From “Existentialism and Human Emotions” (1957); republished in Marino, The Basic Writings of Existentialism.
No, Sartre says, existentialism does not flow solely from the Cartesian concept of Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). Instead it emerges from a fundamental ontological principle: “Existence precedes essence.” And: “Subjectivity must be the starting point.” And: “Man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself.” And: “Man is nothing but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism.”
But what does Sartre mean by “subjectivity”? He means that “when we say that man chooses himself, we mean that every one of us does likewise; but we also mean by that that in making this choice he also chooses all men.” When we act we create an image of ourselves for all to see. We set an example. Thus, “In choosing myself, I choose man.”
Therefore our subjectivity comes with enormous responsibility, which produces anguish. “That man who involves himself and who realizes that he is not only the person he chooses to be, but also a lawmaker who is, at the same time choosing all mankind as well as himself, can not help escape the feeling of his total and deep responsibility.”
Anguish. For even in the presence of God, we still must choose. Take Abraham, the initiator of no less than three religions, confronted by an angel demanding that he sacrifice his son. Surely, Sartre notes, he must have wondered whether this spirit really existed or dwelled in his imagination. Abraham also must have considered the example he would set in engaging in such brutality. And even if God truly sent this messenger, did that mean that Abraham had to obey the command?
“What proof is there that I have been appointed to impose my choice and my conception of man on humanity?” asks Sartre. And who am I to set an example for others? This, for Sartre, defines anguish.
But if God does not exist (as many existentialists believe), should we celebrate? Should we regard this as a step forward towards greater rationality? Sartre says no. The existentialist “thinks it is very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him.” Indeed, it disappears even “with Him,” since we still must choose values in the presence of The Eternal. Sartre calls this dilemma forlornness. “We are alone, with no excuses.” He describes us, the forlorn, as “condemned to be free.”
On top of all this, we must also confront the despair of knowing that we can control only our decisions, not those of others: “The moment the possibilities I am considering are not rigorously involved by my action, I ought to disengage myself from them, because no God, no scheme, can adapt the world and its possibilities to my will.” We must, however, recognize the intersubjectivity of others: “In order to get any truth about myself, I must have contact with another person,” Sartre insists. “The other is indispensable to my own existence, as well as to my knowledge about myself.”
Existentialism heralds the good news that no matter what we have done with our lives so far, we can always choose to do better. No one comes into this world a hero or a coward, Sartre notes: “What the existentialist says is that the coward makes himself cowardly, that the hero makes himself heroic. There’s always the possibility for the coward not to be cowardly any more and for the hero to stop being heroic.”
Existentialism, then, offers an “ethics of action and involvement.”