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Existentialism

What does it mean to be alive? For the existentialist school of philosophy, it means that, every second of the day, with every breath we take, we make choices. We are free.

This continuous stream of choices shapes our lives – we write our own lives. While we may feel exhilaration at the thought of this boundless freedom, we also feel anxiety at the thought of so many options, and the thought of the responsibilities that underlie our decisions. Freedom is a curse and a blessing, but freedom is inescapable. And essentially human.

Existentialism has its roots in Phenomenology – a method of looking at, thinking about and describing the world, directly from experience. I would say much like what Buddhism refers to as “mindfulness”.

In thinking about life, an existentialist thinks about her own individual life, and describes it directly from her own experience. The first and foremost experience that strikes the existentialist, as soon as she starts looking into the phenomenon that is her own life, is that unique human capacity to choose freely, and the excitement and anxiety it evokes. Other things around us in the world are what they are – stones, trees and hair gel – but humans possess this unique ability to freely make decisions. Humans may be somewhat limited by the social, historical, biological and psychological context they grow up and live in, and these limitations may cause tension with this deep sense of freedom, but when all is said and done, it is freedom that stands out as the essence of a human life. In the absence of God, there is no guidance, there are no rules – it is freedom and freedom only that plays a central role in the human experience.

Freedom is really amazing. It allows humans to set out goals, to make plans, to complete projects and to follow passions. It allows humans to write the scripts of their own lives, and to change the scripts at will. Freedom is energy and passion and power.

But freedom causes anxiety. Staring into the bottomless pit of options can be dizzying and paralysing. The lack of guidance and the absence of beacons can be disorienting. Realising the responsibilities that rely on our decisions, can be daunting.

The most prominent existentialist philosophers had different views on the upshot of their arguments.

Søren Kierkegaard ( † 1855 ) concluded that the only way to manage and alleviate existential anxiety, is to maintain a personal relationship with God. Friedrich Nietzsche ( † 1960 ) argued that we should at all times be in touch with the unrelenting force of life – the power of life within us. Notions like empathy, or justice, or religion, are traps that have been set up by the weak-willed, in an attempt to undermine the strong-willed. Freedom for Nietzsche is the freedom to get in touch, embrace and express that raw, unabating power that lives in each of us. Albert Camus ( † 1960 ) concluded that life is meaningless and absurd, but also that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. He saw the fate of Sisyphus as an analogy for the lives of all of us. Sisyphus was a mythical Greek king that was punished for cheating Death, and condemned to push a heavy boulder up a hill, only to see it roll all the way down once he gets to the top. Life, for Camus, feels like Sisyphus’ tragedy – an endless series of meaningless, absurd events, striving to get to the top only to fall back down and start again. But Camus was more optimistic than that. Meaning can be found in the moment Sisyphus walks down, ponders his situation and accepts his fate. There is nothing wrong with accepting a meaningless life. Remember, the existentialist doesn’t tell you how to live – he only describes what he sees and experiences. The fact that he describes life as meaningless, does not prevent happiness – one must imagine Sisyphus happy, in accepting his life. Jean Paul Sartre ( † 1980 ) was less optimistic. His focus was on our responsibility to take up this freedom we’re condemned to. Not taking up this responsibility, is bad faith, and in a way, takes away from our humanity. You don’t take up this responsibility because it will make you feel any better – being in touch with the human condition does not necessarily need to evoke happiness. Sartre never intended to leave us with a heart-warming, upbeat story with a good ending. All he intended to do was to describe, in line with the phenomenological tradition, what he saw and subjectively and directly experienced as the human condition.

This then is the existentialist human condition – to navigate the tension between that which is given on the one hand, and that which I can freely choose on the other. The anxiety this creates, is yours to face, yours to manage, and yours to embrace as part of being human.

Hello, I'm Jeroen. I study philosophy at the Universities of Oxford and Stellenbosch. I use this website to gently wrap my head around the new concepts I learn, to practise my writing skills, and to occasionally vent an opinion. Here's one: I like hats. [+]