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We've all heard of an existential crisis (and maybe even had one), but did you know there's an entire philosophy behind it that can offer some insight? After World War II in Europe, people were understandably feeling a bit lost in life. Existentialist philosophers, such as Jean Paul-Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, offered a solution to this existential dread by framing the world differently.
Existentialism is a school of philosophy that suggests humans create meaning for themselves and attempt to make rational choices in a meaningless and irrational world. Some key characteristics are:
Existence before essence: Human beings enter the world (existence) before forming their identity or purpose (essence).
Subjectivity and authenticity: Because the world has no meaning, individuals must make their own. This meaning is subjective and authentic to the individual.
Anxiety and angst: Individuals experience anxiety due to the overwhelming freedom of the world and the choices they have to make.
Absurdism: There is an absurdity in the futile nature of attempting to form meaning and purpose in a world without either.
"What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself."
–Jean Paul-Sartre, Existentialism is Humanism, 19461
Existentialism first developed in the mid-19th century as a reaction against traditional schools of philosophy, such as positivism and rationalism. Positivism and rationalism suggested that reason and logic were the sources of knowledge. Existentialism argued that reason and logic didn't exist at all.
When the 20th century arrived, it brought World War I and World War II, disillusioning an entire generation. The atrocities of war made the world seem even more senseless and meaningless than before, leading to an Age of Anxiety across Europe. Existentialism gained newfound popularity in a society rejecting traditional values.
The Age of Anxiety:
It is a period in Europe following World War I and World War II defined by anxiety and uncertainty about the future and the present, about existing.
Since the beginnings of existentialism under Søren Kierkegaard, different philosophers have added their own takes. Over time, existentialism developed as a defined school of thought, but that is not to say individual philosophers agreed on every point.
Many consider Søren Kierkegaard to be the father of existentialism, although he never used the term existentialism itself. He proposed the importance of personal meaning and purpose and accepting the anxiety that came with it.
"If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or do not marry, you will regret both; Laugh at the world's follies, you will regret it, weep over them, you will also regret that; laugh at the world's follies or weep over them, you will regret both."
–Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, 18432
It is essential to understand that existentialism and Christianity are not mutually exclusive. Despite his distaste for the established Danish Church, Kierkegaard was a devoted Christian. He believed that trying to understand God was futile, and one must take a leap of faith and believe.
Friedrich Nietzsche was another influential philosopher of 19th-century existentialism, but unlike Kierkegaard, Nietzsche harshly criticized Christianity, claiming God was dead. He placed importance on the individual creating meaning in life because there was nothing that came after existence.
Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose."
–Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is Humanism, 19473
Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher who was vital in popularizing existentialism in the 20th century. He introduced the "existence before essence" concept that we discussed earlier. He also emphasized the freedom offered by existentialism.
In 1968, French authorities arrested Jean-Paul Sartre for civil disobedience. French president, Charles de Gaulle, ordered his release, saying, "You don't arrest Voltaire. (Voltaire was a famous 16th-century French philosopher.)
Simone de Beauvoir may have had a relationship with Jean Paul-Sartre, but she was a philosopher in her own right and a very influential figure in the feminist movement. She explored a particular dilemma of existentialism: the battle between absolute freedom and constraining circumstances (such as the possible consequence of a given action).
Albert Camus was another paramount 20th-century existentialist philosopher. He developed the philosophy of absurdism out of existentialism by emphasizing the futility of trying to create meaning or make rational choices. He was also a novelist and playwright, allowing the common reader to understand existentialism and absurdism.
"I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world."
–Albert Camus, The Stranger, 19423
The French in Algeria
For the most part, French existentialists opposed colonial rule in Algeria, an extremely hot topic following World War II. They believed that denying the freedom of others interfered with the individual freedom offered by existentialism. Albert Camus was a notable exception. He had been born and raised in Algeria, and while he called for the rights of Algerians, he stopped before calling for Algerian freedom.
Nihilism takes on a bit more of a negative perspective than existentialism. While existentialism encourages individuals to create their meaning, nihilism suggests that trying to create meaning is futile and not worth it.
There are many examples of the influence of existentialism in literature. In addition to Albert Camus, we can look to writers of earlier generations, such as Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose characters often faced existential crises.
The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for."
–Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 18805
But what about something a little more modern? Existentialism had already found its place in drama. Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot in 1953 is a significant example of this. Even today, we can see the influence of existentialism in modern film. Think of movies like The Matrix and The Joker, where characters face the same existential questions and anxiety as those decades before.
Existentialism is a school of philosophy that suggests humans must create meaning and purpose in a world that has neither.
The myth of Sisyphus is an example of existentialism in action. Each day, Sisyphus rolls a heavy rock up a hill. And each day, it falls, forcing him to start again. His actions are ultimately meaningless, but it is how he defines meaning in his own world. Camus pointed out this metaphor in a homologous book.
Existentialism began in the mid-19th century with Søren Kierkegaard but found renewed popularity during the Age of Anxiety following World War I and World War II.
The main idea of existentialism is that humans must create their own meaning and purpose in a world that doesn't have either.
The theory of existentialism is that humans must create their own meaning and purpose in a world that doesn't have either. This freedom can lead to angst and anxiety.
Which are the main ideas of existentialism?
essence before existence
Who is considered the father of existentialism?
Religion and existentialism are mutually exclusive.
During what period in Europe did existentialism see a rise in popularity?
The Age of Anxiety
Which existentialist philosopher claimed God was dead?
Which existentialist philosopher proposed the concept of "existence before essence"?
According to existentialism, why does anxiety develop?
The freedom of creating your own meaning and the choices you have to make.
How did World War I and World War II influence the rise of existentialism?
The atrocities of war made the world seem even more meaningless than before and people began rejecting traditional values.
Which playwright wrote the existentialist play Waiting for Godot?
Which existentialist philosopher developed the philosophy of absurdism?
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