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Existentialism Explained

Updated on April 19, 2017

Here’s a contradiction. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) developed the notion of existentialism, which at its core denies the existence of God. Yet, Søren Kierkegaard was a deeply religious man. However, it was the atheist French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) who brought existentialism to prominence after World War II.

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Personal Choices

Most religions and philosophies start from the belief that human lives have meaning. Existentialists say there is no meaning to human life unless people give it meaning.

The philosophy says that because humans are aware that one day they will die they give their lives meaning through decisions and actions. All About Philosophy puts it this way: “… people are searching to find out who and what they are throughout life as they make choices based on their experiences, beliefs, and outlook.”

We find ourselves existing in a world and it’s up to us to give our lives meaning. The essence of being human is not controlled by some unseen force, it is guided by the choices we make. We have free will and must take responsibility for our choices, good and bad. Each person must decide what is right and what is wrong without regard to laws and traditions. There is no universal truth that governs behaviour so it is up to each individual to define her or his morality.

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Freedom and Responsibility

“With great power comes great responsibility,” is an idea that has been expressed by many people in different ways. However, it is most popularly believed to have been advice given to the comic book hero Spiderman by his Uncle Ben.

Spiderman’s creator must have been reading Jean-Paul Sartre. The French philosopher wrote that “We are condemned to be free.” This means that we have no choice but to make choices; even if we choose not to make a choice we are still making a choice. Along with that power to make choices comes the responsibility for the consequences of those choices. If we screw up we can’t blame someone or something else.

So, you decide to smoke cigarettes. Some years later, you get lung cancer. You might try blaming tobacco companies for making a product that causes cancer or the government for allowing the sale of tobacco. Existentialism says the cancer you have is entirely your responsibility because you made the choice to smoke in the first place.

The Beat Generation

In the 1950s, a group of mostly American writers found the ideas of existentialism appealing. Among them was Amiri Baraka who wrote “The so-called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked.”

Inspired by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Walter S. Burroughs, and others, young people started to reject social norms. They questioned the notion that economic progress would lead to a perfect world. They turned their backs on the traditional family unit, the ownership of material goods, and the need to work to support such a lifestyle. They focussed on individual freedom, sexual liberation, and opposing what they called the “military-industrial machine of civilization.”

On the Road is a novel published by Jack Kerouac in 1957. It’s the story of road trips across America by two men who refuse to be tied down by convention. It plays out against a backdrop of jazz, drugs, occasional arrests, and a carefree search for the next adventure. The book is an anthem to existentialism and has been described as one of the most influential works of English literature.

Luminaries of the Beat Generation (l to r) Carl Solomon, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs in 1977.
Luminaries of the Beat Generation (l to r) Carl Solomon, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs in 1977. | Source

Counter-Culture

The ethics of the Beat Generation extended into the 1960s and beyond. The two decades following World War II were boom years of massive consumerism. Cars, televisions, refrigerators, and stereos were flying off store shelves.

Josh Rahn (The Literature Network, 2011) wrote that “Everyone was expected to become a member of society and pursue the American dream, however this way of life suffocated individualism and freedom of expression …” But not everyone bought in. Millions of people, mostly young, rejected conformity and dropped out of traditional society. Idealistic young people started communes in which nobody owned property and everybody was free to express themselves as they thought fit.

They turned their backs on all forms of authority in the belief it had failed society. They echoed Jean-Paul Sartre who said “You might think that there’s some authority you could look to for answers, but all of the authorities you can think of are fake.” The people that we look to to give our lives meaning are floundering around looking for answers just like we are.

These hippies became a force to be reckoned with. They disrupted politics, were prominent in the campaign to end the Vietnam War, and made parents all across the Western world shake their heads and say “They’ll never amount to anything.”

Eventually, the hippies mostly drifted into mainstream society, got married, and raised families. They found ways of giving their lives meaning in traditional ways.

Today, existentialism has slipped off the front pages and is mostly only discussed in university philosophy departments. However, ideas such as this do have a habit of coming round again, so we could see another existentialist rebellion against the establishment.

The Occupy movement of 2011 was one such flowering of existentialism as people challenged the sanctity of capitalism, just as Sartre had. Just because something is, doesn't mean it has to be, said Sartre. We are all free to choose our own paths towards a meaningful life and it doesn't have to be through the acquisition of material goods.

Bonus Factoids

Jean-Paul Sartre had significant drug issues. His biographer, Annie Cohen-Solal, wrote that “His diet, over a period of twenty-four hours included two packs of cigarettes and several pipes stuffed with black tobacco, more than a quart of alcohol - wine, beer, vodka, whisky, and so on - two hundred milligrams of amphetamines, fifteen grams of aspirin, several grams of barbiturates, plus coffee, tea, rich meals. Perhaps not surprisingly, he frequently believed himself pursued by crabs.

Søren Kierkegaard (his family name is Danish for “graveyard”) wrote under many strange pseudonyms such as Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, and Johannes DE SILENTIO among others.

According to The Encyclopedia Britannica only two percent of the world’s population self identifies as atheist. However, says Psychology Today (February 2014) among philosophers that number of non-believers shoots up to 62 percent.

A similar philosophy to existentialism says that human life has no meaning at all; this is nihilism. It comes from the Latin word “nihil,” which means “nothing.” The philosophy is associated with the German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). He said that morality is an invention of humans; it is not something that exists naturally. However, he taught that people have to create their own morals to overcome the bleakness of nihilism. A nihilist will say that there is no purpose or meaning to human lives. An existentialist will say that people must choose their on purpose.


Sources

  • “Existentialism.” All About Philosophy, undated.
  • “The Beat Generation Worldview in Kerouac’s On the Road.” Jordan Bates, Refine the Mind, December 27, 2013.
  • “The Beat Generation and the Hippy Movement.” One Flew over the Nests, undated.
  • “9 Insane Stories from the Lives of Famous Existentialists.” Zachary Siegel, CriticalTheory.com, May 9, 2014.

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    • stevarino profile image

      Steve Dowell 6 days ago from East Central Indiana

      Great stuff, love it! Currently reading London's "The Iron Heel", which may be the first of its kind regarding dystopia. I think London may be a little before the band of writers covered here, but I'm fairly sure he had some influence on them.

      Thanks for this interesting article!

    • John Welford profile image

      John Welford 16 hours ago from Barlestone, Leicestershire

      Sartre was part of my Philosophy degree course in the 1970s. To be honest, I can't remember the subject of religion/atheism coming up at any point. For philosophers, religious belief is simply another philosophy that is subjected to the same rules when its claims are considered.

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