I've been rediscovering existentialist philosophy lately, since I'm re-reading Jean-Paul Sartre's "Being and Nothingness" after a long absence from the pages I densely highlighted decades ago.
It's tough to encapsulate Sartre's outlook on life. He's a marvelously rich and complex thinker.
I love getting into his head via what he wrote in "Being and Nothingness." Sartre often writes in a dense intellectual style, but (thankfully) he frequently throws in nuggets of simplicity that inspire my churchless psyche.
A few paragraphs below are a few examples from my fresh highlighting in the book. The passages are pretty easy to understand, especially if you keep in mind the existentialist adage: existence precedes essence.
Which means, for Sartre there is no God, Platonic form, noumenon, soul, real self, or ultimate reality hidden behind the contents of human consciousness. What you see is what there is, basically.
Here's the quotes:
The appearance does not hide the essence, it reveals it; it is the essence.
Consciousness is the knowing being in his capacity as being and not as being known...The existence of consciousness comes from consciousness itself.
Whatever being is, it will allow this formulation: "Being is that and outside of that, nothing."
We must be careful never to posit nothingness as an original abyss from which being arose...This means that being is prior to nothingness and establishes the ground for it.
Man is always separated from what he is by all the breadth of the being which he is not...Man is the being through whom nothingness comes to the world.
Descartes following the Stoics has given a name to this possibility which human reality has to secrete a nothingness which isolates it: it is freedom.
Thus the condition on which human reality can deny all or part of the world is that human reality carry nothingness within itself as the nothing which separates its present from all its past.
It is in anguish that man gets the consciousness of his freedom...Anguish is precisely my consciousness of being my own future, in the mode of not-being.
I apprehend my freedom as being the possible destroyer in the present and in the future of what I am.
It follows that my freedom is the unique foundation of values and that nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies me in adopting this or that particular value, this or that particular scale of values. As a being by whom values exist, I am unjustifiable.
Values are sown on my path as thousands of little real demands, like the signs which order us to keep off the grass.
In anguish I apprehend myself at once as totally free and as not being able to derive the meaning of the world except as coming from myself.
Everything happens as if the world, man, and man-in-the-world succeeded in realizing only a missing God.
Man pursues being blindly by hiding from himself the free project which is this pursuit...Objects are mute demands, and he is nothing in himself but the passive obedience to those demands.
If consuming these Sartre snippets makes you hungry for more, but your reading diet doesn't include the 800 pages of "Being and Nothingness" (paperback translation by Hazel Barnes), I found these short overviews by Austin Cline to be well written and accurate:
I also enjoyed Jayne Forish's take on Sartre's existence precedes essence tenet. She stresses that with freedom comes responsibility.
In conclusion, existence precedes essence in the sense that at birth man is a being for whom nothing is predestined. Through man's own individual life-quest, he discovers and chooses the meaning of his own life. Man creates his existence through living, plain and simple.
Living involves the freedom to make choices as well as the acknowledgement of responsibility for the choices one makes. With no a priori meaning in the universe, man is free to choose his essence as well as define the essence of the world which surrounds him.
Man at first exists without purpose, but then he defines himself in the world through his actions and shapes the meaning of his existence by those actions. One's identity cannot be constructed by any outside force; no one else can choose the essence of another.
Therefore, identities are constructed solely by the individual's freedom of consciousness. Values are formed similarly, for no universal concept of morality exists prior to birth. Only through action and choice do values form, for "value is nothing else but the meaning that you choose."
When a human being first enters existence, he immediately begins to live and to choose the shape of his essence and, consequently, his values and identity.