Existentialism Is a Humanism | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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Existentialism Is a Humanism | Main Ideas


Existence Precedes Essence

This central concept is the starting point for existentialism, subverting the idea that human beings are born with an essential nature. Sartre focuses his discussion of "essence before existence" on God, who creates man in his image and gives him a set of moral guidelines to follow. If essence comes before existence, then human beings are not free; instead their lives, thoughts, and actions become predetermined by their essential nature. In the absence of God, however, individuals are free to invent their own values; they exist before they develop an essence. The idea that people are free, Sartre argues, is a disturbing one. It requires that people take responsibility for the course of their lives and that they act with courage rather than hiding behind conventional views or choosing not to act.

Absolute Freedom

"Man is freedom," Sartre announces at one point in "Existentialism Is a Humanism." At another point in the essay he writes that man is "condemned" to freedom. These two statements capture the essence of how Sartre views this central concept. On the one hand, without God to set guidelines or create man in his image human beings must realize they have no choice but to invent themselves. Sartre views this as a disturbing realization; once "cast into the world, [man] is responsible for everything he does." This thought causes anguish—since how can one person ever be sure he or she has chosen correctly?

On the other hand, if the primary condition of man is his freedom, then human beings can create societies and civilizations that are more humane rather than thinking they are trapped by deterministic forces outside their control. Moreover, they are able to adjust their actions, much like a painter can alter some images on a canvas. They are not imprisoned by an essential notion of how they must behave. Humanity is free to create a humanistic society, one that privileges dignity. So while the idea of absolute freedom produces anguish, it is also a source of optimism. It means, among other things, that people do not need to accept society's view of morality. They are able instead to create their own moral choices.

Conscious Choice

The notion of choice is something Sartre discusses throughout "Existentialism Is a Humanism." It is "impossible" not to choose how to live; "if [a person] decides not to choose, that still constitutes a choice." In other words people make choices all the time that alter the course of their lives and impact the lives of those around them.

For the existentialist choice is a particularly important concept because human beings are absolutely free to act; there is no essential moral structure governing their lives. That is why the choice must be made consciously, in full awareness of the impact on others as well as in accordance with a person's own values. A choice made consciously cannot be a bad choice unless a person is, as Sartre recognizes at the end of the essay, a "bastard." In fact, Sartre believes that, if made consciously, not only will an individual's choice be for his or her own good, but each individual will choose actions that are for the good of society as a whole.

Committed Action

Although one of Sartre's critics' main objections to existentialism is that following it will lead to inaction, action is perhaps the most important principle of the philosophy. "Reality exists only in action," Sartre writes. The human project of self-invention requires committed action; "by constantly seeking a goal outside himself in the form of liberation, or of some special achievement ... man will realize himself as truly human." However, a person does not need to commit to a single project. Just as the artist has not committed herself to a particular finished painting when she begins to create, so a person is unaware of how suitable the project will be once she undertakes it. It is the consistency of the commitment, and the willingness to act, that matter.

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