But I have come across many, many interpretations of this simple three-word sentence: Existence precedes essence. The first interpretation I have come across is, for some people this idea becomes translated into: Nothing is possible for man, because man is empty. Man has no intrinsic nature, so there is no destiny to be fulfilled; man is accidental, life has no meaning, life is utterly hopeless.
A seed has meaning because it has a built-in program that it has to become a tree – that it has to attain to a certain kind of fruits and flowers, that it has to rise toward the sky, that it has to be this and that. The seed has a built-in program – that’s why there is hope and there is meaning and the seed can trust that something is going to happen. The seed is not accidental because there is a destiny.
This is one interpretation – that man is accidental, has no nature, is a hopeless thing. Sartre says man is a useless passion; there is no possibility of any significance in man’s life. For others it carries hope because the idea is translated into: Everything is possible for man because there is no nature, hence no boundaries – and they find in it great hope and freedom.
Now the second interpretation is contrary to the first. It says that because there is no intrinsic nature, man is not a slave. The seed is a slave: a mango seed will become a mango tree; there is no freedom. Man can become anything, man can be anything, whatever he chooses to be, there is the possibility to choose. The mango tree cannot choose, it is a slave; there is no hope, it is just mechanical. It has to fulfill a certain destiny; everything is predetermined, so how can there be freedom and how can there be joy? And how can there be any hope? It is a mechanical repetition. Out of a mango seed will come a mango tree and out of a mango tree will again come mango seeds – and so on, so forth, it will go on and on for eternity, there will never be anything else. This is a hopeless situation; this repetitiveness is utter boredom.
Now the same sentence has taken a new meaning, contrary to the first: that man is free, that man can be whatsoever he chooses to be, that man is a kind of God. That nobody decides for man, man has to decide for himself, that man’s decision has to come from his own soul. He is going to write his own writing on the tabula rasa; there will be his signature. Man has individuality; no mango tree has any individuality, no peacock has any individuality – all peacocks are alike, and all mango trees. But man has uniqueness, individuality; there is great hope. Now see – the meaning has turned to the opposite polarity.
I have come across a third interpretation too. For others it means: Everything is permissible to man. And with that they abandon all restraint, they become licentious. They say, “When there is no nature, when there is nothing as a given program for man, then there is no need for any morality, no need for any discipline, no need for anything. Man is a chaos and should remain a chaos.” Then nothing is good and nothing is bad. If there is a built-in program you can decide what is good and what is bad.