by Laura A. Roser


Jean-Paul Sartre was a French Philosopher born in 1905. Although a recognized  intellectual, he is perhaps best known for his fictional works and plays, which are richly  symbolic and espouse his strong views against the existence of a god and a person’s responsibility to define herself. The Roman Catholic Church was not  impressed with his atheist views and placed his work on their list of prohibited books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum) in 1948.

Sartre won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, but refused it, remarking, “a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.”

He believed all people are free to create themselves and not defined by laws or morals  from a divine being. It is in facing this realization  that a man or woman can begin the journey of defining what morality means to him or her. In his  work Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre lays out his philosophy of self-definition:

“What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism. And this is what people call its “subjectivity,” using the word as a reproach against us. But what do we mean to say by this, but that man is of a greater dignity than a stone or a table? For we mean to say that man primarily exists – that man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before that projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be. Not, however, what he may wish to be. For what we usually understand by wishing or willing is a conscious decision taken – much more often than not – after we have made ourselves what we are. I may wish to join a party, to write a book or to marry – but in such a case what is usually called my will is probably a manifestation of a prior and more spontaneous decision. If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.”

The thing I like best about Sartre are his views taken from his 1948 essay “Qu’est-ce que la littérature?”  (What is Literature?) in which Sartre writes that  literature is not a self-indulgent act by the writer, but a moral activity to enhance the freedom of  humanity. It, as with the creation of any art, is  necessary in a free society. The freedom to express oneself creatively is in direct relation to the freedom  to define oneself within a culture.


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by Laura A. Roser
CEO and Founder of Paragon Road
#1 Expert in Meaning Legacy Planning