Since we are in a time of “existential” challenges, maybe this is a good moment to understand where that term comes from, and how its lessons may apply today. I’ve just begun teaching a course on existentialism (online, of course) at Seattle U, so I have been revisiting my own tumultuous college days of the Vietnam era when existentialism swept across college campuses like wildfire. What does this movement teach us in this tumultuous time?
Born of a social crisis that threatened complete destruction of the European social order, the philosophical movement of existentialism challenged the cultural narrative that had guided Europe since the seventeenth century. The crisis arrived in waves, first with the political conflicts of the late 19th century, then the First World War, then the Second.
With this series of catastrophes, the intoxicating tale of progress that had been preached since the Enlightenment—that we would tame, once and for all, the natural world around us and the beast within our souls—was on life support. The pretensions of modernity to enlightenment, it turned out, had done nothing to stave off the atrocities of total war, the destructiveness of which was magnified by the awesome powers that modern technology had granted it.
Ours is another time of existential crisis, surrounded by new threats of global war and planetary devastation, holed up in our homes as a virus takes its deadly toll with an absurdly random indifference. It has become a popular time to give Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, a reread, and there are books available to meet renewed public interest, such as Sarah Bakewell’s intellectual history, At the Existentialist Café, and Gordon Marino’s The Existentialist’s Survival Guide.
Crises are more tolerable when we can make meaning of them, but the existentialism of Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre held that the sources of meaning to which we had turned in the past could not help us. The wisdom of the ancients had been supplanted by the reign of modern scientific reason. And yet objectivistic science, far from ennobling the human spirit, had produced the vision of a meaningless mechanical universe in which humans toil away, without any discernible ultimate purpose, at the machines that will produce their mutual destruction.
Within this mechanistic worldview human consciousness appears as an anomaly in nature—an unhappy accident, one might almost say—since it makes us tragically aware of our mortal fate. For Camus the tragedy is comical in its absurdity when one considers how utterly indifferent nature is to our most cherished human values.
Rather than despair over the objectivistic worldview, existentialists made those conclusions the starting point of an impassioned search for new foundations of meaning and freedom. Perhaps, thought Camus, we should simply accept that there is no higher objective point to what we do and instead find our dignity in our refusal to let that fact crush us. We should seek our joys in the relationships that are near at hand and find meaning in the sheer act of resistance to every authority that would enlist us in their mad schemes of power. If the universe has no God and no special plan for human life, thought Sartre, then we may conclude that we are utterly free—so thoroughly defined by freedom, in fact, that the weight of it can be frightening.
Along with the global crises with which students must grapple they are typically in a time of life where they experience existential crises of their own. They take their first steps away from the world of their youth that comforted but also confined them. They are breaking out of the intellectual cocoon of their families and casting about, with uncertainty and apprehension, for something new to believe in.
Students are surrounded by a thousand voices telling them how hard they must work, how successful they must be, what dragons they must slay, and what noble deeds they must do in the world. Yet they want to ask their own questions. They can always see further down the road, and can raise the impertinent query: What is the point of it all? What makes all this toil worthwhile? And why have their elders left them with such a wreck of a world to put back together?
In such a mood Camus’s absurdism appeals, for it does not require one to have lofty beliefs in order to possess humanity and dignity. Sartre’s philosophy of radical freedom appeals, for it opens the possibility that one’s search for meaning could be beholden to no one, that one may chart one’s course entirely out of the resources within oneself. Existentialism of this sort is a humanistic philosophy of resistance, calling us back from dreams of world hegemony and the march of history to personal and political liberation from every form of oppression.
I understand the appeal of these views, and I work hard, when I teach them, to bring out their reasoning fully. However, I try also to warm students to the thinking of other voices connected with and critical of the existentialist movement. These thinkers do not demand quite so much abnegation and resignation, even as they challenge more directly the assumptions of the mechanistic worldview.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, so influential on Sartre and Camus, was unlike them a religious thinker. He argued that if we accept only the objectivistic view of our place in the universe we miss an essential fact about ourselves: that consciousness allows us to live both in time and in the realm of eternal truth, which makes our moral actions not only meaningful but ultimately so.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, though damnably tainted by Nazi sympathies, produced a way of meditating on the meaning of being that can make simple dwelling on the planet seem so rich with significance as to grant a kind of humble peace. Heidegger’s insights have been inspiring to spiritual leaders, theologians, environmentalists, architects, psychotherapists, and many others.
The French Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel made the case that we have become so obsessed with turning the world into a set of problems to be solved that we have lost a sense of the mystery that grounds it all.
Such differing voices remind us that existentialism should not be seen as a single doctrine with a single starting point and conclusion. It is a rich debate among many kinds of philosophical convictions opening many different paths to meaning. All of the Existentialists are philosophers of life who refuse to spin systems of ideals, insisting instead, like the American Pragmatists, that philosophies are only truly tested in lived experience.
All of them share the task of seeking hope out of a profound sense of crisis. It is altogether appropriate if the intensity of our times encourages a revisit to such a powerful wellspring of ideas.