Is Sartre’s Existentialism Pessimistic?


Martha Robinson

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emphasizes individual existence, freedom, and choice. Jean-Paul Sartre, a prominent French philosopher of the 20th century, is widely regarded as one of the most influential existentialists.

However, his views on existentialism have often been debated, with some arguing that his philosophy is pessimistic. In this article, we will explore whether or not Sartre’s existentialism can be considered pessimistic.

What is Sartre’s Existentialism?

Sartre’s existentialism is centered around the concept of radical freedom. According to Sartre, human beings are fundamentally free and responsible for creating their own meaning in life. He famously stated that “existence precedes essence,” meaning that we are not born with predetermined values or purposes but rather create them through our choices and actions.

Sartre also emphasized the absurdity of human existence. He argued that life has no inherent meaning or purpose and that we must confront this fact and create our own meaning despite it.

Is Sartre’s Existentialism Pessimistic?

Some critics have argued that Sartre’s emphasis on the absurdity of life makes his existentialism inherently pessimistic. They argue that his philosophy leads to a sense of hopelessness and nihilism.

However, others have countered this argument by pointing out that Sartre believed in the power of human agency. While he acknowledged the absurdity of life, he also believed that we have the power to create our own meaning through our choices and actions.

Furthermore, Sartre believed in the importance of authenticity. He argued that we must be true to ourselves and live according to our own values rather than conforming to societal norms or expectations. This emphasis on individual agency and authenticity can be seen as optimistic rather than pessimistic.

The Role of Anguish

Another aspect of Sartre’s existentialism that is often seen as pessimistic is his emphasis on anguish. Sartre argued that the awareness of our radical freedom and responsibility can lead to feelings of anxiety and despair.

However, some have pointed out that anguish is not necessarily a negative emotion. Instead, it can be seen as a necessary part of the human experience. By confronting the absurdity of life and our own mortality, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the preciousness and uniqueness of each moment.

The Importance of Choice

Ultimately, Sartre’s existentialism is centered around the importance of choice. While he acknowledged the difficulty and anguish that comes with making choices, he also believed that this is what gives life meaning.

In contrast to pessimistic philosophies that emphasize the inevitability of suffering and despair, Sartre’s existentialism emphasizes our capacity for agency and creativity. By embracing our radical freedom and responsibility, we can create meaning in even the most seemingly meaningless situations.


In conclusion, while some may view Sartre’s existentialism as pessimistic due to its emphasis on the absurdity of life and feelings of anguish, others see it as optimistic due to its focus on individual agency and authenticity. Ultimately, whether or not Sartre’s philosophy is pessimistic depends on one’s interpretation. However, what cannot be denied is its enduring influence on modern philosophy and its ongoing relevance in today’s society.