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Existentialism & Literature

More than any other recent philosophical movement, the existentialists communicated their ideas through plays, novels and short stories. Peter Rickman asks: why did existentialism resort to literary expression?

Jean-Paul Sartre was a professional philosopher who taught the subject and wrote substantial works on it. However he also wrote, and is widely known for, novels, short stories and plays. It is no accidental link, as a man might be both a doctor and a golfer. Sartre’s literary work embodied, and thereby made widely known and even fashionable, his philosophical ideas. In this he instensified a tendency of the movement known as existentialism. Søren Kierkegaard, usually considered the father of this movement, made wide use of fictional devices. For example his first major philosophically significant work Either Or presents the very different views of three characters of his own creation; one an aesthete, the second a moralist and the third a sensualist. Their views are expressed respectively in the form of essays, aphorisms, letters and a diary. Friedrich Nietzsche, if not an ancestor an avuncular godfather of existentialism, produced Thus Spoke Zarathustra in which he wove a poetic fiction around the figure of that Persian sage. Martin Heidegger believed in the philosophic significance of poetry and attempted, though not very successfully, some of his own.

Of course, presenting philosophy in literary form was not new. Plato’s dialogues were literary masterpieces. Diderot and Voltaire provided just two examples of thinkers expressing themselves in fiction. However, the majority of philosophical texts have, through the ages, taken the form of essays, treatises and transcribed lectures. So what was the impulse behind this fresh turn towards literary expression and what is its importance?

The answer, I want to argue, is closely linked to two significant contributions existentialism has made to philosophical debate. The high tide of existentialism’s popularity is over. In the fifties and sixties there were seminars on Heidegger in most German universities and even in some Anglo-Saxon institutions. In Paris existentialism became fashionable. That flood has receded and other philosophical movements such as Deconstruction have come to the fore. Also the grimness of the existentialist vision has come to be criticised. Heidegger, writing after the German defeat and Sartre, after seeing France’s defeat, both saw life as a struggle against adversity. Sartre’s Nausea may after all just have been due to a ‘bad trip’ and life may contain joy as well as care and dread. There remain, however, two lasting philosophic achievements.

The first is the reminder, vividly dramatised in fictional accounts, that philosophy is about human life and its problems and not just academic nitpicking about abstract and abstruse matters. I say reminder because this has always been philosophy’s true concern; Marx was obviously wrong, probably not through ignorance but through the desire for a rhetorical flourish, when he claimed that philosophy had hitherto been more concerned with understanding the world than changing it. One has only to read Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Spinoza or Kant to observe efforts to understand linked to the desire to change things for the better. There have been, it is true, philosophers and whole philosophic movements, not least in our time, that protest that they are harmless specialists clarifying terms and disentangling grammatical mistakes, so that they could be left in peace in their academic ivory towers. Against these the existentialists have provided a timely reminder that philosophy is about human life and its distinctive features.

Secondly, existentialism insists on the uniqueness of individuals. I am not just an example of a human being. It is not enough to identify myself as a Jew or a Londoner. As Heidegger insisted, the realisation that I must die and not just that one must die brings home to me my irreplaceable identity. From this results the one formal principle shared by all existentialists: the call to authenticity.

Here then was a powerful reason to move from philosophical generalisation to literary instantiation. In fiction and drama we are introduced to individual figures that illustrate in concrete detail what it is like to be human. A Greek tragedy such as the Antigone, just like Sartre’s plays, does not only illustrate a theme, the conflict between conscience and obedience to the law, for example, but presents us with fictional characters who show how particular persons in specific situations respond.

Once you emphasise the relevance of philosophy to human life, questions of moral choice become of central importance. This focus provides a further reason for existentialism’s predilection for literary expression. As existentialism precludes itself from having a clear-cut common moral philosophy it is driven from theorising towards the analysis of individual personal choices. This provides an interesting challenge to traditional moral philosophy, most effectively expressed in literary form.

The reason why existentialism debars itself from having a coherent moral and political philosophy is its emphasis on personal, authentic choice. This is why individual existentialists differ widely from each other in their religious, political and moral convictions. Kierkegaard was a dedicated Christian, Sartre an atheist, Heidegger supported the Nazis and remained half-hearted about even condemning the Holocaust, while Sartre supported communism. They were all at one on the formal virtue of authenticity, i.e. the genuineness of personal choice. We are always presented with alternatives between which we can and must choose. We are, in Sartre’s telling phrase “condemned to be free” but anguish arises because there are no objective guidelines.

I leave aside, as too vast a subject for an article, the question whether existentialism is justified in discarding objective moral standards as are provided by philosophies such as those of Aristotle, Kant or Mill. We must concede, however, that all moral philosophies are limited in at least two ways. One is that the basis of any moral philosophy itself rests on assumptions that are open to critical scrutiny.

Aristotle’s moral philosophy is about achieving the good life, eudaimonia, inadequately translated as happiness because it involves flourishing or self-fulfilment. We are all familiar, even in trivial matters, with the uplift we get from functioning well, of successfully exercising our talents. However, to deduce any moral guidance from this we have to decide what matters for the human being, what that self is that needs fulfilling, or else why should it be more important to develop my talent for philosophising than for waggling my ears? Aristotle responded to this question by defining man as ‘the rational animal’ whose fulfilment consists of exercising that reason and of controlling and balancing rationally his varied cravings, (i.e. finding the proper mean between opposing excesses). But can we take for granted man’s rationality as his crucial characteristic?

It is also highly plausible to stress, as do the utilitarians, the importance of maximising pleasure and minimising pain. But this is obviously a half-truth, for boxers and mountaineers just as much as dedicated scientists do expose themselves, voluntarily, to pain. There is also the problem of measuring my pleasure against your pain, or short-term pleasure against long-term pain.

Could we alternatively rely on such feelings as sympathy or compassion? Here the trouble is that they are not stable. Today I may love humanity; tomorrow, with the flu or a hangover, I may detest the human race.

Another approach is taken by thinkers like Hegel or Marx who believe that we can discover the movement of history as the unfolding of reason, the advance of freedom or the movement towards a classless, just society. We could then act in harmony with such a trend. The trouble is that we have come to doubt if there are such predetermined and discernible goals in history. Last but not least in this list one needs to mention Kant’s moral philosophy, according to which practical reason gives rise to duty as it speaks to us as the innate voice of conscience. The moral law, articulated in the different formulations of the Categorical Imperative, is, however, strictly formal, commanding consistency, impartiality and respect for the goals of others. Rather than giving rise to principles they act as criteria for them. They are much like the rules of logic, which do not tell us what to write but only how to avoid writing nonsense. Obviously these brief references cannot do justice to these different approaches to moral philosophy. They only serve as a reminder that such philosophies cannot give us direct guidance because they already rest on presuppositions and are too formal.

A further reason why such general moral theories cannot directly guide us is the prevalence of tragic conflicts. Different theories may agree that lying is wrong or that cruelty is morally objectionable. But what if being truthful is also unkind? We may agree that both justice and peace are valuable, but may find that we have to fight to preserve justice.

It is to the existentialists’ credit to have focused on the implications of the limits of moral theories by emphasising the inevitability of personal choice. Even if we set aside any doubts about the possibility of objective moral laws derived from God, nature or reason, they do not take us all the way to a decision. You may, for example, be a devout Christian accepting every injunction of the Bible and yet choose pacifism or believe in just wars according to your own interpretation. You cannot, in other words, programme a computer with your moral principles, feed in the details of a specific case, press a button and receive a decision as to what you should do. It lies in the very nature of moral choice that it is irreducibly personal. Nothing can lift this burden from your shoulders.

The reminder that we cannot shift our responsibility, cannot shelter behind general theories, is important enough but essentially negative. Can the existentialist offer any positive guidance, which we look for from philosophy? We can readily agree with existentialism’s call for authenticity and selfrealisation but is this any more helpful than calls to consistency? Here we have reached another reason for existentialism’s resort to literary expression. Some may object to my argument so far that philosophers of the past did hold specific moral views that they offered as guidelines. Aristotle extolled what we call gentlemanly virtues, Kant believed strongly in the death penalty, Mill fervently espoused freedom. However, in my view such conclusions did not follow strictly from their philosophies but were coloured by their cultural background and personality. The philosopher’s job is not moral guidance and we would not accept it from him qua philosopher, though we may respect his moral views as we respect the person holding them. What philosophy can do is provide frameworks for thinking about the issues on which we have to decide. This is the value of such theories as that of the ‘mean’, the categorical imperative or the felicity calculus.

A way to provide further help has been mapped out by Kierkegaard and has remained paradigmatic for the existentialist approach. Over and above offering formal criteria and frameworks for reflection we can conjure up individualised models, or types of life, and the imaginative exploration of their implications. The individual is thus helped concretely to decide, with more insight, on the kind of person he wants to be. Great literature has always done that. In existentialism it became a consciously chosen instrument of philosophic endeavour.

© Prof. Peter Rickman 2001

Peter Rickman is Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the City University, London.

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