Raise your hand if you can name someone who has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Okay. Now keep your hand up if that person turned down the prize. Well, you must know about Jean-Paul Sartre, then. Because although the Nobel committee designated him winner of the award for "work which, rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age," Sartre believed that "a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution" (source). Take that, Nobel committee.
So what were these "rich ideas"? Let's just say be prepared to feel liberated and depressed all at once. Sartre's biggest deal was that we are "condemned to be free" (that's from Being and Nothingness). If that's got you going huh?, that's cool. The gist is that, as humans, we have free will—we're in charge of our lives. That sounds awfully awesome until you realize that it means we've got no God to fall back on and guide us toward our destinies. Basically we're working without a net (or "faith," depending on what you want to call it), so we have to be fully responsible for our actions. And that's less awesome, if you're one of those people that like to knock over 7-11s in your spare time.
But Sartre wasn't done there. He also believed that classic existentialist tenet "existence precedes essence." You are born basically as an empty vessel—you exist as a body. Then, you make all sorts of decisions and choices that create who you are—your essence. To those folks who say that people are born either good or evil, ol' J.P. Sartre would merely thumb his nose and argue that it's the choices you make that determine who you are. It's all on you, baby, so own it.
Want more? Check out Sartre's favorite analogy: let's say you're an artisan, so you used a tool to make an object. That object would be determined by you. You make it, and you determine its essence. That essence equals what it is. This poor little object has no choice: you made it and it is not free to be anything else. If a human is made by God (the mega-artisan), then that human is not free either. Like the rock, your essence is determined by someone/something else. But for Sartre, that's totally not how it goes. To Sartre, "each man makes his essence as he lives" (Being and Nothingness) God? He's got nothing to do with it.
In that sense, being free sounds like a pretty good deal. Who wouldn't want to be in charge of their own essence, after all? Which raises a question: where does that whole "condemned" part come in?
Here's the thing: determining your own essence is tough work. It means that you and you alone are responsible for everything you do. You can't pass the buck to anyone—not to your wife, not to your dear old dad, not to the pesky federal government, and certainly not to the man upstairs.
In short, we are utterly alone and naked in a hostile world. Eek.
If that sounds stressful, well, it is. How many people do you know who actually want to be responsible for every corner of their lives (including the dark, cobwebbed ones)? And not only that—we're responsible for other people, too. We don't act for ourselves alone. Other people are involved, and all of our decisions—large and small— affect them. Ugh. We're drowning in responsibility over here.
And we've had just about enough, thank you very much. For now, we'll simply tell you not to worry—just be authentic and don't dominate anyone, okay? Okay.