French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, was a leading proponent of existentialism in the 20th century. His various novels, essays, and plays hinge on the core philosophical claim that “existence precedes essence.”
In simpler terms, this boils down to the idea that one’s existence comes before their purpose. Thus, the “essence” of individuals is not predetermined but is created through our consciousness and the way we choose to live our life. In other words, the creation of meaning in life falls on our shoulders.
Lucidly, this freedom to ascribe purpose to our own existence is a very overwhelming, even crippling, concept. If we’re looking for a simple, universal, and comforting bigger picture, Sartre says we’re unfortunately out of luck. That’s the trouble of life. However, that doesn’t mean that the world or life itself is completely meaningless. According to Sartre, you and I just have to devise its meaning for ourselves!
To get a greater idea of Sartre’s wit, wisdom, and philosophical contribution, check out the selection of quotes below regarding these themes of freedom, purpose, and identity.
Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.Being and Nothingness (1943)
Life has no meaning a priori…
It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.Existentialism is a Humanism (1946)
My thought is me: that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think… and I can’t stop myself from thinking. At this very moment – it’s frightful – if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire.Nausea (1938)
It’s quite an undertaking to start loving somebody. You have to have energy, generosity, blindness. There is even a moment right at the start where you have to jump across an abyss: if you think about it you don’t do it.Nausea (1938)
Fear? If I have gained anything by damning myself, it is that I no longer have anything to fear.The Flies, Act One (1943)
When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself just to make sure, but it doesn’t help much.No Exit and Three Other Plays (1944)
To know what life is worth you have to risk it once in a while.No Exit and Three Other Plays (1944)
As a philosophy, existentialism tends to get a pretty bleak reputation. Hence, the popular association between existential crises and downward spirals. However, a more empowering conception of individual freedom and the search for meaning underscores Sartre’s stance on life.
Though we can certainly approach this freedom of choice in instating meaning into our lives as a sort of curse, it can also be an oddly comforting concept to adopt. In fact, the idea that we are free to choose our own purpose and speak meaning into our life showcases more optimism than is usually attributed to existentialist thought.
The potential culprit behind existentialism’s negative repute is the misconception that Sartre’s philosophy is the same as nihilism. While, in reality, there is a crucial difference in how each ideology tackles meaninglessness. Whereas nihilism wholeheartedly embraces the principle that nothing matters, existentialism provides a way out of that spiral into hopelessness by propounding the individual’s capability to create meaning.
Thus, Sartre’s philosophy leaves us with a significant amount of agency over deciding who we are and what we want our life to be. In this light, existentialism is indeed a humanism.
Looking for more philosophy content? Click here to check out our recent list of 5 pivotal female philosophers, including Sartre’s life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir!