Jean-Paul Sartre’s declaration that “existence precedes essence” is a multifaceted statement that is invoked in order to defend existentialism against its critics. In order to understand and analyze the phrase, all three of its constituent components must be analyzed and then assembled together to comprehend its full meaning. The declaration reverses the status quo perspective, but simultaneously allows mankind freedom. The statement is accurate, and is universally applicable to man, the author himself included.
Firstly, the declaration that Sartre makes is against what was stated by other philosophers and religious thinkers prior to him, as he admits himself in his work. “The idea that essence is prior to existence; something of that idea we still find everywhere, in Diderot, in Voltaire and even in Kant.” What is meant by that is that when a man is born, he is essentially destined towards a certain temperament – a definitive human nature – according to these thinkers. Sartre takes issue with this from the point of view that if this were the case and essence was truly originated prior to and outside of an individual’s life, then the individual would consequently lack all control over their own life. As well, this definition of ‘essence’ is derived externally – the ‘essence’ that is assigned to mankind prior to birth, must also be created outside of him, by somebody else. This somebody is traditionally God, or the Creator. Thus, The Creator. according to this line of reasoning, creates a certain ‘essence’ and imparts it upon individuals at birth, and thus the individual has neither control nor responsibility over their subsequent life, temperament, and decisions – existence, in short.
In contrast, Sartre defends self-creationism of ‘essence.’ He states that when a man begins his ‘existence,’ he is a tabula rasa , somebody that has no predefined, God-given characteristics, and thus “to begin with, he is nothing.” (Sartre) The significance of this statement is derived from the fact that if somebody is nothing to begin with, then they have complete freedom of choice in terms of who they wish to become. Indeed, Sartre states that “man simply is” and that “man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” (Sartre) Therefore, if a man can choose the personality traits that suit him, can work on the things he wants to be, can adopt traits that he finds desirable, and is able to remove the ones he does not; man can therefore be whatever he desires to be. This is an enormous freedom – to not only be in control of one’s own current life, but also the freedom and ability to be the best possible version of oneself, in other words, become one's own ideal self in one’s own eyes.
Sartre’s declaration is an important one, not least because it lies contrary to what was established as the status-quo belief during his time, that is, that a person has no control over his life, that someone’s personality is derived from God prior to their birth, and that the person is thus entirely helpless and must surrender to their fate. If for instance, they were lucky, and were selected for a certain motivated ‘essence’ prior to their birth, then their life will be full of motivation. On the other hand, if they were not, then they cannot be held responsible for their decisions and for their life, as the ‘essence’ is something external to them, something that was simply assigned to them. Declaring that this is not the case, and that ‘essence’ is developed after a person begins to exist, makes people responsible for their own actions, and thus the real makeup of the ‘essence’ that is generated through this.
If the two beliefs are compared and contrasted, it is quite natural to say that indeed it is more accurate to state that “existence precedes essence” rather than vice versa. If the reverse is argued, one must on one hand declare that the individual has no control over their own ‘essence’ and thus over their own life, and on the other, must also ascribe meaning to an external, all-powerful creator. However, it can be often noted that people can change their attitudes, and can change their ‘essence,’ can truly take control of their own life, and move with determination and pride towards their definition of ‘ideal self’. The counterargument that would still defend the contrary of Sartre’s position sounds very cynical as it would declare that this change must also be pre-written, and that determinism, not the person, is to be credited for a person’s improvement. The reason why this is a clearly objectionable position is because it robs the individual of any credit as well as any responsibility for their own life. Indeed, if the ‘essence’ of the person precedes their existence, then how can any person be praised for any of their successes and, equally, how could anybody be punished for breaking their law, if the reason they break the law is due to this ‘essence’ that the individual has no control over seeing as it was prescribed to them prior to their birth.
Sartre’s position, on the contrary, allows the individual ultimate freedom, and also makes the individual completely responsible for their actions. If an individual decides to improve, and to adopt new and positive character traits, and thusly a new ‘essence,’ they can do so if they “purpose it to be.” (Sartre) Essentially, if somebody wants to be something and wants to possess certain traits, it is within their capability. It must be recognized that it is a vital facet of human existence that if somebody wants something badly enough, then they can become it through the hard work that they would put in due to their desire. This position that assigns the individual unlimited potential, and also holds the individual responsible for the consequences of their own actions is far more practical and reasonable, than the contrary position which is reliant on an external Creator that ascribes ‘essences’ upon future ‘existences.’ According to Occam’s Razor, it is logical to conclude that the position that “existence precedes essence” is the more likely and the more logically sound statement. (Baker)
Within the experience of the author of the essay, it seems that life has a grand complication of turns and changes. It can be said with confidence that these changes are ascribable to the individual desire to improve, and the perseverance and drive to self-analyze and to remove the traits that are found to be undesirable, and to add those that are. In their experience, they can declare that the person who they were three, five, and seven years ago are all distinct, and that the things that they are able to do today would have been impossible previously. It would be quite discouraging and unhelpful to believe that these changes are not the result of their own effort and their own hard work, but rather the result of some pre-determined essential changes that were destined to occur, put into place prior to even the author’s birth. Instead, the author maintains that the changes that have happened, the personal and social character development that he underwent, and the overall improvement and transformation of personality and indeed ‘essence’ were something that came from within. They occurred because the author himself recognized and continues to recognize, with attention, flaws in their own personality, and works on them as a consequence. Through doing this continuously for almost a decade, throughout his entire conscious time, the person that the author is has changed as a consequence. This consistent self-improvement should be credited entirely to the author’s efforts and cognisant self-development rather than the far more unlikely option that these changes would have occurred anyway, without involvement of the author. For example, the author has worked systematically and independently on their fear of approaching new people, by individually finding and applying Cognitive Behavioral techniques, and has as a result improved significantly in that facet. Contrary to declaring this aspect of their personality as just part of their ‘essence,' the author did not settle for what was, and instead worked diligently to change their ‘essence’ instead of simply accepting it as it was.
Sartre’s declaration that “existence precedes essence” is a statement that returns to man his freedom and grants him responsibility for his own life. Contrary to the declarations of previous philosophers that declared that ‘essence’ is pre-assigned to man before his existence begins, Sartre “puts every man in possession of himself as he is.” (Sartre) This point of view allows far more freedom for the individual, and gives them the right to make their life what they want it to be, in place of a cynical, predetermined, fatalistic existence which, seeing as it was predetermined, becomes ultimately meaningless. Sartre’s sentiment is accurate and applicable to humanity, and the author’s own transformation is testament to that fact. It is a logical and optimistic position to allow man to be free to make his own choices, even if that means that a man must be held responsible for that what he does.
Baker, Alan. "Simplicity." Stanford University. Stanford University, 29 Oct. 2004. Web. 06 Oct. 2016.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Existentialism Is a Humanism." 1946. 06 Oct. 2016.