In Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism,” he defines and defends existentialism against its critics. Within this document, he argues that mankind is “condemned to be free.” In modern terms, and arguably for the past as well, “freedom” was something to be valued and enjoyed. Sartre however, defines it as something that requires action and accountability, not to a higher power, but to the self. He defines this concept of being condemned to freedom in two parts. He writes that the existence of man is condemned because he did not create himself. However, he is free because he is responsible for all of his actions. Mankind is self defining, and this is significant because it takes away the idea of divine powers and born circumstances defining a human’s life. With the concept of freedom comes the ultimate idea of personal accountability. He writes that “we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses.” In this way, the life of an existentialist is to be the life of someone with no protection or defense from himself and his own ways.
Sartre associates anguish, forlornness, and despair with his definition of freedom. Being forlorn, by dictionary definition, means to be unlikely to succeed or to be fulfilled. In this way, the human existence seems extremely bleak. However, through Sartre’s example of the man and his internal conflict with leaving or staying with his mother, he makes the argument that the value of a feeling, or concept of being fulfilled, is determined by an action. In this way, I understand him to mean that one can only be fulfilled through the action that they choose, and that is the only way they can truly understand or give meaning to their choices and ideas. The concept of being fulfilled, the opposite of being forlorn, hinges upon the idea of being able to achieve an ascribed sense of fulfillment. However, if what Sartre is saying is true, then there really is no universal means of fulfillment for man because he defines everything by the action he takes, which in one sense fulfills his emotion, but in another, fulfills nothing at all.
While Sartre seems to discuss a breadth of uncomfortable ideas, his claim that existentialism is optimistic resonates. He argues for the optimism of this philosophy to be true because of the control that comes with the freedom of mankind. Humans have ultimate control over their own lives, and are able to determine and achieve what they desire. They are not bound by anything other than themselves and their own perceptions of reality, and thus, they are capable of possibility. Personally, I think Sartre’s idea of existentialism being optimistic is accurate. In this idea, humanity is no longer tied to predestined ideas of what the human life should be. There is no god that defines mankind. There is ultimately no sense of fear of the afterlife, and how one’s actions will orient them in relation to spiritual or heavenly places. The concept of limitless potential in human kind, being based on the idea that humans create their own potential, is both incredibly terrifying, but at the same time incredibly inspiring. Humans have the capacity to create their life, which is the truest and only form of freedom.