Saturday, October 1, 2011


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When Sartre begins to explain his statement “existence precedes essence”, he starts by giving an example of an inanimate object. He describes a paper-cutter for example. He explains that the manufacturer has an idea to create a paper-cutter. He knows full well what purpose the cutter will serve. He creates the paper-cutter. And after its creation it serves only one purpose. Its essence therefore is decided before it is created. To understand what Sartre means when he applies this concept to humans you have to understand one important fact. Sartre and his colleagues are atheists. They do not believe in God, or that God created mankind. Moreover they do not believe that there is some divine plan, or that everything happens for a reason. Sartre does not believe in human nature, the will of god, or human essence prior to existence. He defines this as follows “first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself”. He says that man is nothing else than what he makes himself. What this means is that every man is fully responsible for his actions and the decisions that he makes. He believes that the idea that human nature is responsible, or that things that occur our God’s will, are just excuses that mankind have created to escape the reality that they have created their life situations. Religion therefore is simply a scapegoat, to avoid responsibility for one’s actions.

Sartre explains the concept of anguish as that a man 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. What he means by this is that if a man truly realized that there is no God, and no divine plan, he would ultimately look back upon his life, and forward on his future and realize that it was all up to him. His mistakes and misfortune were his own fault. And more importantly his poor choices ultimately affected the lives of others negatively. If a man gets into a car accident, and takes the life of another, many would say that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and God took that life for a reason. However, Sartre would agree that it was the man’s decision to go for a drive, perhaps to speed, or any other choice he may have made that day. This could lead a person to insanity. Sartre then explains that any man who does not openly admit to himself that all of his decisions ultimately affect himself as well as the rest of mankind is masking his anguish. Therefore everyone has anguish; some just choose not to acknowledge it.

This concept of anguish leads into Sartre’s definition of forlornness. This just means that God does not exist, and that we have to face all the consequences of this. Sartre disagrees with those who dismiss God with the least bit of expense. It is important he explains to understand the importance of there being no God. With no God, everything is possible, and with this there is no explanation of how things are and how things are going to be. “We are alone, with no excuses”, he explains. He uses the example of the student of his who was battling a personal dilemma about whether to go off and fight with the French to avenge his brother’s death, or to stay with his mother who would possibly die if he left. Sartre explained that the boy asked him for advice, and that the mere act of asking for advice is making a decision in advance. He stated that when people ask for advice they ask people who they know will give them the answer that they are looking for. So if things don’t go right they can pass their poor decisions of on another even though ultimately they made the decision. He says that forlornness implies that we ourselves choose our being. Forlornness and anguish go together he states.

Sartre defines despair as that we shall confine ourselves to reckoning only with what depends upon our will, or on the ensemble of probabilities, which make our action possible. He is saying that any decision that we make faces us with a series of possibilities. If I do this, what will happen? It’s really just saying that every action that we take has a consequence whether good, or bad. And we have to recognize this.

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If one was to relate all of these theories to making a decision we could come up with many outcomes. First let’s assume that I am an atheist. And that I fully understand the concepts presented prior. If I was to make a decision to go out and have a couple of beers tonight and then drive home, what am I actually doing? Well, first I would have to consider the fact that I am not just putting myself in danger. I am, even if I injure no one, affecting all of mankind. I am making a decision that could ultimately change other people’s lives. You could say that maybe a friend of mine witnessed my actions and now feels that it is ok to drive after drinking. Now let’s consider the possibility that I actually do get into an accident. I have now directly affected someone else’s life. And with this information I cannot pass it off as an act of God. It was NOT that person’s time to go. My actions took their life. And despair would explain the fact that I weighed these possibilities and outcomes prior to my actions whether I choose to recognize it or not.

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