In Existentialism is Humanism (1946), Sartre stresses clearly that the existence of a person precedes her essence. This assertion, put simply, means that only the individual can determine his essence throughout his own life:
"Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world - and defines himself afterwards".
The rejection of all "deterministic excuses" - character, history, faith, biology - holds people fully responsible for their situation. The idea of man freely choosing his actions is what allows moral judgement according to Sartre: when people are free to act this way or another, they are responsible.
A full realization of such responsibility is followed by anguish, which is associated with a sense of despair that stems from man's fundamental abandonment. With no God to prescribe a way of life, man is left orphaned in the universe, the arbiter of his own way.
Despair turns into in a strange optimism when the moral responsibility in its roots is taken as the foundation of a possible meaning. In the absence of expectations or birthrights, man can embrace freedom and take meaningful action in acceptance of the consequences.
Reading: Existentialism is Humanism
Questions to ponder:
* How does the common idea of essence threaten freedom?
* Why is it tempting to associate existentialism with nihilism?
* Is politics without identities possible at all? If not, what could then be a political identity of this undefinable being that man is?