Sartre's Essence vs. Existence A look at Sartre's characterization of the human condition and analyzing essence vs. existence in terms of primacy

Jean-Paul Sartre’s declaration that “existence precedes essence” is a multifaceted statement that is invoked in order to defend existentialism against critics of it. In order to understand and analyze the phrase, all three words within it must be analyzed and then assembled together to comprehend the full meaning of the sentence. The declaration reverses the status quo thinking at the time, but allows mankind freedom. The statement is accurate, and is universally applicable to man, the author himself included.

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 want 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, that can work on the things he wants to be, to adapt traits that he finds desirable, and to remove the ones he does not; man can be whatever he wants 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 self, the ideal self in one’s own eyes.

Sartre’s declaration is an important one, not least because it was contrary to what was established as the status-quo belief during his time, that a person has no control over his or her 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 are lucky, and are selected for a certain motivated ‘essence’ prior to their birth, then their life will be full of motivation and if they are not, then they are not responsible for their decisions and for their life, as the ‘essence’ is something external to them, 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 be 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’, taking control of their own life, and moving 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 if they declare that this change may 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 on the other hand, how can 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 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 responsible for their actions. If an individual decides to improve, and to adopt new, and positive character traits, and thus a new ‘essence’, they can do so if they “purpose it to be.” (Sartre) Essentially, if somebody wants to be something and have certain traits, it is within their capability, and it is a 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 had a number of turns and changes. It can be said with confidence that these changes are due to individual desire to improve, and the perseverance and drive to self-analyze and to remove traits that are 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 not have been possible prior. 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 ‘essence’ changes that were destined to occur, prior to even the author’s birth. Instead, he maintains that the changes that have happened, the personal and social character that 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 personality, and works on them as a consequence. Through doing this continuously, for almost a decade, the entire conscious time, the person that the author is has changed as a result. 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 any involvement of the author’s effort. For example, the author has worked systematically and independently on their fear of approaching new people, by individually finding and applying Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, 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’ rather than accept what it was.

Sartre’s declaration that “existence precedes essence” is a statement that intends to give man freedom and responsibility for his own life back. Contrary to the declarations of previous philosophers that declared that ‘essence’ is pre-assigned to mankind before their 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, rather than a cynical, predetermined, fatalistic existence which as it was predetermined becomes ultimately meaningless. Sartre’s sentiment is accurate, is applicable to humanity, and the author’s own character transformation is testament to that. It is a logical and optimistic position to allow man to be free to make his own choices, even if it does hold him responsible for them.

Works Cited



Baker, Alan. "Simplicity." Stanford University. Stanford University, 29 Oct. 2004. Web. 06 Oct. 2016. Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Existentialism Is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre 1946."Existentialism Is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre 1946. 06 Oct. 2016.