Existence precedes and rules essence. ~ Jean-Paul Sartre
Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you. ~ Jean-Paul Sartre
Man is fully responsible for his nature and his choices. ~ Jean-Paul Sartre
Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. ~ Jean-Paul Sartre
What is Existentialism? A solid academic definition is a late 19th century and 20th century philosophical movement that occurred primarily in Europe that held that philosophy needed to deal with the conditions of existence of the individual, their experiences and their emotions.
But, the definition would most likely depend on the person you were speaking with. While it is considered a school of thought it does not necessarily have any centrally agreed upon doctrines. They varied depending on the thinker. Existentialism put its best foot forward through literature vs. the more traditional philosophical treatise and to my way of thinking the French existentialists were sublime examples of this. A former professor of mine suggested that existentialism is almost “an attitude” as it is a philosophy.
The above quotes from Sartre offer a flavor of existentialist thinking. We mentioned last week the notion that life is seemingly absurd. To put into the words of Sartre, “Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”
In other words there is no purpose or meaning to life except that which you give it. There is no supernatural puppet master pulling strings meting out divine reward or punishment. You are born into a set of circumstances and you must figure out what to do with that from there. This is what Sartre means by his axiom, “Man is condemned to be free.”
The feeling of condemnation comes from the notion that you will experience the consequences, to a greater or lesser degree depending on circumstances, of your actions or choices. You will also have to figure out how to respond to choices of others. What do you do about what has been done to you?
If you are waiting around for the next life or some divine messianic rescue you are deluding yourself. Life is what you make of it now. This can lead us to nihilism, which is the idea that everything is meaningless or you can force yourself to accept responsibility for your own existence and find a way to live that is meaningful to you.
If I were to sum up existentialism, as I understand it currently, in one or two brief sentences it would be this: I exist now and eventually will no longer be. Meanwhile, what I do between birth and death is all that matters.
Some quick thoughts on two popular post modern spiritual ideas influenced by Eastern Philosophy.
Karma is as insipid as original sin. On one hand it simply speaks to us of cause and effect, but humans, being so willing to grasp at straws, often mistake correlation as proof of causation. My flatulence no more causes the thunderclap in the sky though they occur simultaneously, then the circumstances of some previously forgotten former life causes me to born into squalor or opulence in this life.
It is also equally untrue that “what comes around goes around.” That is an absurdly vague statement and we all know of unethical and unkind people who live well and very good and kind people who don’t. We have no accumulated debt to burn off just circumstances to deal with in the here and now. Sometimes our plans will come to fruition other times they will fail. Sometimes bad people will be brought to justice; sometimes those we deem good will suffer injustice at the hands of others.
We Choose Our Parents
My other favorite bit of New Age nonsense is that as souls we sit in some cosmic staging area until we can choose the correct parents for our next round of life lessons. As if some purely spiritual being would say, “I am looking for an abusive alcoholic to be my father. If you can also throw in a crack whore to be my mother and a pedophile uncle that would be the trifecta. I could learn a lot from them.”
Perhaps I am incorrect, but as beliefs go they are as equally untenable as the notion that a virgin girl was impregnated by the power of the Holy Spirit to atone for humanities sins through his own blood sacrifice.