Existentialism Revisited

In Macbeth William Shakespeare reveals himself to be somewhat of an early Existentialist, when Lady Macbeth kills herself, and Macbeth reacts as follows:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

If you are catching the flavour of what the Bard has on his mind here, and are intrigued by it, you might well be interest in a train of thought that has often been referred to as “existentialism”.

Now the term “existentialism” is a bit of a catch-all to describe a variety of philosophical views popular during the 19th and early 20th century that can be said to have some commonality through the notion that it is the individual who – in the face of a seemingly cold and uncaring universe – must define the meaning of existence for themselves, as no one else can do it for them.

This might or might not involve a reference to a deity of sorts – for which the former was definitely the case for Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) – often referred to as the original Existentialist – as well as for later thinkers such as the theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965).

More typically, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), as a devout atheist in 1945 described existentialism as “the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism”.  Not calling himself an atheist but an “unbeliever”, Albert Camus (1913-1960) rejected the existentialist label, but is usually included in the roundup of existentialist authors, as are Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Franz Kafka (1883-1924) who are really in a category all by themselves, and some of my very favorite writers.

The kind of thinking I clearly identify with existentialism is best expressed by Camus’s view that man’s freedom – and the opportunity to give life meaning – lies in the acknowledgment and acceptance of absurdity. If the absurd experience is truly the realization that the universe is fundamentally devoid of absolutes, then we as individuals are truly free.” Truly free to define the meaning of our own individual universe – but do we have courage and will to do this?

Existentialism is about re-defining yourself in an increasingly absurd world as defined for you by the traditions of science, philosophy and religion; you cannot help but feel alien to it. Others cannot tell you who or what you are, or what your existence should mean to you. Only you can determine what you can be for yourself, as opposed to what others want you to be.

For this you must look at yourself not through the eyes of others, but from yourself, from the inside out – from within the acute reality of your own cognitive and spiritual existence. But this is no easy task – it means assuming responsibility for all your actions as you attempt to recreate yourself from the subjective contents of your stream of consciousness. It will require courage – the courage to invent oneself without being plugged into a god, a scientific assumption or the beliefs of society at large for confirmation that you are doing the right thing. It may lead to anguish and despair, for to decide for one self is to decide for the whole of human reality, for this is your reality also.

For a more erudite roundup of what existentialism might be all about one could do a lot worse than to read Walter Kaufmann’s excellent 1956 anthology Existentialism: from Dostoevsky to Sartre.