Existentialism is a form of philosophical enquiry that explores the nature of existence. This article is intended to explain several fundamental concepts of Existentialism. The discussion will focus on Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, who are considered to be the most well-known existentialists. In the end, the relevance of existentialism to our everyday life will be addressed.
Existentialism thrived in 20th Century, after World War II. At that time, people started to reflect upon the dreadful events they witnessed during the war. For example, when France was occupied by Nazi Germany, some people chose to collaborate with the Nazis. They informed the police about where the Jews and anti-fascists were hidden, causing them to vanish into Nacht und Nebel, “Night and Fog”. The moral rules, such as ‘never betray a friend’, seemed to be incompatible with what people had experienced. At the same time, the power of religious institutions had been weakened. ‘God is dead’, said Nietzsche. Without religion, people started to ask questions such as:
What makes our life significant?
If there are no universal moral rules, is everything permitted?
And these are what existentialists try to address.
Existentialism is a humanism
‘Existentialism is a humanism’ was a lecture given out by Sartre in 1945. It was a defense of existentialism against several reproaches. In this lecture, the principles of existentialism were clarified.
- Existence precedes essence.
Before the 20th Century, what was commonly believed was proved to be the opposite: essence precedes existence. This is because people were theists. Since God is the creator of man, he must have a conception of man in mind when he creates, just like an artisan trying to make a paperknife. Therefore, we are defined before we even exist.
Now that atheists such as Sartre declare the nonexistence of a superior creator, there is no conception, obligation or qualities ascribed to us.
“Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.”
2. Mankind is nothing else but the sum of his actions.
Because there is no God, moral obligations no longer exist. People are free to do whatever they want. This may seem horrifying but, because you are following no rules, you are fully responsible for your actions. One can no longer get excuses from their parents, the authorities or their religion, saying that what they do is based on what they are told to do. You choose to follow what others tell you to do, hence it’s still your subjective decisions. What Sartre believes is that by realising the responsibility one has, people will make decisions based on what they want to become. Our actions define us. If we do good things, we can become good people.
“The first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.”
In Camus’ essay “the myth of Sisyphus”, he talks about the sense of absurdity. Camus believes that the world is meaningless and that there are no objective rules or absolute truth. But as human beings, we constantly try to rationalise the world. We attach meanings to our daily life. The absurdity arises from the confrontation between the human mind and an indifferent universe. We feel absurd because our need for meaning is never satisfied by the irrational universe. Having realised the situation we are in; how do we live in the face of the absurdity?
“Suicide is escapism”, said Camus. Suicide can take place both physically and mentally. Physical suicide is when you kill yourself, whereas mental suicide is when you turn to a religion. Camus is an atheist as well. He believes that what people should do is to have a vivid awareness of the absurd while still willing to live. A form of revolt against the inescapable is to live and confront the absurdity. Here, Camus emphasises the role of consciousness.
Camus uses the Greek story ‘the myth of Sisyphus’ to illustrate the inescapable absurdity in our life. Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to repeatedly pull a stone up a hill only to have it roll down again once he got it to the top. But “one must imagine Sisyphus to be happy”. He finds joy in being. The existence of mankind is already a success. We choose to stay in the absurd and we are undefeatable.
This is water
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What is water?”
There are many fundamental things that we are not even aware of in life. David Foster Wallace called this our “default setting”. One example is that when we have had a bad day, we tend to complain, become miserable, and think negatively about everything around us. What should be realised is that we have a choice. We can choose how we perceive the world and which interpretations we draw from it. To stay conscious about the fact that we are, by and large, the choices we make, requires bravery. It’s very easy and natural for us to turn a blind eye to our responsibilities.
Existentialism is about simple awareness—awareness of the absurd, the freedom to choose, the subjectivity. These concepts are sometimes so hidden in plain sight that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”