Essay Review: Jean Paul Sartre's Existentialism

Sartre's thesis is that existentialism is the belief that we are defined by our actions and we are only what our actions reveal. If I claimed to be a loving person but spent all of my time selfishly trying to con people out of money, manipulate people into doing things for me, and destroying that which I have, could I really claim to be loving even if I felt I was loving in my heart? Not at all. If I am a loving person, it is my actions that will say such – not any statement I make with my voice or meditation I do in my head.

When Sartre states “Existence precedes essence,” he emphasizes that our essence, who we are, is defined by our existence, what we do (1200). We cannot pretend that we are someone different than what we act like. Who we are is defined by what we do. If we want to be social, then we will be social only once we start acting social. If we want to be giving, we will only be giving once we start giving. According to Sartre, we cannot think ourselves into being social or giving; it is our actions that will make us be what we want to be. That is existence preceding essence.

Sartre describes anguish as “the feeling of total and deep responsibility” an individual has when he realizes that “he is not only the person he chooses to be, but also a lawmaker who is, at the same time, choosing all mankind as well as himself” (1200). Anguish manifests itself when we realize that we know we must make decisions that impact others. These decisions will make our path become the only reality we will ever know.

Forlorness is the result of realizing “that God does not exist and that we have to face all the consequences of this” (1201). This causes distress that we will encounter when we realize that there is no God who has laid out a right and wrong answer. Sartre claims that this will lead us to a point where we will have to use our “instincts” to decide what actions we should choose (1203).

Despair “means that we shall confine ourselves to reckoning only with what depends upon our will, or on the ensemble of probabilities which make our action possible” (1205). Despair traditionally means “Complete loss of hope” (Despair). He tried to redefine “despair” to mean a state of mind in which we only deal with that in which we have control over. Sartre is guilty of what he claims Christians do: “The word (despair) is not being used in its original sense” (1207). He uses the word for impact, but he uses it in a completely different sense than what it means. “I shall have no illusions and shall do what I can” (1206). To him, that is what despair is. Thankfully, he explicitly defines his terms in his writings.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism.” The Norton Reader. 11th edn. Ed. Linda Peterson & John C. Brereton. New York: Norton, 2004. 1199-1207.

“Despair.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. 2006. 23 Oct. 2007.