Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction
-01- We are born biological beings but we must become existential individuals by accepting responsibility for our actions.
-02- While the supreme value of existentialist thought is commonly acknowledged to be freedom, its primary virtue is authenticity.
-03- If I do not reveal my views on justice in words, I do so by my conduct. –Socrates to Xenophon.
-04- [Existentialism’s] focus is on the proper way of acting rather than on an abstract set of theoretical truths.
-05- [Two types of philosophy—the existentialism is the second, where one has to do something to achieve it rather than just thinking about an ideal] It was a matter of becoming a certain kind of person, the way Socrates exhibited a particular way of life…this type of truth required a certain self-discipline, a set of practices on the self such as attention to diet, control of one’s speech, and regular meditation, in order to be able to access it.
-06- In the history of philosophy, care of the self was gradually marginalized and consigned to the domains of spiritual direction, political formation, and psychological counseling.
-07- The existentialists can be viewed as reviving this more personal notion of ‘truth’, a truth that is lived as distinct from and often in opposition to the more detached and scientific use of the term.
-08- For the existentialist, being an individual in our mass society is an achievement rather than a starting point. Each existential will treat this subject in his or her own way.
-09- Kierkegaard refers to the ‘plebs’, Nietzsche unflatteringly speaks of the ‘herd’, Heidegger of ‘Das Man’ and Sartre the ‘one’.
-10- Becoming an individual is a task to be undertaken and sustained but perhaps never permanently achieved.
-11- Spinoza: To live alone one must be a beast or a god, says Aristotle. Leaving out the third case: one must be both—a philosopher.
-12- He shall be the greatest who can be the loneliest, the most hidden, the most deviating, the human being beyond good and evil.
-13- Sartre will proclaim and Camus will dramatize in The Plague, that ‘evil cannot be redeemed’. [What is ‘evil’ in this context?]
-14- Kierkegaard realizes that Johannes is not immoral; he simply fails to play the ethical game at all. The rules of right and wrong do not apply in his sphere of existence.
-15- Repentance, obligation, and commitment are properly ethical categories and they come into play after a leap or conversion experience that is an exercise of free choice and thus an individuating act.
-16- Kierkegaard seems to believe that most people live their entire lives in the aesthetic sphere. In any case, the aesthete, he argues, is incapable of the choice that enables him or her to be a self.
-17- This teaches the existentialist lesson that our entire life is an ongoing choice and that the failure to choose is itself a choice for which we are equally responsible.
-18- for the existentialist, being an individual in our mass society is an achievement rather than a starting point.
-19- It is in this respect that Kierkegaard refers to the ‘plebs’, Nietzsche unflatteringly speaks of the ‘herd’, Heidegger of ‘Das Man’, and Sartre the ‘one’. In every case, the reference is to thinking, acting, dressing, speaking, and so forth as ‘they’ do.
-20- The popular press, in his view, did people’s thinking for them, the Church their believing for them, and the Hegelianism their choosing for them, in the sense that it ‘mediated’ otherwise individualizing choices in some higher, encompassing viewpoint in a process called ‘dialectic’.
-21- The constant flow of information on what other people are doing allows us to get a sense of their lives. Small bits of information, mundane and trivial though they may be on their own, eventually build into a kind of narrative. Scientists have called this phenomenon ambient intimacy, similar to how you can pick up another person’s mood by being close to them and decoding the small signals they transmit. But constant connectivity means that we are replacing intimacy with familiarity, and this can also make our physical relationships with other people more ephemeral.
-22- The most extended analysis of the project of becoming an individual appears in two places, Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and his Stages on Life’s Way.
-23- From a contrary perspective, Sartre will proclaim and Camus will dramatize in his novel The Plague, that ‘evil cannot be redeemed’. Such, at least, is the view of the atheistic existentialist.
-24- This is the sphere of the immediate temporally speaking. It has been observed that the range of differences it embraces could extend from plain philistinism to the greatest intellectual refinement. The person who lives at this stage, and one could do so for an entire lifetime, is focused on the present and remains indifferent to the past as repentance or the future as obligation except in a calculating manner geared to enhance the present,
-25- we have called a criterion-constituting choice. As he explains: ‘My either/or does not in the first instance denote the choice between good and evil, it denotes the choice whereby one chooses good and evil/or excludes them.’ In other words, it constitutes the decision to ‘play the game’ in which the categories of moral good and evil
-26- see, the existentialists prize ambiguity. But, to repeat, they are not irrationalists. They aim to make sense insofar as sense can be made in and out of our contingent world.
-27- Nietzsche, for one, famously denied the notion of free will and the moral choice that it exercises. His project of bringing the human being back to earth and away from its illusions about the transcendent and eternal turned him toward the biological dimension of human existence, its irrational instincts and drives: what he called ‘will-to-power’, which, despite its popular association with choice and dominance, is really the answer to the metaphysical question ‘What is there, ultimately?’ – and this, notwithstanding his animus against metaphysics. Taken in its cosmic sense, will-to-power is the Becoming an individual 37force that moves the universe; understood biologically, it is the irresistible life impetus that drives the biosphere; psychologically, it is the drive to dominate and control. Its ‘highest’ expression is the self-control exercised by the free spirits for whom Nietzsche reserves a ‘higher’ morality than the chiefly religious ethics of the herd.
-28- Madame de Staël, ‘to understand all is to forgive all’. Though this may be the wisdom of Spinoza and his German admirer, it is scarcely the common sense of the herd.
-29- Born in Rocken, Germany. Such was his recognized brilliance that he was named professor of philology at the University of Basel before he had received his doctorate. Burdened with poor health most of his life, he resigned his professorship after ten years and spent the next decade moving around Europe, writing essays known for their caustic wit and affirmation of life. The father of ‘atheistic’ existentialism, his most famous pronouncement is ‘God is dead’, meaning that modern science has rendered belief in the Divine irrelevant. His self-appointed task was to combat the nihilism that this event entailed. He succumbed to insanity during the last decade of his life.
-30- In a sense, with the ‘death of God’, that is, with the increasing irrelevance of the idea of the Judaeo-Christian God, the ‘free’ spirits (Nietzsche’s true individuals) are challenged to assume divine prerogatives, among which the most important is that of creating life-affirming moral and life-enhancing aesthetic values.
-31- noble and the beautiful can save us from ourselves as it did the Ancient Greeks; that is, from the despair arising out of our realization that the Universe does not care. Art is to supplant
-32- philosophical novel Nausea. So it seems that an ethics of freedom is available to those ‘free spirits’ who have the ears to hear and the courage to affirm what they hear. Could they have done otherwise, those free spirits? Nietzsche seems to dismiss this as a false problem raised by the erroneous belief in free will. In fact, they will not do ‘otherwise’, if they are truly free spirits, since it follows from their nobility of birth or character to act in just this manner.
-33- The reversal that Nietzsche teaches the free Becoming an individual 41spirits is essentially life-affirming once more. But it is only for the few.
-34- he is subscribing to a kind of psycho-biological determinism (we must follow what we perceive to be the strongest argument and only the free spirits are capable of appreciating those motives that are properly life-affirming).
-35- the 18th-century German scientist and satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s epigram: ‘Such works are mirrors; if a monkey peeks in, no apostle can peek out.
-36- Given the postulated atheism of Sartre’s view, it seemed to follow that individuals were left to create their own values because there was no moral order in the universe by which they could guide their actions, indeed, that this freedom was itself the ultimate value to which one could appeal (as he put it, ‘in choosing anything at all, I first of all choose freedom’).
-37- Sartre introduced yet another ethical principle when he asserted that in every moral choice we form an image of the kind of person we want to be and, indeed, of what any moral person should be: ‘For in effect, there is not one of our acts that, in creating the man we wish to be, does not at the same time create an image of man such as we judge he ought to be.’
-38- Albert Camus views this as the source of our anguish: we long for meaning conveyed by a Universe that cares but discover only an empty sky.
-39- Camus counsels that our only hope is to acknowledge that there is no ultimate hope. Like the Ancient Stoics, we must limit our expectations in view of our mortality.
-40- The mantra of Sartrean humanism, echoed by Camus and de Beauvoir, is that you can always make something out of what you’ve been made into. So the almost proverbial existentialist ‘pessimism’ harbours a deep, if limited, hope.
-41- But what is the philosophy of this generation? Not God is dead, that point was passed long ago. Perhaps it should be stated Death is God. This generation thinks – and this is its thought of thoughts – that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have any true power. Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb. The brittle shell of glass loses its tiny vacuum Humanism: for and against 53with a burst, and that is that. And this is how we teach metaphysics on each other.
-42- We saw Sartre give brief mention to theistic existentialists in his lecture and then proceed to discuss existentialism in terms that seem to exclude or at least to discount belief in God. But not all humanism is atheistic. In fact, in a manner analogous to that of Heidegger, theists argue that atheism degrades the true worth of the human being by reducing him or her to a mere product of nature, without intrinsic value or ultimate hope. Again, much turns on the kind of freedom or autonomy that the would-be existentialist accords the individual. Atheists claim that such freedom is absolute. Whatever perfections humans have ascribed to God, they insist, have been gained at their own expense and theology is simply anthropology upside down. Nietzsche’s thesis about the death of God leads him to advocate a heroic atheism by which one forges ahead like Sisyphus despite the presumed indifference of the Universe.
-43- And how they respond colours the ‘humanism’ they propose. We saw that, for Camus, we were challenged to make the most of an absurd situation. Sartre would agree with Roquentin that our existence is just a brute fact, that we are superfluous (de trop). And both would subscribe to the Sisyphean concluding line of Sartre’s play No Exit, ‘Well, let’s get on with it.’ Just because there is not ultimate hope does not mean that we are bereft of all hope whatsoever. The wisdom of Sisyphus is not to make the rock stay put but to get the thing off his toe! We are advised to pursue limited but attainable goods – like the Ancient Stoics.
-44- It is the humanist dimension of existentialism that comes to grips with the fact of our sheer being there. And it is their respective responses to the questions ‘Why do we exist?’, ‘Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?’, that distinguish the theists from the atheists among them. Unlike philosophers such as Bertrand Russell who deny that the question is even meaningful, the existentialists, both theistic and atheist, take it quite seriously.
-45- Not that Sartre was a finger-wagging moralizer. Rather, he insisted that each of us acknowledges what we are doing with our lives right now. Like Kierkegaard’s sea captain hesitating to come about while in the meantime the ship continues in its present direction, we are challenged to own up to our self-defining choices; to make them our own and consequently to become selves by acknowledging what we are. This is a form of Nietzsche’s prescription to ‘become what you are’. It’s a matter of living the truth about ourselves, about our condition as human beings. The inauthentic person, in Sartre’s view, is living a lie.
|by V. L. Craven|
Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction