Questions and Lecture # 1 on Jean-Paul Sartre

William O'Meara (c) copyright 1999

  1. What does Sartre mean by the statement that essence precedes existence?
  2. What is the essence of humanity if we assume that God exists?
  3. Granted this essence, could people ever change this essence by their own choices? Explain.
  4. What does Sartre mean by the statement that existence precedes essence?
  5. What is the essence of humanity if we assume that God does not exist?
  6. How does the etymology the word "exist" help explain Sartreís view of freedom over our own essence?
  7. How is Nietzscheís view similar to Sartreís?
  8. Who decided the meaning of life of the man Sartre met in a prisoner of war camp who decided to become a priest?
  9. Who has decided the meaning of your life? What is the meaning of your life?

Sartre states his famous definition of existentialism, saying that all existentialists agree that existence precedes essence. In a tentative procedure, in order to explain this statement, he first explains what he means by the reverse statement that essence precedes existence. He begins with an example of an artisan planning to make a letter opener. First, the artisan must identify:

the end or purpose: namely, to open letters; and

the means to that end:

suitable raw material such as wood or plastic;
          an appropriate design for shaping the material; and
a production process to make the object.
In this case of the letter opener, before it ever is created, the essence of the object, including both its end and the means to that end, precedes the actual existence of the letter opener.  In a similar way, now imagine, says Sartre, that God is the supernatural artisan of the species to be called humanity. As an intelligent artisan, God must predetermine the essence of humanity before humanity ever exists by identifying in the Divine mind:
the end or purpose: namely, to know and love the Creator; and

the means to that end: suitable raw material, namely, an image of God

with the ability to know the truth and
with the ability to choose the good (love)
an appropriate design for shaping the material,
namely, if we take a Western perspective, the Ten Commandments (Laws of Love of God & Neighbor)

or, if we take an Eastern perspective of Gandhi, the Moral Law or Sanatana Dharma (the Law of Truth and Love);

and a production process by which God and humanity choose freely to work together to form the raw human potential of knowledge and choice in accord with Godís design of Truth and Love.
In this scenario, the essence of humanity, including both its end or purpose and the means to that end are all predetermined by God. Even though humans have free choice, they cannot change their God-given essence. A person might try to change her divine purpose of knowing and loving God by finding her true happiness in the purpose of becoming the greatest surfer on the beaches of Hawaii. But if her heart is made in the image and likeness of God, her heart will be restless until it rests in God. Furthermore, if she accepts her true purpose as the knowledge and love God but then tries to make up her own means or design for reaching that goal, that attempt will also likewise fail. For if she chose not to live in accord with the moral law, the law of truth and love, how could she reach her true destiny? How could the deliberate choice of falsehood about self and others and of hatred of self and others be the appropriate means for developing her God-given potential of authentic truth about and love of self and others? Such a contorted project would be self-destructive. The essence is God-created as to both the overall purpose of humanity and the general means to that goal, and human freedom cannot change human nature.

In contrast with "essence precedes existence," "existence precedes essence" means that if God does not exist, humans themselves freely choose their own essence, that is, freely choose both their own purpose in life and their own means to that purpose. The etymology of the word "existence" discloses to Sartre an emphasis upon human freedom. The word "existence" comes the Latin word "exeo," which means "I go out." We are familiar with the word "Exit," on doors in public buildings where the word means that one may go out of the building through this door. To exist, then, means to go outside of oneís present and past self towards a future self which is freely chosen. One is not locked into her present or past self. She is free with regard to her future goals and her future means. Moreover, this creativity is not limited to the possibilities that oneís culture presents from the past. If human action were limited to our past possibilities, then we never could have created the Constitution of the United States, In Vitro Fertilization, Space Flight, Genetic Engineering, or the Internet. We have created such radical new developments in human civilization. So, human action is not limited to the pursuit of only our past and present goals, nor are we limited to the usage of past and present means. Rather, we can develop new goals and new means.

As Friedrich Nietzsche proclaims, the human is something to be surpassed because human nature is a process of continuing transcendence. Zarathustra proclaims in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that the human is something to be surpassed, to be transcended. Beyond-human, the ubermensch, beyond the present self in quest of the future self in a continuing process, shall be the meaning of human life. The secret of human greatness is, not to love what one has accomplished, not to let oneís life be determined by what has happened, but to affirm oneís freedom by self-mastery and by the creation of the future self. Nietzsche affirms in a striking poetic image in another writing that beyond-human, the ubermensch, shall be "the Roman Caesar with Christís soul." [See also the reading from Nietzsche in our text, pp. 44-47.]

In summary, the selection from Sartre in our text is opposed to the concept of an unchanging essence in human nature. Neither human passion nor human reason selects the meaning and goals of an individualís life; only an individual can create a personal meaning with a personal means to that personal goal. What is the meaning of an individualís life in Sartreís example of the man who was put in an orphanage as a child (failed as a child), who failed in early romance, and who failed in being rejected by the Army. Was he meant, destined, or conditioned by all his life experiences to be only a failure? Who decides the meaning of a personís experience? No one can add and subtract the meaning of these experiences, not even the individual involved, and calculate out and reason out the meaning of oneís life. One must choose freely. Only oneself must decide. This man chose that all his experiences meant that he was called by God to serve God directly in his life by choosing the means of becoming a priest. He created, or perhaps better, he co-created with God his purpose and his means to his purpose. Such a choice can be very difficult precisely because we cannot know with certitude what we should do with our lives. This lack of certainty over our purposes can give rise to the deep experiences of anxiety and despair, revealing the suffering involved in the inescapable demand that each person choose the meaning of life. Freedom is the center of human existence. Those who refuse to recognize the dominance of freedom over all aspects of personality are for Sartre living in self-deception, hiding from what they are choosing to do to themselves. Sartre denies that there is an essence in human nature which limits freedom.


William O'Meara (c) copyright 1999