5 Quotes by Sartre Explained: What These Words Mean for Us Today

What can we learn from Jean-Paul Sartre's teachings on freedom, responsibility, and navigating the complexities of human existence?

Jul 8, 2024By Viktoriya Sus, MA Philosophy

quotes sartre jean paul explained


Jean-Paul Sartre, France’s most famous export, has no shortage of fans–or detractors. The former laud his works, which run through themes of the absurdity of existence, freedom, and loneliness like words through a stick or rock. Sartre is called the wild man of Paris and the father of existentialism who influenced an era so richly that it helped him win the Nobel Prize.


And there are quotes aplenty from him to pore over. Here are some favorites.


1. “Existence Precedes Essence”

The Card Players, Paul Cézanne, 1890-92, Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


One of the most well-known quotes from Jean-Paul Sartre is, “Existence precedes essence.” This quote summarizes a key idea in his philosophy called existentialism. To understand what Sartre meant by this, we need to examine the meanings behind these words.


In traditional philosophical and religious systems, it’s common to think that individuals have an essence or nature attached to them before they exist. This essence gives each person a purpose and identity in life. But Sartre directly challenges this by saying that existence comes first, before any pre-set essence.

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He says humans don’t come into the world with predetermined characteristics or fixed natures. Instead, they arrive here completely free and wholly responsible for making their own identities and purposes through their choices and actions. Our existence is characterized by potential, not destiny.


To illustrate, imagine two people called John and Mary. John is born into a rich family; as soon as he arrives in the world, he’s given everything on a plate–opportunity-wise, at least. On the other hand, there’s Mary, who starts her life in poverty–she faces many difficulties over her life.


If you were using old-fashioned language, you might say something like “John has wealth/success as part of his being” while “Mary will be associated with hardship.” However, according to what Sartre thinks about existence coming before essence, both are free to shape their identities beyond their starting points.


Maybe rich boy John rejects everything his privileged background offers him: maybe he devotes himself wholeheartedly to social justice causes? Perhaps struggle-girl Mary uses her difficult early years as motivation for self-improvement.


By putting existence ahead of the essence, Sartre emphasizes how much agency/autonomy humans have. We haven’t already inherited anything about ourselves: no traits/purposes have been imposed on us from above.


It’s up to us to define ourselves through our choices and actions–concerning the particular set of circumstances we happen to be surrounded by.


2. “Hell Is Other People”

The Crucifixion; The Last Judgment, Jan van Eyck, ca. 1436-38, Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Jean-Paul Sartre’s quote, “Hell is other people,” encapsulates a key aspect of his philosophy about relationships between humans and existential angst.


To grasp its meaning, we must examine his concept of intersubjectivity–that our sense of self is defined by how others see us.


Sartre believed that they turn us into objects in any encounter with others. They perceive and judge us, limiting our freedom through their expectations and opinions.


Our awareness of how others see us means we often alter our behavior to meet their expectations, leading to what Sartre calls “bad faith.”


Being with others makes us uneasy because it reminds us that our existence depends on them defining who we are.


We become fixated on managing our image, afraid they will reject or disapprove of us. In this way, the presence of other people can feel like a kind of prison: it appears to limit what true freedom really is.


To illustrate the point, let’s use a mundane example: parties where social conventions demand individuals act differently from their authentic selves–wearing masks or pretending interest in things about which they couldn’t care less–for fear of being judged or excluded by those around them.


But there’s also potential liberation within intersubjectivity, according to Sartre. While social encounters impose limitations, they offer opportunities for genuine self-expression and connection with like-minded souls who share similar values and ideals. Real connections can help assuage existential isolation – enriching life itself.


3. “I Am Condemned to Be Free”

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Have you ever contemplated the notion of freedom? Jean-Paul Sartre, a leading existentialist philosopher, explored this idea in depth. One of his best-known lines is, “I am condemned to be free,” which neatly sums up some profound insights about human existence.


According to Sartre, we are born completely free, which is liberating and oppressive. This line from him perfectly encapsulates the existential dilemma: finding yourself in a world without any inherent meaning or purpose.


Unlike objects or animals that come with a fixed nature and predetermined path, humans arrive on the scene with total freedom over their own destinies.


The phrase “condemned to be free” suggests two things: firstly, that we might find it hard work–an anxiety-inducing responsibility–having to make choices when nothing has been preordained; secondly, that there’s no escape–we’re saddled with it forever. We can’t wriggle off the hook of decision-making and taking responsibility for our actions.


To understand what Sartre meant by this line means understanding his concept of radical freedom: every choice you make defines you and helps shape your very being. External factors or societal expectations do not govern you but instead bear full responsibility for choosing your values, defining your purpose, and deciding how you should behave.


For example, think about a young artist trying to decide whether to pursue art (their passion) or plump for something more financially stable (an office job).


Whichever option they choose will influence who they are as an individual–define them somehow. They may feel like it’s a bit of a trap, either conforming to society’s expectation of financial stability versus living out their passion.


Sartre would argue that even if individuals try not making decisions themselves–abdicating them to others–they still make one anyway: not choosing becomes itself an act.


“I am condemned to be free” means that even though we might long for guidance or yearn for preordained paths like other things in the world, admitting our inherent freedom means accepting personal responsibility for navigating life’s uncertainties.


4. “Man Is Nothing Else But What He Makes of Himself”

Man at the Crossroads, Diego Riviera, 1933, Source: Wikimedia Commons


You are the maker of your own being–these words by Jean-Paul Sartre sum up a key idea in his philosophy. Again, the quote conveys Sartre’s belief in human agency: the idea that individuals shape their identities through choices and actions.


Sartre rejects the idea of an essential human nature or predetermined essence. Instead, he suggests humans are defined by their individual freedom to choose values, beliefs, and actions. External forces or societal expectations don’t limit us but have the power to create ourselves through our decisions.


Think about someone facing a difficult decision: whether to pursue a prestigious career that fits society’s ideas about success or follow their passion for something potentially less conventional but personally fulfilling.


According to Sartre, their choice reveals who they really are–it contributes to shaping their identity.


The quote implies that our choices define us in terms of what we want out of life and how we relate to others and society more generally. Each day, hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions go into making each person unique.


For instance, consider someone who consistently chooses kindness and empathy when dealing with other people: over time, they become known for being compassionate. This helps shape both how they see themselves, and how others see them.


On the flip side, think about someone who consistently acts selfishly: before long, it might also seem like self-centeredness is central to who they are.


Taking responsibility for creating meaning and purpose in life on an individual level is one thing Sartre stresses. He argues against looking outside yourself or at circumstances as ways to determine identity or direction.


Instead, he sees freedom as something positive–an opportunity for self-discovery and authentic existence.


5. “Freedom Is What You Do With What Has Been Done to You”

Then-President Nelson Mandela revisits his South African prison cell on Robben Island, where he spent 18 of his 27 years in prison, in 1994, Jurgen Schadeberg, Source: The Los Angeles Times


Sartre’s philosophy is saturated with the idea of freedom, and this quote sums up his perspective. True freedom lies in how we respond to our situation and take ownership–not disownment–of it, regardless of circumstances.


To fully understand that, we must look at Sartre’s ideas about determinism. He recognized that humans are shaped by their experiences and circumstances. But he argued that everyone always has fundamental choice or freedom.


Take a person who has faced considerable adversity. They may have endured trauma or discrimination that society often views as limiting factors. True freedom does not mean pretending these limits don’t exist; it means using agency to transcend them.


Besides, it means making the conscious decision not just to confront but also navigate them–shaping your trajectory so ultimately, you get to define yourself on your terms.


Consider Nelson Mandela. Imprisoned for 27 years because of his activism against apartheid in South Africa, he experienced immense suffering during his captivity. Yet he never assumed the role of victim within it; instead, Mandela used prison as an opportunity for reflection and growth.


When finally released from jail, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president–a world-historical example of putting past experience into service for positive change.


In short, Sartre’s quote challenges us all to recognize our agency even when confronted by challenging situations or societal constraints–reminding us that our responses and actions are within our control, whatever external circumstances might be like.


So What Does Sartre Teach Us?

Jean-Paul Sartre, Gisèle Freund, 1968, Source: Britannica


Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the most influential philosophers to emerge in the 20th century, has left a deep imprint on how we think about being human through his thought-provoking quotes. Some key concepts that pepper his teaching are as resonant today as when they were first articulated, from freedom and existential angst to personal responsibility.


Take freedom: Sartre’s philosophy tells us that any predetermined essence or external forces do not define us but have enormous scope for shaping our own identities through choices and actions–an idea that challenges us to take ownership of our lives and act with authenticity rather than conforming to what society expects.


Or consider the significance of human relationships. While acknowledging how interactions with others can be difficult and oppressive because of judgment or expectations, he also recognizes their capacity for authentic connection–even self-discovery–within intersubjectivity.


What about this one? We’re told that past experiences don’t define who we are so much as what we do next. However awful those experiences may have been, how they make us respond really counts. We can overcome adversity, seize control over our circumstances, and try to make something meaningful out of whatever hand life deals us.


Overall, without wanting to reduce things too much, his philosophy is about personal agency, individual responsibility, and living authentically in a world full of uncertainty.

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By Viktoriya SusMA PhilosophyViktoriya is a writer from L’viv, Ukraine. She has knowledge about the main thinkers. In her free time, she loves to read books on philosophy and analyze whether ancient philosophical thought is relevant today. Besides writing, she loves traveling, learning new languages, and visiting museums.