Humans have always pondered the significance of our existence – ‘the meaning of life. This relentless pursuit for meaning has produced a great deal of metaphysical, theological, scientific, and philosophical speculation. Prominent philosophers throughout history have attempted to provide a meaning to life, with many believing in order to understand the true meaning of life one must first acknowledge one’s existence as ultimately meaningless. Hence, an inconclusive answer to the reason for our existence has led to the creation of many philosophical viewpoints that either attest to or refute a meaning to life. One approach philosophers’ have attempted to explain or expound upon is existentialism. This is a theory that develops into many other schools of thought, all of which will be explored to determine if such a theory can indeed produce meaning to life.
Firstly, existentialism begins with the early philosophy of essentialism, largely expounded upon by Plato and Aristotle. Essentialism can be defined as: “a certain set of core properties that are necessary, or essential for a thing to be what it is” … the entirety of something’s essential properties is therefore conceived as its ‘essence’. Plato’s idealism expressed everything has an ‘essence’ – an idea or form. Additionally, Aristotle asserted all things have a substance that ultimately makes the ‘thing’ what it is; it would not be that ‘thing’ without it. However, in Plato’s Parmenides, Socrates is depicted asserting the notion which suggests if we accept every ‘thing’ or action is comprised of an essence, we must also accept the 'existence of separate essences for hair, mud, and dirt'. Ultimately, essentialism asserts what fundamentally makes a ‘thing’ what it is, remains established upon an attribute, or a set of attributes. Thus, each entity must appear by certain characteristics, properties, and traits in order to be that specific entity. Moreover, Aristotle believed in order to be a good human, you must adhere to your essence: “What is the essence of life? To serve others and do good”.
Existentialism diverges from essentialism; the theory’s main assertion is: that existence precedes essence. This view reverses the concept of essentialism that expresses the essence (or nature) of a ‘thing’ is more absolute than the mere fact of its existence :
“What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterward, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first, he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are widely attributed to the investiture of existentialism; their notions are considered a fundamental aspect of the existentialist movement, albeit neither ever specifically referred to their philosophies as existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre is accredited with the further exploration of existentialism through his investigations in his post-war literature on subjective human experiences within an inherently meaningless reality.
This tradition of philosophical enquiry emphasizes a person does not inherently possess a particular identity or value. Alternatively, it is believed an individual is to formulate their own identity and values; and therefore, their meaning of life through their own consciousness. The notion being: that we exist first, then determine our own meaning and identity through the way we live – our ‘essence’. Our purpose is not predetermined. In addition, meaning is subjective as each individual has their own inimitable perspective. However, what exactly is existentialism? Though hard to define, a fitting definition for existentialism is: “The belief through a combination of awareness, free will, and personal responsibility, one can construct meaning within a world that intrinsically has none of its own.” Simply, it is a philosophical tendency based upon finding self and meaning to life through an emphasis on making rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. Therefore, the theory is prominent on personal responsibility, individual existence, free will, and choice. Two forms of existentialism have ultimately emerged: Christian and humanist existentialism. Christian existentialism assists in providing meaning through a religious and spiritual experience, whereas humanist existentialism provides it through formulating individual meaning through personal introspection.
Additionally, it is important to note existentialism is not synonymous with atheism: “the disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.” This is apparent through existentialist Kierkegaard, a theist:
“What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” – Søren Kierkegaard
However, theistic existentialists deny any sort of teleology. This meaning, that a God may or may not exist, but has not instilled us, our life, or the cosmos with any meaning:
“They [existentialists] refute the notion that God made the universe, or our world, or us, with any particular purpose in mind.”
Consequently, each of us is born to exist in a reality in which our world and our actions; us, lack any real inherent importance. This formulates a fundamental component of existentialism referred to as ‘the absurd’, formulated by 20th-century French thinker Albert Camus. Absurdity is narrowly defined as: “the search for answers in an answerless world.”
“[Absurdity is] the belief that a search for meaning is inherently in conflict with the actual lack of meaning but that one should both accept this and simultaneously rebel against it by embracing what life has to offer.” – Albert Camus
We are creatures that require a sense of meaning. However, existentialism suggests we exist in a universe abundant with meaninglessness. It is asserted since there is no teleology our reality and existence did not occur for any specific reason. This grows into the further belief; if reality does not entail a sense of reason then there are no absolutes one should abide by. Accordingly, there is no sense of cosmic justice, fairness, rules, or order. This fragment of existentialist thought is not merely emphasizing the meaninglessness of life, its pointlessness, and a world without value. Rather, it expresses that while life may be inherently meaningless, we should embrace this and search for existential freedom. These sorts of existential ideologies became prominent during and after World War II. The horrors of the holocaust led many to abandon belief in a world consisting of sets of rules; the destructive path of the Nazis made Europeans struggle to find any meaning.
Consequently, many different philosophical concepts have been utilized by existentialist philosophers to combat this doubt and provide meaning to life such as freedom, authenticity, and bad faith.
Freedom: Sartre confronted the concept of meaningless through exploring the abundance of freedom contained within our existence; he believed we are ‘too free’.
“If there are no guidelines for our actions, then each of us is forced to design our own moral code, to invent morality to live by.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
Sartre suggested we are condemned to be free: “you might think that there’s some authority you could look for to answers, but all of the authorities you can think of are fake.” You could abide by the rules of say your parents, the government, or church. However, those authorities or people are no different to you. This means they do not have any answers, they also have to figure out how to exist and live.
“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
Authenticity: Due to these ‘fake’ authorities, Sartre along with many other theorists believed the best approach to decision-making or living life is to live authentically.
“The idea that some things are in some sense really you, or express what you are, and others aren't” – Bernard Williams
Essentially, authenticity proposes the actions of an individual are aligned to their desires and principles. It entails the idea of being true to yourself and the decisions you will face throughout life; asserting you should own up to who you really are. Authenticity has no correlation with the ideals of getting in touch with an ‘inner self’ as existentialists believe individuals have no predetermined ‘essence’.
When individuals refuse to accept the fullness of their freedom – the absurd – one, therefore, has ‘bad faith’, or as Sartre named it: “Mauvaise”. It results from a lack of authenticity: “don’t merely know thyself, be thyself.” Typically, bad faith occurs through the habit we have of deceiving ourselves into believing we are not entirely free or do not have the freedom to make choices as we are afraid of the potential consequences. Sartre gives the example of a waiter who tries his hardest to conform to the aspects of what a waiter should be. Sartre believes his over-exaggerated behavior in earnest of being a waiter is merely an imitation of whose essence is to be that of a waiter. In order to pretend being a waiter, he must at least be aware of what he is in fact not; a waiter. Instead, he is solely a conscious being deceiving himself to believe he is a waiter.
These concepts prompt us to ‘Nihilism’: “the belief in the ultimate meaningless of life”; one of many existential perspectives devised to refute any meaning to life by challenging the idea that we obtain an essence or purpose. Nihilism is a concept of moral and epistemological skepticism that states all values are baseless as nothing can be truly known. It denies the reputedly meaningful aspects of life as it argues life does not entail any objective meaning, intrinsic value, or purpose. The approach is often associated with radical pessimism and skepticism that can ignite hopelessness in one’s approach to life, personal issues, and ethical rationalism. The theory was popularised by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “Nihilism is not only the belief that everything deserves to perish, but one actually puts one’s shoulder to the plow; one destroys.” A common misconception is that Nietzsche himself was a nihilist. The sole reason he produced a great deal of literature regarding nihilism was that he was concerned about the impact nihilistic views can have on society and culture. Nietzsche argued that the corrosive effects of nihilism will eventually destroy all moral, religious and metaphysical convictions which will potentially cause humankind’s greatest crisis:
“What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism… For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end…” – Friedrich Nietzsche
In conclusion, what might an existentialist believe is the meaning of life? Due to the ancestry of existentialist thought, individuals can use many schools of thought to find or refute meaning. Initially, essentialism asserts everything has the essence to be considered a certain entity. Existentialism refines the theory of essentialism, since ‘existence precedes essence, one has to find this ‘essence’ throughout their life. Similarly, absurdism: “the search for answers in an answerless world”, suggests although life is meaningless, we should embrace this and find our own existential liberty. Nihilism negates these approaches completely, asserting the ultimate meaningless of life by denying its objective meaning, value, or purpose. Nietzsche highlighted the destructive properties of nihilism on mankind because it erodes all moral, religious, and metaphysical principles. Although there may not be a meaning to life, society would be unable to grow and mature under the influence of nihilism. Therefore, the concepts philosophers used to alleviate this dilemma is; appropriately manage your freedom and live authentically to avoid bad faith. Essentially, an existentialist proposes meaning is found by pairing it with the way we live our lives. There is no implicitly objective answer