Critical Essays Sartrean Existentialism: Specific Principles


In order to simplify things even further, one should study a point-by-point list of existentialist principles. This is a summary useful for understanding several of Sartre's works, and it is representative of his major ideas.

The Problem

Existence is absurd. Life has no meaning. Death is the ultimate absurdity: It undoes everything that life has been building up to. One is born by chance; one dies by chance. There is no God.

The Solution

One must make use of freedom; only freedom of choice can allow one to escape "nausea."

The System

(1) Existence
Precedes Essence Our acts create our essence. Humanity alone exists; objects simply are (for example, they do not exist per se). Animals and vegetables occupy an intermediary position. Plants grow, form fruits, live, and then die. Animals are born, chew their food, make sounds, follow their instincts, and die. Neither plants nor animals make deliberate choices or carry through with responsibility.


Historically, philosophy before Sartre was "essentialist." That is, it was concerned with defining the essence of each species, with providing details about generic traits. Existentialism, on the other hand, places existence before essence. Man exists (is born) before he can be anything, before he can become anything; therefore, his existence precedes his essence. His state of existence precedes his state of becoming. An individual is responsible for making himself into an essence, of lifting himself beyond the level of mere existence. This is where choice and action come in. Sartre offers the argument about the artisan and his craft: "When you consider a manufactured object, such as a book or a paper cutter, this object was manufactured by an artisan who started from a concept; he referred to this concept of a paper cutter and also to the technique of producing it as a part of the concept — which is basically a recipe. Thus, the paper cutter is simultaneously an object which is produced in a certain manner and which has a definite purpose; one cannot suppose a man making a paper cutter without knowing what the object will be used for. That's why we say that, for the paper cutter, essence . . . precedes existence. . . . It's a technical vision of the world in which one can say that production precedes the existence of an object. When we conceive of a God-creator, this God is usually thought of as a superior artisan. . . . In the eighteenth century, with the atheism of the philosophers, the notion of God was done away with, but not so with the idea that essence precedes existence. . . . Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more coherent. It declares that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before being defined by any concept, and this being is man — or, in the words of Heidegger, human reality. What does this mean, that existence precedes essence? It means that man exists first, finds himself, ventures into the world, and then defines himself. . . . Thus, there is no human nature since there is no God to conceive it. Man is simply, not only in the way by which he conceives himself, but as he wishes himself to be, and since he conceives himself after existence, man is nothing other than what he makes of himself."

Thus, Sartre takes the traditional assumption of "essence precedes existence" and changes it into "existence precedes essence." This is a direct result of his atheism whereby God does not exist. Man is born at random, and objects such as paper cutters simply are (they do not exist). Sartre distinguishes between "to be" and "to exist." One must exist before one can have essence, but objects and animals simply are.

(2) Freedom 
Man's situation is an unhappy one: what is good? and what is evil? Since there is no way of separating them, man is condemned to a life of freedom in which he must choose. If one rejects the notion of God, who is to say what is good and what is evil? No one, since there are no absolutes: There is good in evil and evil in good. One cannot act and remain pure since too many fears and obstacles would present themselves; of necessity, one must make choices and assume the consequences.

Sartre delineates three categories within his definition of freedom:

  • the man whom he compares to a stone: this man makes no choices and is happy in his no-choice life. He refuses to commit himself (engagement), to accept responsibility for his life. He continues in his passive habits. Sartre scorns him. In The Flies, this person is represented by the Tutor.
  • the man whom he compares to plants: This man is not happy. But he lacks the courage to take responsibility for his actions. He obeys other people. He is the one who suffers from "nausea." Sartre scorns this man the most of all three groups.
  • the man not compared to stones or plants: This man suffers from freedom. He has the nobility to use freedom for the betterment of his life. He is the one whom Sartre admires.

(3) Responsibility
Man must be committed, engaged. He has a responsibility before other citizens for his actions. By acting, he creates a certain essence for society ("by choosing for oneself, man chooses for all men"); any action which one takes affects the rest of humanity. From the moment when man makes a choice, he is committed. One must not renege on one's responsibility (as does Electra in The Flies), nor must one place the responsibility for one's actions onto the shoulders of someone else. Man should not regret what he has done. An act is an act.

(4) "The others" 
Other people are a torture for two reasons:

  • they are capable of denying one's existence and one's freedom by treating one as an object; for example, if you do a cowardly act, and another person calls you a coward, this cuts off the possibility of your doing something heroic or courageous; it stereotypes you as a coward, and this causes anguish.
  • others judge you, observe you without taking into consideration your intentions (either your intentions about a future act or an act which you've already committed). The image they have of you may not correspond to the one you have of yourself. But you can't do without them because only they can tell you who you are. Man does not always understand the motives behind his actions; therefore, he needs others to help in this process. But there is relief; man can say to himself: "I am torture for them, just as they are torture for me."

Sartre offers four ways of defending oneself from the torture of "the others":

  • evasion or avoidance: One can isolate oneself from them, go to sleep, commit suicide, remain silent, or live in obscurity;
  • disguise: One can try to fool others, lie to them, give a false image, resort to hypocrisy;
  • emotions: One can inspire emotions such as love and friendship in others, make oneself liked/loved by them: "My lover accepts me as I accept myself." Therefore, an "other" judges you as you judge yourself;
  • violence: A dictator can put people in prison to prevent them from saying what he doesn't want to hear.

Sartre concludes that if any of the above four conditions prevail(s), one finds oneself in circumstances that are hell.

(5) Commitment
Man must not be indifferent to his surroundings. He must take a stand, make choices, commit himself to his beliefs, and create meaning through action. Sartre is in favor of an engaged literature, of art that has a goal, a purpose. As with a man shooting a gun in the air or directly at a target, it's better to have a target, a message. The readers should feel their responsibilities; the author should incite the readers to action, infuse an energy into them. Sartre is interested in a "historical public" (that is, a public of a certain precise moment in history): He addresses himself to the public of his times. Ideally, an author should write for a universal audience, but this is possible only in a classless society.

But the compromise is to address all readers who have the freedom to change things (for example, political freedom). People hostile to Sartre's writings criticized him of assassinating literature. But he replied that he would never ignore stylistics, regardless of the ideas he was developing. He claimed that a reader should not be aware of a writer's style, that this would get in the way of understanding the piece of literature. Commitment to one's writing, he argued, was as vital as commitment to all other actions in one's life.