When the word “existentialism” is mentioned, what comes to mind? Lack
of faith? Secular beliefs? It is a belief in living life. Could it be any
simpler than that? Existentialists believe in free will, making choices, and
living with those consequences. This is not some kind of weird “hippy”
philosophy; it makes sense. Existentialistic thought is predominately a 20th
century revelation. As a philosophy, it states that man possesses free will over
his fate and the direction he wants his life to take. Those who follow this
believe they are in a world that does not always make sense, a world that is
filled with uncertainty where well-intended actions can become obscure and
chaotic. In basic existentialist beliefs, man is the only animal defining itself
through life. Without life, there is no meaning. Existentialists believe in life
and fighting for it (Wyatt, 1999). Mankind has a free will of choices, causing
stress. First, conscious beings exist, and then they spend a lifetime defining
an individual essence. All conscious life forms, namely humans, have free will.
Every action, expression, or thought is the result of a decision (Wyatt, 1999).
The most important decisions are those affecting the free will of other
individuals, other matters are less important. Some may be affected negatively,
their choices reduced by a decision, so decisions must promote freedom among the
greatest number of beings (Wyatt, 1999). Decision-making can be a stressful,
solitary act, even when made as part of a group. All decisions are individual;
everyone is responsible for his or her choices. Limiting the number of options
available to an individual in any situation reduces that being’s freedom to
express a free will. There is no such thing as a demand, since one can always
accept death as a choice (Wyatt, 1999). According to the existentialistic
belief, “I am nothing but my own conscious existence” (Lavine, 1999,
p. 1). Human existence has fallen, and is lived in suffering and sin, guilt and
anxiety. Existentialists reject happiness and optimism because they “only
reflect a superficial understanding of life, or a na?ve and foolish way of
denying the despairing, tragic aspect of human existence” (Lavine, 1999, p.
1). Human beings are here by chance. Somehow we came to be on earth, thrown into
this time and place. Why? How? Existentialists do not know the answer to those
questions, but believe “I am my own existence, but my existence is
nothingness. I live then without anything to structure my being and my world,
and I am looking into emptiness and the void, hovering over the abyss in fear
and trembling and living the life of dread” (Lavine, 1999, p. 1). The very
concept of existentialism denies the very essence of a God, otherwise known as
agnosticism (a sense of apathy regarding the question of an existence of a
supreme being or God) or atheism (denying the existence God). Essentially, if
there is no infinite, omnipresent, creator-God who transcends all boundaries,
then there can be no infinite reference point that provides life with meaning.
Man is an insignificant being, alone in the cosmos and existing within his
awareness of himself. The individual creates his own reality and meaning within
his head, because no higher power outside him exists. (Roberts, 1959, p. 76).
When a man is alive (conscious), he maintains power over his life. When he is
dead, he is an object. No soul exists, no life after death – as there is nowhere
to go. This is all there is (Cooper, 1999). Existentialists emphasize passion
and will. They do not stress ideals, but rather the thinker maintaining the
ideas. Freedom is more important than determinism, and subjectivity than
objectivity. Man’s feelings and passions are what make him a man-feelings are
the standard for truth (Roberts, 1959). Existentialism is opposed to
rationalism, yet most writers pen very rational books using all the laws of
logic to persuade readers that irrationalism is the way to meaning. Assuming
values are relative, how can any society cohere? Would not everyone simply
follow his particular mindset, therefore causing chaotic disputes? (How can
people band together for a common cause?) The existence of any absolutes is
denied, but not the assertion human subjectivity and freedom as absolutes
(Barrett, 1964). Existentialism is not a “hippy thing;” rather, it is
a philosophy that stresses the importance of the individual in deciding
questions of morality and truth. One can decide for himself, yet must be willing
to face the consequences of his choices. God does not exist in existentialism
due to the pessimistic nature of the philosophy; atheism and agnosticism
coincide with it. However, existentialism is still just a philosophy, one of
millions. Choose for yourself.
Barrett, W. (1964). What is existentialism. New York: Grove Press, Inc.
Cooper, D. E. (1999). Existentilism (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Lavine, T. Z. (1999). Existentialism defined and Basic themes of existentialism
[Online]. Available: http://members.aol.com/KatharenaE/private/PhilozKdaextheme.html
and http://members.aol.com/KatharenaE/private/PhilozKdaexist.html [1999,
November 23]. Roberts, D. E. (1957). Existentialism and religious beliefs. New
York: Oxford University Press. Wyatt, C. S. (1999). Existentialists: a primer to
existentialism [Online]. Available: http://www.tameri.com/csw/exist/exist.html
[1999, November 23].