Jean Paul Sartre on the Meaning of Life

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.

4 thoughts on “Jean Paul Sartre on the Meaning of Life

  1. This concept of free will has been a point of contention for me for years. This is undoubtedly the result of breaking away from Roman Catholic roots, and establishing myself as a firm atheist.

    Sam Harris’s writings in The Moral Landscape, and his book Free Will have been an enormous source of help. How would Sarte respond to the idea that free will itself may be an illusion, that we are products of random internal, and external stimuli. Consciousness could be said to be preceded by the chemicials that make up consciousness. If this is so, then are we truly “responsible”for what we “will”?

  2. Sartre’s idea of radical freedom is hard to sustain given what we now know about the influence of genes and environment. Nonetheless most philosophers are compatibilists.

  3. To view man as being created without essence just because there was no God there who created him is wrong. Man evolved gradually through millions of years of evolution and definitely has an essence, namely that of being created in order to live in wild nature. This is a fact. We are all, still in this modern technologized society, basically stoneage people. This means that we do have an essence and that this essence results in some basic needs that must be fulfilled. Philosophers like Sartre and also Camus always have a tendency to theorize and abstractify things as if man were an abstract being with no boundaries, capable of everything. In “The myth of Sisyphos” Camus goes far enough to say that all experiences are equal and it is our task in life to live them, to get to know them and to act accordingly to them. This however presupposes that all experiences can be considered equal, but they are not. Having gone through a divorce, however emotionally exhausting it might be, is not the same as having spent ten years in a concentration camp. With Sartre it sounds as if life is some kind of empty bowl that needs to be filled with whatever you can think of and that it, in terms of meaning in life, does not really matter what you fill it with. I think that is a very facile way of seeing things.

  4. Lars – You are absolutely correct about our nature having been largely determined by evolution and now culture plays an even larger part in its future development. The problem with Sartre from my point of view is his exaggerated conception of freedom. And you are also right about the difficulty of an existentialist ethics – Simone de Beauvoir probably did it best. Thanks for the comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *