“L’enfer, c’est les autres.”
Sartre, No Exit.
This quote by Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps one of the most famous quotes by this key figure in the philosophy of existentialism, translates to “hell is other people.” Sartre noted that we cannot really know ourselves without taking into consideration how we are regarded by others: if we are judged by another, it becomes a part of our own opinion of ourselves. Existentialism, according to the Journal of Philosophy, Columbia University, is a philosophical and literary tendency that typically displays a dismissal of abstract theories that seek to disguise the untidiness of actual human lives and emphasises the subjective realities of individual existence, individual freedom, and individual choice.
Existentialism is also defined in psychotherapy as “an attitude toward human suffering [that] has no manual. It asks deep questions about the nature of the human being and the nature of anxiety, despair grief, loneliness, isolation, and anomie. It also deals centrally with the questions of meaning, creativity, and love.” uses a philosophical method called phenomenology and deals with the client’s subjective reality. The idea can be traced back to its roots to Plato and Aristotle’s idea of the essence, a set of defining properties that make a thing what it is. A knife, for instance, will still be a knife no matter what the handle is made of, but remove the blade and it loses its defining function- its essence. They believed humans had such an ‘essence’ as well, which is in us since before we are born. This essence gives us a purpose, they believed, and humans are born to be a certain thing. This belief was called essentialism.
This belief structure was questioned in the 1800s by Nietzsche who supported Nihilism, a belief in the ultimate meaninglessness of life. However, by the mid-20th century, with the French philosopher Sartre, the question of the essence was returned to; Sartre posited that we exist first, and then it is up to us to find our essence, or meaning for being alive. This claim that existence precedes essence implies that it is up to each of us to determine who we are, after our birth and that there is no predetermined purpose, and so no set path we can follow. Therefore, existentialism came up, as a response to essentialism. This was a radical idea at the time since, before, god was assumed to determine the path one would follow. Not all existentialists were, however, atheists. Søren Kierkegaard, for instance was a theistic existentialist thinker. This was able to not be a contradiction because theistic existentialists refute that god made the universe or us with any specific purpose in mind.
Thus according to existentialists, we and our actions have no real importance in the world which, itself has no meaning. With this sense of futility comes the idea of ‘absurdism,’ a school of thought studying the dissonance between humanity’s search for answers and value in life and the inability to find any such answers. Absurdist thinkers posit that we look for meaning in the universe, get no response, but keep searching anyway. The myth of Sisyphus is an example that captures the futile human search for meaning in life, in which Sisyphus, according to ancient Greek mythology, was condemned by the gods to the vain and hopeless labour of ceaselessly pushing a rock up a hill only for it to roll back down under its own weight, for him to push it back up again. Albert Camus uses this as a metaphor for man’s own struggle to search for meaning, only to find none and the endeavour itself have been pointless, in his 1942 essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus.’
However, absurdist theory (Kierkegaard, Camus) suggests that there are three ways by which to grapple with this dilemma. One may either commit suicide and escape existence altogether (but Camus argues that this rather becomes more absurd, rather than countering the absurd), one may place one’s faith in a religious, spiritual or transcendental being which is beyond the absurd and has meaning (but this is thought by Camus to be philosophical suicide, as it is the end of all thought), or lastly one may continue to struggle, understanding and accepting the absurd and choosing to live in spite of it. Camus finds this to be a positive solution, to rage on and exercise one’s freedom, writing in his essay that “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Camus found that the true meaning of life is whatever you do that is keeping you from killing yourself, with the avoiding of the escapist route (suicide) assigning a purpose to life. Dylan Thomas wrote on fighting till the end to live life fully, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light./ […] Do not go gentle into that good night.”
Kierkegaard on the other hand refers to this as “demonic madness,” writing that “He rages most of all at the thought that eternity might get it into its head to take his misery from him!” The freedom that Camus found liberating, moreover, was found by Sartre to be a “terrifying abundance.” With no reason for the world, there are consequently no absolutes to abide by: no fairness, order, or justice. (This particular brand of absurdist existentialism gained popularity during the Second World War, with the senseless violence of the Holocaust making people give up their belief in an ordered world.) Sartre thus found there to be a frightening excess of freedom, believing that “man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” With no guidelines for our actions, we are all forced to design our own personal moral code and invent a morality to live by as, according to Sartre, the authorities we think to look to are ‘fake.’
Sartre’s solution, believing that authorities like religion or the government do not have an understanding of the meaning of life either and must fathom it for themselves, is to live “authentically.” He asserted the importance of accepting the full weight of one’s freedom in light of the absurd and stressed that any meaning in life is assigned by us. Thus he found following others’ meaning to be “bad faith,” which is adopting false values under societal pressure and pretending as though something in the world has meaning of its own, not assigned by you. He expands on his idea with the anecdote of a friend faced with the choice of whether to serve at war or stay with his mother. No moral theory or advice could lead him to a truly authentic decision, just as the famous trolley problem has no solution, and no one can lead students of literature to a decision on whether to choose between women’s writing and literary criticism—they must make an authentic choice.
Whatever choice one makes is thus the right decision as long as it is made authentically, determined by the values one chooses to accept. Existentialism’s denial of the existence of moral standards means that the primary basis for making choices has to be subjective. As René Descartes said, “I think therefore I am,” by which he indicates that, through doubting existence, we can know we exist at all, and so by questioning the meaning of life are we able to give life meaning. The meaning of life, one’s ‘raison d’être,’ then becomes the search of it. Thus, existentialism does not paint a bleak image of the world, as some believe it does, since it expresses the full extent of possibilities; the world can have meaning, the existentialists assert—we only must choose to assign it. We can choose to imbue any purpose we want in a society devoid of any purpose by virtue of itself. What it does not inherently have (such as justice or order), we can provide.
Therefore this world, which seems bleak to some, is full of potential to others. As Viktor E. Frankl (psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor) puts it, “the meaning of life is to give life meaning.” Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment), Kafka (Metamorphosis), Thoreau (Walden Pond) and Heidegger (Being and Time) were other key figures of the time. Through existentialism, we can truly comprehend the vast extent of the possibilities of the world. And yet, we live in one where Trump is running for President of the United States. If that doesn’t make one question the true purpose of life, I don’t know what will.