Existentialism: A ‘Termite’ for Humanity
Before embarking into the topic, the first question that comes to the reader’s mind is that; What is existentialism? What it actually describes? Is that an extension to atheism? Or is it something different and profound. Well, the question is a teaser to many philosophers and people.
Existentialism, the pointlessness of existence, that man is directionless, is a philosophy that gives preference to individual existence, freedom and choice. It says that humans define their own meaning in life, and attempt to make rational decisions while putting emphasis on the concept that there is no purpose in life, that life is meaningless. It believes that as there is no God or any other transcendent force, the only way to deal with this nothingness and hence to find meaning in life, is by embracing existence. With this notion comes angst; a deep agony or fear, which then ultimately leads to suffering and inevitable death.
Existentialism as a movement is used to describe those who refuse to belong to any school of thought, rejecting of the acceptability of any body of beliefs or systems, claiming them to be superficial. Although it has very much resemblance to Nihilism, Existentialism is against the philosophies of Rationalism and Positivism that try to discover a direction and universal meaning in life. In Existentialism, God or religion is replaced by the human’s own self, the view that existence comes first, essence comes second.
Existence Precedes Essence:
Jean-Paul Sartre, the first existentialist said that the thing in which all existentialists believe in is the fundamental doctrine that “existence precedes essence.” That essence, the basic moral teachings of life or the wisdom, knowledge, come second and the existence comes first. Thus, human beings, through their own perception, create their own morals and determine a meaning to their life.
Existentialism, Atheism, and the holes in this philosophy:
According to the philosopher Steven Crowell, it is understood as a method used to reject certain organized philosophies rather than as an organized philosophy itself. Sartre himself described existentialism as an attempt to think and draw consequences from a position of consistent ‘atheism’.
Shame on our being born:
Another existentialist Arthur Schopenhauer says in his book “On the Suffering of the World” said that our biggest crime is our crime of existence. He said that
“Each one of us here, is being punished for his existence and each in his own particular way.”
According to him, human being exists only as a consequence of his own fault and whose life is a compensation of the crime of his being born. The idea here is that, at one point, existentialists say; ‘existence’ precedes essence’ and at another point, they say that our biggest crime is the crime of our existence. This depicts the hollowness of this philosophy.
The point to ponder:
My argument is that, from the beginning of human existence man lived a life of mixed emotions. There were problems as well as there were solutions to it. Then why in the 20th century, there came a need to propose existentialist theory? Why existentialism came into being? and how existentialism leads to nothingness and Nihilism.
As compared to the old times when people lived at peace within themselves, the dilemma of modern man and his depression is worthy to question. Answering this question is not easy and simple. Because it is to be found in the roots of modern man’s life and his perceptions.
As the world modernized, it lost its original path. When man started to say Ah! What is this morality? We don’t believe in it! When people no longer believed in God. When they rejected the ideas of meaningful life, of divine existence, then the absence of God, of a meaningful life, created a hollow, then the theory of existentialism came into being. Man questioned himself “what is the purpose of my life?” Why I came here? And when existentialists failed to answer it, he fell into “nothingness” and “Nihilism”.
Existentialists eradicated man from his origin and then failed to provide him any direction.
A tree without roots:
Existentialism detached man from his roots. When man isolates himself from God, he’s left astray. He becomes unable to find his purpose of creation. What happens to a plant when it’s cut from its roots? Slowly, it deadens. Existentialists told man to get rid of God, then suffered in living a purposeless life. The concept of the humiliating awareness of meaninglessness in life killed them.
Albert Camus claimed that
“There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”.
The fear of helping people to avoid living their lives in a way that puts them in the danger of having everything meaningful, is common to most existentialist philosophers. It is said that the chance of committing suicide makes a human existentialist. The human, who lives without meaning and faces suicide without surrendering to it, is considered as the ultimate hero of absurdism.
Marxists’ view on Existentialism:
The philosophy influenced many scholars of different fields and compelled them to write about it. While the psychologists observed it as a road to suicidal sentiments and restlessness, Marxists saw this as a fill-in for boredom and laziness. They were of the view that existentialism is opposite to their struggles for the unity of human beings; their main theory of ‘economic determinism’. They further argued that Existentialism’s emphasis on individual freedom and choice leads to thinking rather than to action and that only the ‘bourgeoisie’ (rich people/capitalists) have the luxury to create themselves what they are through their choices. So Marxists considered Existentialism to be a philosophy for bourgeoise people.
Religion on existentialism:
Among the other religions, the Christian critics reasoned that Existentialism describes humanity in the worst possible light, overseeing the self-respect and grace that comes from living a meaningful life in the light of humanitarian principles. They challenged and asserted that Existentialists are unable to explain the moral dimension of human life and have no base for a more ethical theory if they deny that humans should follow the defined principles of God and humanity.
Existentialism and literature:
Literary writers wrote much about it. A reflection of the existentialists can be seen in Samuel Becketts Absurd play, “Waiting for Godot” in which he highlights the dilemma of modern man. The characters suffer from depression, anxiety, boredom, nothingness & uncertainty.
Waiting for Godot; A reflection of the modern era:
The play is the mirror of our age because it shows the inner hollowness, helplessness, and meaninglessness of modern man’s life. There are two main characters in this play and they are Waiting for Godot. “Godot” here represents God and the characters represent Mankind as a whole: “All mankind is us.” The depiction is that man suffers in this world without God. When one rejects the notion of having a meaningful life, he falls prey to Nihilism.
Nihilism is a philosophy that suggests the lack of belief in the meaningful aspects of life. It is also known as existential nihilism, which says that life is without objective meaning or purpose.
The characters repeat “Nothing to be done” many times in their conversation. The pointlessness of existence creates a hollow in their self which they themselves are unable to fill. That’s why they wait for Godot to come and rescue them:
“But that is not the question. Why are we here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come.”
This is my argument that when existentialists eradicated man from his origin; God, they failed to find any direction. They suffered and said,
“It’s too much for one man.” -Beckett.
There comes a point in their life when they say out of despair
“That we have come to the wrong place? […] Suppose we repented. -Our being born?”
That shame on our being born! The characters try to commit suicide many times in the play when they mention the Eiffel Tower, but then with disappointment, they say: “We can’t.” They feel helpless.
Human being and the Existential angst:
This exact condition has been described by scholars as Existential angst, sometimes called existential fear, unease, or torture that is common to many existentialist thinkers. It is an undesirable feeling which comes from the experience of human choice and responsibility.
The typical case is the feeling one has when standing on a rooftop where a person not only fears falling off it, but also fears the possibility of throwing himself off. In the thought that “nothing is holding me back”, one feels and finds out the lack of anything that decides if he should throw himself off or should standstill, and in this way, he experiences this kind of existential freedom. According to an existentialist, Adam Fong, angst is the sudden realization of a lack of meaning in life, which leads to depression and dread.
“The Place of man in a Godless World:
The pointlessness of life kills the characters from inside and out. In Waiting for Godot, they say
‘Do you mean we should repent of the sin of having been born?’
Wherever a man is, he always says ‘I’ve come to the wrong place.’ Why was I born? This is the existential question. They reject the religions which say you have come here to please thy God by serving his creation. First, they reject God, but in the end, suffer from their very existence. They question the existence of religion and reject reason, and without the two pillars of religion and reason, the characters exist in frustration and perhaps insanity. They do reject the notion that humanity was created to serve the creation and ultimately please the Creator, but they are unable to find the ‘real’ purpose which they claim that they can find out by their ‘own’ selves.
Soren Kierkegaard, the pioneer of Absurdism suggests that
“While inherent meaning of life might very well exist in the universe, human beings are incapable of finding it due to some form of mental or philosophical limitation. Thus, humanity is doomed to be faced with the Absurd, or the absolute absurdity of the existence, in lack of fundamental purpose.”
So, the place of man in a godless world is challenged in this play. Colin Wilson has rightly said in his book “The Angry Years” that existentialism has created many of its own difficulties:
“Existentialism found itself in a hole of its own digging, and how the philosophical developments since then have amounted to walking in circles round that hole.”
- Ball, J. A. and McConachie, B. “Theatre Histories: An Introduction.” New York: Routledge, 2010. P. 589
- Beckett, Samuel. “Waiting for Godot”: Tragicomedy in 2 Acts. New York: Grove Press, 1954. Print
- Schopenhauer, Arthur. “On the Suffering of the World”, R.J. Hollingdale (Translator). September 2nd 2004 by Penguin (first published 1850)
- Colin, Wilson, The Angry Years (2007), p. 214
- Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus”. NYU.edu