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Existentialism

“all the consequences of this”

Kile Jones argues that atheistic existentialism is more compelling than religious existentialism.

Existentialism, as I understand it, is primarily a philosophy of tragedy. It often speaks of tragedy as bound up with existence – that you cannot have one without the other.

Tragedy

Before the rise of German, and in turn French, existentialism, tragedy was considered primarily a poetic and literary style. We can think of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, or Euripides’ Alcestis as well-known examples of tragedy. Centuries later, in Germany, the writings of Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Jaspers. elevated tragedy outside of literary expression to a place of philosophical and existential importance. Arthur Schopenhauer’s magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation (1818) raises tragedy to “the summit of poetic art” as it expresses “the terrible side of life”; Nietzsche’s early work The Birth of Tragedy (1872) argues strongly for a Dionysian revelry in tragedy; and Jasper’s Tragedy Is Not Enough (1969) finds tragedy to be a condition for the experience of transcendence.

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) was an existentialist philosopher who saw tragedy as a launching pad for authentic faith. What he calls ‘tragic knowledge’ or ‘absolute and radical tragedy,’ is comparable to Sartre’s or Camus’ notions of meaninglessness or absurdity. Jaspers’ kind of tragedy is opposed to salvation or redemption, since they are both answers to it. As Jaspers says, tragedy is not enough – implying that we can, and ought to, move beyond the brute tragedy of existence. He says that “the chance of being saved destroys the tragic sense of being trapped without chance of escape.” In contrast, many atheist existentialists see the whole of human existence as tragic.

The fact that Jaspers retains his ideas in the face of the tragic nature of existence shows how he differs from atheist existentialists (e.g. Heidegger, Sartre, Camus). These – myself included – argue that the tragic nature of existence does not have an answer; it is just how existence is. We cannot escape it, avoid it, or supply a remedy for it. Therefore I argue that the atheist existentialists develop a more authentic form of existentialism, since they accept absolute tragedy and do not seek to dodge its consequences. Sartre says, “when we speak of forlornness, a term Heidegger was fond of, we mean only that God does not exist and that we have to face all the consequences of this” (Existentialism and Human Emotions, 1957). So Sartre and other atheist existentialists “face all the consequences of this” – while religious existentialists (such as Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Marcel) do not. They would be uneasy with Sartre’s notion, put forward in his novel Nausea (1938), which carries radical tragedy to its logical conclusion: “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.”

Oedipus and Antigone
Oedipus and Antigone by Eugéne-Ernest Hillemacher

Dread

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) examined the philosophical, psychological, and theological implications of angest (Danish for ‘dread’ or ‘anxiety’) in his famous work The Concept of Dread (1844). Dread, according to Kierkegaard, comes from within the individual (spirit) and from without (as an ‘alien power’). Kierkegaard connects dread with the entrance of sin into human existence, the Fall of Adam and Eve. This brought with it dread, not of something external to the individual, but as dread of one’s own self: “one will encounter the phenomenon that a man seems to become guilty merely for dread of himself.” Man also finds dread in his longing for release from guilt. Kierkegaard writes, “the expression for such a longing is dread, for in dread the state out of which a man longs to be delivered announces itself…” The central existential paradox regarding dread is that man “cannot flee from dread, for he loves it; really he does not love it, for he flees from it.” With dread, man continues the vicious cycle of: freedom-fall-dread-guilt, freedom-fall-dread-guilt, ad infinitum.

Kierkegaard’s response to dread (and to most other problems) is faith. He writes:

“The one and only thing which is able to disarm the sophistry of remorse is faith… courage to renounce dread without any dread, which only faith is capable of – not that it annihilates dread, but remaining ever young, it is continually developing itself out of the death throes of dread. Only faith is capable of doing this, for only in faith is the synthesis eternally and every instant possible.” (p.104)

Dread, like tragedy, should lead you somewhere; and in this case, where you’re led is faith. Kierkegaard thinks that tragedy, paradox, and dread should lead one out of attempts to rationalize and towards a subjective ‘leap of faith’. Although Kierkegaard acknowledges that faith does not do away with dread, he thinks that it develops “out of the death throes of dread” and that faith is the courage to “renounce dread without any dread.” But what is renouncing other than conquering and moving beyond? And what if, on the contrary, dread should lead you nowhere?

Both Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) argue against purely rationalistic answers to existential problems, since rationality cannot completely explain the subjective experiences of paradox and mystery. Rationalism also assumes a scientific stance of ‘objectivity’ that tacitly thinks it can gain certainty about the external world and humanity’s relationship to it. Marcel is especially opposed to this. He thinks this kind of ‘scientific’ posture poses all inquiry in the form of problem and answer, and leaves out, or completely ignores, the idea of mystery. “A problem” Marcel says, “is something which I meet, which I find complete before me, but which I can therefore lay siege to and reduce. But a mystery is something in which I myself am involved” (Being and Having, 1965). He also says, “a mystery, by definition, transcends every conceivable technique.”

Both Kierkegaard and Marcel acknowledge the role anxiety plays in human experience, and yet they both see subjective experience as pointing towards something ‘beyond,’ and ‘transcendent’. They note how language cannot penetrate this realm beyond normal human experience, but they still choose to keep this realm as a possibility. Why they choose to do so is beyond comprehension for rationalist atheist existentialists, who would ask, why believe in anything indescribable or beyond comprehension? Why not simply accept human existence on its own terms, as something radically and absolutely tragic, riddled with anxiety and dread, from which there is no escape? So I think both Kierkegaard and Marcel do not take anxiety and existential angst seriously because they think it points beyond itself to a transcendental realm. The contradiction in Marcel’s thought is that although he is against the scientific manner of framing inquiry as problem/answer, he nonetheless retains mystery and transcendence as potential answers to the problems posed by existence. To be consistent, he and Kierkegaard, should have abandoned those elusive phantasms, and carry tragedy and angst to their logical conclusions as Sartre argues.

Powerlessness

puppet master
Puppeteer image © Vadim Dozmorov 2016. Please visit vadim.crevado.com.

Many existential philosophers have described, sometimes in vivid detail, what it is like to feel powerless. Social and political forces external to you can take away your freedoms and impugn you with guilt, creating a sense of powerlessness. Psychological forces internal to you can do the same thing. The internal forces are especially frightening because they occur inside you and yet can feel beyond your control. They can inculcate feelings of isolation, fear, and dread, along with a sense of being trapped in your own personality.

A good way to explore the feeling of powerlessness is through the work of those who have examined it in great detail. For me the best exemplars of this are Nietzsche and the novelist Franz Kafka. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is well acquainted with the forces, both internal and external, and thinks that we ought to harness the power of our desires and affirm ourselves by willing to live with dangerous confidence. Kafka (1883-1924), on the other hand, depicts the individual as powerless, weak, and passive, a victim of forces beyond his control.

The greatness of Nietzsche’s philosophy is that it encourages, uplifts, empowers, and revitalizes. It tells the individual to conquer fear and self-pity by affirming her unique power in the world. He tells us that the “greatness and fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously. Build your cities under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors, as long as you cannot be rulers and owners, you lovers of knowledge!” (The Gay Science, 1882). Nietzsche, who was at once an admirer of Schopenhauer, later rejected Schopenhauer’s idea that one should resign oneself to the cosmic Will. Nietzsche would rather think of the individual as actively engaged in the world, and not, like Schopenhauer or Kafka, as a passive product of circumstances.

Kafka, by contrast, shows how powerless humans are in the face of forces beyond their control. His most popular fiction, The Metamorphosis (1915) is the story of Gregor Samsa, who awakes to find himself turned into “a monstrous vermin” (usually thought of as a cockroach). He cannot answer his door, he can barely move, and the struggles he endures to get out of bed seem almost endless: “no matter how hard he threw himself onto his right side, he always rocked onto his back again.” The Metamorphosis has been thought to represent many different aspects of Kafka’s life and thought; but no matter what one thinks the story is an allegory of, the theme of powerlessness is central. The never-ending struggle of any of Gregor’s projects is illustrative of the torment experienced by those who feel powerless. If placed in Camus’ story The Myth of Sisyphus, Gregor Samsa would spend his whole time struggling to move the boulder, and one can only imagine him unhappy.

Kafka’s protagonists are all similar. In The Trial (1925), Josef K. is hauled off by authorities he does not meet for a crime of which he is not even aware. At the end of his thirty-first year of incarceration, Josef K. is executed. In The Castle (1926), protagonist K. is sent (the story never says by whom) as a land-surveyor to a remote mountain village surrounding a castle. He is sent to and fro, never being able to meet Count Westwest and so begin his task. He ends up in a constant war against the invisible bureaucracy and social norms of the village. He eventually dies there, never knowing what his purpose was, never completing his task, and never coming to terms with the strangeness of the village. Each of these characters are subject to the whims of powers outside of their control. Although they try, they never accomplish any meaningful changes in the lot they were given. As Sartre would say, they “prolong … out of weakness.”

Wisdom involves knowing when you can change things and when you cannot. Reinhold Niebuhr contemplated this and composed his famous ‘Serenity Prayer’, which asks God to “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” This prayer contains a kernel of truth. Whether or not we ought to orientate ourselves in a manner similar to Nietzsche or Kafka is a different question. I am of the opinion that even though the world is much as Kafka depicts it, we should still have a Nietzschean orientation. We ought to act as if we can change things, conquer fears, and affirm our lives. As Sartre constantly points out, the responsibility of our lives, our projects, and our personalities, is on ourselves. We are the authors of our own life stories.

Absurdity

Absurdity is another important theme in existentialism. Absurdity in the existentialist sense is the contrast between human values, hopes and projects, and a universe which seems mockingly indifferent to them. Kierkegaard wrote about it in his Fear and Trembling (1843), The Sickness Unto Death (1849), and in his posthumously collected Journals and Papers (1967). In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard praises Abraham because he “believed on the strength of the absurd.” In his Journals and Papers, Kierkegaard juxtaposes understanding and the absurd: “Faith hopes for this life also, but, note well, by virtue of the absurd, not by virtue of human understanding.” He also thinks that “to see God or to see the miracle is by virtue of the absurd, for understanding must step aside.” In this way Kierkegaard uses absurdity to express the limits of reason, and especially of ‘pure reason’. In this sense, Kierkegaard is in agreement with atheist existentialists, who often speak of the impotence of human reason; but he is in disagreement with them when he speaks of a God reached by ‘the leap of faith’.

Against Kierkegaard, Albert Camus (1913-1960) treats absurdity not just as something opposed to reason, but as a central quality of human existence. In The Stranger (1942), Camus’ protagonist Meursault does not conform to the social system he is born into because he sees life as absurd. Camus says of him that he is “condemned because he does not play the game.” In The Plague (1947), Camus uses an epidemic to reveal the absurdity of the human condition. Those caught in the plague have to deal with their own individual existential crises, but eventually find themselves in solidarity with the infected.

Many religiously-inclined people have argued that Sartre’s and Camus’ thoughts on meaninglessness and absurdity lead people to immorality, nihilism, and despair. Camus responds to this idea in the ‘Three Interviews’ section of Lyrical and Critical Essays (1968). He’s asked, “Doesn’t a philosophy that insists upon the absurdity of the world run the risk of driving people to despair?” and he responds, “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.” So a recognition of absurdity can create an impetus for positive social change.

Franz Kafka
“K. ends up in a constant war against the bureaucracy and social norms of the village surrounding the castle.”
Portrait of Franz Kafka by Darren McAndrew 2016

Atheistic Existentialists Take These Themes Seriously

My argument is that only atheistic existentialists take existential themes seriously. They take them seriously because they are taken on their own terms: they do not try to remedy them with faith, mystery, or paradox. For instance, it is my contention that theistic existentialism is incompatible with what Jaspers calls “absolute and radical tragedy.” Tragedy and absurdity are given, partially understood by the intellect, and deeply felt at the level of the emotions. But in religious existentialism there is always something to which tragedy and absurdity point, whereas I agree with Sartre and Camus that tragedy and absurdity point nowhere. They are not means to an end.

To take tragedy and absurdity and the other issues seriously is to accept them as legitimate – not to be solved by resorting either to rational answers or to mystery and paradox, but to be pondered and investigated. But how does God’s existence or non-existence factor into this? Does God’s existence or non-existence really make any difference? Sartre says of some French teachers who tried to set up a secular ethic that, like Laplace, they thought of God as a “useless and costly hypothesis” (Existentialism and Human Emotions). He also said, “This, I believe, is the tendency of everything called reformism in France – nothing will be changed if God does not exist.” Against this type of thinking he says “the existentialist, on the contrary, thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him.”

Mary Warnock says the opposite to Sartre: “We may note in passing how little difference it makes to Existentialist theory whether it includes or does not include belief in God. For in practice there is no help to be found in believing in God” (Existentialism, 1970). I disagree. Sartre was right that it makes all the difference if a God exists or not. If He does, there are radical consequences, not only metaphysically, but also existentially, psychologically, and practically; and if he does not there are similar radical consequences, many of which Sartre notes. If God exists, it would be strange to think of life as absolutely and radically tragic, because God, it is traditionally thought, gives meaning to existence. So taking tragedy and absurdity seriously requires a belief in the non-existence of God, gods, and an afterlife.

Many existentialists, Sartre included, think that the non-existence of God is ‘distressing’ and ‘disturbing’, since it negates universal values. Indeed, the idea of a Godless world, where humans are forlorn and abandoned, is frightening to many people. This may be what keeps many people believing in God. However, I think, as Christopher Hitchens did, that the idea of God’s non-existence may be disturbing at first, but eventually you come to understand how horrific the idea of the existence of God itself seems. Atheists may be without universal values, but at least we’re not constantly watched and judged. This idea of God is similar to Orwell’s Big Brother: the elusive ruler who controls everything, whom you must fear and love, and who watches your every thought. This kind of God-created world is also ‘distressing’ and ‘disturbing’.

Atheistic Existentialists Take These Themes To Their Logical Conclusions

When Sartre says, “God does not exist and we have to face all the consequences of this” he is saying that we should take the idea of a Godless world to its conclusions. In other words, tragedy, anxiety, powerlessness, and absurdity fit perfectly with a Godless world, but when they’re given religious spin they lose their strength and fecundity. Tragedy, taken to its logical conclusion, is absolute; anxiety, taken to its logical conclusion, is anxiety without an answer; powerlessness, taken to its logical conclusion, shows how embedded we are in this world; and absurdity, taken to its logical conclusion, is complete. To live authentically in the face of these themes is not to supply an answer to them, but to know there is none.

One of the main reasons why I think atheistic existentialism is more authentic than religious existentialism, is that the former accepts the idea of radical responsibility. This kind of responsibility – usually associated with Sartre – says that we cannot look beyond ourselves to find accountability. It’s true that Kierkegaard, Jaspers, and Marcel also place responsibility in the agency of the individual; but they do so thinking that God is watching, even if we do not take the leap of faith, or accept the mystery of being, transcendence, or the encompassing. This is incompatible with an absolute idea of human responsibility. Walter Kaufmann got it right when discussing Sartre. He wrote, “All man’s alibis are unacceptable: no gods are responsible for his condition; no original sin; no heredity and no environment; no race, no caste, no father, and no mother; no wrong-headed education, no governess, no teacher” (Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, 1956). The God of religious existentialism, no matter how elusive, mysterious, and paradoxical, is still an alibi.

Camus wrote an interesting story about the uselessness of God when facing despair and other existential crises. In Irony (1937), Camus tells of an old woman who is slowly dying and is terrified by her isolation, and of dying alone, even though she’s religious; “her whole life was reduced to God.” She finds comfort only in a young man who tries his best to listen to and care for her. When the old woman’s relatives leave for the movies, the young man hesitates out of pity: then “she saw that the one person who had taken an interest in her was leaving. She didn’t want to be alone. She could already feel the horror of loneliness, the long, sleepless hours, the frustrating intimacy with God. She was afraid, could now only rely on man… God was of no use for her. All He did was cut her off from people and make her lonely.” This story illustrates that not even God can experience your pain and death for you. Your pain and your death are yours only. So even in the face of the most difficult existential experience, “God is of no use to us.” The responsibility can be only on the individual.

Atheistic Existentialism Provides A Life-Affirming Philosophy For The Twenty-First Century

If atheist existentialism takes tragedy, anxiety, powerlessness, and absurdity seriously and to their logical conclusions, then it is easy to see how this can give us a radical and life-affirming philosophy for the twenty-first century. If we accept the themes of the existentialist literature with seriousness, and if all responsibility is on us, then since the themes of existentialism cannot be answered, remedied, or overcome, they should be embraced and used as a way of affirming one’s individuality and as an impetus towards living authentically. What follows from this is a philosophy of action. And if there were ever a time when an existential philosophy of human responsibility were needed, it would surely be now. Political unrest, globalization, social change, and the loss of modernist certainties, are only a few of the paradigm shifts occurring at the present time. Feeling powerless is an all-too-common phenomenon in the twenty-first century. ‘Resignation’ and ‘life; have become almost synonymous, since political, social, and individual change often appear to be utterly beyond our power. The bombardment of information also stirs a sense of confusion, skepticism, and disdain.

The thinking of the millennial generation mirrors atheistic existentialism in many ways. Its focus on the individual, on doubt, and on disenchantment with political systems, echoes French intellectual life from the forties through the sixties. Although we are offered many ‘solutions’ to our current predicament – New Age spirituality, religious hope, psychics, consumer commodities, lifestyle enhancers, pharmaceuticals – none of these offers seem authentic or realistic. They are simply veils that hide the void between the haves (who present themselves as happy) and the have-nots (who have limited venues to present themselves at all). Instead of examining and evaluating the ways in which people orient their lives, we are offered quick and easy ‘answers’. But we don’t need ‘answers’ as much as we need honesty. Atheistic existentialism can help modern society by providing people with a philosophy that accepts the tragedy and absurdity of existence while promoting responsibility and authentic living. It can help people move past resignation into an orientation that affirms the uniqueness of the individual and her projects. Her subjectivity, when seen in relationship to others, can create a sense of sympathy and empathy. So against the idea of an ‘infinite distance between the self and the Other’ (see Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 1961), I believe genuine and authentic communication can take place, even if made difficult by the distance between the individual’s authentic private self and her public expressions. Existentialism provides an ethic that honors individual projects and social responsibility, and encourages the sympathy and empathy that arise through communication.

© Kile Jones 2016

Kile Jones is an atheist who does interfaith work. He has a Masters of Sacred Theology from Boston University, as well as a Masters of Theological Studies from the same place. His Twitter is @KileBJones.

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