Existentialism is a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible entity determining their own development through acts of the will. The impending thought of doom is what separates humans from other living things. The fact that we can conceptualize our own end creates tremendous psychic strains within us. This little fact of life nuzzles at the deepest part of our consciousness slowly gnawing away at our ego. Our physical body acts as a buffer that paralyzes the mind from the realization that only a couple of years of existence separates us from life and death.
If we sit back and think about our impending termination and terrible insignificance, surely we succumb to a numbing sense of futility. At the end of the day we are merely a momentary microbe on a dust moat whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space -Stanley Kubrick. Those who view life in this perspective, recognize that there is no purpose that they can comprehend which somehow supersedes the fact that their existence merely goes unknown amongst the clusters of stars in the universe. We ultimately crumble to the mere concept of what is infinite and finite at the same time. Our mortality on a plane of immortality haunts us on a daily basis.
Even those who can vaguely comprehend their transience and triviality, rob their lives of meaning. This is why massive men lead lives of quite desperation as many of us find our lives to be absent of meaning much like our deaths. The worlds religion merely supplied some consolation for this great ache by the implementation of life beyond the physical plain. However as clergy men pronounce the death of God much like the German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche who identifies more as a nihilist than existentialist, the futility of our actions remains an unrivaled fact of life and man has no crutch left to lean and no hope however irrational to give purpose to his existence.
The shattering recognition of our fragile mortality is at the root of far more mental illness than that of most phycologists are aware of. The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience the joy of something as simple of the greenness of a leaf but as they grow older the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and suddenly their assumption of immortality starts to diminish. They are slowly surrounded by more accounts of death and pain as they mature thus causing them to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man.
The Nature of an Existentialist
- Existence is particular to every individual.
- The concept of existence is the problem of existence.
- Our existence is riddled with immense possibilities all leading to different outcomes.
- We as humans are defined by our existence.
The fact that our existence is something seen as individualistic rather than collective means that we as humans face a pressing question concerning what is right and wrong in a world of moral chaos. Existentialism denies the notion of good thus eliminating the idea of destiny. Existentialists believe that choice will in all cases overrides destiny so our life is in our own hands. We are therefore condemned to be free as we may never lead the life of a hedonist knowing that there will always be responsibilities throughout our lifetime and these responsibilities are what give meaning to our life.
Existentialists question the reason for our existence and while there are existentialists who believe that freedom is a given, others argue that political structures and society hold people back. Our life today can be compared to an ancient Greek mythological tale that involves a king of Corinth named Sisyphus. He was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill in the depths of Hades for eternity but every time he nears the top of the hill, the boulder rolls back down where he has to start all over again. Our task as human kind is to forever accept our own absurd lives cheerfully as existentialists believe that life has no concrete purpose and we all end up as dust.
The concept of infinity brings forward endless possibilities and creations but the finite yearns for the necessities of life and to be accepting of who we already are. Many individuals tend to lose themselves in the finite and circle into a pit of depression. They seek familiarity and safety by becoming an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd. To lose oneself in the infinite is to live life as if it were a series of experiments and tend to be obsessed with what they can potentially become. Thus such individuals never make concrete commitments as it will tie them to a particular end which loses the illusion of a possible infinity.
The perfect balance is by acknowledging the possible infinity but by still making a concrete decision regardless. This is acknowledged by existentialists to be the only means of living life. To give up the sense of infinite possibilities is what existentialists believe to be suicide. We as humans live on possibility and chance so the moment those aspects are taken away, we no longer see the point in living. It’s true that in many cases we live for the ‘what can be’ and not for the ‘what is’. We live our present days only for the sake of the future and nothing more.
It is rare for us to ever be content with our lives and those who are, will be accepting of death as there is nothing more to live for. Prior to World War II, essentialism was a fairly standard belief and is construed to be a belief in which every individual has an essence that can be considered to be a part of themselves. This essence is what makes us and thus we can be nothing more than what we were meant to be as it has all been planned out in advance. This belief contradicts existentialism which states that existence precedes essence and there is no destiny or predetermined life which we will lead.
Existentialists are those who conquer anxiety and use it as a lens to look at our constantly evolving lives. Anxiety is the response to the awareness of ones freedom, of ones power to gaze into endless possibilities and through an act of choice actualize one of those possibilities. This once more boils down to the fact that we are finite beings with infinite possibilities and so we are constantly anxious of our choices as they influence our overall mortal existence. An existentialist believes that they are defined by their existence and thus only they are responsible for their existence.
This recognition causes an existentialist to feel dread and anxiety as they will be at a constant unease after having done anything in life. In most cases those who recognize this ultimate burden are driven into insanity. The thought of being in so much control and not being able to meet our own desires ultimately proves our own incompetence as a functional human being. Many individuals tend to lose themselves due to anxiety and they are in most cases unable to recover. Those who fall victim to anxiety and despair are often unable to accept the possible infinity within the finite life.
Life Has No Meaning
Existentialism may go against the the notions of God yet it is not to be confused with atheism. A majority of existentialists are atheists but there are those who are thiests such as Kierkegaard. These individuals believe that mankind was not put on earth with an essence and thiestic existentialists deny any sort of teleology meaning they refute the notion that God made the universe, our world or us with any sort of particular purpose in mind. Thus God may exist but the reason for our creation is irrelevant and thus our decisions mean nothing in the grand scheme of things even though we constantly trick ourselves into thinking that our decisions matter.
Existentialists often use the term absurdity which means the search for answers in an answerless world. We constantly require meaning in a world that holds no meaning thus we plead but our cries our lost in the vast abyss. Since there is no teleology, the world wasn’t created for a reason and it doesn’t exist for a reason. If there is no reason for any of this then there are also no absolutes to abide by as there is no cosmic justice, no order, no fairness, no rules. If there are no guidelines to live by, then each of us is forced to design our own moral code, to invent a morality to live by.
Life is ultimately meaningless due to the abundance of freedom we possess as we can think that there is some authority we can look to for answers but the reality is that all the realities we can think of are fake. Those authorities are merely people who don’t have any answers and are people who had to figure out for themselves how to live. Philosophers such as Sartre believed that the only way to add meaning in life is to live life authentically. He stated that those who live life based of the teachings of others live on the basis of bad faith which is a refusal to accept the absurd.
Sartre noted that all decisions in life should be made authentically with no outside influence. A true choice must be made in life as that choice will be determined by an individuals true values. There is no right or wrong decision so long as it is made based on our own moral/ethical code that we have set. Some existentialists however paint an even bleaker picture by stating that the literal meaning of life is whatever you are doing that prevents you from killing yourself. It can be said that life can have meaning but only if the individual decides to assign meaning to it.
If the world is going to have any of the things most of us value like justice and order, we are going to have to put it there ourselves because otherwise those things would not exist. We command the essence of our life and thus life may only hold meaning if we wish for it to be so. We manifest the reality we live in and even though our life holds no universal meaning, there can be self assigned ones and as Albert Camus pointed out the things we do are what bind the chains to prevent us from ending it all. Existentialism is merely the acknowledgement that life ultimately holds no meaning.
Existential psychotherapy is based on the idea that some psychological disorders are the result of an individuals inability to reconcile themselves with certain characteristics of the human condition. Even though there may be some biochemical imbalances present, this isn’t necessarily the cause of their suffering. Existential thinkers of the past have summarized that if life is the ‘possibility of possibility’ then death is the ‘impossibility of further possibility’.
This fear of death greatly effects our everyday existence as we constantly have what is known as death anxiety and this form of anxiety constantly changes our world view. It can be said that we should never ponder on the thought of death for long as it will be equivalent to staring directly at the sun. We as humans found a way to cope with the idea of death and that is by structuring what is known as symbolic immortality. Symbolic immortality comprises of:
- Biological mode- Living on through ones progeny
- Theological mode- Belief in an afterlife/ reincarnation
- Creative mode- Living through one’s work
Some existentialists also note that it is important to acknowledge death in order to allow ourselves to live fully. It can be said that we should always familiarize ourselves with death as a denial of death at any level is a denial of ones basic nature and begets an increasingly pervasive restriction of awareness and experience. It acts as a catalyst to plunge us into a more authentic life mode and enhances our pleasures in the living of life- Irvin Yalom.
There also comes a point in life known by many as existential isolation in which an unbridgeable gulf is formed between oneself and any other being. This stage in life is for many an extremely enduring one as it goes against our very humanistic nature as we as a species desire social interaction. To be isolated is to be able to truly become an individual and as such many choose the immersion amongst the masses. Many are incapable of facing loneliness as it ultimately leads to the question we so clearly fear which is the point to our existence. Immersion amongst the masses creates an illusion from our individualistic purpose and the meaning of our life as a singularity.
Practical Everyday Existentialism
Many individuals live their lives with an optimism that they matter in the universe and that every individual has a purpose. A child can never be an existentialist as they are not tarnished with the constant reminder of death and despair. Living with the burden of absurdity is something that weighs down over many years and slowly creeps into our consciousness. Defining meaning in our life is the whole point in living as life without it is just not worth living at all. Beyond the search for meaning we must establish that the endless possibilities are not a burden but instead a blessing as we can forever shape ourselves the way we desire for all of eternity.
An existentialist will never be boxed in by external reasons and they can never be defined by others. This means an existentialist will break free of all chains in pursuit of an authentic end that is not influenced by others. Practical existentialism goes far beyond the meaninglessness but instead illuminates the possible meaning of life that can be obtained by freedom of will. Contrasting to popular belief existentialism is not a philosophy for those who have given up in life rather it explores questions that we have chosen to ignore due to our fear towards the unknown.
Existentialism today is possibly more important than ever. The term was made popular after World War II and today is a concept or truth that many choose to ignore. Ultimately questioning our existence and exploring the absurdities of life may be seen as futile but it provides a sense of purpose to continue on in a world that seems insignificant. We all have our own ways to cope and live life in the modern world but very few actually live life having answered these questions. Those who choose to live a life of bad faith will never truly experience the freedom and wonder of the unknown.
Subscribe to our newsletter!