Before a packed hall at the Club Maintenant in Paris on October 29, 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre delivered his public lecture “Existentialism as Humanism.” His motive, in his words, was “to offer a defense of existentialism against several reproaches that have been laid against it.” This public presentation afforded him the opportunity to directly address and audience that had already been exposed to the controversies surrounding his work from his book Being and Nothingness (1943), a text which had been radicalized by its being widely and wildly dissected, passages having been disseminated out of context.
This misunderstanding of Sartre’s writing by the greater public created a brewing storm that such a direct address could correct. Through this presentation, Sartre hoped to convince the public of the Humanist thread that runs through Existentialism, along with his theories about the “conception of man” and the fiction of the concept of human nature, as well as the false idea that there is such thing as human nature to begin with.
If one were to select just three words from Sartre’s lecture by which to sum up the heart of the presentation in its entirety, those words would be his statement “existence precedes essence.” In arguing that “we must begin from the subjective,” Sartre uses the example of “a paper knife in the mind of an artisan,” drawing a parallel with the widely-accepted idea of the “conception of man in the mind of God.” Sartre explains the previously held notion that “God makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife, following a definition and a formula,” an idea he eventually deems invalid.
Sartre introduces the theme of the artisan’s paper knife as a means for expounding how he sees the way in which essence follows existence, describing the previously accepted model of man’s creation as analogous to the creation of objects. If we think about a handmade product (like the paper knife), we know that it was made by someone to whom the object represents a form resulting from familiarity with previous versions of the same object. This line of thinking makes any object the product of a certain familiarity with its predecessors, as nothing is made without purpose or a precedent of some kind. It is impossible for an object to be made by somebody in a vacuum with no idea of its function or meaning. In Sartre’s example of the paper knife, the essence of the object (its purpose, its qualities, its meaning and method of production) “precedes its existence” or “production precedes existence.”
Sartre makes this comparison to explain how the nature of man seen through the lens of Existentialism differs from the previous understanding of man’s making. Previously, it was accepted that man’s relationship to God is not dissimilar from the pen knife’s relationship to its maker, and that we, like Adam in the Garden of Eden, were sculpted in the form of the divine and imbued with essence before our existence. But, if essence were to come before existence, this would mean that somewhere, perhaps in the mind of God, a clearly conceived vision of our eventual fully-developed selves must exist before we can could have ever been brought into being.
Sartre clearly argues such a conception of man is invalid. Unlike a paper knife, we are burdened with the task of defining our own existence. We are not fully made in the mind of the artist of the universe but instead are condemned to live in a constant state of change and to determine our essence ourselves while shouldering the overwhelming burdens of absolute freedom. Sartre says “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world, and defines himself afterwards.”
Man is not a paper knife in the mind of the artist. Man exists first, with the freedom to define himself afterward through his experiences. We become what we choose, formed by our actions. At every stage of our lives we are faced with the possibility of multiple options, all of which will contribute to our totality at the end of it all. Our cumulative choices define our essence, and the labor of choosing is not over until we are. In Sartre’s view, we are “nothing else but the sum of (our) actions, nothing else but what (our) life is.” Our essence is solely forged by our free will.
Sartre addresses other ethical quandaries from an Existentialist perspective, framing humanity by defining aspects of our moral anguish. He goes on to compare the struggle of humanity to the creation of a work by Picasso. He mentions the artist by name only once, using the example of Picasso’s “work of art only by way of comparison.” He doesn’t necessarily cast the artist as the ideal Existentialist, instead using the creative act of painting as a pithy way of describing the relationship between existence and essence.
No creative act or artistic values are proper a priori, but some choices on the part of the artist are more correct than others, which “will appear in due course in the coherence of the picture, in the relation between the will to create and the finished work.” Just as man’s totality cannot be judged except by the sum of all expressions of our free will, “one cannot judge a painting until it is done.” But what does this have to do with Sarte’s Existentialist view? How is Picasso included in this conversation?
Sartre says, “We never speak of a work of art as irresponsible; when we are discussing a canvas by Picasso, we understand very well that the composition became what it is at the time when he was painting it, and that his works are part and parcel of his entire life.” Here, Picasso’s creative freedom is connected to Sartre’s view of moral anguish by way of the burden of free will and his interest in choices. He explains, in plainest words, that his doctrine “confronts man with a possibility of choice,” and Picasso’s work is invoked as a genuine expression of free will. We are to understand that an artwork is the product of a series of decision made solely and freely by its maker, and that such works can be viewed as evidence of man’s governance of himself.
Is an artist, by definition, Sartre’s ideal Existentialist? Sartre points to the artist as an ideal character through whom he can explain his position. In the larger context of his lecture, he explains the position of man’s free will in artistic terms. He says “In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait.” This idea makes every man the author of his fate, though his model of the Existentialist could have also been explained through the example of inventors, craftsmen, writers, architects, and philosophers. Though he points to Picasso as a clear expression of Existential though and uses the artist as a metaphor for the exercise of free will, Sartre does not require that the ideal Existentialist must primarily be an artist. Rather, so long as one recognizes that “reality is unreliable” and is capable of expressing this concept in his work, then he can embody the Existentialist ideal. The artist is a convenient character for Sartre’s purposes, but any other man who similarly understands that he is the product of his undertakings can operate within the Existentialist framework just as well.
 Elkaïm-Sartre, Arlette, “Preface to the 1996 Edition,” Existentialism is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), vii.