Understanding Existentialism in Four Easy Steps

Step # 1 Be the Master of Your Domain

One of the earliest existential ideas to come about was the concept of subjective morality. Formulated in the 19th century by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and German misanthrope/syphilis victim Friedrich Nietzsche, this theory rejected the long-held belief in a “universal truth” of right and wrong. Rather, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche recognized that most situations that appear black and white actually aren’t. Depending on the situation and its consequences, even the most seemingly benign action could turn out to be malevolent – and vice versa. But, if a universal truth can’t properly govern behavior, then what can? The answer, they contended, is you. Yes, you! According to the philosophers, personal experience, personal convictions, and the specific context of a situation are the only things that can define morality. Consequently, the definition of morality has to be left to each individual.

While Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were actually proto-existentialist, their ideas heavily influenced philosophy’s big breakout in the 1940s and 1950s. Largely because of the groundwork they laid, existentialism evolved into a philosophy of individualism and self-actualization. It’s also a lot more positive than it’s given credit for. Kierkegaard claimed that the highest moral good was for an individual to figure out his or her unique truth and passion and use that knowledge to live life to the fullest.

Step # 2 Think Like Spider-Man

Say it with us now: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben must have been reading a lot of stuff by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre when he imparted that little nugget. Expanding on the writing of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Sartre determined that if Man is the maker of his own morality, then his greatest power is the freedom of choice. Thus, choice is inescapable. Even choosing not to choose is a choice. What’s more, each person is defined by his or her choices and the actions they lead to. In other words, no matter how much other people may try to objectify you, you still have the power to determine your own fate.

Sartre and cat

Unfortunately, all this freedom has a flip side – that whole “responsibility” thing. Sure, you aren’t accountable to any higher moral authority, but that also means you can’t fall back on that authority when you screw up. Your power to choose means you risk making a choice that leads to not-so-great results, and you have to accept the consequences of all your actions, not just the fun ones.

Step # 3 Get Hip to the Lingo

Dread– Largely synonymous with another big vocab word – angst. You recognize it because dread is where existentialism dovetails into indie rock and your embarrassing high school journals. Existential dread is common to all humans. It’s the underlying realization (whether you want to acknowledge it or not) that there is no cosmic justification for your actions. It’s the awareness that you must define your own life and accept responsibility for it.

Nausea– Basically, this is just Sartre’s way of saying “dread.” In fact, it’s the title of one of his best-known novels. Published in 1938, Nausea is about a historian who suddenly becomes aware of his own existence – and all the power, responsibility, and moral subjectivity that it implies. Overwhelmed by his enlightenment-on-the-spot, he gets (understandably) a little queasy.

Absurd– Kind of like it sounds. In existentialism, the “absurd” refers to humans’ attempts to find meaning in a meaningless universe.

Step # 4 Break Out The Cigarettes and Black Turtlenecks! You’re Ready To Be Existential!

Sartre (bless his heart) thought Americans lacked the ability to grasp existentialism. He had us pegged as too optimistic, too confident, and too shallow to accept the vast and terrible responsibility of choice and the futility of the absurd. But, boy, was he wrong! Post-WWII America turned out to be fertile ground for existentialist culture. The philosophy provided a backbone for the beatniks; a source text for writers such as J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, and Joseph Heller; and God (or lack thereof) knows it’s provided more than enough inspiration to fuel 30-plus years of Woody Allen films.

Good Ol’ Existential Charlie Brown

Charles Schulz wasn’t even aware of existentialism until well into his career, when he read a newspaper article on Jean-Paul Sartre. So he must have been something of a philosophical savant, because existential themes were popping up in “Peanuts” right from the get-go.

A classroom strip where the teacher is referred to, but never seen or heard
In the world of “Peanuts,” adults are ostensibly present, yet the viewer never sees them or hears their voices. “Sort of like God,” an existentialist might say. Proto-existentialist Søren Kierkegaard first proposed the idea that humans are irrevocably separated from their deity. Later, Sartre took the idea and ran with it. He stated that, if God really is unknowable and unreachable, then whether or not God exists makes no difference. Either way, he believed that humans are alone, with no authority to police them or help them. Likewise, the kids from “Peanuts” largely negotiate life on their own with only five-cent psychiatric advice to guide their way.

Linus becomes aware of his tongue.
Like Linus, Roquentin – the lead character in Sartre’s existentialist novel Nausea– reaches a point when he becomes aware of himself. And, as with Linus’ tongue troubles, Roquentin’s sudden self-awareness created an alarming, uncomfortable situation. In Sartre’s view, when people finally realize they can (and in fact, must) define themselves, they are simultaneously faced with the realization that they’re not compelled to be or act a certain way. They have total control over their lives, but they also have total responsibility for their actions. The result is a maddening “nausea,” or “dread,” where the overwhelming knowledge of one’s own existence can drive a person darn near crazy.

Linus dictates a letter to Santa questioning Santa’s ability to judge “what is good and what is bad.”
From an existentialist point of view, Linus is right on. Santa can’t make that kind of call. In fact, no objective, outside observer can. To existentialists, morality is an entirely subjective concept. With no outside source to guide them, people must determine right from wrong based on personal experience, logic, and their own convictions. While one fib earns you a pile of coal, another might be worth a pony. It all depends on the context of the situation.


The article above is reprinted from he May- June 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!

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