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“Existence Precedes Essence”

By
Jean- Paul Sartre

Amidst the understanding of life of a human being that has existed for many centuries a
question often crosses my mind as to how do we know of our existence? Is it our physical
self (Body), our likes-dislikes, the clothes that we wear, the habits that we have, the ways in
which we approach things, our memory , or history, the relationships that we have, things
we love or hate, all of these are part of our being that defines our existence from a common
point of view. However, in philosophical theme of existence, there is a difference between
distinctively human existence and anything else and human existence is not to be
understood on the model of things, that is, as objects of knowledge.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy, focuses on the philosophy of existence known as
Existentialism. Here, by adapting the methods of phenomenology Sartre develops an
ontological account of what it is to be human. Sartre, during Second World War wrote his
best “Being and Nothingness”, where he shows interest in understanding the human
existence rather than the world. This has parallels with Heidegger’s focus upon Being. In his
philosophic masterpiece he spoke that the self needs projects or activities, motivated by the
desire of “Being” lying within the individuals’ consciousness. He emphasises that it is the
matter of our “Choice” that depends on an individual’s freedom.
He thought that human beings live in world of anguish, because we are condemned to be
free. Our every choices reveals what we think a human being should be. He believed that
existence is an active process of creating oneself through choices.
Essence is that nature of a thing that defines its individuality. It’s that distinct quality of a
being that is the key factor to discover oneself through the choice one makes. According to
Sartre, the existence of an essence, is tantamount to the existence of God.
Sartre quote “Existence precedes Essence”, was a new way of thinking in philosophy. He
stated that its first we who exist and it is up to us what defines us then live our life
accordingly. His theory suggests that we should live life authentically and free. Our goal in
life is to find our Essence- our reason to live. The fundamental belief in his philosophy is the
intentionality of consciousness or for-itself. According to him consciousness, or a human
being, is characterised by this lack of being. Due to this lack, consciousness seeks to become
a fullness of being through its possibilities and actions. It is this nothingness or lack of
essence that enables a man to create himself, to create his own essence. For Sartre man’s
existence is a process in which he transcends his being. This ability of the possibility that
man can negate in-itself, enables the man to move in the future in order to exist and create
himself , because the man is aware that there is a possibility of him being in future , what he
is not now, a being with the essence. He believes that one cannot know of anything of a
man but what man makes of himself today.
Sartre’s principle of Existence precedes existence rests on the meaning of term essence and
existence. The fact that all humans objectively encounter in-itself and respond subjectively
in different ways, as though they live in the same world but have different choices or
situations. Hence, it can be understood that essence of a man is his freedom to create
oneself considering the choices he wants to make. As he defines it “Existentialism is
Humanism”, man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world and defines
himself afterwards.

My Point of view
Sartre’s idea of human existence as not just the object of knowledge by just being there ,
but a process of transcending their being , in which they create the values of their life, is
very inspiring .His theory of existentialism states that “Existence precedes Essence”, that is
only by existing and acting a certain way we give meaning to our lives. There is no fixed
design for how a human being should be, therefore the onus for defining ourselves, finding
our own path, finding our essence falls squarely on our own shoulders. I believe this lack of
predefined purpose presents to us infinite choices is what Sartre attributes to “Anguish of
Freedom”. With nothing to restrict us, we have the choice to take actions to become who
we want to be and lead the life we want to live.
His idea of freedom widens our horizons to bring forth the idea of responsibility in a wider
context. We as human beings have infinite freedom, but we have limited capacity to
experience that freedom as every choices we make, we are accountable for it. And this
incredible burden of responsibility that the free man has to bear is what relegates him to
constant anguish.
As human beings with massive potential we must explore, break free our self -fastened
shackles to realise that Essence which is unique to our only self, and hence live a much
fulfilled and happier life.
We are born into this world and our existence finds its way as we grow through the choices
we make directed by an inner will to live the way we want to live, defining our essence. And
this “Essence” describes our consciousness and we build up to what we are today.
I very strongly believe, our life is what we make out of it and not what the world thrusts
upon us at every given situation of our life. Our Good or bad decisions are a result of what
we wanted to make out of a situation, what we really wanted. This helps to realise our
authentic selves which is uncoloured, unpainted, and unaltered by the wrath of the times.
We must explore the myriad possibilities life presents to us as we are alone responsible for
restricting our freedom.
It’s through existence we come to experience different phases and situations in life which
helps us to discover ourselves , through choices we make , making us who we become
tomorrow defining our unique and core of our inner selves – “Essence”.