“You haven’t truly lived until you’ve thought about death all the time.”
— from Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein
This famously confusing school of thought, ironically enough, springs from a simple concept. The philosophy first gained definition from a plucky little gremlin named Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote
Existentialism maintains that in man, and in man alone, existence preceded essence.
This simply means that man first is, and only subsequently is this or that. In a word, man must create his own essence: it is in throwing himself into the world, suffering there, struggling there, that he gradually defines himself. And the definition always remains open ended: we cannot say what this man is before he dies, or what mankind is before it has disappeared.
Now, it gets a lot more complicated from there. For starters, how does one define oneself? Can I say anything I want on that matter? If I decide who I am and what I do and what my destiny is, does that make it the truth?
Well, you’d be doing a lot better than using other frameworks to define you, says the existentialist, these other frameworks including law, religion, and politics.
This philosophy is a retreat to the individual. When determining the value of a man, we so often we use society and civilization as a reference point. Instead, demolish that notion and begin with the individual instead.
Have a Cigarette
You can’t be an existentialist unless you are a smoker. It’s true. Have you tried saying, “existence precedes and commands essence” without a cigarette in your hand? It doesn’t work.
Famous existentialists typically came from unpleasant backgrounds. It’s a particularly appealing system of thought if life is kicking your ass. No surprise is it, either, that survivors of World War II especially found resonance in this philosophy that maybe suffering has no point.
Either you see something frank and unflinching in that– the assertion that there’s no grand collective enlightenment to be gained in life– or you see it as a cop out. Existentialism is often rejected for the same reasons Christians often reject moral relativism. They think it’s lazy. I wouldn’t go that far, but existentialism does seem to bow out of one of the universal struggles of philosophy, which is to make sense of the senseless. “But that’s exactly why you ought to give up,” others might say. “Why deceive yourself? The search for truth includes the rejection of what must be untrue, and that right there is the first step of existentialism.”
Do not allow society to assign values to your personal relationships: whom you must love and how. Do not measure your goodness or badness with your legal system, or any system for that matter– morality is determined by the individual.
Perhaps the most appealing reason to be an existentialist is that it’s potentially liberating. Granted, things don’t bode too well for a strict follower of this philosophy. That’s what we’ll see in The Stranger, the landmark novel by Albert Camus that I’ll talk about in the next post.
Camus Fun Fact: Camus was said to hold the belief that an attractive outward appearance is a signal of strong character. He looked like this:
Now, Camus’ friend, Jean-Paul Sartre, may not have appreciated this theory. Because he looked like this:
(Today most modern scholars reject the idea that Sartre hated hobbitses.)
Here is Your Peacoat
Existentialism is an amorphous thing. There aren’t really solid boundaries for what is or isn’t existentialist (but it’s still a lot less bullshittable than postmodernism).
It’s often mixed up with nihilism, which also agrees that life has no objective meaning. But unlike most existentialists, nihilists believe that significance isn’t to be gleaned from life even on an individual basis, among other key differences that point to existentialists being the more pleasant people, overall. (I once bought a pack of Nihilist Chewing Gum. As expected, it had no flavor)
Existentialism did branch out into other ideas, however. Simone de Beauvoir, one of the philosophy’s original giants, later became a major figure in the feminist movement. Two playwrights I admire, Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard, are best known for advancing the Theatre of the Absurd, which is often lumped in with existentialism because it explores very similar themes.
Bear in mind that the ideas of existentialism are, and have been, frequently explored by authors whom we might not refer to as existentialists– like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Kafka— but who’ve nonetheless provided a foundation for the Frenchies.
Yet they were not as influential as cigarettes.
(If you’re looking for a more comprehensive intro to existentialism, here’s a good place to start.)