Existentialism is a 19 (th) C. philosophy that rejects the determinist view that the universe is preordained or programmed. It questions the nature of our existence rather than threats to it.
If there is a god he/she has abandoned us to our own freely willed fate. The individual is fully responsible for their own destiny. Life is generally depicted as austere, full of anguish, and pointless.
According to Nietzsche each of us has to rise above our limitations and become an “Ubermensch” (superman) and be a god unto himself or alternatively become an “untermench (loser) who can only follow orders.
Existentialism has come to mean an individual’s perspective on life, its purpose, direction and meaning. “Sartre in a Left Bank cafe or Woody Allen on a psychiatrist’s couch, pondering (or suffering) the struggle to create an authentic self in an indifferent and purposeless universe.” Due to its impressive sounding, it has become widely miss-used and today also accepted as simply existing. Not much we can do about it.
Jean-Paul Sartre #
Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism implies that it is possible to be authentic and free, as long as you keep up the effort. It is exhilarating to exactly the same degree that it’s frightening, and for the same reasons. As Sartre summed it up in an interview:
“There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation; he must constantly invent his own path. But, to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.”
Sartre’s audience heard his message at a time when much of Europe lay in ruins, news of Nazi death camps had emerged, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed by atom bombs. The war had made people realise that they and their fellow humans were capable of departing entirely from civilised norms; no wonder the idea of a fixed human nature seemed questionable. Whatever new world was going to arise out of the old one, it would probably need to be built without reliable guidance from sources of authority such as politicians, religious leaders, and even philosophers – the old kind of philosophers, a new kind of philosopher, ready to wade in and perfectly suited to the task.
Sartre’s life was intricately bound with a fellow French writer and philosopher Simone De Beauvoir,. They shared a non-exclusive intellectual and sexual companionship. Rather than an open marriage, their pact included *“to be one another’s ‘essential love’ with contingent lovers on the side”. *Monogamy was vastly over-rated. She wanted “a Love that accompanies me through life; not that absorbs my life”.
She lost her teaching position as a result of her “suspicious living arrangements. Sartre’s position remained safe.
De Beauvoir maintained that “one is not born a woman; rather one becomes one”. Life is continual growth, propelled by reflection, echoing Bergson’s “life as progress, a living activity”.
Simone further wrote of “tearing herself away from ‘the safe comfort of certainties’ in a continual search for truth” towards pure transparent freedom”.
Albert Camus #
Albert Camus (1913 to 1960), best known for literary works such as The Stranger and The Plague , was a philosopher of the absurd who was often closely linked to Jean-Paul Sartre and his philosophy of existentialism. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.
For Camus …
” our astonishment at life results from our confrontation with a world that refuses to surrender meaning. It occurs when our need for meaning shatters against the indifference, immovable and absolute, of the world.
“ The misery and greatness of this world: it offers no truths, but only objects for love,” “Absurdity is king, but love saves us from it.”
Camus wrote in his great novel, The Plague, “that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims – and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence.”
For Camus, resistance was the heroism of goodness and kindness. “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”
“The plague bacillus, never dies or vanishes entirely … it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and … the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.”
In November 1940, Camus confided to his journal:
‘Understand this: we can despair of the meaning of life in general, but not of the particular forms that it takes; we can despair of existence, for we have no power over it, but not of history, where the individual can do everything. It is individuals who are killing us today. Why should not individuals manage to give the world peace? We must simply begin without thinking of such grandiose aims.’ “
Ernest Hemingway, reporting on conditions in Italy during a battle in WWI:
A quote from A Farewell to Arms
At the start of winter came permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end, only seven thousand died in the army. (pg. 8)