Existence Preceding The Essence: Existentialism Essay Example

Existentialism can be defined as an individual's existence preceding their essence. The physical life that mankind has on this earth alone is of the utmost importance, anything beyond this world is of no concern to the person that lives in it. This way of thinking started with the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th century, however, the term “existentialism” was not officially introduced until the 20th century when Jean-Paul Sartre grouped together a set of independent thinkers. Other existentialists that are organized into this category included Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Despite their extreme differences, they still share a common view of the world. Existence in the universe comes first, individuals then seek to define existence through independent acts; moreover, personal values in our life must be discovered by the individual instead of being created by a higher power.

All existentialists are faced with the question of how to exist in a world that has no objective purpose: An existential crisis. A philosopher who dealt with this crisis was Albert Camus, a twentieth-century Algerian philosopher. Camus saw existence as an absurdity, that people are creatures who seek meaning in a universe devoid of objective meaning. He stated that, “The absurd is born out of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world” (Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”). As a result of this silence, Camus believed that individuals must live in a constant state of rebellion against hope and suicidal ideation and acknowledge the meaninglessness of the universe in order to satisfy the innate desire for meaning.

Suicide was the first danger that Camus talks about in his philosophy, because suicide provides an escape to the issue of how to live in the absurd. Only by choosing to reside in what Camus deemed the absurd, an individual can focus on the most valuable parts of their life. Hope is the second danger that Camus fears, this obstacle dampens the reality that people are living in now and allows the individual to break free from the question of absurdity. Camus stated that “if the absurd cancels all … chances of eternal freedom, it restores and magnifies, on the other hand, ... freedom of action. That privation of hope and future means an increase in man’s availability” (Camus, “Absurd Freedom”). Life only becomes abundant with value through hopelessness, and this is Camus answer to the absurd. Through the creation of a higher power in life, individuals eliminate the meaninglessness in the universe. Meaning is created which leads to the ultimate demise of the absurd and tears down the entire system of the absurd, also known as philosophical suicide. 

The first philosopher to truly label existentialism was Jean-Paul Sartre, he was a French twentieth-century existentialist. His belief that people existed before they had essence solidified his reputation. Sartre conceptualizes that, “Man is nothing else but that which he makes himself… Before that projection of the self nothing exists” (Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism”). This idea is central to what all existentialists believe, that everyone who is born has no greater purpose created for them. In addition, Sartre also proposed a set of stages in his philosophy that defined what came next after finding that there is no greater purpose. The first step being abandonment or the loss of objective truth. Next being anguish, which is taking full responsibility for everything that happens.

With full responsibility for all actions, there is no guarantee that decisions will go as planned for us, this is the feeling of despair. After the crushing feeling of despair, people are given two immediate options to deal with the crushing weight of full responsibility in the world. One can either choose to live their lives authentically or in bad faith. As Sartre describes it, “... man being condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being” (Sartre, “Being and Nothingness”). Choosing to live in bad faith means that people turn a blind eye to how they act, not accepting the responsibility that comes with freedom, and choosing to act without thinking of how our actions reflect on society. Sartre connects his philosophy to society through this. How one chooses to act is equally as fair for others to act as they do. Anything that one does, should also be acceptable for all other individuals. 

As for society, Nietzsche also believes that all should be free to act according to how a single individual reacts to his world. However, Nietzsche thought that society was imperfect and filled with weak men and needed to change: His solution to this broken society was the Übermensch. This idea of the perfect human being is what Nietzsche wanted for all of society: to become strong individuals that had a list of traits that placed them above others. The Übermensch stands as an individual who can define their own existence through their freedom, “I am a law only for mine own; I am not a law for all. He, however, who belongeth unto me must be strong of bone and light of foot” (Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”).

The Übermensch has a set of characteristics that place him above the “herd”, this man focuses on himself, he is strong, he has willpower, and he is concerned for others where it is only self-serving. The negative traits inherited by the majority of the society include group focus, generosity, pity, and concern for others being their main focus. The role of the Übermensch is to lead the weak away from these attributes and into the characteristics of the higher men, this is a part of what Nietzsche calls self-becoming. What puts the higher men above the herd is that they embrace all that it is to be human. To be human according to Nietzsche came from his study of Greek mythology. He believed that humans needed to have a balance of their Apollonian and Dionysian sides. The point is to walk a fine line between chaos and order, logic and emotion, and a reverence for both the past and the present. This is a challenge that must be pursued by every individual, all must find the balance between their Dionysian and Apollonian sides. To come above the herd of individuals who don’t confront themselves with the challenges of life, and to embrace all that it is to be human.

Philosophers such as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard both incorporated the idea of self-becoming into their philosophy. Although both were opposites in their religion, they still saw eye to eye on the individual living in a world devoid of objective meaning. They both society as a mass of the weak, for Kierkegaard, the weak include those who are apart of Christendom. The reason that he felt Christendom was a danger was that it made individuals lazy in their religion. He felt that Christianity should be personal, overwhelming, and irrational. He hated that it tried to create structure for people, the system tried to define people instead of pushing them towards a path where they found Christianity for themselves. For Kierkegaard, he believed that people should not have their faith come easily to them and that it should be when someone reaches their lowest point. That they will find their true faith when they are desperate and in need of God, not just gifted it to them when they don’t know why they need it.

Kierkegaard states that “Faith is the highest passion in a human being. Many in every generation may not come that far, but none comes further” (Kierkegaard, “Fear and Trembling”). Like Camus, Kierkegaard believes that people should pursue their own passions. Kierkegaard similar to all other philosophers believes that humans are not sent here with some greater purpose already created for us, but that our passions are sought after; that being our passion for faith. He believed that humanity would move through three stages of existence, the first being aesthetical, the next being ethical, and the final sphere of existence being religion. He believed all individuals begin with the aesthetical because it represents living life based on pure sensory pleasure and living in the moment. Once the individual has matured, they enter the inner sphere of ethics, this included living life solely off of serious and consistent moral choices. The final stage of existence that individuals could reach is the religious sphere, this was achieved in two steps.

The first step is to give everything up for God, “...for the movement of faith must ever be made by virtue of the absurd, but, note well, in such wise that one does not lose the things of this world but wholly and entirely regains them” (Kierkegaard, “Fear and Trembling”). By giving up everything to God, people would fully regain everything they gave up. This is achieved by accepting the absurd, and using our reasoning to find that there is no reason. As with an example that Kierkegaard brings up, the biblical figure Isaac is faced with killing his son. His issue is that he has no reason to kill him, he must act completely out of his faith in God which has no reasoning behind it. This feeling that one gets is completely subjective to the individual, no other person can feel it, and that is the personal connection to God. This is the existence of the individual, the purpose in life is to sink low to find faith, and then with no reasoning behind it, to take a “leap of faith” towards the greater passions of life.

Similar philosophical author Dostoevsky, saw modern science as an advancing danger that attempted to define individuals. He believed that as people moved further with technological advances, human beings could be predicted in their actions and how they feel which took away free will and limited individuals. To explain his rant on the dangers of modern technology he wrote, “2+2 is used because it means that the individual is being told ahead of time that [they have] a preconceived value that has been taught [to] us instead of us learning this concept. This exemplifies that the individual is not given a choice [they] are just told that this is the answer and nothing more” (Dostoevsky, “Notes from the Underground”).

Existentialist do not believe that the individual has a preconceived purpose, the equation of 2+2 being told to us ahead of time that it equals four is an example of being told something when one hasn’t discovered it for themselves first. Dostoevsky is tied into the idea of existentialism because he believes that the individual finds value in the universe after they are conceived. Furthermore, Dostoevsky explains that to ensure our freedom of choice people will occasionally act in ways that might harm them, this is to prove that they are capable of reacting freely. To prove that one is not predicted by an all mighty God or by technology the individual will act in ways that harm them, such as choosing to stay up late when a person knows they have an important task to finish in the morning. This is emphasized when he states that, “Man needs only one thing - his own independent desire, whatever that independence might cost and wherever it might lead.” If people desire something that puts them at a disadvantage, they will do it merely for the fact that it proves they are free. Regardless of the advantages and disadvantages, they will act upon their own independent desire because people value freedom.

Existence comes before essence, people seek to define their lives with value that comes from their own independent actions. Free will pulls individuals towards personal values and pushes them away from being defined by the preconceived concept of their individuality. All of these philosophers regardless of century, location, and belief all collaborated on this similar idea. All had to contemplate the thought that there is no objective purpose in life, that man was not created with a purpose, such as a knife being conceived for the purpose of cutting. Yet, all these philosophers came to the similar conclusion of existentialism as the reasoning behind the unreasonable. Ultimately, these existentialists saw through common eyes that life was meant to be lived and defined by the individuals own means.



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