Existentialism has a reputation for being a bit of a downer. It seems a gloomy and depressing philosophy, obsessed with meaninglessness, isolation, and death. Its stark view of life and its fixation on suffering and dread may make excellent fodder for the melodramatic fantasies of romantic teenagers, but to the adult whose life is already full to the brim with drudgery, illness, and stress, existentialism can seem masochistic and perverse.
It doesn’t have to be this way, however; the ideas and philosophy of existentialism don’t have to be interpreted in an absurd or pessimistic way. In fact, more than anything, existentialism is a hopeful and empowering worldview, one which entitles each individual to a life which is self-determining, joyful, and meaningful.
The Basic Goal
The basic goal of existential philosophy is to understand the nature of existence and the life which emerges from it. The hope is that this understanding will liberate the individual from both the dogmatic oppression of deterministic religious theology and the hierarchical, beureaucratic culture of Western civilization.
The rites and rituals of church, the authoritarian commandments and punishments of the legal code, the interminable years of school and the inevitability of taxes, the inescapable determinism of god’s “plan,” these all lull people into the belief that they have no choice but to give up their personal will and their self-determination. If we just keep our heads down and follow the rules everything will be OK. Existentialist philosophy disagrees and says that when you give up your responsibility in this way, you doom yourself to an empty life full of suffering and unhappiness. In other words, your life will only be good if you make it good, and bad if you make it bad, and not because god or your parents or society wills it to be so.
At the same time, existentialism doesn’t deny the value and importance of religious feeling and the tremendous benefits of living in organized society. It says simply that whether there is a god or not, and be your society democratic, communistic, or anarchic, you alone are responsible for yourself and for your actions.
The Four Pillars
Existential philosophy has four main areas of concern: responsibility, isolation, meaninglessness, and death. The practical application of existentialism requires us to face you to these four facts of life as honestly and fearlessly as you can. This is no easy task, however, because the contemplation of each of these ideas can create a great deal of anxiety. But, once you have worked your way through the fear and the dread, these ideas cease to be macabre and become instead liberating and inspiring.
Our lives are full of choices. Some are easy, some are difficult, but choice is ubiquitous and unavoidable. Existentialism believes that we are always making choices, every minute of every day. Not only that, but we ourselves are the only ones who can make those decisions. You can seek advice and consult with experts, or choose to push the whole thing to the back of your mind, but ultimately, you are the only person who can take responsibility for deciding what kind of life to live.
This means, unfortunately, that much of the suffering we endure in this life is our own fault. Either we decide poorly, or we try to avoid deciding altogether and leave it to the last minute. We often let ourselves be swayed by other people’s beliefs and ideologies, or we try to pawn the responsibility off on someone else. We procrastinate and prevaricate, or cite circumstances outside of our control. And so most of our decisions are rushed, uninformed, coerced, and irresponsible. And the obvious result is an unfulfilling life full of anxiety, fear, guilt, and shame.
However, there is an upside. Existentialism believes that to lead a good, satisfying life, all we really have to do is to take responsibility for ourselves and the choices we make. This does mean, ultimately, that all of your mistakes have always been, and will always be your own fault, but the same is true of your successes. There will always be events that you cannot control (e.g. accidents, illness, earthquakes, and economic collapse), but the final choice of what they mean and how they shape your life comes down to you and how you choose to respond.
Existentialism is not necessarily an atheistic philosophy, but it doesn’t subscribe to re-incarnation. This means that you only get one life, and when it’s gone it’s gone. You live once, you die once, no mulligans.
While there are some scientists who believe that we will soon find a way to stop getting older, for the time being the single reliable fact of life is that someday you will die. Much ado is made of this by those who like to paint a gloomy portrait of existentialism, and it certainly is an arresting and thought-provoking statement. That said, it only has to be as morbid as you choose to make it.
Some people like to be maudlin and dramatic about it, some people like to be heroic or frivolous, and some try to trick themselves into believing that they will live forever, if not for real, then through their eternal legacy (i.e. having children, erecting statues and monuments of themselves, becoming famous and/or wealthy).
Existentialism, on the other hand, sees death from a pragmatic point of view. You have this one and only life, so every decision counts. Every moment counts. Existence is fleeting, and so it behooves you to do the best with what little time you have left. Rather than drearily counting down the clock until you die, life becomes a chance to fulfill your potential and realize your goals, whatever they may be.
Existentialism is famous for its belief that the universe doesn’t care. Space is just a dusty void dotted with islands of rock and ice and fire. The unending nothingness out there is full of black holes and supernovae which randomly pop up and thoughtlessly wipe out great swathes of the spacetime continuum. None of it even notices that you exist, and it certainly wouldn’t care if it did. You don’t matter, I don’t matter, nothing matters.
For many people, of all of existentialism’s challenging ideas this is the most difficult to swallow. It’s depressing to think that all of your toil and suffering will ultimately be for nothing. So if it’s all a waste of time, why should you bother?
The existential perspective is that if nothing has intrinsic meaning, then whatever meaning it has must come from the person who finds meaning in it. And that’s you. So rather than stealing the meaning from all of life, existentialism is saying that life is exactly as meaningful as you decide to make it. The meaning you give to the events of your life is real and exactly as important as it feels to you. No one can take that away from you, and no one can tell you what something means to you.
It’s tough to be optimistic about this one. You are all alone. Fact. No one can make your decisions for you. No one can eat your meals for you. No one can digest your food for you. No one can cry your tears for you. No one can live your life for you. And no one can die your death for you. It’s all on you.
As close as you come to others there is always some separation: you will always feel yourself to be an “I” separate from everyone and everything else. And yet, experiences of connection and merger are not delusional – feeling one with the universe, with a lover, or a friend, those are real feelings and real perceptions – but they are always temporary. You always come back to yourself eventually. And when your eyes close for the last time, there is no one who can go with you and no one who can take your place.
For many, this is a profoundly lonely realization and one that can steal life’s luster. But seen from an existential perspective, our few moments of real contact are more meaningful, not less. Because they are limited and fleeting, those moments in which you truly connect with the people you love and respect become a source of joy and optimism and self-esteem, and balance out the repetitive monotony of modern life. This, more than anything gives deep meaning to the suffering and loneliness of the rest of our lives.
As I said, it’s easy to play up the melancholic parts of these ideas, and it’s easy to let yourself be dragged into a bucolic, nihilistic fug. I hope nevertheless that I’ve managed to show something of the hopeful and empowering aspects of an existential approach to life.
Because really, the essential lesson of Existentialism is that that too is your choice. You may not be able to choose your parents, or your culture, or your native language, or your skin colour, or your talents in sports or music or academics, but you can choose what to do with what you have. And while the literature of existential philosophy likes to veil this fact behind esoteric technical jargon and hide it within the endless pages of gargantuan books written by the godlike “fathers” of existentialism, the basic message is simple: you are free to choose for yourself how to live and how to die.
This can be a monumental and terrifying challenge, but the reward is freedom from the torment of living a life determined for you by someone else. All you need to do to start on the path towards a life with less suffering and less fear is to take responsibility for yourself and to striving to live as well as you can.
That sounds pretty optimistic to me.