Like Socrates much before him, he understood the terrible weight of being a free thinking person. By free thinking, I mean that you are able to control your mind, and are in full possession of your faculties. They belong to no one else. You may have to do certain things such as go to school, do your chores, or go to church because your parents want you to, but those are things that society throws at us and are given meaning by us for good or bad.
However, when we get to the age of autonomy and go off on our own into the world, all those things we were told to do become our own responsibility. We become unshackled by our parents and become shackled to the choices that WE make. Those choices define our very “essence” or being. They are our essence because we place importance on them and allow them to guide our lives. Those we do not have no meaning, and in a way do not exist to our essences.
This will be a short post because what Sartre said is what your parents try to tell you all the time. Be responsible. You are responsible for your own life. We hear it all the time, and I have begun to think it with my kid.
It is easy to think that Sartre thinks there is no meaning to the world, and we are doomed to the depths of existential hell for our lack of meaning, but that is not the case at all. Really, the meaning is on that which we place on it, and not on that which has no importance to us individually. The burden of your choices rests firmly on your shoulders and only on your shoulders here. If you think about that deeply, it has incredible implications for those in power and how they treat others. What that burden gives us, besides freedom is anguish or angst. When we are stressed about our situation it is because we know, whether we chose to acknowledge it or not, that getting out of the problem rests on us and only on us. Sartre thought that each choice we make defines us and reveals to us what we think humans are, and what humans should be.
It is important to place some historical context within the world of Sartre when he was writing this and coming up with his philosophy of existentialism. In the early days of World War 2, Sartre and many other philosophers in France were called to national service to protect France from the invading Nazis. Many were killed, and many others, including Sartre, were captured by the Germans and sent to prison camps to wait out the end of the war. From this came a preoccupation with being free and exercising freedom to a degree that some may see as excessive or obsessive, but it is hard to imagine what our reactions would be were we taken prisoner by the most destructive ideology that humanity has ever seen.