According to Jean Paul Sartre, the idea of existentialism can be explained in three words: existence precedes essence. What it means is that human beings come before ideas, concepts and most importantly, meaning. He compares it with a product. Before manufacturing a product, we have a purpose in mind, don’t we? I manufacture pens because I want to write. But when it comes to human beings, that’s not the case. According to Existentialism, human beings come first and *then* decide their purpose. There is no predetermined purpose or anything.
Since human beings come before ideas, there is no absolute right or wrong. We all have our own ideas about right and wrong and we assume that our ideas and feelings are universal (many a times, they are, no doubt). But when we encounter somebody who doesn’t follow our ideas of right or wrong, we are surprised, irritated, annoyed or even feel outraged. But we are assuming that there is a basic human nature and that everybody shares it. What if there is nothing like it?
If there is no absolute right or wrong, then it is *I* who decide my own right or wrong. It is *I* who decide my own limits: for example, since childhood I feel that I am not good at maths, but how do I know this? Do I have a fixed idea about myself? When somebody hates a non-vegetarian, then isn’t that person assuming that vegetarianism is the only ‘right’ way? As per Sartre, we make choices on the basis of our beliefs about how human beings “should be.” In all these examples, we are assuming that the ideas and beliefs that we have, must be universal and hence, there is an anxiety in each one of us, to ‘convert’ others.
But Sartre asks us to think about another possibility. If there is no right or wrong in ANY area of life, then we are free. Imagine living the life the way YOU want to. Now that you know that there is no absolute right or wrong, you don’t have to follow rigid gender roles, sexuality or conform to any kind of stereotypes. Sounds amazing, right? Not really. Because if we are free, we are COMPLETELY responsible for what we do. What it means is that you are free to choose but if you are not happy then it’s YOUR fault. That’s why most people surrender their freedom but Sartre says that even surrendering your freedom is a choice. In other words, you are choosing to let others choose for you. Sartre says that we are condemned to be free.
I don’t completely agree or fully understand Sartre, because I have not read his essays (I have read ‘Nausea‘, where there was a glimpse of his ideas). Somebody told me about all this and I just decided to write them down here. I could be wrong about my understanding because I only heard it. But what’s interesting to me are the ideas…
If we assume for a minute that essence comes AFTER existence…that each individual gives his or her own meaning to life, that there are no fixed values, then we either go into depression or we use this freedom to actually solve many problems and be more peaceful.
This is not even 0.001 percent of Sartre’s ideas. I need to digest and contemplate on the ideas to get some clarity so I will end the post here.