Existentialism was one of the most influential philosophies of the twentieth century. The starting point of the philosophy is the individual’s existence. The world’s existence is considered non-sensical and void of an essence; therefore, absurd. Ethics, morality, emotions, ideas, and knowledge stem from the idea of the individual as the foundation. Existentialism differs from other philosophies because it begins with the individual instead of universals. Universals and absolutes are meaningless, and the individual is the only meaningful focus to live an authentic life emphasizing human freedom and responsibility. Personal insight is a critical means of reaching a general truth. The truth reached is subjective and existential philosophers do not assert objective truth. Neither is there an outline or systematic account of existential thought as a concrete application. Nevertheless, the lack of objectivity does not discount the credibility of existentialism as a philosophy. Existentialism produces extensive utility of individualism in many applications of life. Still, the lack of objectivity can produce catastrophic consequences as well.
Existence precedes essence is perhaps the existentialist phrase that conceptualizes its premise. The concept contrasts with the idea that people have innate or predetermined qualities or destinies. The essence of the person is the nature of the human being. Common thought may dictate that the essence determines a person’s attributes. Essence will determine how a person lives and perhaps their fate in life. For the existentialist, the essence of the person is secondary to existence. The person exists as a blank slate living to determine the person’s essence. Nothing predetermines fate; only the choices made demonstrate fate. Through the choices in life, we determine our essence and fate. Actions define values instead of an objective definition. If one attempts to avoid critical decision-making or actions, the existentialist claims that the individual is ultimately responsible for the avoidance. Like most philosophers, the existentialist attempts to understand the value of life and its relation to one another.
However, there is no objectivity to deduce concrete definitions or absolute universal authority ruling over existence for the existentialist. All individual essence and existence are defined subjectively by the individual instead of an objectively existing God setting universal rules as a standard of people’s existence. God is dead is a phrase that primarily echoes a conceptualized theme of the atheist existentialist. But not all existentialists are atheists, and neither is atheism a determining factor in becoming an existentialist. There are several theistic existentialists, including Soren Kierkegaard, who is considered the first existentialist. Arguably, the problem of the theist existentialist is whether the will of God is considered objective knowledge. More agreeable within the existential community is that the existence of people is self-evident, and it is up to the individual to realize why and how we exist.
A theme I admire about existentialism is its highlight that individualism is an achievement. Individualistic achievement ideas can be transcendent not only in the existential sense but also in any way a person feels applicable in life. Consider the world in its current state and ask how each person considers themselves an individual or part of a community. It is a broad topic, but ultimately, people live politically and spiritually under large and powerful governments and are mainly subject to whatever information surrounds them. Idealistic groups grasp the minds of people and breed conformity. People become complacent with accepting whatever a particular group decides is moral or factual. To begin questioning each other’s beliefs seems divisive and is considered dangerous by those who willingly subject themselves to a herd mentality. When people cannot think for themselves, they become equivalent to cattle blindly following a herd. To break away from the herd is to awaken from a conscientious slumber, which is an achievement.
With Kierkegaard, it applied to the belief that God “will always involve an individual choice, and an individual “leap of faith” and he goes so far as to argue that true religious faith is antithetical to the demands of public organizations such as the church” (Reynolds p. 4). In Kierkegaard’s rationality, Hegelian philosophy, the State Church, and the printing press did the thinking for the masses and was the conformity of his time. Consider now the conformity of our time. Our printing press is social media, television, radio, and other technological mediums that transmit ambiguous information that influences clarity or manipulation. What philosophy and religious influence rules our countries morality and politics? Is it Kierkegaardian, Neitzshean, Kantian? Those who claim our politics are void of philosophy or religious philosophy have not awakened in the existential sense of individualism. Arguably, suppose each individual were to view our current political disposition objectively. In that case, they may notice that the philosophy of altruism has influenced the decisions of our current political climate. Altruism “was energetically attacked by Nietzsche as entailing an unhealthy suppression or devaluation of the self” (Blackburn p. 16). Nietzsche is not implying a suppression of self-esteem, but instead, he was bringing light to the subconscious compromise and self-sacrifice of one’s self for the sake of a less fortunate individual, primarily influenced by religious dogma. The clarity of Nietzsche in this regard is rational if one understands “the irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice – which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction – which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good” (Rand p.5). Consider our current taxation, migration, gun laws, and welfare policies, to name a few, and it is obvious to realize the mandatory compromise of hard-working, law-abiding citizens for the sake of belligerents, criminals, and non-citizens.
There is an interesting parallel between existentialism, Christianity, and Plato’s Cave. From Plato, we learn people live their lives comparable to prisoners in a cave. Bound to a wall without the freedom to explore their surroundings and determine the basis of their reality. Finally, one individual breaks free and explores their surroundings and the reality external to the Cave. At this point, the individual acquires a new sense of metaphysics and epistemology. The individual realizes the deception of his false reality and becomes motivated by what he now considers truth. In Christian doctrine, people are born with a prison-like mind constrained to the human nature of sin. All mental strength and human will cannot release people from the Cave. It takes supernatural work from God to liberate the human mind and will from the chained wall. Once accomplished, the liberated individual is free to explore a new reality. What was once considered good is now realized as evil and vice versa according to the laws of God. Although existentialism is not exclusive to atheists, it has a humanistic appeal. Yet, it is still comparable to the Cave and the renewing of the spirit of Christianity. In a sense, those in the Cave and the fallen human nature are asleep and have not awakened in the existential sense, as Dr. Richard Gravil articulates, “They have not encountered themselves or their freedom. They do not even realize that life is absurd: it has no meaning, beyond what we give it . . . they are just segments of the crowd . . . but it is possible to come into existence through various agencies . . . which awakens them from everydayness into a consciousness in which it is open to them to choose themselves and their freedom” (p. 8). Regardless of any belief or disbelief in God and lack of axioms, I would consider at least one axiom. The axiom is that the truth of existence in every respect is found in the inward discovery of oneself, not in anything externally unseen or verifiable to rationality or the senses.
In my perspective, because of the lack of absolute values and concrete objectivity, existentialism is more of a worldview that influences practical exercise. It reminds the mind to consider explanations outside the supernatural world. For some, the concept of external sources away from spiritual revelation becomes conflicting. The lack of open-mindedness is a problem for some people. The solution is the wedge delivered by existentialism through the inspiration of individualism. Existentialism inspires the responsibility of the individual in every sense. Debatably, the lack of absolutes in existentialism and freedom of subjectivity produces relative conclusions. For example, consider Nietzsche’s philosophy the Overman. Concisely, the Overman is Nietzsche’s idea of a person born into a world of moral conformity breaking away from religious bondage. Subsequently, the person now becomes an individual with the freedom to think apart from a herd mentality. In my perspective, one of the problems is that Nietzsche does not develop a universal definition of Overman. Most belief systems have ethical implications, and to exclude concrete developments leaves room for relative error.
Consequently, when ideas or philosophies influence the world of politics, they can have catastrophic effects. For example, professor in English Literature Steven Earnshaw writes that “a direct line is sometimes traced from Nietzsche to the Nazis and the Holocaust, with the idea of the overman and a new elite as a call to arms which underwrites National Socialism” (p. 12). Such a prediction in the time of Nietzsche’s life would have been inconceivable. However, this is where the responsibility factor comes into play. Each individual is responsible for their ideas because they can influence individuals and groups for better or worse. Therefore, our ideas demand critical thought of how they can be interpreted, especially in politics. Existential freedom of thought and individuality is a great idea. However, without anything concrete to balance a measure of misinterpretation, it carries the propensities to enable freedom within human nature that act on selfish, immoral ambitions.
Existentialism has its shortcomings, but its influence of individualism is a conscientious gift for developing an ability to think for oneself instead of remaining in conformity. Individualism and conformity are opposite attractions. An individual is an individual in mind but not in isolation. There is no utility in keeping our thoughts to ourselves alone. Nevertheless, neither would I fault anyone for trying since no one has the right to suppress or provoke one for speaking their mind outside of a court hearing. An existentialist may or may not agree that it is natural to express the ambition of knowledge, something learned, or a genuine idea. It is natural for us to argue and persuade people of knowledge. Perhaps, these are essential qualities of the human being. It is up to us to discover whether these qualities are essential to our existence, or as the existentialist may contrarily argue, existence precedes essence. In either case, once a certain amount of people agree with an idea, they become a group of like-minded thinkers and have in themselves established mutual conformity. That is the opposite attraction of individualism and conformity. Although individualism is achieved, it is never permanently achieved. It is a lifelong constant existential struggle to sustain individualism.
Reynolds, Jack. Understanding Existentialism, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014. ProQuest EbookCentral, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=1900188.
Blackburn, Simon. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 2016.Print.
Rand, Ayn. The Ayn Rand Library Vol IV. The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z.The Penguin Group. New York. 1988. Print.
Gravil, Richard. Existentialism, edited by Mark Addis, Humanities-Ebooks, LLP,2007. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=3306074.
Earnshaw, Steven. Existentialism: a Guide for the Perplexed: A Guide for the Perplexed,Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=1748144.