What Exactly is Neglected?
Existentialism is not neglected. In fact, it is a household word. There’s Existential Literature, Existential Theater and who hasn’t heard of the Existential Crisis?
However, most people think of Existentialism as depressing and for good reason. They do not know of the positive side of the philosophy, which is often underplayed or neglected entirely.
Existentialism in a Nutshell
For a long time, various books and authors displayed Existential tendencies. The Bible’s Eccliastes is an Existential work, Soren Kierkegaard is considered by many to be the father of Existentialism, and Nietzsche explored existentialist themes, and is also considered an Existentialist by some. But it wasn’t until the nineteenth to twentieth century that Existentialism was recognized as a school of thought.
Existentialism starts with a simple observation: the starting point of philosophy must be the conscious subject and not an ideal of human nature or purpose. By affirming the first and denying the second, we are confronted with a dilemma. How are we to act if we have no purpose or meaning that we are aware of? The only thing we can do is choose, without guidance and take full responsibility for our choices. While all this is happening, death approaches. We see it coming, know what it means, but cannot stop it. Finite, confusing, meaningless, helpless. Life, in short, is absurd.
This is pessimistic enough, but it gets worse. Existentialist works have a grim tone. For instance, Ecclesiastes tells us that life is futile and then we die. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a novel called Nausea in which the “hero” felt nausea on encountering any other object, for he felt it imposed on his own existence. Albert Camus wrote a series of essays called The Myth of Sysyphus that began with the claim that the only serious philosophical question is whether or not to kill ourselves! He then went on to liken us to Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again and repeat the process. Forever.
Even the one ray of light Existentialism offered — freedom — was quickly squashed. Kierkegaard called this freedom terrible. Sartre said we were condemned to be free and went even further by saying that when we choose, we choose for humanity.
The Bright Side
Ironically, one of the most fascinating bright spots is in Camus’ work — you know, the one where he asked why we shouldn’t kill ourselves. Camus claimed that joy was to be found in accepting our condition, and that our enemy was hope. It was because we hope for something better that we suffer. Here is a summary and analysis. Happiness through hopelessness? Why not? When I suffer, it’s because I’m comparing my situation with something better to which I have some hope or expectation, no matter how remote. Without this hope, I can see my situation on its own terms and not in contrast to something better, from which it derives its suffering. Hope is often thought of as something good, but the thought that it may be a bad thing is tantalizing. Unfortunately, Camus spends relatively little time on this and when he discusses it, it seems grim, born out of defiance than any kind of genuine joy.
Ecclesiastes also had a bright spot. It encouraged people to throw themselves in life. However, like Camus, it comes off sounding hollow. After all, it led with a long list of reasons why life was futile so its endorsement sounds like an afterthought — another grim resignation in the absence of anything better.
Two other writers took a a more positive approach, although they did not cover the full range of Existentialist themes.
Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning argued that meaning was something we created, and was central to life. In fact, he argued that as long as people had meaning (a WHY) they could survive even the worst conditions. His view was informed by his experiences in a concentration camp.
Martin Buber wrote I and Thou, a work that rather than sounding pessimistic, carried a lyrical, contemplative, semi-mystical beauty. The book is about how we exist in relation.
A More Positive Approach
One way to approach Existentialism more positively is to argue that it isn’t the world that’s meaningless, but EXTERNAL “meaning”, the “meaning” imposed on us by others, the “meaning” we do not internalize, the “meaning” we do not find fulfilling. Rules are arbitrary, deriving “authority” (at best) from their connection to the rest of life. Yet when life itself is absurd, what kind of authority is that? This then allows us to choose INNER meaning, which is not in doubt. Our INNER meaning fulfills us.
Freedom can be scary, but it is also exhilarating, as it is full of possibilities. With this freedom, we go from being on predefined tracks to being in an open field in which we may wander at will.
The inevitability of death is depressing, but it is also empowering. It reminds us to drop petty concerns and live while we can, rather than waste our time living someone else’s life. Death will take away all that we accumulate, including possessions and status, so why pursue them? When we pursue INNER meaning, we at least have the reward of being fulfilled. Death may take us, but our life — while we have it — is lived to the fullest.
Even ethics can easily be derived. In fact, it’s The Golden Rule again. After all, if we all exist as conscious beings, then our responsibility and virtue towards one another lies in how we bring joy and avoid bringing pain to others.
The Existential Crisis — if we experience it — should be temporary, something we pass through on the way to something better. Once we fully embrace the reality of our situation, we either find joy in it as Camus claimed, or go further to build meaning on our own terms, without external meaning challenging us or making us doubt ourselves. The point is that Existentialism should leave us HAPPIER. Yes, I see Existentialism as a philosophy of joy, with any pain being a bump on the way there.
Existentialism is not for everyone. Some people are happy with their beliefs and find life more livable for having them. I imagine they find those beliefs inwardly meaningful. These people should avoid Existentialism or anything that would challenge their beliefs. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
However, others are not so lucky. Some find themselves in a stage of doubt from which they cannot emerge. Existentialism can help guide them through this transition. Others have beliefs that cause them pain. Existentialism can help undermine those beliefs. Yet, this is only half the story. Without the positive side of Existentialism — what does one build in its place?
The Positive Side of Existentialism is not only a neglected philosophy, it may be one of Western Philosophy’s great missed opportunities.
A Closing Note
While Existentialism deals with a broad range of themes, there isn’t full consensus. Some disagree with each other, some repudiate later views, others still reject the label of Existentialist. For instance, Camus didn’t like the label and Buber denied being an Existentialist. I believe Sartre distanced himself from at least one of his lectures/books. Regardless, the philosophy lives on as once stated, it takes on a life of its own. Still, in the interest of full disclosure, please know that some of these sources may be controversial.