Is There A Reason For Being?

One essential theme I continue to dwell on periodically is embedded in Franz Kafka’s Before the Law – a deliciously ambiguous parable that is part of his 1925 novel  The Trial –  about a man from the country who goes to the king’s castle in order to gain entry before the Law.  (Kafka doesn’t explain  what he means by “the Law” – and there is little consensus on this point – but I take it to mean “the Law” as in “why things must be as they are”, and in this context the King would be the ultimate authority here …)

And so he is granted permission to appear for the Law, and is led to a gate that leads to it. While the gate appears to be open, there is a gatekeeper preventing him entry and who tells him that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down by the side of the gate.  There he waits for days, then months, all the while asking and negotiating with the gatekeeper to let him through. And although the gatekeeper continues to suggest that entry continues to be a possibility – but not just yet – eventually years go by and he ends up waiting his entire life, to no avail, never gaining entry. Then, when he is about to die, he wonders why he was the only person waiting at this gate seeking entry before the Law. The gatekeeper tells him that, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close this gate”.

Kafka has the unique gift of being able to capture a critical insight into the larger human condition and weave it with great literary skill into an allegory that gives it away – but not quite. As a result, we can’t always be sure of what aspect of our lives he is writing about. Countless interpretations have been provided by those who have studied Kafka’s writings over the years, intrigued by his efforts to challenge us beyond the usual boundaries of our thinking about the world and the role we play within it.

What I believe what he wrote about here is, once again, his own acute experience of being in the world without an apparent reason, and feeling compelled to make the assumption that there is an aspect of our existence that provides the justification for it.  And while this reason may be staring us directly in the face from the very day that we were born and brought into this world, how will we ever recognize it for what it is?

And so it appears that – while having evolved towards the capacity of being able to consider a reason for being, as in the question “I want to know why I am this way, and for what purpose?” – being allowed to confront this question is no guarantee that you will be able to get it answered even if you are willing to dedicate a lifetime to it! At the same time, this is very much an individual question, in the sense that it is meaningful only for those who feel the need to pursue the answer for it.

Other than that, we make it up as we go along – that is our fate, it seems. As such, we will be the exclusive authors of our own fate according to existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). As he writes in 1945 in Existentialism is a Humanism:

That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything that he does.

You Cannot Help But Feel Alien To It

Much of what I write about will eventually lead back to a few basic themes that have preoccupied me for a very long time. One such themes is for me most fundamental one of all, and while this theme underpins a good part of my thinking for about as long as I can remember;  it was not until I read Franz Kafka (1883-1924) that I came across the perfect passage to give expression to it:

I am standing on the platform of the tram and I am entirely uncertain as to my place in this world, in this town, in my family. Not even approximately could I state what claims I might justifiably advance in any direction. I am quite unable to defend the fact that I am standing on this platform, holding this strap, letting myself be carried along by this tram, and that people are getting out of the tram’s way or walking along quietly or pausing in front of the shop windows. Not that anyone asks me to, but that is immaterial. (Franz Kafka – from The Passenger – 1908)

This is about being in transition, and – for Kafka – the acute realization that you are on a journey (or a participant in an event) of which you don’t where it originated or where it is going in terms of its ultimate destination.  All the while everything in your immediate environment appears to be perfectly lucid  – and, to all intents and purposes,  you appear to be leading  a full and meaningful life – so long as you don’t  try to extract the larger context from your immediate reality, such as its purpose or destiny.

For most, this larger context simply does not exist – or is just  taken for granted.  Or taken care of by religion, if you still believe in fairy tales. But the larger context holds the justification for the present, i.e., that there should even be a present, or – for that matter – anything at all.

Everything we do, we would normally do for a reason – from this it follows that we would like to think we are here for a reason, and not as a result of the random motion of elementary particles.    And so we  should look for one – and if we can’t find it – we will need to create our own!

This notion isn’t all that far removed from what was expressed by existentialists philosophers such as Sartre and Camus.  In particular, Camus – best known for his 1942 novel L’Etranger – claimed that our experience of the world is absurd, and that we give life meaning 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 to create our own meaning and purpose for it

This brings me once more to consider what I believe is at the heart of existentialism, or at least one interpretation that I can identify with:  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 necessarily 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 will always be your reality also.

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.