Since Henry Ford established the first automobile assembly line in Highland Park, Michigan (a town within metropolitan Detroit), this approach to making cars has become the industry standard. The “map” you see features cars, but, of course, we could have chosen a similar layout tracking the manufacture of air conditioners, furniture, or paper cutters, this last product used by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as an example to answer the question raised in his essay, “What is Existentialism?” 

So, what’s with the paper cutters? Sartre explained that their “essence” preceded their “existence.” By this, he meant that their nature and purpose were set before the first one rolled off the assembly line. The manufacturer had to work with design engineers, prototypes, material suppliers, machinists, accountants, marketing representatives, personnel managers, and government regulators to make sure everything was in order before the product was good to go.

I’m thinking of the sort of paper cutter familiar in classrooms and offices throughout the world, the one with the square base marked with a measurement grid, plus a long blade along the right edge and a handle at the top to grasp for raising and slicing. Of course, one could use it for all sorts of strange things – as a door stop, a cudgel or shield, or as a staging table for refreshments – but its true destiny is set by its design. It may have wanted to be a coat, a television, or a tasty entrée, but it is what it is.

Not so we human beings, according to Sartre. At the most basic level, our existence precedes our essence. We’re free to become and do what we choose, at least on the moral level. (Of course, we can’t turn ourselves into combination locks, aluminum cookware, or baseballs, but we can channel our energies into security, culinary endeavors, or sports.) More importantly, we can “make” a particular “lifestyle” right for ourselves simply by entering upon it without excuses, such as “I was raised that way” or “I’m reacting to the way I was raised” or “Well, I’m only human.” You can’t blame others or the circumstances of your life. You’re, in a sense, “Condemned to be free.”

Freedom sounds like a good thing, not the stuff of condemnation, but it’s a scary kind of freedom. It means not only freedom from coercion, but also freedom from the chance for salutary achievement. You lose the opportunity to “get it right,” since, for you, there’s no right to get – or everything is right. There’s no overarching moral system, no creation order, no natural law, no human nature. You’re making it all up for yourself. So, you can be a thief (as was the lowlife thief, Jean Genet, who gloried in his wickedness, and whom Sartre admired) or, if you wish, a sacrificial, disaster-relief worker. One’s not better than the other. There’s no standard, either externally or internally by which you should be judged.

So, Sartre was perfectly free to fornicate with Simon Beauvoir and then fornicate with other women to the dismay of Simon Beauvoir. She had no reason to expect him to be faithful to her. There was no sovereign God on his throne. There were no patterns of human flourishing this behavior would violate to the ruin of the parties involved.

Of course, Sartre had a lot more to say about this “Wild West” perspective, and it was pretty gloomy stuff. In his play, No Exit, he brings a variety of unlikable folks (a journalist, a postal worker, and a woman who murdered her own baby) together in “hell,” and they torment each other with snarky conversation, the lesson being, as it is often expressed, that “hell is other people.” Then, there’s the book, Nausea, in which he teaches that this is the default mood when one takes a realistic view of things. And in Being and Nothingness, he underscores the “absurdity” of it all.

Well, you might say that this is a bleak and untenable approach to life, but Sartre warns doubles down with the counsel, “Deal with it.” If you try to perk it up with happy talk and hopeful schemes, then you’re guilty of “bad faith.”

Sartre had little or no interest in talking about things “out there,” the typical topics of the philosophy of science, symbolic logic, theories of justice, metaphysical narratives, and such. Rather, he obsessed over the lived life of the will, moods, and directedness in our experience, deeming them the essential thing – a focus associated with what’s called “phenomenology.” And this puts him in the camp with others who’ve taken this turn, e.g., Edmund Husserl, Merleau-Ponty.

Let me hasten to say there are other existentialists, but some of them are more uplifting. Indeed, Sartre had a falling out with Albert Camus, who, in The Myth of Sisyphus, said that even acts of apparent futility (like rolling a stone up a hill only to have it roll back down just short of the summit, repeatedly) are compatible the happiness of “doing your thing.” And Camus came out against revolutionary violence and Communism, incensing Sartre, but Camus didn’t mind.

Some existentialists – men who dealt with questions of meaning in life in terms of the states of mind and heart – identified as Christians, e.g., Gabriel Marcel and Miguel de Unamuno. And, in retrospect, many give credit to Soren Kierkegaard for pushing “subjectivity” as the key to wisdom. Versus Sartre, they say that when you dig deep, you can find gold and not just mud, as Sartre would have it. (BTW, Sartre couldn’t sustain his absurd moral nihilism, for he became a crusading anti-war activist in the Vietnam years, passing judgment on those who disagreed with him on the morality of the war.)

Existentialism is a slippery notion, so definitions proliferate. One way is to see it as the opposition of “essentialism,” by which philosophers say there are eternal principles and verities, whether in the mind of God or in their own heaven (Plato and Augustine), or woven into the fabric of the world (Aristotle and Aquinas). These are the essentialists, who say there is an essence to acorns, just governments, and yes, humans.

I also heard it explained in terms of our appointment with death: For the objectivist, it’s “All men are mortal.” For the subjectivist, “I’m mortal.” For the existentialist, “Oh, no! I’m going to die. It’s haunting me. Will it hurt? Will I make a spectacle of myself when it comes? And what comes afterwards? I can hardly dare think about it, but I can’t help it.”

Of course, Christians can appreciate Sartre for mapping the soul of the lost man, for charting the emptiness and despair that comes from taking an honest look at the anxiety and loathing that arises in a godless universe. He gets points for candor. But he gets many demerits for acting like a hog eating acorns (such as the repast he enjoyed at his favorite café, The Two Maggots, in Paris), oblivious to the oak tree under which he’s dining. In the end, he’s a fool, though a stylish and eloquent one.