What gives your life meaning?
God? Money? Love? Work? Shopping? Jujitsu? Donuts? You must have a personal sense of purpose in your life. A sense of meaning is what we all crave, whether you consciously realize it or not. I believe it’s a personal responsibility to try to understand how and why we should make our lives meaningful. The reality is, we do try to convey meaning through religion, educating others, a fulfilling job, advocating for social justice or seeking beauty in artistic expression but may not entirely be aware of it. Readers (very few I’m sure) of my blog or friends who have had a chance to sit down with me for a cup of coffee may have noticed a persistent theme in my discourse. My favorite of all philosophical thought, and what I adhere to for many years now, is Existentialism. For this year’s UNESCO World Philosophy Day, I thought I’d try my best to do a very brief explanation on what this means and who are the philosophers, or rather existentialists I like and the ideas I admire to. Just a quick repudiation, existentialism is not synonymous with atheism. Just want to put that out of the way!
Existentialism is also not a set of doctrines nor a philosophical system. Rather it’s best classified as a philosophical movement that first ascended in 19th century Europe. Existentialism became especially prominent in the 20th century with many thinkers coming from various backgrounds such Franz Kafka and Jean-Paul Sartre with groundbreaking notions. Existentialists are all concerned with the problem of living life as a human being. Existentialism is an attitude that recognizes the unsolvable confusion that of the human world, yet resist the all-too-human temptation to resolve the confusion by grasping towards whatever appears or can be made to appear firm or familiar. The existential attitude begins with a disoriented individual facing a confusion that he cannot accept. (Robert Solomon) In other words, existentialist all share a common concern with what is called the ‘human condition’. They take seriously at such questions as, why am I here? What does it mean to be a person? And how should I go about living my life?
While all reject an all-encompassing system, each existential thinkers have different evaluations of the ‘human condition’. Any system that comes from the media, society, institution and body that takes away the massive burden one would have to face were they to try to create meaning and purpose for themselves in a unique and personal manner, will always lose sight of the human perspective on life. Existentialists also see the benefit to facing up to our mortality; we will all someday die. And this will give us the courage to stop living in conformity to the masses and instead take control of our own lives, and live by standards and values of our choosing. This idea of being able to freely choose a standard of value and create meaning and purpose in one’s own life is closely related to arguable one of the most famous existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre.
“We are our choices.”
Sartre is by far my favorite existentialist. He asked the question: what if we were born without purpose and it’s up to us to imbue meaning in our lives? For Sartre, it’s up to us to figure our own ‘essence’. He coined the term, ‘Existence precedes Essence’. What does this mean? ‘Essence’ came from the Greek philosopher, Aristotle that believed that every independent thing has an ‘essence’. It is the necessary properties or characteristics which are required for a thing to be what it is. For example, a caterpillar has an essence to become a butterfly someday. This is a very structural point of view. In terms of humans, Aristotle believed that unlike inanimate matter or animals, humans can choose whether or not, to act in accordance to their nature. Although, we were not free to create a unique ‘essence’ for themselves in a course of their lifetime. Sartre on the other hand, saw this situation of humans in the opposite light. For him, humans are fundamentally different from things like cars, houses, trees or phones as these are ‘designed’ for a pre-determined function. Sartre did not believe that humans were ‘designed’ with a specifically function. We have a chance to sculpt a unique ‘essence’ in our lifetime. In fact, we are painfully, shockingly free. We have a terrifying abundance of freedom. We are condemned to be free, and you might think there’s some authority you can look up to for answers but all the authorities (rules from your parents, religious institution and government body) you can think of are all fake to Sartre. Those authorities are just people like you – people who don’t have any answers, people who had to figure out for themselves how to live.
For Sartre, the best thing you can really do is to live ‘authentically’. This means you must carry the full weight of your freedom in the light of the ‘absurd’. You must recognize that any meaning you have in your life is given to it by you. The refusal to accept the ‘absurd’ and follow a life given to you by your teachers, society and so on, you would be living in what he calls ‘bad faith’. If you live in ‘bad faith’, you’re burying your head in the sand. Sartre is inspiring in his insistence that things don’t have to be way they are. We have unfulfilled potential as an individual, and as a species. He urges us to accept the fluidity of existence and create new institutions, outlooks and ideas.
“Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?”
Camus’ philosophy is bleaker, darker. He believes that the literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself. Hence, the above quote. Camus won the noble prize in literature in 1957 and was an accomplished writer so early in his life. Camus argues that once we do start to think about life seriously, we start to wonder if life has any sort of meaning and whether or not if we should be done with it all. He is in a long line of existentialist with such an extreme hypothesis. Camus accepts that our life is ‘absurd’ in the grandest of schemes. However, unlike some philosophers, he resists utter hopelessness or nihilism. He argues that we must live with the knowledge that our efforts will largely fertile, our lives soon forgotten, our species irredeemably corrupt and violent, and yet we should endure.
Ultimately, Camus urges us to accept the ‘absurd’ background and then try to fill the constant possibility of hopelessness. Camus wants us to know that life is worth enduring. Endure everything, and love intensely all things relationships, nature, family, friendship and food. These can be reasons to live for. Once you realize that life is ‘absurd’, you’re more compelled to live life more convincingly and intensely. Accordingly, Camus saw his philosophy as an invitation to live and create in the very midst of a barren desert that is life. He’s a great champion of the ordinary; he praises sunshine, loves sports, the beauty of women. The Parisian intellectual wrote “If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
I mentioned earlier that existentialism is not synonymous to atheism. While many existentialists are atheist, plenty are theist such as Kierkegaard. For him, while God may exist, we are each born in a universe in which we and our world and our actions lack any real inherent importance. This is what we call ‘absurdity’. I’ve mentioned this word many times earlier in this post. It’s a technical term that means searching an answer in an answer-less world. We are creatures who need meaning but are abandoned in a world of meaninglessness. Kierkegaard was a gloomy and brilliant Danish existentialist who believed that we should wake up and give up our sentimental illusions. He systematically attacks our pillars of modern life, our trust in work, our faith in family and friends, our attachment to love and our general sense that life has purpose and meaning. He tells us “I was older, I opened my eyes and beheld reality, at which I began to laugh, and since then, I have not stopped laughing. I saw that the meaning of life was to secure a livelihood, and that its goal was to attain a high position; that love’s rich dream was marriage with an heiress; that friendship’s blessing was help in financial difficulties; that wisdom was what the majority assumed it to be; that enthusiasm consisted in making a speech; that it was courage to risk the loss of ten dollars; that kindness consisted in saying, “You are welcome,” at the dinner table; that piety consisted in going to communion once a year. This I saw, and I laughed.”
Everywhere he turned, Kierkegaard saw intolerable incompatibility and impossible choices. The key to his philosophy is that the only intelligent response to life’s horrors is to laugh at it defiantly. He’s often regarded as the founder of existentialism, because in him we see all the themes and interest we later see in Sartre and Camus. He coined a new word in 1844 called ‘Angest’ – a condition of where we understand how many choices we face and how little understanding we could ever have on how to exercise these choices. Our constant ‘Angest’ or angst in English means that our unhappiness is are more or less written in the script of our life. For Kierkegaard, he is the few philosophers we can turn to when the world has let us down as he encourages us to surrender to simplicity, give up material things and to love all humans. He is a companion that tells us to take a ‘leap of faith’ in our darkest moments. His philosophy is valuable to us because of the intensity of his despair at the compromises and cruelties of daily life.
I am sure I left out quite a bit of history, background and context from Sartre, Camus and Kierkegaard. I’m going to let you do your own research on them and continue to better understand their existential thoughts. For existentialists, life can have meaning but only if you assign it. On a personal level, philosophy fills a gap and answers questions in my own life. With the power of marketing, corporate branding, influx of information from social media and cults of personalities, it’s no wonder we need to think a little deeper of our existence in current times. If the world and your life is lacking purpose, you can imbue it with whatever purpose you want. No one can tell you if your life is worth anything if say, you don’t have children, don’t find a more stable government job or even achieve whatever standards your parents or the society holds you to.
Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. Whether you’re an existentialist or not, I think you should choose to find meaning in your life. There’s no real right or wrong answers when you believe in what you do.
Live a life that you think is worth living.