Existentialism is the philosophical belief we are each responsible for creating purpose or meaning in our own lives. Our individual purpose and meaning is not given to us by Gods, governments, teachers or other authorities. Examples of existentialism include believing in individual choice, believing you can choose your own meaning of life, questioning the existence of god, and falling into despair due to overwhelm at having to define your own life.
Existentialism as An Embracement of the Essence of Human Existence Without God
Existentialism, a profound philosophical movement that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries, delves into the depths of human existence, grappling with the fundamental questions of meaning, freedom, and responsibility. Rooted in the belief that individual experience and subjective perception shape the essence of human life, existentialism rejects traditional notions of objective truths and fixed moralities. Instead, it celebrates the inherent freedom and autonomy of individuals, urging them to confront the absurdity of existence and to create their own meanings in a seemingly indifferent universe. This essay explores the essence of existentialism, its key proponents, their philosophies, and the tragic stories of some of them, revealing the profound impact of existentialism on the human understanding of existence.
The Essence of Existentialism:
Existentialism places the individual at the epicenter of philosophical inquiry, emphasizing the importance of subjective experience and personal responsibility. The essence of existentialism can be encapsulated in the words of its prominent teacher, Jean-Paul Sartre. He famously declared, “Existence precedes essence,” asserting that individuals come into the world without predetermined purposes or fixed natures. According to Sartre, human beings are radically free, burdened by the responsibility of creating their own meaning in an inherently absurd and indifferent universe.
The Main Teachers of Existentialism:
- Friedrich Nietzsche: Nietzsche laid the philosophical groundwork for existentialism through his exploration of the “Ubermensch” or the “Overman.” He rejected traditional morality and religious beliefs, asserting that the universe was devoid of inherent meaning. Nietzsche believed that individuals must overcome societal constraints and embrace their true selves to attain self-actualization and create their own values.
- Jean-Paul Sartre: Sartre’s philosophy, deeply rooted in existentialism, revolved around the idea of radical freedom. He argued that individuals are condemned to be free, meaning they must bear the full weight of responsibility for their choices and actions. Sartre also delved into the notion of “bad faith,” wherein individuals deceive themselves into believing they are not free, relinquishing their autonomy and blaming external forces for their actions.
- Albert Camus: Camus explored the theme of absurdity in existentialism, presenting the concept of the “absurd” as the inherent tension between humanity’s search for meaning and the indifferent universe. He argued that the human quest for meaning in a world that lacks inherent purpose ultimately leads to existential despair.
- Søren Kierkegaard: Considered the father of existentialism, Kierkegaard delved into the subjective nature of existence and the importance of individual choice. He emphasized the significance of the individual’s relationship with God and advocated for a leap of faith as a means to find true meaning and authenticity.
- Martin Heidegger: Heidegger’s philosophy centered around the concept of “Dasein,” referring to human existence. He explored the notion of “being-toward-death,” suggesting that the awareness of mortality drives individuals to confront the essence of their existence and imbue life with significance.
The Tragic Stories:
While existentialism celebrates individual freedom, it can also lead to tragic narratives when individuals confront the depths of their existence without the guiding framework of external meaning. Some proponents of existentialism, in their quest for authentic existence, experienced profound struggles with despair, isolation, and nihilism.
One poignant example is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose mental health declined towards the end of his life. His philosophical exploration of the “eternal recurrence,” the idea that life is an infinite cycle of repetition, weighed heavily on his psyche. Nietzsche’s final years were marked by delusions and dementia, leading to his eventual death in a state of mental incapacity.
Another tragic figure was Albert Camus, who grappled with the absurdity of existence throughout his life. His contemplations on the human condition led to a sense of despair and isolation, which found expression in his novel “The Stranger.” Camus met an untimely death in a car accident at the age of 46, leaving behind a legacy that continued to influence existential thought.
Existentialism remains a compelling philosophical movement that challenges individuals to confront the essence of their existence, embrace their radical freedom, and create their own meanings in a seemingly indifferent universe. The teachings of existentialism, from the freedom of Sartre to the absurdity of Camus, continue to inspire introspection and exploration of the human condition. However, existentialism’s pursuit of authentic existence has also been marked by tragic narratives, as some of its main proponents grappled with despair and the lack of external meaning. Nevertheless, existentialism remains a timeless inquiry into the complexities of human existence, inviting individuals to navigate the existential landscape with courage, authenticity, and a relentless quest for personal meaning.