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Existentialism Essay, Research Paper

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the first things one may notice about existentialism is the confusion and disagreement of what it actually is. Dissertations have been written on the expanse of the topic, but I shall only give an overview of the philosophy. Walter Kaufmann, one of the leading existential scholars says, “Certainly, existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three writers who appear invariably on every list of existentialists, Heidegger, and Sartre — are not in agreement on essentials. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid individualism.” Some of the difficulty in defining existentialism results from the characteristics of the philosophy itself. “For example, most existentialists deny that reality can be neatly summarized into a system, and so they reject all-inclusive views like Hegels,” says Diane Barsoum Raymond. This does not mean that existentialists are unsystematic, but rather that they tend to emphasize the richness of human experience rather than construct a tidy framework. Therefore, a precise definition is impossible; however, it suggests one major theme: a stress on individual existence and the subsequent development of personal essence.

Existentialists attempt to direct our attention to ourselves as individuals. “They force us to think about our relation to such topics as the existence and nature of God, what it is to be Christian, the nature of values, and the fact of one’s own death. Existentialists encourage us to consider, in a personal way, the meaning of living authentically and inauthentically”(Oaklander ix). Man is the only known being, according to the philosophers, that defines itself merely through the act of living. In other words, first you exist, and then the individual emerges as life decisions are made.

Freedom of choice, through which each human being creates their own nature, is one of the basic themes. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists have argued that they must accept the risk and responsibility of their actions. Those who follow this believe they are in a world that does not always make sense, a world that is filled with uncertainty where well-intended actions can become obscure and chaotic. In basic existentialist beliefs, man is the only animal defining itself through life. Without life, there is no meaning. Existentialists believe in life and fighting for it (Wyatt, 1999).

While fighting for life, each person must face important and difficult decisions with only limited knowledge and time in which to make these decisions. Human life is seen as a series of decisions that must be made without knowing what the correct choice is. They must decide what standards to except and which ones to reject. Individuals must make their own choices without help from external standards. Humans are free and completely responsible for their choices. Their freedom and responsibility is thrust upon them and they are “condemned to be free”. Their responsibility for actions, decisions and beliefs cause anxiety. They try to escape by ignoring or denying their responsibility. To have a meaningful life one must become fully aware of the true character of the situation and bravely accept it.

Yet other existentialist thought dictates every person spends a lifetime changing his or her essence. Without life there can be no meaning; the search for meaning in existentialism is the search for self. In other words, we define ourselves by living; killing yourself would indicate you have chosen to have no meaning. Existentialists believe in living — in fact fighting for life. Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche were involved in various wars because they had a strong belief in fighting for the survival of their respective countries.

In order to understand the current meaning of existentialism, one must first understand that the American view of existentialism was derived from the writings of political activists, not intellectual purists. Americans learned the term “existential” after World War II. The term is credited to Jean-Paul Sartre to describe his own philosophies, but it was actually coined by Kierkegaard when he described his “existential dialectic”. It was not until the late 1950s that the term was applied broadly to several divergent schools of thought.

As stated earlier, existentialism maintains that life is a series of choices, creating stress. Few decisions are without any negative consequences. Some things are irrational or absurd, without explanation. If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through.

Even these concepts are not universal within existentialist writings, or at least the writings of people labeled as such. Blaise Pascal, for example, spent the last years of his life writing in support of predetermination, the theory that is better known as “fate”. First, there is the basic existentialist standpoint, that existence precedes essence. Man is a conscious subject, rather than a thing to be predicted or manipulated; he exists as a conscious being, and not in accordance with any definition, essence, generalization, or system. Existentialism says I am nothing but my own conscious existence.

A second existentialist theme is that of anxiety, or the sense of anguish, a generalized uneasiness, and a fear or dread that is not directed to any specific object. Anguish is the dread of the emptiness of human existence. This theme is as old as Kierkegaard is within existentialism; it is the claim that anguish is the underlying, all-pervasive, universal condition of human existence. Existentialism agrees with certain ideas in Judaism and Christianity, which see human existence as fallen from grace, and humans have lived in suffering, guilt, and anxiety. This dark and depressing view of human life leads existentialists to reject ideas such as happiness, enlightenment optimism, a sense of well-being, since these can only reflect a superficial understanding of life, or a naive and foolish way of denying the despairing, tragic aspect of human existence. 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger felt that anxiety leads to the individual’s confrontation with the impossibility of finding ultimate justification for his or her choices.

A third existentialist theme is that of absurdity. An existentialist would say “I am my own existence, but this existence is absurd. To exist as a human being is inexplicable, and absurd. Each of us is simply here, thrown into this time and place—but why now? Why here?” Kierkegaard asked. For no reason, without necessary connection, my life is an absurd fact.

A whole school of theatre, known as the theatre of the absurd derives from the philosophical use of the word absurd by such existentialists thinkers as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sarte. A fully satisfying rational explanation of the universe was beyond its reach and the world must be seen as absurd. Playwrights such as Samuel Beckett with Waiting for Godot and Tom Stoppard with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead gear their works towards the existential school of thought. For example, the strange atmosphere of Godot, in which two tramps wait on what appears to be a desolate road for a man who never arrives. Waiting for Godot captures the feeling the world has no apparent meaning. In this misunderstood masterpiece Beckett asserts numerous existentialist themes. Beckett believed that existence is determined by chance. This is the first basic existentialist theme asserted. Two of the characters are waiting for Godot who never arrives. Two of them consist of a flamboyant lord of the earth and a broken slave whimpering and staggering at the end of a rope. They meet perchance but the play rests on simply the objective of our waiting.

Another basic existentialist theme on which Beckett reflects is the meaninglessness of time. Because past, present and future mean nothing, the play follows a cyclic pattern. Vladimir and Estragon returned to the same place each day to wait for Godot and encounter the same basic people each day. Godot’s messenger does not recognize Vladimir and Estragon from day to day. This suggests that the people we meet today are not the same as they were yesterday and will not be the same tomorrow. Beckett also examines a theme of self-deceptive attempts to dodge reality by making excuses for one’s actions. Vladimir and Estragon fool themselves by engaging in petty discourse that reflects the absurdity of life. They even contemplate suicide numerous times for numerous reasons, but ultimately persist in the futility of life.

As well in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Rosencrantz creates a picture of characters who inhabit a world which is stranger than they had supposed, which they know it is not as it seems but what it is. He evokes the ability of all man kind to understand those forces ultimately in control of their lives and fates. At outset of the play, Rosencrantz remains oblivious to any oddity and their coin-tossing, describing the improbable run as 85 heads as merely a new record. The destiny which awaits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern consists of nothing for which they are prepared. Instead they are to be “kept intrigued without ever being enlightened”. The purpose of the coin-tossing scene is the obvious conclusion that forces beyond their control are guiding their fate and it is obvious Guildenstern is more conscious of the two. He also sets up the quest theme that the play will take on. The ranting and ramblings of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are reminiscent of the spiritual pilgrim of the protagonist of Waiting for Godot. They both spend the entire play searching for a fate and spiritual rationale that is always alluding them. It can be concluded that the title characters are searching for a divinity that will make itself evident.

The fourth theme which pervades existentialism is that of nothingness or the void. “If no essences define me, and if, then, as an existentialist, I reject all of the philosophies, sciences, political theories, and religions which fail to reflect my existence as conscious being and attempt to impose a specific essentialist structure upon me and my world, then there is nothing that structures my world” (T. Z. Lavine). I am my own existence, but my existence is a nothingness.

Related to the theme of nothingness is the existentialist theme of death. Nothingness, in the form of death, which is my final nothingness, hangs over me like a sword of Damocles at each moment of my life. I am filled with anxiety at times when I permit myself to be aware of this. At those moments, says Martin Heidegger, the whole of my being seems to drift away into nothing. The unaware person tries to live as if death is not actual, he tries to escape its reality. But Heidegger says that my death is my most authentic, significant moment, my personal potentiality, which I alone must suffer. And if I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life– and only then will I be free to become myself. But here the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre begs to differ. What is death, he asks? Death is my total nonexistence. Death is as absurd as birth– it is no ultimate, authentic moment of my life, it is nothing but the wiping out of my existence as conscious being. Death is only another witness to the absurdity of human existence.

It is common for people to associate a lack of faith or secular beliefs with existential thought. Existentialism has little to do with faith or the lack thereof. Religion is merely another choice you make in weaving your essence. Existentialism is not a singular school of thought, devoid of any and all forms of faith. It may surprise laypersons that many of the existentialists were religious. Pascal and Kierkegaard were dedicated Christians. Pascal spent the end of his life in a monastery. Kierkegaard was a passionate Protestant, and supporter of Luther’s teachings.

Despite his famous (infamous?) “God is dead” quote, Nietzsche also appears to have been a believer in a Creator, though he branded organized religion as a manipulative tool to control the masses. He often insulted the Church merely to cause a stir. Some, notably Walter Kaufmann, call Nietzsche the “anti-Christian” existentialist, because he believed the organized Christian churches were the most destructive influences of his time.

We are then left with Camus and Sartre, and of these two, only Sartre can be seen to consistently deny any and all belief in a divine creator. Sartre was raised with religion, but World War II and the constant suffering of the world drove him away from faith. Many existentialists believe the greatest victory of the individual is to realize the absurdity of life and to accept it. In short, you live a miserable life, for which you may or may not be rewarded by a greater force. If this force exists, why do men suffer? If it does not exist, why not commit suicide and shorten your suffering? These questions indicate the confusion of existentialism.

Personally, I agree with many of the basic tenets of existentialism. Personal accountability for the decisions and actions made seems to be something that is fading from public opinion. Excuses seem to be replacing responsibility. Existentialism is liberating for those of us who do not rely on fate, God, or chance to guide us through the path of life. One aspect that is questionable is our ability to continuously reinvent ourselves through our actions. While this is wholly possible, the vast majority of people stick to old ways of doing things, or follow others blindly. Despite encompassing a staggering range of philosophical, religious, and political ideologies, the underlying concepts of existentialism are simple. Mankind has free will. Life is a series of choices, creating stress. Few decisions are without any negative 6 consequences. Some things are irrational or absurd, without explanation. If one makes a decision, he or she must follow through. The decisions you make are whom you are, so decide accordingly.

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Grene, Marjorie. Introduction To Existentialism. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1959.

Lavine, T. Z. (1999) Existentialism defined and Basic themes of existentialism [Online] Available: http://www.members.aol.com/KatharenaE/private/Philozkdaexteme.html

Oaklander, L. Nathan, ed. Existentialist Philosophy An Introduction. Ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1992

Raymond, Diane Barsoum. Existentialism and the Philosophical Tradition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1991

Sanborn, Patricia F. Existentialism. New York: Pegasus, 1968. Solomon, Robert C.

Wyatt, C. S. (1999). Existentialists: a primer to existentialism [Online]. Available: http://www.tameri.com/xsw/exist/exist.html


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