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Sartre’s Freedom and Existentialism Today

Sartre in his work, “Existentialism and Human Emotion” provides arguments for the existence of human freedom. He does so by deliberating on the first principle of existentialism, “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself” (Sartre, 1957/2020, p. 5). This principle encompasses the notion of existence before essence and reflects modern ideas of free will. In this essay, Sartre’s ideas of freedom will be reviewed to draw parallels with the modern perception of reality and its relevance today. Even though the work was written during the conservative end of the first half of the 20th century its relevance today is undeniable and traceable within the realm of the current pandemic crisis.

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To begin resolving the ultimate topic of human liberty, one must first consider Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. Sartre discusses frequent allegations leveled against existentialists in his article and then digs into his existentialism theory in an attempt to rebut the stereotypes. However, it is essential to note that when it came to the definition of his ideas, Sartre despised the word existentialist. He believed the word referred to a completely different perspective than his own. He was convinced that the reference — “existential” — was attached to his theory because he concentrated on the crucial role of existence and how it precedes the potential to perform formative acts based on human choices. Even though the term existential is frequently employed to describe the nature of subjective experience in other theories, for Sartre, existence was the defining determinant that influenced man’s choices and deliberate conduct.

This reflects his first argument that “existence precedes essence,” and the second — man’s responsibility for action, which emerge throughout his book and reflect his vision of existentialism and human freedom (Sartre, 1957/2020). Sartre (1957/2020) begins his explanation of existentialism by claiming that there are “two sorts of existentialists: first, Christian existentialists… and, on the other hand, atheistic existentialists,” the latter being how he defines himself (p. 3). Nevertheless, the two views mutually consider that existence precedes essence.

Sartre uses the concept of a paper cutter to further explain essence before existence. A paper cutter is a manufactured artifact created by an artisan who was inspired by the notion. To make this product, the craftsman must first conjure up an image of what a paper cutter is, what it does, and how he intends to make it. There has never been a “person who produces a paper cutter but has no idea what it’s for” (Sartre, 1957/2020, p. 4). The existence of the skilled artisan is the primary necessity for the existence of this essence as essence is acquired in the process of production.

Similarly, in religious views, God can be viewed as a higher type of craftsman by those who think he is the all-powerful creator of human life. To connect the concepts of God and human creation to the paper cutter, God is the artisan who saw the essence of man before he made him. As a result, people are the manifestation of a divine conception by existence that precedes reality — God. Although, Sartre and other atheistic existentialists consider alternative interpretations of existence. The absence of God, according to Sartre (1957/2020) and other atheists, points to the existence of another artisan or primary existence that came before essence.

The first of two unique themes that Sartre touches on in his essay to reinforce his case on human freedom is introduced at this point. Man is thrown into the realm of existence since there is no God who makes him. Man is not born with a fixed human character, and the core of this man was never formed by a God. Man can only identify himself and build his essence in the world after he has existed. ” Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he

is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust towards existence ” (Sartre, 1957/2020, p. 5). Man is responsible for all of his acts since existence precedes essence, as Sartre points out in his article.

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In detail Sartre (1957/2020) argues that “…existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him” (p. 5). Sartre’s second premise, that man is accountable for his acts, is introduced in this phrase, which he utilizes to support his case for human liberty. To clarify his view, Sartre tells a scenario about a little kid who must choose between leaving home to fight for his brother in the war or staying at home with his mother. If the youngster sought guidance, Sartre considers that he would be offered biased advice. Consequently, the boy must make his judgment and accept responsibility for whatever result he reaches. If the boy chooses to leave his mother and join the French Forces, his values reflect this, whereas if he chooses to stay with his sad mother, his morals reflect this as well.

This interpretation of choice and free will is especially essential today in the age of COVID-19. The pandemic forced many to stay in isolation and to experience the sudden collapse of what is considered normal living. Many start to blame governments and turn towards conspiracy theories to find an explanation and a scapegoat for the inconvenience. However, for others, the change revealed that people are responsible for their actions. Many bluntly neglected numerous safety measures introduced by WHO, others continue to impoverish the situation by rejecting the idea of vaccination. As a result, the idea of freedom introduced by Sartre is essential to guide people towards a more unified and prosperous coexistence. People need to realize the weight of actions and take moral responsibility for personal conduct and not turn towards conspiracies.

In conclusion, Sartre in his work devised an important approach to modern-day issues. Mainly, it has transformed the idea of personal responsibility and free will. His ideas are in sync with the famous quote by René Descartes which prompted conquer oneself rather than the world. In consideration of Sartre’s ideas this quote relays, that we are left in the domain of possibility, but possibilities are only to be reckoned with to the extent that our actions comply with the ensemble of those possibilities, and no farther. Furthermore, we must detach ourselves from the possibilities we are examining as soon as they are not rigidly implicated in our activities. The reason is that no God, no scheme, can fit the universe and its possibilities to one’s desire. Finally, the concept that God does not exist is encapsulated by the belief that humans are in charge of their acts for their own sake, not for the sake of a greater entity.


Sartre, J. P. (2020). Existentialism and human emotions by Sartre (1957) – philosophy. Philosophymagazine. (Original work published 1957) Web.

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