[At the outset, I must admit that I am no scholar, no philosopher, not at all a specialist in any subject. I am just an ordinary and somewhat useless (in the contemporary sense) person trying to live a life. I read a little bit as a part of my interest and imbibing upon my reading I want to express my thoughts to make my life less unbearable. By any chance I get the attention of anyone who can correct my understanding of the subject (if I have any) I will be grateful.]
In simple terms, Existentialism tells that you have born into a meaningless absurd world which you have not created and you can not change that world either by your actions. So your journey would not be a happy and smooth. You have to live through the existential pains until you die. The best metaphor I can suggest for this situation is that you started your dream as soon as you born. You can not control the course of events in that dream and the alarm bell rings when you die.
Existentialism in Religious Thoughts
In Bible, we find everything was fine and both Adam and Eve were happy in God’s Kingdom unto their savoring of the mythical apple. Afterwards sufferings and pains became the only eventuality of human existence. And there will be apocalypse in some future times.
In Buddhism, human suffering is an integral part of human existence. Buddhist teachings includes :;The Four Noble Truths: that suffering is an inherent part of existence; that the origin of suffering is ignorance and the main symptoms of that ignorance are attachment and craving; that attachment and craving can be ceased; and that following the Noble Eightfold Path will lead to the cessation of attachment and craving and therefore suffering.
Dostoevsky and Kafka
Literature was the field which was the real germination ground of Existentialism. The grandfather of existentialism is Fyodor Dostoyevsky.His Notes from the Underground tells the story of a man who is unable to fit into society and unhappy with the identities he creates for himself. In Crime and Punishment one sees the protagonist, Raskolnikov, experience existential crises and move toward a worldview similar to Christian Existentialism Kafka created often surreal and alienated characters who struggle with hopelessness and absurdity, notably in his most famous short story The Metamorphosis.
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche
Søren Kierkegaard as well as Friedrich Nietzsche was two of the first philosophers considered forerunner to the existentialist movement, though neither of them used the term “existentialism”. Their focus was on human experience, rather than the objective truths of mathematics and science that are too detached or observational to truly get at human experience. They were interested in people’s quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life and the use of diversion to escape from boredom. Even Kierkegaard is sometimes called the father of existentialism. His Sickness unto Death is marked by the concept of human despair. Nietzsche’s key ideas include interpreting tragedy as an affirmation of life, and eternal recurrence
After the Second World War
Following the Second World War, existentialism became a well-known and significant philosophical and cultural movement, mainly through the public prominence of two French writers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who wrote best-selling novels, plays and widely-read journalism as well as theoretical texts. Sartre had dealt with existentialist themes in his 1938 novel Nausea and the short stories in his 1939 collection The Wall, and had published a major philosophical statement, Being and Nothingness in 1943, but it was in the two years following the liberation of Paris from the German occupying forces that he and his close associates — Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others — became internationally famous as the leading figures of a movement known as existentialism. In a very short space of time, Camus and Sartre in particular, became the leading public intellectuals of post-war France; achieving by the end of 1945 “a fame that reached across all audiences.” existentialism became “the first media craze of the postwar era.”
Jean-Paul Sartre was profoundly skeptical of any measure by which humanity could achieve a kind of personal state of fulfillment comparable to the hypothetical re-encounter with Being. In his much gloomier account in Being and Nothingness, man is a creature haunted by a vision of “completion,” what Sartre calls the ens causa sui, and religions identify as God. Born into the material reality of one’s body, in an all-too-material universe, one finds oneself inserted into being (with a lower case “b”). Consciousness is in a state of cohabitation with its material body, but has no objective reality; it is nothing (“no thing”). Consciousness has the ability to conceptualize possibilities, and to make them appear, or to annihilate them.
Albert Camus wrote several works with existential themes including The Rebel, The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and Summer in Algiers. Camus, like many others, rejected the existentialist label, and considered his works to be concerned with people facing the absurd. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus uses the analogy of the Greek myth to demonstrate the futility of existence. In the myth, Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill, but when he reaches the summit, the rock will roll to the bottom again. Camus believes that this existence is pointless but that Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it.
Simone de Beauvoir, an important existentialist who spent much of her life as Sartre’s partner, wrote about feminist and existential ethics in her works, including The Second Sex and The Ethics of Ambiguity. Although often overlooked due to her relationship with Sartre, de Beauvoir integrated existentialism with other forms of thinking such as feminism, unheard of at the time.
Paul Tillich, an important existential theologian following Søren Kierkegaard applied existential concepts to Christian theology, and helped introduce existential theology to the general public. His seminal work The Courage to Be follows Kierkegaard’s analysis of anxiety and life’s absurdity, but puts forward the thesis that modern man must, via God, achieve selfhood in spite of life’s absurdity.
Michel Foucault would also be considered an existentialist through his use of history to reveal the constant alterations of created meaning, thus proving history’s failure to produce a cohesive version of reality.
Concluding Remarks: What I wanted to do so far is to explain existentialism in simple terms and give an outline of the thoughts of its chief exponents. Now some questions are creeping up – Is it a dead philosophy to follow? Has it lost relevance in today’s world where people are busy making money and buying fun? Surely, I will deal with these in my next post. Meanwhile, if I get some quick answers on this issue from my readers, it will definitely help me in constructing my next post.