Humanity: “Existence Precedes Essence”
After World War II, Sartre wrote a small, popular book explaining the tenets of existentialism. In
In 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his novel
Sartre's dictum that “existence precedes essence” separates him from several major classical philosophers, beginning with Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, truth is eternal, unchangeable, and absolute, and knowing it is the central goal of philosophy. According to Plato, there are eternally existing forms and your job is to discover them through philosophical contemplation, through reason. Human beings have a common eternal “essentialist” nature defined by reason.
Aristotle, too, said that humans are rational animals. He said:
In one way or another, all the major philosophical systems from Plato through the Middle Ages down to Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel carried on this essentialist tradition. Truth is outside of you, and your job is to use reason to discover it.
But Sartre says, “There is no human nature…. Man is nothing but what he makes of himself.” Sartre expressed nature in the formula, “man's existence precedes essence.” By this he means that you have no fixed nature and have not been created for any particular purpose. Things like paper cutters and hammers have set natures, since they have been created to fulfill a set purpose. But mankind is not created by God or evolution or anything else; you simply find yourself existing by no choice of your own and have to decide what to make of yourself. Each person must create her own essence.