Sarte’s Existentialism

In Existentialism and Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre sets forth his atheistic, existentialist worldview. A holistic statement about what Sartre is trying to convey is described by Pojman:

That we are completely free; that since there is no god to give us an essence, we must create our own essence that we are completely responsible for our actions, and are responsible for everyone else too; that because of the death of God and the human predicament which leaves us totally free to create our values and our world, we must exist in anguish, forlornness, and despair. Yet there is a certain celebration and optimism in knowing that we are creators of our own values.

For Sartre, ‘existence precedes essence’ and the starting point of his philosophy is subjectivity.

If God exists, this means that man is purposed, designed, and has an essence. God’s existence means that humanity has a defined and fixed nature. For Sartre, if God exists, man is not completely “free.” In other words, “the concept of man in the mind of God is comparable to the concept of a paper-cutter in the mind of the manufacturer…God produces man, just as the artisan, following a definition and a technique.” However, if God does not exist, we are completely free to be what we want to be. Man is one being in whom existence precedes essence. The definition of man is made by man himself. According to Sartre, “there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust towards existence.”

Sartre’s first principle of existentialism is man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make full responsibility of his existence rest upon him. The man is responsible for his own individuality and for all of humanity’s individuality. He is responsible for the choices he makes because they affect not only his future but the future of all mankind. This inner sense of responsibility leads him to anguish, forlornness, and despair. The following feelings arise within the man: anguish because there is no external authority to turn to as one feels the weight of responsibility for others on his or her shoulders, forlornness over the fact that God does not exist and that we as a people have to face all the consequences of such a malady, and despair when one realizes that he is wholly inadequate for the task set before him reckoned with the intense feelings of responsibility.

I do not tend to find myself in agreement with Sartre’s view of man. I cannot agree with it because it is based upon the false premise of God’s nonexistence. There is too much design, purpose, and order in the universe for God not to existence. Furthermore, man feels an obligation to right and wrong not because he is completely autonomous and is his own “soul-maker.” He feels moral guidelines, restraints, and an inner sense of justice because there is a moral guider-giver, restraint-creator, and just judge. The optimism he seeks to provide while denying God’s existence does not really offer much hope to any person convinced of such a system. Seeing the glass half full is really meaningless to me if the glass is ultimately poisoned with the cyanide of God’s nonexistence. William Lane Craig argues persuasively against this type of viewpoint (here). I think Sartre’s view of man falls flat.


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