“He saw reality too clearly – faulty denial mechanism, failed to block out the terrible truths of existence. In the end, his inability to push away the awful facts of “being in the world” rendered his life meaningless…”
Since the earliest of mankind, we as a species have always pondered the significance of our existence – ‘the meaning of life. Although there is no implicitly objective answer to the reason of our existence, the question leads to many other inquiries such as: “how did our existence occur?”, “why are we here?” or “what is the purpose of our existence?”. These complex questions have produced a great deal of metaphysical, theological, scientific, and philosophical speculation. Consequently, many prominent philosophers throughout history have attempted to provide meaning to life. Historically and currently, many people hold a belief in a supernatural sense; believing an intelligent ‘God’ purposefully created us, thus formulating our meaning to life. In contrast, many also believe in order to understand the true meaning of life one must first render their existence is ultimately meaningless. Hence, an inconclusive reason to our existence has caused the devising of many philosophical viewpoints that either attest to or refute a meaning to life. One philosophical tendency many philosophers have attempted to explain or expound upon is existentialism, a theory of which holds a further set of categories.
Firstly, existentialism begins with the early philosophy of essentialism by which Plato and Aristotle expounded upon. 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’. Early western thought through 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; without it, it would not be that ‘thing’. 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 to essentialism; the theory's main assertion being: 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
Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are widely regarded with the investiture of existentialism; their notions are considered a fundamental aspect of the existentialist movement. Though, neither ever specifically referred to their philosophies by 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. 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 has prominence on personal responsibility, individual existence, free will, and choice. Furthermore, existentialism asserts: (i) existence is particular and individual. (ii) Existence is the individual endeavor into the meaning of being. (iii) Therefore, the existent is continually confronted with possibilities and is to decide on which commitment is suitable. (iv) The possibilities are established via an individual’s relationships meaning their existence is in a determinate situation limiting choices and is therefore irrational. 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.
Nihilism: “the belief in the ultimate meaningless of life.”
Nihilism is one of many existential perspectives or viewpoints devised to refute an inherent meaning to life; it challenges the idea that we obtain any 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, decision-making, and issues. The theory was popularised by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900): “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 to why he produced a great deal of literature regarding nihilism was because he was concerned about the effects 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 human’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
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. However, theistic existentialists do deny any sort of teleology:
“They [existentialists] refute the notion that God made the universe, or our world, or us, with any particular purpose in mind.”
This means, that a God may or may not exist, but has not instilled us, our life, or the cosmos with any meaning. Consequently, each of us are born to exist in a reality in which us, our world, and our actions lack any real inherent importance. This, therefore, formulates a fundamental component of existentialism referred to as ‘the absurd’, formulated by 20t century French thinker Albert Camus. Regarding existentialism, 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.”
Humans are creatures that need a sense of meaning; however, we are abundant in a universe abundant of meaninglessness. It is asserted since there is no teleology our reality and existence did not occur for any specific reason. This transcends into a further belief that if reality does not entail a sense of reason then there are no absolutes one should abide by as there is no cosmic justice fairness, order, or rules. Unlike nihilism, absurdism does not assert there is no meaning to life, it is pointless or there is no value in our world. Contrastingly, it asserts although 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 2. The horrors of the holocaust led many to abandon belief in an ordered world; the notably destructive path of the Nazis made meaning became much harder to find.
Subsequently, many different philosophical concepts have been utilized by existentialist philosophers such as freedom, authenticity, and bad faith:
Authenticity: 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.” This means you could abide by the rules of say your parents, the government, or the church. Though, it is expressed those authorities or people are no different to you. Similarly, they do not have any answers as they also had to figure out how to exist or live.