Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Gary Cox is the author of several books on existentialism and general philosophy. The 10th anniversary edition of his bestselling self-help book How to Be an Existentialist was published recently. Gavin Smith talks with him about existentialism.
You begin your introduction to the anniversary edition by talking about the truths of existentialism being timeless. But do you think the heightened anxieties that seem so prevalent make existentialism especially relevant now?
To answer your question I need to set out briefly what the timeless truths of existentialism are. Basically, they’re the timeless truths of the human condition. Specifically, these are that we’re inalienably free in that we are constantly confronted by the requirement to choose who we are through choosing what we do. We are responsible for the choices we make. It is often recognised that existentialism is a philosophy of freedom, less so that it is a philosophy of responsibility. Our inalienable freedom makes us anxious. In The Concept of Anxiety (1844), the original existentialist Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”. It is the result of responsibility. Fear is the possibility that I might fall; anxiety is that there is nothing to stop me from jumping.
At any given moment, we are indeterminate in the sense that we are no longer what we were and not yet what we hope to become through our current actions. We always lack in the present what we hope to gain in the future. This lack is the basis of desire.
We are embodied. We seek to transcend and surpass what we are now through our actions but we can never transcend our bodies. The body is an ever-present set of facts – a ‘facticity’, as Sartre calls it – that challenges us, limits our freedom, presents possibilities, lets us down. We are also constantly confronted by the existence of other people as beings that constantly look at and judge us: we have a being-for-others that is a key part of who we are. We are contingent in that our existence is not necessary. That we need not be, renders our existence absurd, and life has no other meaning than the one we choose to give it. Moreover, each moment of our life is defined by our mortality, by the fact that life is a finite project. Our death is ‘our ownmost possibility’: nobody else can die your death for you.
It’s a grim list for sure, but to seek to fool yourself that life is not governed by these truths is to be inauthentic, is to live in bad faith. Bad faith is basically acting as though one has no choice, as though one’s life is on rails, or generally, exercising one’s freedom negatively to deny or stifle it. It’s choosing not to choose. We are all guilty of bad faith to some extent. It’s difficult to entirely avoid, and maybe it has practical uses; but to overcome bad faith and fully recognise in one’s thought and actions that one is inescapably free, not a fixed entity like a chair or a stone but the growing sum total of one’s ongoing choices, is to achieve the existentialist holy grail of authenticity.
So the main focus of the book is to show how a worthwhile life is possible in the teeth of the inescapable truths of the human condition. And existentialism is always highly relevant because these truths, our all-too-human lot, remain the case at all times and in all places. Given that existentialism is always maximally relevant, it cannot be more relevant at one time than another. But although it is not especially relevant now, it is highly relevant now.
If this is an age of heightened anxiety, it is not because there is more to be anxious about now than in the past. Perhaps we simply hear more about anxiety because of social media, and our increased awareness of it creates the impression that there is more of it about. But a huge fuss is made about anxiety these days to the extent that it has become fetishized. Certainly there is a trend, largely due to an exponential growth in the number of ‘support’ professionals of all kinds, towards treating any level of anxiety as a medical problem, when fundamentally, anxiety is part and parcel of what it is to be human. I worry about global warming; my parents worried about nuclear holocaust; their parents worried about TB. For most people, certainly in the developed world, modern technology has eliminated the worries caused by a hand-to-mouth existence, but we all still have to contend with the existential issues of other people, risk, ageing, and death. And still above all it is the responsibility of our freedom that makes us anxious, not the world itself. We will always be anxious because we will always be free.
What else can existentialism teach us about the world of social media?
If existentialism is about getting real, then the first thing it teaches us about social media is that we cannot wish it away, that most of us cannot entirely escape it and its many challenges, that it must therefore be dealt with. Existentialists talk about recognising our being-in-situation – recognising our reality for what it is and dealing with it positively rather than wishing we were someone else somewhere else. Social media now definitely belongs to our being-in-situation. Existentialism also has much to say about the phenomenon of being-for-others: how part of what we are is unavoidably shaped and influenced by other people and the opinions they form of us – opinions we cannot control. An understanding of our being-for-others as part of the human psyche sheds light on why we find social media so attractive, addictive, and troubling. Thus it provides a useful guide to how social media is best dealt with: how best to behave when using it to maximise pleasure and opportunity while minimising anxiety and paranoia. Sartre famously wrote, “There is no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is other people!” (In Camera, 1944). Yet surely, other people – even people on social media – can often also be heaven, if dealt with in the right way.
Given that existentialist themes were addressed by the Greeks two and a half millenia ago, is it not reasonable to argue that existentialism is an exploration of themes that have always existed?
As you say, what might be broadly called ‘existentialist themes’ have been around for thousands of years. The list of timeless existential truths I just gave clearly shows that much of existentialism is really a matter of taking an honest and courageous look at the fundamentals of the human condition. The ancient Greek philosophers were bound to draw many of the same broad conclusions about human reality as philosophers draw today; as Shakespeare drew in his day; as future thinkers will draw in their day. If existentialism as a specific relatively modern philosophical school did anything original, it was to systematically explain the existential truths of human reality, our being-in-the-world, as a coherent whole – not least by employing many of the best ideas relating to the nature of consciousness and freedom that had accumulated in Western philosophy by the nineteenth century. This comprehensive holism is seen in such major existentialist works as Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943), and de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity (1947).
Is it hard to free existentialism from the myths and images of post-war Left Bank Paris?
On one level existentialism is intimately bound up with wartime and post-war Paris because several of the major existentialist philosophers – Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, and Merleau-Ponty – coexisted in that time and place and were profoundly shaped by it. I sought to capture that time and place, and the philosophy, literature and art it inspired, in my biography of Sartre, Existentialism and Excess (2016). For some, existentialism is synonymous with the romance and eroticism of that era, its heady intellectual atmosphere supercharged by the backdrop of a war-torn Europe. However, given that existentialism is a philosophy for all time, it need not be associated with that era. Perhaps an excessive association with that era wrongly leads some to suppose that existentialism was merely a philosophy of that time, a fad that it is now well past its sell-by-date, which is not true. Nazi-occupied Paris may have provided the existentialist philosophers who endured it with dramatic illustrations of their philosophical points – Sartre for example was exercised by the choice between cowardice and courage in the face of torture – but absolutely any time or place will provide illustrations to support existentialist claims. Moreover, although Sartre thought that existentialism should and could be synthesised with Marxism, it is not at all certain that it is a particularly left-wing philosophy. Existentialist arguments can also be used to support broadly so-called centre-right views concerning individualism, personal aspiration, personal responsibility, self-reliance, limited altruism, and our oversensitive blame and excuse culture. Certainly, How to Be an Existentialist has been criticised by some and praised by others for lacking the arguably excessive sympathy bordering on mawkishness that to some extent characterises the modern left. I leave people to make up their own minds by actually reading the book.
So, yes, it is hard to free existentialism from the myths, images, and even politics of Left Bank Paris, but not impossible. Existentialism can be presented as a coherent and useful philosophy without mentioning war-torn Paris, Parisian intellectuals, or even Parisian cafés.
Will the bleak realism of existentialism ever replace the comfort offered by religion, whether traditional or New Age?
Many religious people are simply not willing to go out of their comfort zone to contemplate the stark, mostly atheistic realism of existentialism. Indeed the church has actively discouraged them from doing so by preaching that existentialism is a heresy, which of course from the point of view of orthodox religion, it is. In 1948 the Catholic Church added Sartre’s complete works – even those not yet written – to its list of forbidden books.
Existentialism is not for the faint-hearted. Not all existentialism is atheistic, but most of it is, and as Sartre said in his autobiography, Words (1963), “Atheism is a cruel, long-term business” (p. 157). Existentialism is for people who demand the truth however dark and uncompromising that truth may be. It is often thought that, because it dwells on harsh realities – anxiety, absurdity, death, and so on – existentialism is a pessimistic, nihilistic philosophy, but this is to profoundly misunderstand it. How to Be an Existentialist seeks to show how it is possible to live a worthwhile and rewarding life on the basis of a full recognition of the tough existential truths. If religion is often about wishing, then existentialism is about willing. It is about getting real and acting decisively towards reasonable, worldly goals. As I wrote in the book, “You have to build your life on an understanding and acceptance of how things really are, otherwise you will always be fooling and deluding yourself as you hanker after impossibilities like complete happiness and total fulfilment. Ironically, existentialism is saying, if you want to be happy, or at least be happier, stop struggling to achieve complete happiness because that way only leads to disappointment.”
Existentialism is not in the business of replacing religion. Unlike religion, existentialism does not tell people how to live, what to eat, what to wear, who to marry. It instead urges people to recognise that they and others are inalienably free, and to embrace their freedom in a positive, courageous, and moral way rather than act in bad faith and deny their freedom. The most rewarding thing for me about writing How to Be an Existentialist is the wealth of correspondence I have received over the past decade from people who tell me it has helped them to find or recover their self-esteem, to confront reality, and to get their life together.
• Gavin Smith is a novelist and an English lecturer for the Open University. He received his PhD from the University of Exeter in 2010.