I should abandon myself to quietism? No. [...] Quietism is the attitude of people who say, “Let others do what I can’t do.” The doctrine I am presenting is the very opposite of quietism, since it declares, “There is no reality except in action.” Moreover, it goes further, since it adds, “Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life. [emphasis mine]
This is why existentialism horrifies some people. It puts such a burden of responsibility squarely on their shoulders. They can’t stand to think they were at fault for not being a great or successful person, for having no great friendships or love. They think they are the victim of circumstances; they haven’t had the proper education, leisure, or incentives; they haven’t found the right person yet; they haven’t had the opportunity to show their greatness. Sartre, however, says that “The coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic.”
The artist is an artist because of the works of art he created, not because of what he could have created. The mathematician is famous for the math he did, not what he maybe could have done.
We find that this is “a harsh thought to someone whose life hasn’t been a success.” We are responsible for our successes and failures. But at the same time, this harshness forces us to face the incredibly important fact that:
Reality alone is what counts.
Sartre sees these views not as a pessimism, but as an “optimistic toughness.” Optimistic in that we are the rulers of our lives; our destiny is within our hands; we are encouraged to take action.
Sartre summarizes his idea of optimism and action in the following passage.
Thus, I think we have answered a number of the charges concerning existentialism. You see that it can not be taken for a philosophy of quietism, since it defines man in terms of action; nor for a pessimistic description of man—there is no doctrine more optimistic, since man’s destiny is within himself; nor for an attempt to discourage man from acting, since it tells him that the only hope is in his acting and that action is the only thing that enables a man to live.
Is Choice Arbitrary?
Sartre ends this piece with a further defence of subjectivism, in which I wish he had gone into a little more detail. He says people are still not satisfied with the idea of subjectivism, and objections usually come in one of the following forms:
1. “Well then, you’re able to do anything, no matter what! You’re promoting anarchy!”
But this isn’t the point. It is not possible to not choose. In not making a choice you are still choosing not to choose. Choice is inescapable; we are “condemned to be free” because we are human, whether or not we are existentialists.
2. “You can’t pass judgement on others, because there’s no reason to prefer one idea to another!”
We can still hold values, and values appear out of the choices we make. Through our actions (as an individual and as a group), we create ethics.
3. “Everything about your choice is arbitrary!”
We define ourselves through our actions, “in relationship to involvement.” And as we make ourselves—as we make choices—it is absurd to say we are choosing arbitrarily.
In summary, Sartre says that,
Existentialism is nothing else than an attempt to draw all the consequences of a coherent atheistic position. It isn’t trying to plunge man into despair at all.
Despite its atheistic position, existentialism doesn’t “wear itself out” arguing whether God exists or not.
Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing. There you’ve got our point of view. Not that we believe that God exists, but we think that the problem of His existence is not the issue. In this sense existentialism is optimistic, a doctrine of action.
We are the rulers of our lives, we bear the responsibility. Regardless of what you believe, this cannot be any other way.
“Existentialism is a Humanism,” by Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Bernard Frechtman, was originally published in 1945, and reprinted in Existentialism and Human Emotions. Copyright (C) 1985, Philosophical Library and Carol Publishing Co. Published by arrangement with Carol Publishing Group.
Taken from Existentialist Philosophy: An Introduction. 2nd Edition. Edited with Text by L. Nathan Oaklander. 1996. Prentice Hall Inc.
- All of these quotes are taken from “Existentialism is a Humanism,” by Jean-Paul Sartre. [↩]