Jean-Paul Sartre was a twentieth century French existentialist philosopher. Although existentialist thought is widely considered to have begun with nineteenth century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, much of what we think about this sort of thought today can be traced directly to Sartre. In fact, it was Sartre who seemed to give such a way of thinking a name.
When discussing existentialism, many people refer back to Sartre’s own ontological and metaphysical premise that “existence precedes essence.” What this means is that anything we consider to be of essence comes after existence. In other words, you were born without choosing to be and then thrown into the world; however, every choice you make after coming to be is what determines who you are.
Sartre was ultimately confirming individual free will and self-determination. In fact, another famous quote of his is “man is condemned to freedom.” What he means by this is that, while there are certainly factors involved in being human that are completely out of our control, we are always free to respond to these factors in whatever way we choose. In this sense, there is always a choice when it comes to existing as a human being, even in moments when we feel as if there is no choice. The fact that there is always a choice to be made can be overwhelming at times, which is why freedom, in many ways, is a condemnation.
“We are left alone, without excuse” is Sartre’s explanation of the condemnation of freedom. While we cannot possibly control every circumstance, we can always control our response to any circumstance. Because we can always control our response to circumstance, we are responsible for every action we ever take, which means there is never a valid excuse for anything that we choose to do.