Suppose that the Existential Illini arrange a Millercomm event on the topic “After the Death of God: Despair, Nihilism, or What?”  Suppose that they invite Schopenhauer (AS), Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre (JPS), and that three of them show up (your choice).  Give two-page summaries of what each of them says.

Hi, my name is Arthur Schopenhauer.  I lived from 1788 to 1860 of the Common Era, isn't that exciting?    Well, I’m back at this fine Millercomm event to talk about the death of God, and I hear that two of my fellow colleagues will be here as well to share their views on it.  Between the three of us, we shall attempt to explain just what we believe in and how we each interpret what we are to do with ourselves after the “Death of God”.

God is dead, that much is obvious.  How I laugh at those like Descartes and Kierkegaard, who base so much of their theories on an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God that even a stiff wind can blow their deck of cards over.  How I scoff when Descartes says that even the thought that God could exist as a being just as powerful but not infinitely good in nature, in fact, causes Descartes greats pains.  In a moment of agitation trying to disprove this notion, he says he felt “…as if I had suddenly fallen into a deep whirlpool, I am so disturbed that I can neither touch my foot to the bottom nor swim up to the top.” (Note Packet, 54)

Just the thought of bashing one of these guys makes me salivate.  How can they possibly look around at this suffering and misery without thinking it “impossible to believe that this world is the successful work of an all-wise, all-good, and at the same time, all-powerful Being?” (Packet 209)  When I listen to Kierkegaard’s endless platitudes and honorifics towards God, actually thanking him for creating this torturous ball of wretchedness we occupy, it makes me want to cry.  In addition, it is preposterous to suppose that such an omnipotent and good being would create man, its “highest product, who is a burlesque of what he should be.” (Packet 210)  Given the power to create us with infinite happiness and no suffering, it is inconceivable that he would instead create the flawed, miserable, unhappy and pained that he did—“Human life must be some kind of mistake.” (Packet 212)  Unless you can believe “that a God like Jehovah should have created this world of misery and woe, out of pure caprice, and because he enjoyed doing it,” there is no choice but to declare God dead, once and for all—and good riddance!

So what is left, then?  Despair.  Pure despair and suffering.  The only purpose of life is to suffer.  Don’t look for a merciful God to save you, for if there was one He would have done so already.  “Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.” (Packet 205)

Without a God to “watch over us”, as the tired rhetoric goes, it would seem that humans have the freedom to say whatever they want to say and do whatever they want to do.  I’m sure Mill would be proud of me for invoking his “holy word” of freedom, so let me go right ahead and cut him off at the pass.  Life is all suffering anyway, all that one is bound to do by acting on their opinions and desires is to choose their own particular method of suffering.  In the grand scope of things, does it really matter?  If we truly examine one’s life “in all its small details, as presented, say, in a comedy, how ridiculous it all seems!”  Mill puts us each under a microscope and wants us to examine all our wants, dreams, opinions, and our individuality…but “it is only in the microscope that our life looks so big.” (Packet 212)

Life is suffering and pain, and then you mercifully die.  If there is some sort of God, then they created this horrible world and I have a bone or two to pick with them.  If not, than the world is truly just inherently evil.  Either way, it doesn’t really matter.  Despair, for you can do nothing else.

I can see by the horrified looks on your faces that my dear colleague Schopenhauer has depressed you all to the verge of tears—and that some of you, in fact, are already crying.  My name, friends, is Martin Heidegger, and I shall attempt to explain to you my own hypotheses on what man is to make of himself after throwing God out the window.

So God does not exist, yes?  Does this leave us out in the cold, as Schopenhauer says?  Not entirely.  He is overly pessimistic, as you might have gathered by yourselves.  Freedom is out there for the taking, and I believe that some good can come of having this freedom.  The hard part, as I see it, is not deciding what to do with freedom, but obtaining it in the first place.

Until we have a specific sort of revelation—I’ll get to that in a bit—our being is simply a “Being-with.”  We are part of a collective (“with” them), and we really don’t make any original decisions—we are not authentic.  Our thoughts and actions are dominated by what others tell us are right and wrong; we never really determine for ourselves what is right and wrong.  Even when we are alone—Being-alone, as I call it in my works—we are still part of the collective, or the Being-with.  “Even Dasein’s Being-alone is Being-with in the world.  The Other can be missing only in and for a Being-with.  Being-alone is a deficient mode of Being-with; its very possibility is the proof of Being-with.” (Packet 308)  Even when we are alone in an empty room, our actions are still affected by others.

How do we break out of this, you ask?  We must realize that we are going to die, or become a “Being-towards-death.” (Packet 313)  We realize that Death is “the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all.”  (Packet 314)  It is the end of being, after which the Dasein goes from being to “not-being”.  Furthermore, the anticipation of death turns out to be the important part of this discussion, not death itself.  The anticipation of death is unique for each person; “Anticipation turns out to be the possibility of understanding one’s ownmost and uttermost potentially-for-Being—that is to say, the possibility of authentic existence.” (Packet 314)  We grapple trying to come to terms with our own death, not the deaths of others.  It is this that allows us to be “wrenched away from the ‘they’” and become true authentic beings. (Packet 314)

The term that encapsulates this freeing of the Dasein is the “freedom towards death”.  (Packet 316)  Now, how does the Dasein view this freedom it has obtained?  It does so via the “voice of conscience”.  (Packet 318)  Our conscience now tells us what it feels is right and wrong, what we should and should not do through guilt.  When we try to do something our conscience feels we shouldn’t, we experience the “Being-guilty”…”The call of conscience has the character of an appeal to Dasein by calling it to its ownmost potentiality-for-Being-its-Self; and this is done by way of summoning it to its ownmost Being-guilty.” (Packet 319)

So where does all this leave us, after the “Death of God”?  Perhaps it has shown us that it is possible to break away from other people’s morals and beliefs, that perhaps we can stop believing in Judeo-Christian ideals just because “they” do and create our own morals, our own beliefs.  We are now responsible for how we lead our own lives; our conscience created by our freedom towards death allows us to determine for ourselves what we should and should not do.  We are now authentic.

I can see by the doubly-horrified looks on your faces that not only has Schopenhauer has depressed you all to the verge of tears, but Heidegger has confused you to the point of hysteria!  I can only give you solace by telling you that his articles are at least ten times more confusing than his speeches, if you can believe that.  Anyway, my name is Jean-Paul Sartre, and I will try build upon what Heidegger has already mentioned by focusing on just what to do with freedom once it has been obtained—through existentialism!

I know that Schopenhauer touched briefly upon “freedom” in some respects, but I have a different view of it altogether.    Those Christians who bash existentialism do so because they believe that once “we ignore the commandments of God and all values prescribed as eternal, nothing remains but what is strictly voluntary.”  (Packet 321)  Complete freedom, in other words!  Schopenhauer trivializes this, saying that our freedom is irrelevant, and my disagreeing contemporaries believed that such freedom would leave things such that “Everyone can do what he likes, and will be incapable, from such a point of view, of condemning either the point of view or the action of anyone else.” (Packet 322)  Anarchy!  My rebuttal here is that these folks place an “over-emphasis upon the evil side of human life”—they underestimate man’s ability to escape from the anarchy they are so quick to place us in. (Packet 322)

The brand of existentialism I believe in is known as “atheistic existentialism”, and it can be summed up by saying “If God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it…the human essence.” (Packet 323)  This is to say, there is no such thing as human nature since there is no God.  “Man simply is…man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.  That is the first principle of existentialism.” (Packet 323)  Thus, man has complete freedom, as has already been stated.

It should be noted that this is a break from Heidegger, who believed that one had to have a revelation—the “freedom towards death”—to be totally authentic, or free to make one’s own choices.  I, being an atheistic existentialist, believe that man’s freedom is inherent, a result of having existence before essence.

Furthermore…not only is man wholly responsible for himself, “he is also responsible for all men.” (Packet 323)  This may seem counter-intuitive, but we can think about it as such: Man tends to take the road we would want others to take, leading by example.  The best way for me to show that I believe that murder is bad is to never murder anyone myself—“In fashioning myself I fashion man.” (Packet 324)

The question one may ask in response to this, of course, is: “What is the proof that you, Sartre, or anyone else for that matter, is the right person to impose your views of man on the rest of us?”  The response is thus: “I shall never find any proof whatsoever.” (Packet 324)  We are totally abandoned, as we existentialists say.  There is no God to lay down laws, nor can we take any core values a priori that were brought about solely by a belief in God.  There is thus no one to determine for us who the right person to impose their views on others are—our leaders choose to be leaders, and those who choose to follow make that choice consciously as well.  And, there is no reason why a follower cannot become a leader tomorrow, or vice versa for that matter.  For this reason, and so many others, we say, “Man is condemned to be free.” (Packet 325)

There is no God and no predestination of the essence at all—that is what I believe; that is the crux of Existentialism.  Go out, and be what you make of yourself!


Philosophy 101 Note Packet (Schacht).  University of Illinois, Fall Semester 2000.

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