Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a French existentialist philosopher, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, political activist, biographer, and literary critic. He was one of the leading figures in 20th century French philosophy, particularly Marxism, and was one of the key figures in literary and philosophical existentialism. Sartre was also noted for his long personal relationship with the feminist author and social theorist Simone de Beauvoir. He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature which he refused.
In his famous public lecture “Existentialism Is a Humanism,” (1946) Sartre set out the basic ideas of his existential philosophy and its relationship to the question of the meaning of life. He begins by noting that the communists have criticized his philosophy as bourgeois; Christians have rejected it as morally relative; and others have described it as sordid, unappreciative of beauty, and subjective. In response Sartre explains that existentialism is based upon the doctrine that existence precedes essence; that our concrete subjective existence comes before whatever essence we develop.
To help us understand this idea Sartre considers an artifact such as a letter opener. In this case its essence—to open letters—precedes its existence. The artisan had this essence in mind before it existed. When we think of God as creator of human beings we are reasoning similarly. God had our essence in mind first, and then created us in accord with that human nature. Sartre’s atheistic existentialism implies the reverse. For human beings our existence precedes our essence, since there is no God to give us an essence, and we freely choose what we will become. Unlike chairs and tables we have to make ourselves, and in so doing we alone are responsible for the essence we create.
Along with this responsibility comes the anguish that accompanies our decisions. We never know which action we should perform, but perform them we must. Furthermore, as there are no gods or objective moral guidelines, we alone must choose, be responsible for our choices, and accept the accompanying anguish that choice brings. We cannot escape our freedom, Sartre says, and we should offer no excuses for them. When deciding between staying with our mother or going off and fighting the Nazis, in Sartre’s example, no theory of human nature or objective moral values help. We must simply exercise our freedom, choose, and accept the responsibility and anguish that follows.
The benefits of an existential view are first, that it begins with individual consciousness, the only certain beginning for any philosophy; and second, it is compatible with human dignity, as it respects humans as subjects rather than making them manipulated objects. Individuals are artists or moral agents who have no a priori rules to guide them in creating art or living moral lives. And we should not judge others for the choices they make, unless they hide behind a doctrine and dogma. To do that is to deny one’s freedom.
In the end to be human means precisely to recognize oneself as sole legislator of values and meaning, which for Sartre is the logical conclusion of his atheistic position. But even if there were gods it would make no difference, human beings would still have to create their own values and meanings for their lives to be valuable and meaningful.
Summary – Human beings are not artifacts with a pre-existing essence; they are subjects who must freely choose to create their own meaning.