Thursday, July 13, 2023

Rel 411 - Jean-Paul Sartre: Breaking the Mold, Living Authentically

 Jean-Paul Sartre: Breaking the Mold, Living Authentically

Sartre contends existence precedes essence (Sartre). Coming from a Mormon background, I was taught I pre-existed, which simply meant my essence came before my existence (Marshall 197). From the moment I was born, my essence would be defined by others and God. But after 38 years of living Mormonism, I came to realize I was not living authentically – there was a gap between who I intrinsically felt I was and what others (family, religious leaders, neighbors and peers at work) thought I ought to be. The first step was to accept that my existence came prior to my essence. Afterward, I began to reconcile the gap and unify my psyche. This process has taken several years and is still a work in progress. In brief, I recognized I needed to “radically escape bad faith”, and subsequently I realized I had freedom to take steps to break the mold in which I was raised and to begin to live authentically (Detmer 88).

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or more commonly known as the Mormon church, one of the underlying doctrines of the faith is the concept of pre-existence. This dogma is taught to all members from a very young age, and then reinforced throughout their lives. Members of the religion are taught they are “spirit children” of a “Heavenly Mother and Father” (Marshall 197). Before humans’ physical existence, God had laid out a plan for his children, which included daily activities and various milestone rituals and “practices [which] intricately cross sect members’ physical, temporal, and social planes of existence” (197). This plan for each member is the essence of who they are and what they must become. In other words, each member, assuming they remain in the religious fold, never has a chance, from the beginning of their life, to define what their essence is or will become. In short, in the Mormon faith, essence precedes existence. However, as experienced by myself and thousands of other Mormons, placing essence before existence creates problems. One of Jean-Paul Sartre’s pillars of his existential philosophy is to emphasize that existence precedes essence.

In his well-known lecture entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism” Sartre lays out his argument for placing the recognition of one’s existence before defining one’s essence. He uses an analogy of a creator of a book or paper-knife conceiving those objects in his mind. This conception, in the creator’s mind, is the essence of those objects, and before those objects are produced with physical material, one can claim their essence precedes existence. Applying the analogy to God and humankind, theists, like the Mormons, claim that humanity’s essence was conceived by God prior to humans taking mortal form. However, in all of humanity’s existence, it has collectively never agreed or settled on the definition of God, nor has it found proof of God’s existence. While all discussion on God has been conjecture, what is known to humanity is its own existence – we exist. And even if granted the premise of God’s existence, humanity still lacks access to the mind of God in order to ascertain human essence. Thus, Sartre argues “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards” (Sartre). Given the individual exists first, he is then faced with the prospect of establishing his essence – this is his life project. This project involves blunt honesty with oneself in a perpetual struggle to live with authenticity. To live authentically, one must be on the look-out for “bad faith” actors and paradigms in one’s life.

While the individual’s life project to define his essence remains in flux, he must be alert to outside impositions, self-deceptions and perpetual dreaming with no action (Flynn 72-74). These forms of bad faith span two poles, one which is the “facticity” of the individual and the other is his “transcendence” (74).  Outside imposition (living for others) and self-deception (“dull resignation to one’s fate”) fall under the form of bad faith of facticity, while perpetual dreaming with no action falls under the form of bad faith stemming from transcendence (73).

For me, having been raised in the Mormon faith, I realized I was suffering from bad faith in the form of facticity.  My religious leaders, parents, friends and neighbors sought to impose a specific role on me. They made demands of my life and argued it was my duty and obligation to be Mormon. In a similar vein, Sartre uses an example of “service industry” roles “which [demand] of all persons in the service industry that they give up their status as autonomous human beings and exhaust themselves utterly in serving their social function” (Detmer 79). The other form of bad faith from the facticity pole is resigning oneself to his fate – a lazy argument, in a sense. All too easy for me, and a line of thinking I continually battle today, is to lie to myself by leveraging any and all stories which are “selective and slanted” toward what I think I cannot change about myself (Detmer 81). Overcoming this form of bad faith, for me, is to constantly battle the Mormon “autopilot” programming of my first 38 years of existence (Marshall 205).

The other form of bad faith I must fight is that of “the dreamer” (Flynn 74). Having left the Mormon faith, I was left with a new-found freedom to make myself who I wished and intended to be. Through the course of the last several years, I have dreamed of becoming either a teacher of philosophy, a life coach or a psychoanalyst, despite the fact that I’ve worked in the Information Technology field for over twenty years. While I am prone to making plans and dreaming, I must overcome this bad faith and work towards making those dreams into a reality. While working towards a degree in philosophy is a good first step, I must continue to define my essence as someone who is knowledgeable in philosophy, psychology and their application towards helping others overcome bad faith and define their own essence.

Living authentically means maintaining a tension between the two poles and not “insisting [life is about] either transcendence or facticity” (Flynn 74). Authentic living must emphasize and rely on freedom.  Sartre notes, “the actions of men of good faith have, as their ultimate significance, the quest for freedom itself” (Detmer 138). This simply means that I have the power and the duty to choose who I will be as an individual. I can no longer throw my hands in the air, pointing to God or my religion or any other fact of my existence, and blame them for who I am. Nor can I admire my dreams of who I think I should be, while never acting on them. Indeed, my existential freedom demands I accept my circumstances – my facticity – and to prod myself towards the future by exerting my freedom and will – my transcendence. Between these two poles, “living authentically involves living without regret” (Cox 138). Lastly, living authentically is not a one-and-done choice, rather it is a constant re-commitment through an ever-evolving life. “Authenticity is the continued task of choosing responses that affirm freedom and responsibility … [and] continually resisting the slide into bad faith that threatens every project” (139). It is simply not falling into another pre-defined mold.

In conclusion, Sartre contends existence precedes essence, which frees the individual to life authentically. Living authentically is keeping oneself ever wary of falling into bad faith. The project of life, like a jazz song, jibs, jives and riffs and is ever moving. Sartre’s character in Nausea comes to this realization: “what summits would I not reach if my own life were the subject of the melody?” (Golomb 145). The aim of life is not reaching a destination, but rather one of breaking the mold and creatively improvising off one’s circumstances.

Works Cited

Cox, Gary. Sartre: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Detmer, David. Sartre Explained : From Bad Faith to Authenticity, Open Court, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Flynn, Thomas R. Existentialism : A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Golomb, Jacob. In Search of Authenticity : Existentialism from Kierkegaard to Camus, Taylor & Francis Group, 1995. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Marshall, E. Brooks "The Disenchanted Self: Anthropological Notes on Existential Distress and Ontological Insecurity among Ex-Mormons in Utah." Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, vol. 44, no. 2, 2020, pp. 193-213. ProQuest,, doi:

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism Is a Humanism, 1946.”, 2019,

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