BY ADAM PRESTON
Before continuing through this article, take a moment to reflect upon a time you asked yourself one of the most cliche sayings in philosophy: “What is the meaning of life?” When considering this question another one tends to follow close behind it; that question being “What do I do with my life?” With all of the combined weight of school, maybe a job, perhaps even your home life, we often do not ponder this question to its full and logical conclusion. Your options of how you live your life are extraordinarily vast while you, as well as your mortality, are incredibly small and very temporary in the scope of it all. Or perhaps there is another feeling, one of being lost and unsure of the self. There is a point that is reached where you feel uneasy, on the edge if you will, about being unsure of what to do in the face of vast openness, with no clear reason or meaning behind any of it, and wish for a sense of clarity. This phenomenon is referred to as an “Existential Crisis”, with its namesake being a derivative of the original form of Philosophy known as “Existentialism” which tackled questions and ideas regarding the meaning of human existence and the very essence of life itself. But what is Existentialism besides just asking questions about life? Furthermore, how is it applicable to the modern high schooler?
Existentialism is an umbrella term for a few different branches of philosophy that it comes from but usually has a shared conclusion, with the Oxford Dictionary citing it as “A philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the person as a free and responsible agent”. This definition can be shortened even further to be that of people determining their meaning and existence, and that life has no inherent meaning. Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the most famous existentialist thinkers, could be noted for coining the phrase “existence precedes essence” meaning you as a person exist first and foremost, and that your purpose must be uncovered and found by you. Existentialists also tend to have a few shared values such as Individualism, Authenticity, Religion and/or Atheism, and a general acceptance of life and death as a part of human existence. Existentialists tend to also lean toward the General Direction of Traditional Libertarianism (Anarchism) and are often confused with another philosophical outlook: Nihilism.
Nihilism, in short, is the philosophy of nothing. They reject most concepts that fit in line with human existence such as concepts of Morality or the concepts of Objective Truth on the basis that we place value in things with no baseline other than what we do to distract ourselves from death and the fact that nothing truly matters in the scope of things. While there are things that do align themselves with definitions of Existentialism, there arises a problem when it comes to the interpretation of certain concepts of human existence. While Existential Nihilism (The same rejections of Nihilism with the conclusions of Existentialism) does exist, most Existentialist thinkers would not outright reject concepts such as Morality in the face of the Infinite, but plenty would rather believe in it out of spite of it. One of the first Existentialists, Søren Kierkegaard, was a Christian who argued that to win in a struggle of loss of meaning that men must search to become closer to God. His very ideas were based on the moral concepts of Christian Doctrine and Theology.
Another split that could also be found is that of persistence to keep going despite meaninglessness. While the Nihilist may perhaps give up, whether with Hedonism or even with life, the Existentialist seeks to live even when it is meaningless. Life does not bind the Existentialist to live a miserable life as even when existence is pain we may move on anyway.
More importantly, it must be established that (as mentioned earlier) Existentialism is an Umbrella Term that encompasses a large range of ideas. Of course, there is the Nihilist viewpoint of Existentialism which concludes that nothing, including life, has meaning nor value and that it precedes pointlessness.
Then there is Kierkegaard’s Christian viewpoint in which man wishes to be Christian in an Ungodly world, and that man must move closer to God to find meaning. For many, these answers are not sufficient whether it is due to a lack of faith or for believing life is worth living; Fear not, for there is more to this philosophy than Hopelessness and God. There are two other schools of Existentialist thinking, Albert Camus’ Absurdism, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s theories on the Human Condition.
Camus’ strand of Existentialist thinking can be told using his book “The myth of Sisyphus”; the Greek King who was destined to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. In the book, Camus would outline the concept of his philosophy with a description of the Absurd, which is the world is innate. There is no rhyme or reason behind it, and no one has any actual clue as to why it does occur outside of the false meaning we intend to put behind it. To put it shortly, existence is absurd and our attempts to find meaning in it are equally as absurd. Thusly, Camus came to three conclusions when it came to facing the meaningless of life:
You could ‘quit’ life, You could pretend that it does not exist, or You could revolt and live despite the Absurd. Camus did not see the first option as any better than the second as he saw it as a form of denial which is not a substitute for an actual solution, and the entire reason he made his philosophy: An argument against suicide.
Sartre’s School of Existentialism is less specific as to its baseline; that is to say, his Existentialism is broader than that of Camus or Kierkegaard. Sartre believed that Humanity was “condemned to be free” in that people do not choose nor consent to exist, but are thrust into existence anyway with no meaning, mission, rhyme, or reason of any kind. As said earlier, “Existence Precedes Essence”. Sartre was also very keen on living authentically as he was a believer that Life Experience was the determining factor in living a fulfilling life, going on to say “We can oppose authenticity to an inauthentic way of being. Authenticity consists in experiencing the indeterminate character of existence in anguish. It is also to know how to face it by giving meaning to our actions and by recognizing ourselves as the author of this meaning. On the other hand, an inauthentic way of being consists in running away, in lying to oneself to escape this anguish and the responsibility for one’s existence”.
Of course, there are more forms of Existentialist thinking, however, they are not centered on the Human Condition, and more so rests Existentialism as, whether known or unknown, a piece of their ideology.
Now we arrive here, wondering the question as to what the point of this is. “Why should I care?” probably comes to mind when reading this. “Why would I follow these philosophies?”. It is not unbelievable for many to have dealt with the unfleeting feeling of dread and existential panic. Whether it is at school, at home, at work, or late at night as you lie in bed, the overwhelming feeling of meaninglessness and the lack of purpose manifests itself into the legitimate questions as to why you do any of these things if it will all eventually wither away with time. Existentialism is not an answer to any of these questions, more so it is a set of guiding principles and ideas that maybe will help you move through life with the motivation and willingness to find and create your meaning and sense of purpose. To renew your reason and perhaps even seek to improve any situation you are in. Existentialism seeks, not to answer life’s biggest question, but to merely reply to it in hopes you will find an answer that best suits you.