Existentialism, on the other hand, places existence before essence. People exist, or are born, before they can be anything. Before they can become anything they have to be born. Therefore, existence precedes essence.
To Sartre our situation is basically unhappy. There is no way of separating good and evil. Therefore, people are condemned to a life of freedom in which they must choose. They make choices and take the consequences.
As to Sartre’s critics, Sartre’s defended existentialism against a number of charges which had been made against it:
- Existentialism as a philosophy which leads to “quietism of despair.” They saw it as a philosophy of inaction. They saw it as only contemplative and that it discouraged people from committing themselves to any course of action.
- Existentialists are overly pessimistic and for concentrating on all that is absurd and ugly in the human condition.
- Existentialism concentrates too much on the choices of the individual. It ignores the solidarity of all mankind.
- Existentialism seems to excuse the most heinous crimes in the name of free existential choice. It rejects the idea of God-given moral laws.
For Sartre ‘abandonment’ means specifically abandonment by God. This doesn’t mean that God actually existed at some point, and went away. It means that belief in God didn’t make sense at his period of time in nineteenth century. “Abandonment”refers to the sense of loss caused by the realization that there is no God to mandate our moral choices, no divinity to give us guidelines as to how to achieve salvation. Abandonment emphasizes the lonely position of human beings in the universe with no external source of objective value (such as God).
To meet the criticism that without God there can be no morality, Sartre develop his theory about the implications of freedom and the associated state of anguish.
Sartre believed in the freedom of the will. He declares: “Man is free, man is freedom.” Yet Sartre states that we are “condemned to be free.” This means there is great responsibility that goes with human freedom.
“We are left alone without excuse.” Sartre believes that we are responsible for everything that we are. This means we are responsible for how we feel and what emotions we choose.
We are not only responsible for everything that we are, but also when choosing any particular action we not only commit ourselves as “a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind.” Sartre uses this example: If you choose to marry and to have children, you thereby commit not only yourself but the whole of mankind to the practice of this form of monogamy.
Sartre labels the experience of this extended responsibility, which is an unavoidable part of the human condition, “anguish” He compares it to the feeling of responsibility experienced by a military leader whose decisions have dire consequences for the soldiers under his command. Like Abraham whom God instructed to sacrifice his son, we are in a state of anguish performing actions, the outcome of which we cannot be sure, with a great weight of responsibility: “Everything happens to every man as though the whole human race had its eyes fixed upon what he is doing and regulated its conduct accordingly.”
Sartre defines despair as the existentialist’s attitude to the aspects of the world that are beyond our control. This is particularly true about other people. In his play No Exit one of the characters states, “Hell is other people”. Whatever I desire to do, other people or external events may stand in the way of its fulfillment. The attitude of despair is one of detachment to the way things turn out.
Sartre says we cannot rely on anything that is outside our control. But this does not mean we should slide into to inaction. The exact opposite is so for Sartre. He argues that it should lead us to commit ourselves to a course of action since there is no reality except in action. For Sartre, there are no “unsung Miltons.” People are defined by their actions and if you haven’t composed great poems, you are not a great poet.
This is how Sartre defends himself from misperceptions of his philosophy. It is one of action and free will, not giving up and retreating into helpless misery.