As today marks, more or less, the forty-second year commemoration of Jean-Paul Sartre’s death, I though it would be appropriate to dedicate this week’s newsletter to my favorite topic: existentialism. Though existentialist thinkers over the past two or so centuries have created some of the greatest works of philosophy, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what existentialism is. The key thinkers disagreed on almost everything, so however one tries to define the label, one is bound to exclude someone.
Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are regarded as the heralds of modern existentialism. They orchestrated a mood of rebellion and created a new definition of existence as a choice, underlining the anguish and difficulty of life in general. Existentialism as a way of living, not simply a philosophy, with freedom at the forefront. Freedom, to Sartre, lay at the heart of all human experience, setting us apart from everything else, both animate and inanimate. While most things sit in place, waiting to be coaxed to action, humans don’t have a predefined nature. Though we may be influenced by our biology, or parts of our culture and personal histories, none of this defines us entirely, or acts as a blueprint to our whole being. We are always one step ahead of ourself, we make things up as we go along. “Existence precedes essence,” Sartre summarized in his lecture Existentialism is a Humanism.
To fully comprehend what Sartre meant, one must understand what he implied by essence. Aristotle believed every substance has an essence (be it a chair or a person). According to him, all substances tend towards the actualization of that essence. For example, an acorn’s essence is to become an oak tree. Humans, however, unlike acorns, rocks, and so forth, have the freedom to choose whether or not to act in accordance to their essence. To Aristotle, essence preceded existence. Sartre, however, believed human-beings are not molded by a supernatural being before birth, but rather are given the chance to sculpt their own essence throughout life. For man and man alone, his existence precedes his essence.
In a similar vain, the existentialist movement maintains a deep concern with our “human condition”. Why are we here? What does it mean to be human? In short, to be an existentialist means to reject belief systems — be it religious, scientific, or philosophical.
Belief systems such as those found within religion remove the burden of existence. Both meaning and purpose is created for us, emanating from some Other realm, be it heaven, or even Plato’s world outside the cave. In so doing, one is exempted from individual experience — what it is like to feel fear and tranquility, depression and contentment, basically the human condition in general. Existentialism emphasizes that what we need in our modern society is not divine interventions and solutions, but a human perspective. After all, we are “human, all too human,” as Nietzsche theorized.
One of the most soothing aspects of religion is that it takes away our mortality. Sartre, however, suggested that it is essential for human-beings to confront their certain demise. It is only when we come to accept our temporary existence that we can find the strength to take control of our lives and live according to our own values, and not those prescribed by the masses.
Everything said, existentialism, unlike nihilism (with which it is often confused), is quite optimistic in nature, depending on how you choose to understand it. Nihilism, unlike existentialism, deems there is no meaning or purpose to life, and while existentialists could also be nihilists, nihilists cannot be existentialists. While the latter often believe that one can make their own subjective meaning out of life, nihilists believe there is no meaning or purpose. Nietzsche, who single-handedly dragged me from the claws of nihilism, saw it as a disease. He taught me, and whoever chose or chooses to read his writing, to “become who (we) are” by developing a life purpose.
Of course, this is far easier said than done. It is less frightening to “emasculate oneself, in a spiritual sense” as Kierkegaard said, and cling to the herd “in order to be at least something”. Standing alone, becoming oneself, activates an individual’s most innate fear, namely, that of ultimately being alone and entirely responsible for their life.
“Deep within every human being there still lives the anxiety over the possibility of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the millions and millions in this enormous household.” (The Concept of Anxiety, Søren Kierkegaard)
However, it is possible to become who we are. As Jean-Paul Sartre claimed whilst reflecting on his own life, “A man commits himself and draws his own portrait, outside of which there is nothing.”
To find first a way out of ourselves and then a new way back in, seems to be the goal of existentialism, not merely as a philosophy, but as a way of life.
*** Also, if you are looking for something to read in the realm of existential literature, I suggest Colin Wilson. I just received my copy of The Outsider and would love to talk about it with anyone who has read it/wants to read it with me!
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