Summary—This essay defines existentialism, describes the ideas of six major existentialists, and describes each of their two major written works.
The Canadian Constitution recognizes the supremacy of God. Albert Einstein said that God is the sum total of the laws of nature. According to the Constitution and Einstein, the laws of nature are supreme to everything including the laws of government. In other words, the laws of nature trump the laws of government. Relativity theory, quantum theory and my theory of one are all laws of nature. I have sent letters to the Canadian government claiming they had no legal right to let the bank take my house in that it violates the Constitution. By holding true to my arguments, I am an existentialist proving the government has not taken responsibility and is acting in bad faith.
Defining Existentialism. Kierkegaard and Sartre bookended the philosophy of existentialism, which effectively died with Sartre in 1980. It is the philosophy emphasizing individual existence, freedom and choice. Existentialism stresses that individuals have total freedom and total responsibility for the entire world. For man, existentialism tells us that existence precedes essence. Consider a pen for example. Its essence (ie. its design) comes before its existence. Alternatively, man arrives on the scene (ie. his existence) then creates his essence. Consider that the Freudian cognitive model has the ego choosing between the id (or self) and the superego (or government). If the ego chooses the id, it is existentialism. If the ego chooses the superego, it is behaviorism. Behaviorism is the model currently used in Western society and only asks that we behave ourselves. Everyone should choose existentialism over behaviorism.
Kierkegaard. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) was a Danish religious philosopher concerned with individual existence and subjective choice, which profoundly influenced theology and existential philosophy. He wrote critical works on Christianity, morality, psychology and religious philosophy. Kierkegaard used metaphors, ironies and parables. Much of his philosophy deals with how individuals live. He focused on actual human reality rather than abstract ideas, emphasizing the significance of personal choice and commitment to one’s beliefs. Fear and Trembling is his book which stresses that one must work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling (ie. Feel the fear and do it anyway). Kierkegaard sought to understand the anxiety that was present in Abraham when he believed he was ordered by God to take his own son’s life. He identified the religious sphere as guided by a devotion to the divine. In his book Either/Or Kierkegaard describes the other two spheres of existence as the aesthetic and the ethical. The aesthetic sphere is a refined form of hedonism that searches for pleasure and the enhancement of mood. The aesthetic individual seeks new experiences in order to stave off boredom and despair. To avoid this, the aesthetic individual must take a leap of faith into the great unknown of the ethical way of life. The ethical sphere involves a passionate commitment to social duties and religious commitments.
Nietzsche. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher, poet and philologist. He is perhaps most famous for his claim—God is dead—We have killed Him. Nietzsche spent much of his career attempting to reaffirm life and to counteract nihilism, which called for a radical rethinking of human nature. His book The Birth of Tragedy depends on the conflict between two opposing forces of Apollonian and Dionysian. Apollo is the Greek god of light and reason characterized by restraint and detachment. Dionysus is the Greek god of wine and dance and behaves in a frenzy in which the ego gives way to the self. Both the Apollonian and Dionysian are necessary for the creation of value. The book is divided into two parts. The first half deals with the nature of Greek tragedy with Apollonian and Dionysian. The second half uses the Greek model to understand modern culture in its decline and its potential rebirth. Beyond Good and Evil is a summary of Nietzsche’s mature philosophy. He contrasts other philosophic dogmatism with his own free spirit. He hoped that future philosophers would be characterized by being willing to follow arguments through to their natural conclusions. Nietzsche also spoke out against the morality of the everyman who encourages mediocrity and hates excellence.
Dostoyevsky. Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-81) was a Russian novel and essay writer, journalist and philosopher. Dostoyevsky’s literary works explore human psychology in the troubled political, social and spiritual environment of Russia. Many of his works emphasize Christianity and encourage love, forgiveness and charity explored by the individual who is being challenged with the hardships of life. His book The Brothers Karamazov is large in scope and is filled with discussions on faith, doubt, freewill and morality, which is most of existential philosophy. Broken down into archetypes, Alyosha represents the ideal man, Dmitri represents the animal in man, and Ivan represents the despair of those who rely solely on reason. I would argue that we need both faith and reason. Dostoevsky mixes tragedy, philosophy, psychology, drama and ultimately a hopeful ending into one of the most profound works ever written—Notes from the Underground. It tells the story of a former civil servant who embraces a nihilistic view of society. He is sick but refuses medical help—which introduces the notion of perverse freedom. In an act of perverse freedom, I once sent a letter addressed from God to a former employer. When the police arrived on the scene, I tried to convince them they should support the laws of nature as well as the laws of government. They told me they were not interested in the laws of nature and just wanted to correct my behavior.
Kafka. Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was an Austrian novel and short story writer. His disturbing fiction anticipated the oppression and despair of the late 20th century. The term Kafkaesque has come to be known to describe anxious and grotesque social situations. Kafka’s work emphasizes loneliness, frustration and guilt of individuals threatened by nameless forces beyond their control and comprehension. His book The Trial is the story of a man occupying the position of chief financial officer of a bank. He is unpredictably arrested by two agents from an unspecified government agency for an unnamed crime. The nature of his crime is never revealed to him or the reader. His true crime is that he shifts from seeing himself through his own eyes to the eyes of the government. Because of this, he willingly accepts a knife to his heart. The Metamorphosis emphasizes a style that blends reality with fantasy and irony. Kafka presents a nightmarish scene in this novel. The protagonist is a hardworking insurance agent who awakens to find he is turning into a huge insect. He remembers nothing of his former self and adapts to new circumstances as they present themselves. He is abandoned by his family and left to die alone.
Camus. Albert Camus (1913-60) was a French-Algerian novelist, essay and play write, and journalist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Camus addressed the concepts of absurdity and human revolt, and suggested solutions to the problems of the meaninglessness of modern life. In rebelling against his former friend Sartre, Camus claimed not to be an existentialist. Despite his claim, his The Myth of Sisyphus is a profoundly influential work of existential thought. Sisyphus was punished by the gods for deceitfulness and is condemned to spend his life repeatedly pushing a rock up a hill and then watching it roll down. It is a meditation on suicide. He answers the question of whether life is worth living in an absurd universe devoid of meaning. Camus concludes by saying that Sisyphus is happy and can live with dignity and authenticity. Camus describes his The Fall as mordant, brilliant and elegantly styled. “It is a novel of the consciousness of modern man in the face of evil. In a seedy Amsterdam bar named Mexico City, an expatriate Frenchman indulges in a calculated confession. He recalls his past life as a respected Parisian lawyer, a champion of noble causes and, privately, a libertine immune to judgment. As his narrative unfolds, ambiguities amass—every triumph reveals a failure, every motive a hidden treachery. The irony of his recital anticipates his downfall—and implicates us all.”
Sartre. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) was a French philosopher, novelist and political journalist. Sartre’s philosophic works combine subjective choice, phenomenology, metaphysics and the socialism of Marx into a singular view of existentialism. His main conviction is that we are condemned to be free. Sartre was an independent socialist critical of both the Soviet Union and the United States in the cold war. He declined the offer of the Nobel Prize in literature. In his Being and Nothingness Sartre conceives humans as beings who create the world by rebelling against authority and accepting responsibility for their actions. His book asserts total responsibility for the decisions of individuals. It also made recognition of one’s absolute freedom of choice as a necessary condition for human existence. His later book, Existentialism and Human Emotion is essentially a summary of Being and Nothingness. Sartre tells us that we must face the implications of a universe without purpose. Man is responsible for what he is and does. There is no given human nature that he is obliged to fulfill. Man chooses his values and may choose to be an entirely different person at any time.
Conclusion. Existentialism is the philosophy that stresses individual existence, freedom and choice. It views humans as defining their own meaning in life as beings who try to make rational decisions in an irrational world. Existentialism is all about putting man in touch with himself.