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Existence Precedes Essence: Unpacking Sartre’s Vision of Freedom and Responsibility

Key Takeaways:

  • We have the freedom to shape our identities and values through the choices we make, without predetermined essence guiding us.
  • With the power to define our essence comes the responsibility to make ethical choices that reflect our true selves and impact society positively.
  • While we have the freedom to define ourselves, our choices and identities are influenced by external factors like society, culture, and biology.
  • Sartre’s philosophy encourages us to live authentically and deliberately, using our existential freedom to enhance personal growth and ethical living.
  • Our existence is a dynamic project where we continuously create and adjust our essence through our actions and decisions.

Jean-Paul Sartre, a towering figure in 20th-century philosophy, radically transformed our understanding of freedom and the human condition with his existentialist ideology. Central to his thinking is the provocative assertion that “existence precedes essence.” This concept, foundational to existentialism, challenges centuries of philosophical tradition that defined a person’s essence—or nature—as fixed and determinative. Sartre’s philosophy proposes instead that individuals craft their own essence through choices and actions, suggesting a profound level of personal freedom. This post delves into the depths of Sartre’s thought, exploring its implications for our personal and collective lives in contemporary society.

Understanding the Basics

Existence and Essence

Traditionally, ‘essence’ in philosophy referred to the inherent attributes that define a substance or being. For example, in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the essence of a thing was its ideal, immutable form, which determined its behavior and purpose. In stark contrast, Sartre’s existentialism posits that for humans, there is no predefined essence to adhere to. We arrive in the world ‘existing’, and only later define our ‘essence’ through behavior and choices.

Historical Context

The phrase “existence precedes essence” was first articulated by Sartre in his 1945 lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism.” During a time when Europe was reeling from World War II, Sartre presented existentialism as a form of ultimate freedom but also as a daunting responsibility. This period of moral and social upheaval made his ideas particularly resonant, as they emphasized personal responsibility and the freedom to redefine one’s self outside traditional roles.

Contrast with Classical Philosophy

In contrast to Sartre, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and later religious scholars, believed that the essence of a thing—its purpose and nature—was predetermined, either by its ideal form or divine plan. For humans, this often translated to a ‘soul’ or an innate purpose endowed by a creator. Sartre, influenced by the earlier works of philosophers like Heidegger, who emphasized being and existence, flipped this narrative to argue that each person must create their own essence through lived experience and choice.

The Role of Freedom in Sartre’s Philosophy

Radical Freedom

At the heart of Sartre’s existentialism is the concept of radical freedom. Unlike any other being, humans are free to make choices that are not bound by any predetermined nature or divine will. This freedom is absolute and comes with the weighty realization that every action helps to carve out what we become. Sartre illustrates this through the idea of a painter: just as a painter is not a painter until they paint, humans are not their ‘essence’ until they act.

Implications for Daily Life

This existential freedom means that everyday decisions are imbued with significant weight. Choosing a career, a partner, or even daily habits are acts that define our essence. Sartre’s existentialism does not just free individuals from societal or religious preconceptions; it also burdens them with the responsibility of choice, where avoiding decision-making is itself a choice that shapes one’s identity.

Ethical Responsibilities

With freedom comes responsibility. For Sartre, every action reflects an individual’s choice about how they think life ought to be lived, effectively setting a standard for humanity. This aspect of existentialism is both empowering and daunting, as it places the onus of ethical behavior squarely on the individual. Each choice contributes to defining not just the individual but potentially sets a precedent for others, emphasizing the interconnectedness of personal freedom and communal norms.

Existentialism in Action

Literary Examples

Jean-Paul Sartre not only articulated existentialism through philosophical essays but also through his plays and novels. Characters like Antoine Roquentin from “Nausea” embody the struggle of existential realization—living through the horror of absurdity and the freedom of constructing one’s essence. Similarly, in “No Exit,” the famous line “Hell is other people” underscores the conflict between one’s self-created identity and the identity imposed by others, illustrating the challenge of authentic existence within society.

Concept of ‘Bad Faith’

One of the key concepts in Sartre’s philosophy is ‘bad faith’—the denial of one’s freedom and the adoption of false values to escape the anguish of freedom. Examples of bad faith include adopting societal roles without question or blaming one’s nature as the cause of one’s actions. Sartre argues that acknowledging our freedom and responsibility is essential for authentic existence, even though it may lead to discomfort and existential angst.

Anguish and Accountability

The recognition of our freedom brings with it the feeling of anguish, knowing that we are responsible for defining our essence through our choices. Sartre illustrates this with the example of a military leader who must decide whether to send his troops into danger—an action that might define him as a leader and a human. Each decision reflects a value judgment, effectively making the individual a moral legislator for humanity.

Critiques and Challenges

Societal and Biological Influences

Critics argue that Sartre’s focus on individual freedom underestimates the role of external factors—such as culture, society, and biology—that can profoundly influence one’s identity and choices. These elements suggest that while individuals can exercise freedom, their range of choices is often conditioned by their environment and inherent characteristics.

Philosophical Divergences

Philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche also explored themes of existence and essence but offered different insights. Heidegger emphasized ‘being-toward-death’ as a fundamental aspect of existence, focusing on authenticity in facing one’s mortality, while Nietzsche discussed the creation of values through the ‘will to power’, arguing for the transformation of the self into something superior.

Determinism vs. Free Will

The debate between determinism and free will is also pertinent here. Determinists argue that every event, including human actions, is determined by preceding events, which challenges the existentialist view of freedom. Acknowledging these perspectives enriches the discussion of existentialism by highlighting its complexities and the tension between philosophical ideals and real-world conditions.

Sartre’s Influence on Modern Thought

Ethics and Existentialism

Sartre’s ideas have permeated modern ethical discussions, emphasizing the individual’s role in crafting moral values through choices. This has implications for debates on moral relativism and the foundations of ethics, suggesting that our actions can establish new ethical norms and that morality is inherently flexible and personal.

Existentialism in Psychology and Politics

In psychology, existential themes inform approaches like existential therapy, which helps individuals navigate the anxiety of freedom and responsibility, fostering a genuine acceptance of self-creation. Politically, Sartre’s ideas influenced movements advocating for social freedom and responsibility, emphasizing the role of individual actions in societal change.

Cultural and Artistic Impact

Sartre’s existentialism has also influenced arts and culture, encouraging artists to explore themes of alienation, freedom, and the search for meaning. His ideas encourage a portrayal of humans as beings in constant flux, forever creating and recreating their identities in response to their choices and actions.

Practical Implications of Existentialism

Personal Growth Through Existentialism

Understanding Sartre’s existentialism can be transformative on a personal level. By accepting that we are the authors of our essence, we are empowered to live more deliberately. Each decision, from career choices to personal relationships, becomes an opportunity to define who we are and who we want to become. This empowerment can lead to a more conscious and purpose-driven life, where personal authenticity is the hallmark of our actions.

Embracing Existential Principles for Self-Improvement

To incorporate existential principles into everyday life, one must first embrace the responsibility that comes with freedom. This means making choices that are consciously aligned with personal values and accepting the inevitable anxiety that comes with such decisions. It’s about acknowledging that while the freedom to choose can be daunting, it is also a profound source of self-realization and empowerment.

Maintaining Ethics in a Subjective World

In a world without predetermined meanings, maintaining personal ethics can seem challenging. However, Sartre’s existentialism suggests that by consistently choosing actions that reflect our ideals, we actively construct a moral framework. This framework is personal yet universal in its application, as each choice sets a precedent that can inspire others or guide social norms.


Jean-Paul Sartre’s “existence precedes essence” is more than a philosophical statement; it is a call to action. It challenges us to live with the awareness that we create ourselves at every moment through our choices. This existentialist view encourages us to confront our freedom and its accompanying responsibilities head-on, shaping our lives and identities with every decision we make. As we navigate this path, we discover that the true essence of life is not found in conforming to external definitions but in the authentic expression of our individual existence.

In embracing this philosophy, we not only transform ourselves but potentially the broader fabric of society, contributing to a world where individual freedom and responsibility are celebrated. Sartre’s existentialism, thus, remains a potent tool for understanding and navigating the complexities of modern life, offering profound insights into the interplay of freedom, choice, and personal responsibility.

Further Reading and Resources

For those intrigued by Sartre’s existentialism and wishing to explore further, a wealth of resources is available. Consider reading Sartre’s seminal works like Being and Nothingness and Existentialism is a Humanism. For a broader perspective on existentialism, explore works by Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Martin Heidegger.

This exploration of Sartre’s existential philosophy not only enlightens us about his revolutionary ideas but also invites us to look inward and question how we choose to define our existence in the boundless terrain of human freedom.