Robert Olson starts out his book on Existentialism by saying, “Almost everybody has at one time or another reflected on the major existentialist themes” i. Every man has at some point in his life debated his worth, every man has been let down before, and everyone must make choices. Every man has experienced despair and suffering. Existentialism addresses universal concerns, and it’s a philosophy that has only matured with age. Existentialism, as a philosophy, is ultimately about the despair inherent in the human condition, the causes of that despair, and how one must live with that despair. Existentialism proves that the suffering of the human condition is, in fact, a necessary and healthy part of human existence.
Existentialism starts, as the name might suggest, with the beginning of a beings existence. From the moment that man fulfills Descartes’ statement “Cogito ergo sum, 1” also known as “the absolute truth of consciousness as it attains to itself” ii , he simultaneously affirms both his own existence and attains the presence of the “other 2 ”. The presence of this other was gained as a very condition of a man’s existence – man may only proclaim “I think” so long as there exists another to witness him; Sartre says “I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the meditation of another.” iii As both the man and the other have come into being, and as both have fulfilled Descartes’ statement, their existence is in place, and so they may begin to design their essence.
As soon as man comes into being to the level Descartes refers to, as soon as man has self consciousness, he has gained control over his life. Here lies the first principle of existentialism: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” iv This ability to make something out of ones self comes from the existentialist belief in the importance of man’s capacity for free choice.
As soon as consciousness is reached, everything else starts with a choice: whether or not to get out of bed in the morning, whether to go left or right, whether to choose chocolate or vanilla, these choices define who you are as a person. Even when the decision a person makes is not to make a decision, the choice of abstention represents something about that person. v Often people practice elaborate schemes of self-deception where they try to blame unpleasant outcomes to their decisions as someone else’s fault, but ultimately the deception is just that: a deception. Sartre would point out that the self-deception “is evidently a falsehood, because it is a dissimulation of a man’s complete liberty of commitment.” vi There is no way to escape the power and meaning of one’s choices: even through attempting to disassociate oneself by seeking advice, a person is forever trapped with the weight of his decisions. If one were to go seek judgment, they would choose carefully the person whose judgment to seek. The act of choosing who one asks for help is essentially already making up the mind about whatever decision is to be debated: a person will chose to seek the counsel of someone knowing what that person would say, and ultimately, the person would already have decided in accordance with the beliefs of the wise man they are seeking.
Inherent in the principle that man can affect his own destiny at all is the assumption that there is no other force imposing on mans life and affecting his course. It is impossible for a meddling god to be present in the existentialist belief system: this means that either god is dead, as Nietzsche would have us to believe, or that has no bearing on humans every day life. Some of the atheist existentialists saw god as little more than a “useless and costly hypothesis” vii, and something that can’t be proven. Regardless of the actual existence of god, as soon as Dostoyevsky said “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted,” one of the greatest existentialist truths came to light. As one examines life, it becomes clear that if god were to suddenly die, there would be no repercussions on earth.
The existentialist would find the lack of god as something “embarrassing” viii because it eliminates the possibility of any à priori 3 value structures. An existentialist is always searching for meaning, but the lack of god only serves to further stress the ideal that man is free as man stands alone. Upon further thought, an existentialist would go so far as to say that man is condemned to his freedom. Man does not create himself and when he was born, he had no control over his birth, but from the moment he says “I think,” he is responsible for all of his actions. This freedom causes man great despair: inasmuch as there is no god to help man with his tougher choices, he is left to make them on his own.
To properly weigh the relative merits of a choice, it is common for man to consider what would happen if all of mankind similarly committed themselves to accepting the stance the man would like to take. When a man finds himself committed to a choice or an idea, he realizes that he is choosing not only for his own life, but he is choosing for mankind; this brings up the question of who can prove that any given person is the right person to make a decision on such a grandiose scale as to have all of mankind acting at their whim? With the existence of god refuted, there is nobody able to make such a decision: every man must live with the idea that the way he represents himself to the world is his view of the proper behavior for mankind. This can be quite literally viewed in examples such as a military leader who sends his troops out to the front line; there is no question of the probability of the death of the men 4, but the leader must make the choice: the choosing results in great pain and anguish for the leader. ix
There is also despair to be found regarding the choices of other people. As you assume that man is capable of free choice, you are left with the bitter truth that man may always choose other than you would like him to. It is impossible to rely on someone else if you know that their ability of free choice allows them forever to change their minds, and without the capability to rely on someone else, man is left hopeless. As Sartre points out, when Descartes said, “Conquer yourself rather than the world”, he was referring to the fact that man has only the capabilities to act on himself, and so we should all act without hope. x
One side effect of free choice is the fact that each man is born with the capacity to conquer himself. Despite the capacity man has for creation, the mere capacity means nothing. Since each man is born with the capacity to be brilliant and the ability to change the world, no man has any excuse to not have made a difference in the world. Man can’t say “I would’ve written the Great American Novel if I hadn’t had a child” or “I could’ve been famous” because all men have the capacity to greatness. In actuality however, only few men accomplish great things with their lives. This is why man must be judged on his actions and deeds, and why Sartre’s philosophy is often simplified as “to do is to be” 5. This emphasis on man’s action wasn’t solely on great acts, but specifically on art: Sartre said, “There is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art.” This position is why most of existentialist literature is in the form of short stories, plays, or fictional works of literature.
These works of literature often display man as pitiless creatures of despair with no hope of escape. Often, readers are offended that the characters created to represent the universal human is reduced to this anguish, this pathetic shell of what we like to believe humans are. The existentialist would quickly respond that the portrayal of man as a creature of despair is the only true way to portray him: man has always been in despair, the existentialist would say, but only he was able to truly strip away the delusions. Since the focus is on action, as soon as a man has accepted his despair, the existentialist may help him do something with it. xi
Beyond finding a value in the creation of art and literature, existentialists have general views of what they believe humans should and shouldn’t do with their lives. The existentialist sees most of the rest of mankind as falling into two categories, either “every day man” or a philosopher, and has problems with the contradictions of both of these lifestyles. The existentialist defines what I’ll call “the every day man” by this man’s dedication to a life of searching for pleasure, wealth, and fame. The existentialist sees three problems with this lifestyle. First, attainment of these goals depends only to a small degree to the actions of the man in question. As it has already been established, it is impossible for a human to fully trust anyone else, so this man would be striving for something he had no control over.
The second problem with these aspirations is that possessions can’t truly be secured. There is impermanence to everything: if you’ve found pleasure through a spouse, the relationship can end, if you’ve found wealth it can always be spent, and fame is infamous for lasting little more than 15 minutes in the grand scheme of things. This impermanence causes even further pain and suffering to the poor man with his misguided goals.
The final issue an existentialist sees with a life in pursuit of pleasure wealth and fame is that even if one has managed to attain these things while depending little on anyone else and accepting the impermanence, the man will still need to be constantly in a state of striving. Maintaining pleasure, wealth or fame takes the same effort and energy that was necessary to procure them in the first place. xii
Due to the focus on the pain and suffering an existentialist sees as necessary in life, the casual observer would often categorize existentialism as a pessimistic belief system, but this would be a drastic misinterpretation. Often readers of existentialist literature are so focused on the complete rejection of traditional values that they fail to see the positive and triumphant aspects the philosophy has to offer, and the truly humanistic view Sartre tried to relay 6 . The pain and suffering that are so central to the philosophy exist to allow for the positive aspects of human nature: it is impossible to have compassion 7, one of the most prized positive human values, without the suffering of another being.
Existentialists point out that most great philosophers have histories ripe with tragedy – Socrates was forcibly executed, Plato was forced to abandon his political career, Epictetus was a slave, Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam, Hegel had struggle up the academic ladder. It could be claimed in each of these cases that these people just had bad luck, and in many cases the philosophers themselves tended to regard the tragedy in their own lives as separate from their philosophies and the affectivity of their values on every day life. The existentialist responds to this by pointing out that the core of the life of every man is full of unmentionable tragedies and irreparable loss. Despite man’s aspirations to live either a ‘good’ life 8 or a life detached from his pain and suffering 9 , Existentialists would argue that that both goals are equally impossible to achieve happily, and would go so far as to say that a life of suffering is necessary to create the only values that are fit for humans. xiii
The man whose ultimate goal is to achieve worldly goods is as equally misunderstood as the philosopher who sits on his ivory tower and attempts to transcend reality because both men attempt to forsake what is solely and distinctively human. “The history of mankind is a desperate adventure which began we know not why and will end we know not where…Man alone among animals is capable of knowing that remark is true. Why should he refuse his birthright by trying to forget what he knows is the case?” xiv The happiness both the philosopher and the man aspire to are equally impossible, and if man were to be merely ‘happy’ in this way, humanity would be reduced to little more than unconscious brutes. After all, the existentialists would argue that neither external political circumstance, nor desire for wisdom, nor a lack of technological know-how nor some flawed moral evolution of humanity prevents mankind from achieving happiness. The way an individual’s life goes is, by necessity of free choice, up to him: the only reason mankind has not achieved true happiness must be because, “man could not be happy without ceasing to be man.” xv 10
Suffering, Existentialists would argue, is also crucial to the wellbeing of mankind. Hegel said that “the unhappy consciousness” xvi is a necessary developmental stage in a humans life, but only a stage. Existentialists build off of that – they say that consciousness itself is inherently unhappy. Sartre says it is a “self-evident truth” that “human reality…is by nature an unhappy consciousness with no possibility of surpassing its unhappy state” xvii Dostoyevsky says “Man will never renounce real suffering…suffering is the sole origin of consciousness” xvii and Unamuno says “suffering tells us that we exist.” xix The Existentialists also find suffering in the present. Olson explains, “If a man is tied to a limited region in space and time, then he cannot identify with mankind at large, even if there were a moral obligation to do so, and even if personal satisfaction could be thereby derived.” xx Suffering must be accepted to be able to appreciate the different values existentialists over the years have held dear. Nicholas Berdyaev stressed love and creative endeavor, and Sartre stressed freedom of choice – both are considered the most widely accepted existentialist values. The point of these values is to liberate man from the tedium or apathy that fall so easily on the shoulders of the philosopher in his white tower and the village man outside. Unamuno claims suffering is much preferable to “the horrible terror of feeling yourself incapable of suffering and tears.” xxi Existentialist values exist to intensify the consciousness and to arise people’s passions. An existentialist searches for a cause he is ready to both live with and die for. Kierkegaard says, “Let others complain that the age is wicked, my complained is that it is wretched, for it lacks passion.” xxii
Existentialists attack the philosophies of the Enlightenment by proving the far reaching goals of the Enlightenment’s social reform and ideal society are impossible to achieve. In a large way, the Enlightenment philosophy depends on a certain faith in man’s ability to transcend his current state through large scale effort and social reform.
Karl Jaspers addresses philosophies optimistic of man’s capacity to escape suffering through social reform in his Man in the Modern Age, and he critically examines the potential for social reform to make lasting differences or changes.
Suppose that all the matter and all the energy in the world would be continually utilized without reserve. Population would be regulated by birth control. The sciences of eugenics and hygiene would see to it that the best possible human beings were being bred. Diseases would have been abolished. There would be a purposive economy wherein…the needs of all would be supplied…Without struggle…the joys of life would be provided for all in unalterable allotments, with the expenditure of little labor and with ample scope for pastime.
In truth, however, such a condition of affairs is impossible. It is prevented by the working of incalculable natural forces. …There may be the specific misfortune of a failure of technique. Perhaps the persistence of the campaign against diseases, temporarily to all appearances, overwhelming in its success, will rob human beings of their immunity, will deprive them of it so completely that an unanticipated pestilence will sweet away the whole race. Eugenics will prove unable to hinder the survival of the weakly, and will fail to prevent…racial deterioration. xxiii
Existentialists use the fact that humans have not yet achieved ultimate happiness as an empirical fact proved similarly to how Jaspers argues medical science has not yet eliminated all diseases so it won’t in the future.
While not all Existentialists believe the goals of the Enlightenment and Marxism are impossible, those that see the possibility as real don’t, for the most part, see the results as ultimately beneficial. Jeremy Bentham, an influential philosopher of the Enlightenment period, believed happiness was the key to the bettering of humanity. Berdyaev believes that the goals of Bentham as well as the other Enlightenment philosopher’s goals could potentially be reached, but that any actual achievement of a universal prosperity or general well being for all would sacrifice other values that should be considered more important, like compassion. xxiv Were Bentham to get his goal of large scale happiness, the Existentialist’s value of suffering would be undermined. If, as Unamuno says “suffering tells us that we exist,” xxv than how would man continue existing at all in the Enlightenment’s Utopia?
Dostoyevsky voices another popular Existentialist complaint with the Enlightenment philosophies in his Notes from Underground when he addresses the issue of free choice.
One’s own free unfettered choice, ones on caprice, however wild it might be, one’s own fancy worked up at time to frenzy – is that very “most advantageous advantage” which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms…What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost, and wherever it may lead. xxvi
Dostoyevsky, along with most of the Existentialists, sees free choice
as the ultimate freedom and responsibility man is given. To believe
in the Enlightenment’s social reform policies, a person must see some inherent value in any social reform involving one group of people (the reformers) making choices that impede the capacity for free choice of any other people.
Marcel and Jaspers also pose a different issue with the large scale optimistic humanism of the Enlightenment’s philosophy: how is it possible to love all of mankind? Can the individual love beings that he or she does not know? Love is a “personal relationship between two concrete beings,” and it is impossible to have a personal relationship between a man and the abstraction of humanity. xxvii In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky also addresses the issue of a universal love of mankind: if it was possible for God to give all of mankind eternal salvation on the condition one innocent child suffered eternally, shouldn’t mankind accept the bargain? 11 How can a person who would condemn an innocent child to eternal suffering claim they have a universal love of mankind?
Another issue Existentialists have is that of respect for all other humans. The existentialist would focus on the present: a man who ignores the limitations of the present by feigning respect for all mankind only succeeds in denying individuals of the possibility of respect. xxviii Nietzsche pointed out that if all men are to be respected, than nobody is respected – not even the man of superior worth. The only possible outcome of a nation where all men are loved and respected equally is a nation where everyone is the loser with no values of anyone’s merit.
Existentialism continues to appear a bleak and pessimistic philosophy for those who don’t know how to fully understand it, but it remains a secretly optimistic view on the potential of mankind to overcome and make something of itself.
“I think therefore I am
” includes all other people who have come in contact with the person.
À priori: preexisting
Sartre had military
experience, and lots of his examples he gives reflects the choices man is forced to make in the military.
As seen on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and other merchandise: Plato
: “To be is to do”
: “To do is to be”
: “Do be do be do”
Sartre’s L’existentialisme est un humanisme
is the best work I’ve found to explain the positive views an existentialist holds. Walter Kaufmann
’s translation is the most readable translation I’ve come across; it is one of his many translations included in Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre
Defined as “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it” by Merriam-Webster.
This is referring to the life in search of pleasure, wealth, and fame previously discussed.
This is the lifestyle often referred to as the philosopher’s life
Italics are my own for emphasis.
This is also the plot to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
”, a short story by Urusla K. Le Guin
that she based off of a similar hypothetical question posed by William James
Olson, Robert G. An Introduction to Existentialism
. New York: Dover Publications, 1962. p.vii
Sartre trans. Kaufman, p.361
Kaufmann, Walter. Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre
. 1956. Middlesex: Meridian, 1975. Translation of Sartre’s essay “Existentialism as Humanism
Sartre trans. Kaufman, p.365
Ibid, p. 357-358
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness
. trans. Hazel e. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library
, 1956. p.90
Olson, p.25, quoting Fydor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground
trans. Constance Garnet
Olson, p.25, quoting Miguel Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life
trans. JE Crawford Flitch.
Olson, p.28, quoting Miguel Unamuno
’s Tragic Sense of Life trans. JE Crawford Flitch.
Olson, p.18, quoting Kierkegaard; source unnamed
Olson, p.20, quoting Karl Jaspers
’s Man in the Modern Age
trans. Eden and Cedar Paul
Olson, p.25, quoting Miguel Unamuno
’s Tragic Sense of Life
trans. JE Crawford Flitch.
Olson, p.21, quoting Fyodor Dostoyevsky
’s White Nights and Other Stories
Kaufmann, Walter. Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre
. 1956. Middlesex
: Meridian, 1975.
Olson, Robert G. An Introduction to Existentialism
. New York: Dover
Roubiczek, Paul. Existentialism: For and Against
. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. trans. Hazel e. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Le mur. France: Gallimard, 1939.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. L’existentialisme est un humanisme. France: Gallimard, 1996.
Solomon, Robert C. From Hegel to Existentialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.