This paper is over Sartre’s theory of “Existence precedes essence.” I would have to agree with Sartre on certain points concerning existentialism in general, that being we are all responsible for how we act and what we are in life. Although I believe his argument involving children having no essence is shaky at best, irresponsible at worst. I will first try and give you some background into both existence and essence, as it applies to Sartre’s theories. I will then show some consequences of these thoughts applying to humans only, followed by my inexpert opinion Sartre’s human nature proposition. Then I will try to illustrate why Sartre believes that we are all condemned to be free. Further on I will try to connect Sartre and Star Trek through their individual principles on freedom and responsibility. In conclusion, I will summarize my own opinions as to the validity of Sartre’s claims.
Sartre is well-known for his “existence precedes essence” theory, but what does he mean when he states that? Well, existence precedes essence simply states that, in the case of human beings, our actual existence, or life, comes before what we call our “human nature”, or our essence. An example for the parallel of “essence precedes existence” would be any inanimate object, be it a stapler or a DVD disc. It’s “essence” comes before its existence because said object is designed with a purpose in advanced by the manufacturer. In the case of humans the “manufacturer” is God, with objects, the “manufacturer” is in fact the company that designed and contrived the product.
You may ask – what consequences does this view have for human beings? We create the kind of person we are. We are responsible for what we are. Not just responsible, fully accountable for every choice we have made and every action taken. Also, through inaction we can also be liable for anything that we knew but chose to ignore. Every choice we make reflects humanity, because you are part of humanity and by acting you are condoning others to your line of action/reasoning. That puts a lot of stress on persons living in today’s world. It’s no wonder why we see a rising trend of neurosis and stress-related illnesses among younger and younger crowds. Too much pressure, or perceived pressure, for some to handle.
Sartre believes that there is no human nature. I do not know if he is right or not. I do not know if it is possible for that argument to be proved right or wrong. I do know that since his theory does not apply to both animals and children, that there has to be something missing from the theory. Stating that children do not have essence until they can reason is a little peculiar to me. At what point, exactly, does a child acquire essence? Is it before puberty, or after the infant stage? Going by Sartre’s definition; abortion should be completely fine because a fetus is not truly human as it has no human nature. I may be twisting his argument a little, but I’m not doing anything a shrewd observer would not do.
What does Sartre mean by “man is condemned to be free?” As human beings, we did not get to choose to be born in a particular circumstance. Freedom is something you think you want, with freedom comes responsibility. My must bare the anguish of our freedom of choice alone, because we alone are responsible for our virtues and vices. An example would be if you receive an order from your boss o use underhanded tactics to sell a bad product and you choose to follow his orders; you are just as responsible as your boss for your actions.
I can accept Sartre’s idea… I am able to accept anything. I may choose not to believe or I may choose to accept only this. But just because I am able to accept Sartre’s position does not mean I will choose to. I do believe that we can create our own virtues and that there is nothing to guide us besides our own concise. I also believe that in today’s society our conscience is formed by the mass media. We constantly quote others and not ourselves, we are bombarded with false information and propaganda every day. We are pressured by clichés and sometimes kept from the information we seek. If no one else is responsible then everyone is condemned to misery by his own parents, siblings, bosses, closest friends, and people they will never know. If the media has no bearing in the responsibility of our actions then we can do whatever we want to do; albeit killing, robbing, or raping. The media simply gives us examples of what we can do, nothing that we cannot. You have no one to answer to besides yourself, assuming that there is not a higher power holding us accountable.
Do you think any of the Star Trek captains would accept Sartre’s notions of freedom and responsibility? I would have to say that Captain James Tiberius Kirk would have some problems with Sartre’s ideals. In one hand, he would definitely take full responsibility for any action he deliberately did or accidentally did. For example, if Kirk accidentally let a madman escape on a strange world; he would lead the away team himself to find and retrieve the man. On the other hand, if some else was accidentally responsible for let’s say: bringing another Trible on board, Kirk would be quick to forgive the person and blame the evil alien that hid it in the person’s shopping cart. In other words, he views himself as the only responsible person in the universe, he holds himself responsible for everything but he is quick to forgive the fallacies of others. If a crewman was being manipulated by a robot Kirk would be quick to lighten the crewman’s emotional crisis of moral despondency by telling him that he was not responsible, the robot was the one to blame. Now that is a nice thing to say to help them through a bad time, but it does not agree with Sartre’s position in the least, in fact it’s the complete reversal.
My final thoughts about Sartre and his existentialist views are epigrammatic. A brief quote summarizes in a way I cannot.
A man who lies and makes excuses for himself by saying “not everybody does that,” is someone with an uneasy conscience.
What I believe Sartre meant by that quote is this: when you choose to act, do so without hesitation. If you regret your action, seek amends because what you choose to do and what you choose not to do reflect on all of us equally. Any action you commit you also approve of, same as of inaction. Anything you choose not to do is the same as approving that others do not do this act. Even so, the responsibility is on your shoulders, it is your burden. Do not bend from the weight; just think about your actions before you commit yourself to them. Hopefully your conscience will guide you correctly.
Originally turned in Monday, March 28, 2005.