It is worth noting that at the heart of Sartre’s philosophy are two confusing statements, “existence precedes essence,” and the “essence precedes existence.” Therefore, the meaning of the statement “existence precedes essence” would be best understood by first understanding “essence precedes existence.”
The Sartre’s statement, “essence precedes existence” essentially means that a certain phenomenon, event or element can only exist when there is a purpose for it. Indeed, in expounding this perspective, Sartre provided an example of the paper knife with which he explains its essence as cutting letters, and which would not otherwise exist if its purpose for cutting letters did not exist in the first place. After all, individuals will not produce the paper knives when they do not know what it is intended. Meanwhile, if one were to use the paper knife to stab someone, then that would not be acceptable because the action negates the very purpose for which it exists (Robert 89). Clearly, in all these cases, the essence can be seen to precede the existence.
The statement would have a lot of implications for the relationship between God and humanity. In particular, if God created the human beings with the purpose envisaged for the case of the paper knife, then their essence was to accomplish something. As it is the case with the paper knife in which it should not be used to stab someone, there are certain actions that humans should be limited from engaging. However, Sartre considers that the case of human beings is exceptional in the sense that the existence precedes the essence. In other words, the statement “existence precedes the essence” is a connotation of the view that human beings must first exist to be able to accomplish things that define them and their lives. Ideally, human beings can only create the essence by first existing. They are arguably born as the empty slates who start making a meaning of their lives from scratch.
The implication of the statement, “existence precedes essence” has a significant implication on the manner in which the human beings should live, and treats people as special before other creatures and the non-living things in the sense that they are radically free. In other words, it creates the allowance to assert that human beings have god-like roles to play, especially because they are not subject to predetermined essence for existence. The perspectives encourage human beings to serve as the role model for all humanity, setting examples and patterning behaviors to be emulated by others. The people should not think of themselves as an individual considering any actions a person undertakes is what would define the essence of humanity. To a certain extent, the perspective presents the human beings as a free radical because they can do whatever with their life just to justify their essence of existence. The fact that the existence precedes the essence means that they are not even subject to divine regulations. Rather, they are autonomous create a meaning of the world within which they exist.
Perhaps interesting is the question of whether religious belief system would have a place in such a philosophical thinking. Interestingly, Sartre is also keen to address this area, and his point is revealed when he argues of Christian existentialism. Ideally, human beings can begin believing in the existence of God who created them as a blank slate, but they lack the conception of what and how they should relate. God is not always involved in individual’s lives, but human beings are always responsible for them. In this case, God would still be in the picture, but would not be playing the artisan role as seen in the example of paper knives (Catalano 78). According to Sartre, it would still be possible to believe that God gave them the degree of freedom to make sense of their lives.
While Sartre does better to accommodate the religious belief system and his philosophical sphere, the perspective “existence precedes the essence” potentially breeds bad faith because it entitles the human liberty to act like the very God they need to submit.
Despite this existentialism position, it would be still plausible to argue that it indeed breeds bad faith. In particular, it entitles the individuals the autonomy to act like God, which contravenes the basic morals of Christian teachings. Conventionally, it is believed that God had a purpose of creating human beings. Some of the commonly cited reasons include the ability to worship him, fulfill his command and rule over the wilderness. Therefore, in the lenses of Christian teachings, there is no difference between the human being and other creatures. In any case, the true Christian followers are analogized as sheep, and who must submit to God’s command — and not act like God (Franz 45). Therefore, the perspective breeds bad faith because it dispels role of God as the regulator of human behaviors and morality while entitling the human beings to exercise the vested freedom to decide on their trajectory of morality.
In conclusion, Sartre provides some of the interesting perspectives for conceptualizing the manner that the human beings should live in relation to deities and other creatures. However, his philosophy that existence precedes the essence is controversial because it fails to defend itself on how the freedom it accords human beings can create bad faith.