This lecture reviewed the nature of existentialism and some existentialist writers. I am an existentialist, so, much of the material is drawn from my own experience, my phenomenology, hence is the most authentic in the series.
I have somewhere written that the twentieth century produced existentialist thinkers, psychologists and deconstructionist wannabe noise makers. In this lecture I will talk about existentialist's thinkers and in the next about deconstructionist wannabe noise makers.
When you look at your existence what do you see? You see that when all is said and done that you are born, grow, age and die. You do not know why you were born, why you live and where you go to when you die. If you were to say that you go to heaven or hell you are merely speculating; the fact is that you do not know anything for certain. What you do know is that though you may be spared some physical and or psychological pain and suffering that this world of ours is filled with pain and suffering.
To be a human being is to live in pain and then you die. What a bummer. If you think about your life and the human condition in general you are tempted to call it quits, throw up your hands in despair and give up. Suicide would seem like an easy way out (Shakespeare's Hamlet, a thinker, contemplated suicide but decided that he does not know what lies on the other side.) There are those who are firmly convinced that there is no other side, that this is it. They are atheists and believe that when they die that is the end of their existence. Thus, if they were to kill themselves they would not feel like they did anything wrong. Yet they feel that it is not right to kill themselves.
If life is so awful why tolerate it? They say awful as life is that it is courageous to tolerate its slings and arrows and live it to the maximum before one dies. Yes, life seems meaningless and purposeless yet we ought to live it to the full. We are here and ought to make the most of it and then move on.
Existentialists are persons who see life as meaningless and purposeless. They see the human body as food for worms and therefore have no illusions about the worth of their bodies. If you cremate a human body you would have about three pounds of ashes. If you add water to those ashes and boil it, it would evaporate into the air. Thus where you had seen a human being there would be nothing. We are puff of make. We are nothing important. That is the God honest truth.
Persons who believe in God, religious persons have faith that they are going somewhere when they die; they say that they are sustained by their belief in God (which existentialists call an illusion).
Existentialists have no crutches that they can rely on; they are clear eyed and see the world and their lives as they are, yet they do not commit mass suicide. Why not? They say that it is better to have lived than to not have lived.
Nihilism is not the best way out. The best thing to do is to look a meaningless, purposeless, worthless and valueless existence straight in the face and accept it as it is without begging it.
Look at yourself and figure out what you are interested in doing, go get training in it and then do it. Do it to the best of your knowledge. As long as you enjoy your work do it twenty four- seven. Do it as if your life depends on it.
Do it not because you want God to like you or other human beings to like you. Do it because you have aptitude in it and enjoy doing it. Do it because it might be of uses to other persons. Do not do it because of what you might get from other persons.
To existentialists this is the best way to live our seeming absurd existence: we live it doing what we like doing, not because of money or social praise or wealth or power but for sake of doing it.
Existentialists see a hopeless existence but choose to live it courageously and heroically. They do not give in to despair; they do not say: poor me, life gave me such a rotten fate.
All life is rotten so get on with it. Existentialists see a life where other people are doing bad things to them but they choose not to see themselves as victims who are abused by other persons. Instead, they take responsibility for their lives into their own hands and do what they have to do and live their lives as fully as they understand fully to be.
They strive to live very authentic existence, being whoever they are. Ah, authenticity. In our every day life folk around us are pulling us to come to them. To go to them and get their attention one has to pay a stiff price. One has to conform to what they value. If they are a group of Africans who are convinced that they are special and better than every one else, and you want to have them accept you then you have to collude with them and tell them what they want to hear, tell them that they are special. But if you insist on the truth and tell them that they are suffering from a mass delusion they would not like you.
In fact some of them would go out of their way to say nasty things about you, call your psychiatric names that they do not understand what they mean! They will generally try to rubbish your name.
If you wish social acceptance you must dance other persons dance and they would accept you. But to be accepted you must agree to stunt your mind as their minds are stunted.
Warping the human mind is the price ordinary persons pay to get their group members acceptance.
If you insist on the truth you must accept that other human beings would not accept you and therefore you undertake to live alone. The existentialist accepts that he is born alone, lives alone and dies alone. If he is dead throw his body into the forest, bury it, burn it etc that is your problem, not his. Do with his body as you please. What matters to him is to live an authentic life, to actualize whatever potential he sees in him and then die.
The fact that you disposed his dead body properly serves you better than the dead person. You see, if you do not dispose his body and it rots and germs sprout from it you might be affected and die from it. It is in your best interest to dispose his body not in his best interests.
The point is that the existentialist does not care about what you do to him when he is dead. When he is alive he does not care whether you like him or hate him. All that he cares is doing what he believes is right.
In so far that human relationships are concerned we all know that people want to be loved. People feel happy when those around them love them. So, the existentialist loves his neighbors to make them happy. But he does not expect reciprocity, for the average human being is fickle and may not give where he wants to get. Just love him but do not expect him to love you.
If you expect other people to love you, you are expecting disappointment. Give but do not expect to get; serve but do not expect to be served, love but do not expect to be loved. This is the voice of experience and wisdom. This is not because one is better than other persons but because it is the only way to avoid disappointment.
If you expect people to care for you and if they do not care for you, you would be disappointed, but if you do not expect any thing, good or bad, from other people and they do not give anything to you then you are not disappointed.
Buddha said that it is desire that is at the root of human suffering. If you desire something and do not get it you feel disappointed. But if you desire nothing and get nothing you do not feel disappointed. You retain mental equanimity, calmness and peace at all times.
I have basically spelled out what existentialism is all about. Now let me explore some of those associated with this approach to existence. The main existentialists are Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. We could also add Jasper and Heidegger. There are those who add Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Husserl to the list. For our present purposes I am interested only in Camus and Sartre, but for the sake of completeness I will make general comments about the other so-called existentialists.
Soren Kierkegaard lived and wrote in the nineteenth century. He was a Christian who believed that his fellow Christians had deviated from his understanding of what true Christianity is all about and he wanted to correct them. Because he has belief in God he cannot really be an existentialist. Why so? God is a crutch, a crutch that folks use in sustaining them.
Existentialists accept that there is no God and do not rely on external agents to support them; they accept their existential aloneness.
Kierkegaard was born in Scandinavia and socialized a Christian. He aimed at becoming a famous writer. He made no bones about his wish to be famous. The question is why did he want to be famous? What is this obsession to be famous all about? He examined himself in a psychoanalytic sort of manner.
He realized that the desire to be famous is rooted in awareness that one is nothing. As one is one feels that one does not exist. But if somehow one can get other people to recognize one, give one attention one feels like one exists.
The desire for fame is motivated by dread of non existence. The politician who is obsessed with fame, with people telling him that he is such a swell guy, deep down feels that he does not exist, that he is nothing, and that he is worthless. At base he feels that existence is meaningless and purposeless. But as long as he appears to be getting social attention he manages to hide from him his existential dread, his awareness of the absurdity of existence.
Kierkegaard understood the dread of nothingness that is at the root of human behavior. To mitigate his own drive for fame he wrote some of his books under assumed names. As it were, if he wrote anonymously he would defeat his ego's craving for fame. Moreover, he felt that he would then be more able to say what he really wants to say without wondering what other people think of him and that other people would better concentrate on his message without thinking about the writer.
He poked fun at his motivation and at other people's.
Kierkegaard was a writer, a playwright and not a formal philosopher; he did not write in German ponderous manner. His books are readable. In them he still managed to address the serious existential issues he was focusing on.
He believed that though reason cannot prove the existence of God and since the presumed existence of God gave folk some sort of hope, that folk should make a blind leap of faith and believe in God even though their reason tells them that he does not exist. The idea of blind faith is associated with Kierkegaard.
It seems dishonest to believe in what you know does not exist just so its magical powers makes you tolerate existence.
I do not consider Kierkegaard an existentialist; I consider him a pop psychologist who understood the function of belief in God. What he was really saying is that without God life seems dreary so even though ones reason tells one that God does not exist that one should believe in him.
Some psychotherapists tell their clients that every day. If you come to my office the first thing that I do is asses the strength of your ego. If I feel that your ego is weak I would not tell you the truth I see in you. Why scare you by telling you the truth. The truth may make you go jump into the river and drown yourself or stop coming to therapy. So I play along with you. What I am doing is reinforcing your ego compensation.
Every therapist judges when it is prudent to start telling the patient the truth he sees in him. If told the truth can he handle it? You see, if told the truth folk could decompensate, experience temporary insanity, feel derealized and depersonalized and no longer know who they are and experience tremendous anxiety. They may flip out into full blown psychosis (compensate at a bizarre level). But if you judge that the patient is now ready to handle the truth you gently break his ego down and help him recompensate at a healthy level.
What is a healthy ego? It is an ego that knows that at base it is nothing and that that nothingness is the same in all people. All of us are nothing. We are the same and equal in our nothingness.
Can you handle that fact or would you like me to collude with you and tell you that you are better than other persons, collude with your delusional disorder?
I leave Kierkegaard by saying that he is the one that introduced the concept of dread and angst into the literature.
Martin Heidegger was a German thinker who for all intents and purposes was an existentialist but spoiled it all by joining the Nazi party. I will never have respect for him. I know that at the end of the war he gave the usual excuses, they made him do it. Well, if he was an existentialist who accepted independence no one could make him do what he did not want to do.
Heidegger recognized that if we are serious with our selves that we must admit that we do not know anything for certain; we do not know that God exists or not; we cannot understand other people completely.
The only person that the individual can understand is his self. Indeed, it is doubtful that the individual can even understand his self.
Not knowing anything for certain generates existential anxiety, angst in people. This primordial anxiety is difficult to bear and to reduce it one would do anything.
Erich Fromm pointed out in "Escape from Freedom' that folk reduce their existential anxiety by joining groups, such as churches, political parties etc. In organizations where they are close to other people, people feel connected to a larger whole. In proximity to other people one reduces ones sense of aloneness and concurrent anxiety.
People would do anything to feel accepted by other people including telling lies (if the group says that a line drawn on a chalk board is a foot long and one knows that it is nine inches long, to be accepted by the other members of the group one will say that it is a foot; this is conformity to group think).
Group think reduces ones anxiety; one conforms to the group and in doing so feels somewhat peaceful.
Heidegger understood that only a few persons can withstand group rejection and live authentic lives. The cattle must conform to the group.
In every generation only a handful for persons do their own things and make a difference in life; the rest are like cattle grazing grass and not using their brain to state the truth as they see it. They are afraid of social rejection.
Additionally, people desire God's acceptance and to be accepted by God they tell lies. To begin with, it is a lie to say that God exists if one thinks that he does not exist. The whole business of religion is filled with lies.
Animals are better for they do not know any better and therefore do not tell lies. Human beings know the difference between lies and truth and consciously choose lies just so they are in the favor of the powers that be or of God. No wonder folk like Hitler had no respect for people. Hitler had total contempt for people and did not feel like he was doing anything wrong when he herded people into gas chambers and gassed them to death. As he sees it, people are worthless vermin, cockroaches; they are worse than animals for animals were not given the ability to choose truth but human beings were given that ability and they permit their fears and desire for security to make them choose lies over the truth. Get rid of them.
Heidegger had respect for only the few who can choose authentic living, the heroic person, Nietzsche's superman.
Edmund Husserl could be called an existentialist of sorts. He called himself a phenomenologist. Phenomenologist's say that the only thing we know for sure is our experiences.
There is a world out there, phenomena; we experience that world. All we know is how we experience it.
If you call how folk experience the world good or bad that is your problem. You should not use external standards to judge how people experience their world. For example, if I say that folk ought to be ideal and use my ideal standards to judge people I may find them not good enough and condemn them. In doing so I said more about me than other people.
People find themselves in their world, they find themselves born in certain bodies and living in certain societies whose cultures they internalized. Given their bodies and history they experience their world as they do. It is their experience that we ought to be looking at, not how we think that they should experience it.
Experience is the only reality in people's lives. Nevertheless, people's minds can imagine all sorts of things and think about even what does not exist, such as heaven and hell. We can get lost talking about all these abstractions. Plato talked about forms and Aristotle talked about universals. Where are those; they are mental abstractions.
It is true that his thinking can make his imaginary concepts seem real to him (heaven and hell seem real to Christians even though they are abstractions produced by their minds...have you seen heaven and hell).
People's mental concepts, real or not, can give their lives meaning. The belief in God can give folk meaning in their lives even though there is no god.
Thus, we ought to affirm peoples thinking and respect what they value without deluding ourselves that what they value in fact is real. In affirming what people value they feel validated and feel worthwhile.
Each of us perceives the world in a certain manner. Our perception affects how we behave; indeed, as far as we are concerned our perception is our reality.
People have their private meanings, private realities but those are not necessarily the real reality and true meaning of things.
This type of thinking leads to cultural relativism, which is where phenomenology is at. In effect, we do not know the truth, the truth is what the individual's experiences makes of it so respect him and his truth even though they are not your truth and may not be the ultimate truth.
(I think that there is a universal truth; I am not a cultural relativist; I do not affirm the individual's experience at the expense of the truth; phenomenology is not a true science; a true science is not separate for each individual, it is universal.)
Albert Camus (1913-1960):
As I pointed out in the introduction, Camus and Sartre are really the two legitimate existentialists that I know of. Both are literary writers rather than formal philosophers.
Camus, a Frenchman, was born in Algeria, North Africa. He was trained as a journalist and was working as a reporter when it became apparent that his French employers had no regard for Arabs and did not like his treating them like human beings who had dignity. This was during the colonial era when the natives where seen as beasts of burden for Europeans. Camus insisted on respectful treatment of the natives and was fired from his job.
He left the colonies for, as Albert Memmi pointed out, the colonies have a way of warping the minds of the colonizer and the colonized.
Camus lived at Paris. He did his writing there. He wrote many novels and plays. His writings were means through which he articulated his existentialist philosophy.
In his books he showed the meaninglessness and purposeless of being. He showed that folk essentially live absurd lives.
In his book, the Myth of Sisyphus, he explored existentialism in full. If you recall, the Greek tale of Sisyphus is that he rolls a rock up a hill and when he gets to the top of the hill the rock rolls right down and he goes down and rolls the rock right back up only to see it roll back done and he repeats the process.
This tale is a metaphor of human existence. We roll rocks up and they roll down and we repeat the processes, over and over, again. This seems absurd, is it not? Why do it if the result is the same, disappointment!
We cannot stop doing it for the moment we stop rolling the rock up the hill, even though it is going to roll down, we have no alternative but to despair. When we despair we give up and become living dead persons. We must pretend that life is worth living and keep doing our best even if our best will result in disappointment; life is a futile deal yet we must live it. The alternative is suicide.
We know that Americans and Russians have enough nuclear weapons to eviscerate all of us yet we pretend to accumulate wealth and have hope for the future. If these two parties decide to get rid of all of us they could have all of us dead within an hour.
And if we do not die from nuclear blast we die from other sources. Disease will kill us. If diseases do not kill us natural disaster like hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis etc will kill us.
Our world will die a fiery death as the sun becomes a supernova and sends out ultra violet rays that fry the earth.
Before that happens, a giant asteroid could smash into the earth and kick out enough dust into the atmosphere to block out the sun and make the earth freeze over and we die, as the dinosaurs did.
Ultimately, the universe itself will die and it all ends. That is to say that it is pure futility to hope for a better future. But despite this fact we pretend as if we will live forever and keep struggling along. This is absurd, is it not?
Camus says that it is the nature of being. We have no choice but to struggle along even though death is inevitable and our lives are absurd.
Our bodies are food being prepared for worms yet we pretend as if they are beautiful and have the illusion that other people admire them.
In The Stranger and the Plague Camus continues telling us about the absurdity of human existence.
He was awarded the noble prize. In my judgment he deserved that Nobel for he is a truth teller and a courageous man. During the Second World War he joined the French underground and fought and personally killed Nazis. He was not a cowardly intellectual who just talked and when push came to shove runs and goes to hide in underground burrows. Camus actually did something to bring about the type of world he talked about.
He is my ideal intellectual. He is not the Nigerian who regales us with the trouble with Nigeria but would not stand up and fight to correct the problems he eloquently identified. This is because Nigerians are too afraid to die, they want to maintain their lives in existence, they live to parade around as very important persons (and hope that they have deceived the world into seeing them as such not the criminals they are).
It does not matter how long you lived, what matters is whether you lived courageously doing the right thing. Camus lived only forty six years but within that short interval he wrote books that changed the world.
Jean Paul Sartre: (1905-1980):
Sartre is the other legitimate existentialist. Like Camus he, too, was a communist. Camus did leave communism when he discovered how brutal Joseph Stalin was; Stalin probably killed as many people as Hitler, but Sartre did not sufficiently dissociate from Stalin. Perhaps, it was a tactical move to have the Bolsheviks around to counter the weight thrown around by the other party, the capitalists. I do not know; all I know is that I preferred Camus principled behavior to what Sartre did. To me, evil is evil and not to be countenanced even if it is done by those you love, socialists.
Like Camus Sartre wrote novels and through his novels explicated the nature of existentialism. He did try writing a formal philosophical tome, Being and Nothingness. That book is a disaster for it is difficult to read, he should have resigned himself to writing his novels.
His existentialism restates the familiar themes of existentialism: life is absurd; we are living meaningless and purposeless existence; we fear death, and live in dread of the nothingness that confronts us when we die; we sell our minds to get other peoples company to reduce our existential fears etc.
Sartre repeated the call to take our lives into our hands and live responsibly doing what we want to do and serving social good not because we want to please other people but because it is nice to do so; virtue is its own reward.
Sartre joined the anti colonial movement and wrote forwards to Franz Fanon's books (Wretched of the earth, Black Skin white mask etc).
No Exit and Nausea are probably the two books that best delineate Sartre's existentialism. His chief characters recognize their loneliness, their efforts to reduce their loneliness via social conformity, and the need not to do so.
We have to have the courage to live authentic lives, doing what we are interested in doing and have aptitude in doing. This is just about all that can be expected of us in this world.
Live fully and die at any moment without regret. What is there to regret in this world? As Schopenhauer observed, it were better we were not born; life seem a mistake.
A mistake or note, here we are and must make the most of our existence. We must not see ourselves as victims, and must not complain about our lives.
Who is there to complain to, God? God does not exist. Complain to other people? Other people are like one, at any rate, they are not going to listen to ones bitching.
Grind your teeth and bear it like a man. Create a positive environment for children to have laughter in before they are hit by the pains of existence. And when they begin to suffer, hold their hands and do what you can to make their lives as joyful as is possible aware that you cannot change their human reality. To live, as Buddha said, is to suffer. Cest la vie, such is life. We can reduce our suffering by not desiring what we do not need to live.
Ultimately, there is no exit. It is shit but make the most of it. What else do I need to say?
Existentialism is the approach to living that recognizes that we are alone in this world, that there are no gods out there protecting us, and that other people do not protect us, either. The individual recognizes that he is alone and nevertheless does not complain about it. He finds out what he is good at doing, trains for it and finds work that employs his particular skill and do it to the best of his ability,. Work is joyful. Life may be meaningless, purposeless and whatever else but we do really find joy in work.
I can stay up all night long reading good books or writing. In so doing I lose awareness of time and feel one with life and feel timeless. This is joy. What more can one ask for?
Existentialists do their best and leave it at that. Clearly, not may folks can live without crutches. I doubt that many Africans are capable of existentialist living; they still need their religions, their gods and or group acceptance to make their absurd lives seem to have meaning. We must leave folk to be where they are at in space and time. Leave each person to be at his state of being.
Some folks recognizing that existentialism is pessimistic try to understand the roots of this extreme despair. The philosophy was fashioned by those who experienced the mass killings of the first and second world wars. Perhaps, witnessing such massive killing gave folk the impression that it is all darkness, that there is no light in the world. Any one who saw Hitler herd folk into gas chambers and gas them to death and no god stops him must feel like there is no god that looks after people.
Go ahead and speculate to your heart's content as to why existentialism came about. Your explanation is as good as any. But while you are at it do remember that throughout human existence there have been people who looked at life as existentialists do. They may be given different names, Greeks called them Stoics, but the important variable is that there are those who see life as meaningless and purposeless and see their bodies as having no worth and value and yet they are not nihilists, they strive to live fully and do what they can to make those around them to live fully.
There you have it.
Next, Lecture #10, Deconstructionist Wannabe Thinkers. This will be the last lecture in this series.
Ozodi Thomas Osuji
August 28, 2009