Loretta Barnard

Existentialism—In 700 Words or Less

Existence is meaningless, life is pointless, everything is negative. Right? Not necessarily. Peep the humbling spin that existentialism and absurdism provide—in 700 words or less.

 

Nothing has absolute value. Life is meaningless. There is no God. We, as individuals, are free to make our own choices in life. Some of our decisions are positive, some are negative, so there’s stress involved in being free to choose.

Society is a system of rules aiming to impose order. Because there is enormous pressure to conform to societal values, the individual is placed under even more stress, even though the individual should realize that rules are essentially meaningless because they have been artificially imposed. The world is absurd.

Absurdism is the notion that while we’re all seeking meaning or value from life, we’re simultaneously unable to find it. French novelist and reluctant philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) explained it thus: “The absurd is born out of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”

This means that the individual is paramount. We must create our own meaning by making decisions and following through with them. We can then define our world through that created meaning. The search for meaning and the search for the “self” are one and the same.

This existentialism is a mixed bag.

On the one hand, it seems pessimistic. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), one of the founders of existentialism, said that God is completely unknowable and a religious belief system unable to impart meaning and incapable of providing answers is useless. This means you can’t use religion as a crutch because it’s pointless. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) agreed, writing that each of us has to create our own set of values. He declared that God is dead. (Whaaaat? So being an atheist is not only okay, it’s logical? Well, thank God for that.)

Existentialism focuses on the individual. It isn’t a quest for universal truths, it’s about the individual’s subjective journey. Along the way, we will no doubt experience anxiety, a sense of alienation, even despair. The upshot is we are left with ourselves.

Camus wrote that suicide was a completely rational response to the absurd, although he also said that he didn’t think it a worthwhile course of action.

Most major existentialist thinkers were decidedly optimistic, valuing the concept of the individual’s freedom of choice, believing that this opens the door to a person being able to fulfill their potential. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) stated that existentialism put every person “in possession of himself” giving us a freedom not afforded by an artificially regimented world.

Sartre was a voice for the oppressed in many ways and he would perhaps argue that his personal choices had a deep morality to them, thus imbuing his existentialist views with optimism. Sartre maintained that there is no inherent human nature, that we have no universal meaning; and he supported Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s earlier ideas—we must define ourselves through our decisions and the actions wrought by those decisions.

Does this make you feel just a little bit anxious?

Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Now it’s all very well to say we have the freedom to make our own choices, but knowing that the buck stops with you can be a little overwhelming. Sure, there’s a sense of liberation in making your own choices, but what about the flip side—what happens when you make the wrong choice?


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Well, everyone’s made decisions that have had negative repercussions, but that’s the risk you take if you subscribe to the existentialist model. The fact that we are accountable only to ourselves is seen as a positive side effect. Mmmm, it’s that mixed bag again.

Existentialism focuses on the individual. It isn’t a quest for universal truths, it’s about the individual’s subjective journey. Along the way, we will no doubt experience anxiety, a sense of alienation, even despair. There’s no attributing anything to a supreme being because the existence of such a being is irrational. So Bang! goes any idea of divine protection.

The upshot is we are left with ourselves. The burden is on us and it’s a big burden. Yet we should appreciate this burden because to find our own meaning we must welcome life, embrace our experiences, and make our own way in an irrational world.

To really find out about existentialism, there’s plenty of reading available. Among the more accessible works are Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism (1946), Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), and Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925).

And remember, it’s up to you to decide whether to find out more about existentialism. Your choice. But make a choice. Or don’t. Whatever.

 

 

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is an Australian freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

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