The Existentialist Frame of Mind
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1916)
In the two decades which fell between the two world wars, European intellectuals lived in a state of profound shock. It was a nightmare world — a world projected in the fantasies of a Czech writer like FRANZ KAFKA (1883-1924). Life held little intrinsic meaning to the characters which populated Kafka’s novels and short stories. Man was isolated and constantly subjected to unknown and terrifying forces — forces without direction, forces without control. In the short story, The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa awakes to find that he is a bug. In The Country Doctor, Kafka tells the story of a doctor who travels to visit a sick child. When the doctor arrives he discovers that the boy has become nearly consumed by maggots. And in his novel, The Trial, Kafka relates the story of man known only as Joseph K, who is awakened one night by a pounding on his door. He finds that he is under arrest. The novel ends without ever telling us why. If you were unlucky enough to have lived between 1914 and 1945, you may have had the following experience. You might have:
Regardless of where you were at the time, you could not help but notice that the world had become one of violence and uncertainty. It was a world of terror and inhumanity such that this poor globe has never seen. It seemed to many that western civilization, long in the throes of decline, had breathed its last gasp. The values of western civilization once again proved meaningless and all that seemed to matter was irrational impulse and the will to power. By the 1920s and 30s it seemed that Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modern man was not that far from the truth (see Lecture 2). On the other hand, the inter-war years are full of scientific and technological wonders and excitement. Great literary, artistic and philosophical works appeared at a steady rate thus giving the age its own breed of creative energy.
The chief problem as observed by those with their eyes and minds wide open was one of values. Something — some system of values — was necessary for modern man. Man had to believe in something. That something was an ordering principle. And this was necessary, it seemed, because the scientific temperament seemed not to satisfy man but to cause him to wander even more aimlessly. Mankind needed a new book of lessons. A teacher as well. Humanity demanded it. What had happened to produce such a yearning? Where was Reason? Where was God? The result was yet another Lost Generation. Only this time, it was a generation whose experience was different from that of the 1920s. There was that serious search for values which identified with the post-WWI generation. But the new lost generation had also witnessed the irrationality and terror of fascism, the burial of the old order and the nightmare world of alienated man. And of course, all this was colored by the increased awareness that God was dead. All this was the background and experience of a new generation of thinkers who began to call themselves existentialists.
Existentialism, as an academic philosophy, was born between the world wars and is usually attributed to the work of Martin Heidegger (1899-1976) and Karl Jaspers (1883-1969). The movement, however, did not become more widely known or pronounced until after 1945 when, thanks largely to the French writer JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905-1980)– the 20th century Voltaire — its ideas came to international prominence. Sartre was a student of Heidegger. He was also a novelist, playwright, editor, essayist and philosopher. This wide range of talents — again, one naturally thinks of Voltaire — made of Sartre the intellectual voice of the second Lost Generation.
Sartre was involved with the French resistance after 1940 and his own experience colored his attitude toward the bitter and lonely experiences people endured during the period of Nazi occupation. Sartre was joined by the Algerian-born Frenchman, ALBERT CAMUS (1913-1960) and together they supplied the leadership roles of modern existentialism.
With all the gods dead and buried, with nothing to believe in, the existentialists turned to humanity itself to find new values. While they recognized the nihilistic tendencies of bourgeois civilization, they were not themselves nihilists. They maintained a faith in humanity — a faith that led them to the belief that only man could understand and solve the problems of mankind. Existentialism drew on a number of earlier ideas and one of its enduring strengths was that it managed to absorb nearly two centuries of European thought into one structure. It was a perennial philosophy. It was the ultimate Nietzcsheanism. As Sartre once wrote, “existentialism is an attempt to draw all the consequences from a consistent atheist position.” According to Sartre, it had been Dostoevsky who had written that if God did not exist, then anything would be permitted. This, in a nutshell, is the starting point, not the result or aim, of existentialism.
If we really understand the meaning of modern godless man’s plight, we are at first reduced to nausea and despair. We all must pass through that awful sense of depression that accompanies our insight into the human condition and ourselves. Man is alone because he cannot communicate with others. He finds himself in a world in which he is utterly alien to others and to himself. The world has no purpose and no meaning. If it is true that man can only know himself by looking at others, then man stares in vain. This is the human condition.
So the existentialist accepts man’s anxiety and anguish, a general feeling of uneasiness, a fear or dread which is not directed toward any specific object. Anguish is the dread of the nothingness of existence. And so, we are back with Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), our toes curled at the edge of the abyss (see Lecture 2). This is the human condition.
But such a condition has also been fashioned by modern society — a society which crushes individuality and replaces it with mass society and mass man. Modern man, mechanical man, robotic man, conformist man, confused man, alienated man. Man is little more than a cog in a grand machine which man has himself has produced. And we kneel before the great machine, yearning for liberation, only to be rewarded with imprisonment in our own minds.
And the whole thing seems so damn absurd. After all, says the existentialist, I am my own existence, nothing more. But this existence is absurd. To exist as a human being is inexplicable and absurd. Each of us is simply here — each one of us simply is. Each of us is simply thrown into the here and now. But why, asked Kierkegaard. For no reason, he replied. There is no necessary connection so my life is an absurd fact. Even the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher BLAISE PASCAL (1623-1662) recognized this contingency of man’s existence. “When I consider the short duration of my life,” wrote Pascal, “swallowed up in the eternity before and after, and the little space I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there, why now rather than then.”
Given this rather unpleasant scenario — anxiety, anguish and absurdity — is nausea man’s only recourse? Should we all feel anxiety? Must we all suffer “fear and trembling unto death,” as Kierkegaard put it in the 1840s? Is there a way out of nihilism? The existentialist, like Nietzsche I suppose, said yes, there is a way out of nihilism. Nihilism is not the end but the means to an end. If there is only a particle of hope, it lies within human consciousness itself. Man exists so man can react. Even in despair man always holds to the possibility of creating new values. For Albert Camus, the world is absurd. True enough. But the world could not be absurd unless man judged it to be so. So, this sense of the absurdity of life, this awareness that life is without meaning, this, for the existentialists, is the starting point of all philosophy.
Man is unique in the world — his being, his existence is different from all others. As JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU (1712-1778) wrote in the Preface to his Confessions, “if I am not better, at least I am different.” Reason does not determine existence — we do not reason ourselves to exist. Nor do we exist because of Reason. It’s the other way around. Man is a conscious subject, rather than a thing to be predicted or manipulated. He exists as a conscious being not in accordance with any essence, definition or system. As Rene Descartes (1596-1650) put it, “cogito ergo sum/I think, therefore I am (exist).” Or, as the modern existentialist would have it, “existence precedes essence.” Man exists and his will leads him to invent rational systems which are products of his drives, instincts, fears and hopes.
Man alone can only be understood by man alone. Just the same, society is always at work trying to make man a member of a group — of a race, a religion, a nation, a school. The human personality ought to be free and unique, not directed by outside forces or objects. This last statement deserves further comment because what we are really talking about is liberation.
The idea of liberation has its own history. The 18th century philosophes wanted to liberate man from the shackles of blind faith and obedience to authority. Whether that authority emanated from the Church or State made little difference. The Romantics wanted to liberate themselves from the 18th century, by liberating both the heart and the mind. Darwin helped liberate man and his evolution from Christian dogma, thus elevating further the role of science, both natural and physical, in the modern world. Marx spoke of nothing but liberation, that is, of that future time when man will be freed from the realm of necessity to enter the realm of freedom. And Nietzsche too was by all accounts keen on liberating man from the decadent values of decaying bourgeois society. And lastly, there was Freud who, I suppose, saw the liberation of man from his unconscious mind.
For the existentialist, it is in the nature of human consciousness itself to be free — to be free to create and recreate itself at will. Defined only by our acts we are free to assign values to our actions, to give our lives meaning. Unlike countless philosophers, the existentialist does not tell us what to believe or how to act. To be directed from outside is to be guilty of bad faith. The only faith is individual — we must be true to ourselves. We must make choices — we need to make them with total conviction. Again, we must be true to ourselves. Is it possible for anyone to act with such conviction?
Man is an ambiguous creature — man is condemned to be free. He has to act. But there is no real or true creed to tell him how to act. When man recognizes the absurdity of the human condition, he begins to act in full understanding as a free creator of his own values. But how can we be authentic individuals? How can we be true to ourselves? Is such a thing even possible?
For Sartre, we should reject intellectualism, we should reject all metaphysical speculation, including philosophy itself. We must pass through a crisis whereby we see that there is no God, no meaning to be ascribed to the universe, nothing or no one to help us. We must pass through nausea and despair. Then, and only then, will we come to realize the uniqueness and wonder of man the creator of values. “This world is without importance, and whoever recognizes this fact wins his freedom,” remarks one of Camus’ characters. When we realize that with each choice and act we not only make ourselves but give the universe what value it has, we have discovered the dignity inherent in mankind. We must be committed — idle opinion or belief is nothing. So liberation then, is commitment to action. Like Nietzsche, as for the existentialists, we must seek but not possess.
Existentialism is wholly subjective — that is, it begins and ends with the subject: man. In the 1780s, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had focused all his attention on the subject only in his case the subject was not man but the human mind. He was less interested in the objects of our knowledge — the phenomenal world — than he was with the faculties of the human mind. Kant said that the mind is rational, it is endowed with Reason. Within the mind there are the categories of judgment, cause and effect, time and space and so on. In other words, the Rational mind projects reason on the phenomenal world. The existentialist is not satisfied with Kant’s manner of thinking. Existence is not rational — it is absurd. The best we can say is that it simply is. The philosophers have invented Reason as a shield against fear or to rationalize their most irrational desires. As William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) once wrote, “We cannot know the truth but/we can live it.”
The history of existentialism — understood as the philosophy of existence — has something of a history. Nietzsche certainly had a lot to say about the human condition. So too did Dostoevsky and Freud. And perhaps they all learned a thing or two from Søren Kierkegaard. And then there was Pascal, the French cleric and thinker who, in the age of Newton and Descartes, was brave enough to point to man’s place the universe:
So what are we left with? What is the human condition? What is man’s place in the universe. Shall man forever be plagued by absurdity and lack of meaning? Is existence little more than a cruel trick?
copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis