The author, philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, gave a lecture, followed by a question-and-answer session in Paris, late in 1945. He set out to more clearly define existentialism, which even he admits during the talk is somewhat complicated by the fact that some approach existentialism from a religious point-of-view (such as Jaspers and Dostoevsky) while others approach existentialism from an atheistic point-of-view (such as himself and Heidegger). The transcription of that lecture (which is said to be lightly edited by Sartre himself) makes up the text of this book, including a section for the Q and A that follows.
The guiding principle of existentialism, according to Sartre, is as follows:
“Existence precedes essence.”
Simply put, Sartre wants his listener/reader to understand that we have the power to shape our own lives through our choices. In that sense, we are a blank canvas waiting for the artist (ourselves) to create our own masterpiece. For example, we may not have control over how our boss treats us at work, but we have complete control of how we respond and how we act in the first place.
This concept of being in control of the direction of our lives via the choices that we make can be very comforting for some, and it can be very disconcerting for others. Sometimes it may be easier to say:
“Well, I wasn’t the only one speeding. It’s just bad luck that I was the one that was caught.”
It’s actually not bad luck at all. You made the choice to speed, and as a direct result, you were pulled over and received that speeding ticket.
Ultimately the philosophy reduces to choice.
I would recommend this book for anyone who wants to better understand existentialism. Since this was written as a lecture, the style is conversational and therefore it makes a complicated topic very easy and pleasant to read.