The Principles of Existentialism: A report on the creators, and the philosophy that mystified America
by: Stephen Roberts Jr.
23 May 2012 Hermon High School Hermon, ME 04401-1123
Stephen Roberts Jr. Mr. Chad Boucher English Survey 12 23 May 2012 The Principles of Existentialism Humanity is not interested in asking the questions who, what, when, or how. Mankind is simply more interested in the query why and the sentences in which that question word can string together. Why do we exist? Why do we die? Why are we damned to a menial existence? Existentialism is the philosophy that existence precedes essence. Essentially stated man is alone in an absurd world and regardless of his desires things will not turn the way he wishes. Existentialism is a philosophy that flourished because of French contemporaries in the cafes of Paris subsequent to the Second World War. “The horrors of war triggered contemporary existential reactions in philosophy, art, and literature. The world was shocked by the death of roughly 72 million people, including millions of Jews in Nazi concentration camps, and the first use of the nuclear bomb” (Price 117). The corollary of life: existence precedes essence, “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of Existentialism” (Sartre 9-16). Other major ideals of Existentialism include: “God is dead”, “Life is absurd” and that one has to be authentic with his or herself. The idea of an absurd world in which individuals make decisions, and understand that not every decision they make is purely his or her own is one of the defining aspects of Existentialist philosophy (Sartre). The creators of Existentialism created this philosophy in response to nihilism, and the constant need to fight for the rights of the individual rather than the group. Søren Kierkegaard is
often mentioned as the father of the existentialist movement. Friedrich Nietzsche is also considered a founding father of Existentialism and the individualistic philosophies that conquered the latter half of the 19th and 20th century (Price Søren Kierkegaard (1813- 1855) Søren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. Kierkegaard was the last of his father’s seven children whom he outlived all but his older brother Peter (McDonald). Kierkegaard was raised in a family atmosphere that made him feel as if he was ‘born old’. His father was a major influence on his existential philosophy later in life. Michael Kierkegaard; his father was a melancholy man stating that he was cursed and none of his children would outlive the age of Jesus when they too passed (McDonald). Søren Kierkegaard engaged Regina Olsen a woman 9 years his minor. This situation caused brouhaha within his family and he broke off the engagement a year later (McDonald). Kierkegaard took up writing at this point in his dismal existence and finished his schooling at the University of Copenhagen. Kierkegaard's writing style embodied a self-reflection so wittily perceived that readers had to take a side and could not feel dispassionate. These echoes of Søren Kierkegaard’s soul are the beginnings of a philosophy that changed the world (Price 118) Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Rocken, Prussia. His father died of internal hemorrhaging just before Friedrich turned five. Nietzsche then dedicated himself to a studious life being welcomed into the Schulpforta; the school for talented children. Becoming more scholarly as his life progressed he was offered a professorship at the incredibly young age of 24 at the University of Basel (Wilkerson).
Friedrich Nietzsche championed individualism and an all new form of atheism. Publicly saying “God is Dead.” Modern scholars interpret this quote as a direct reference to Nietzsche’s atheistic inclination. Another interpretation is that because “God is Dead” then everything thing is possible (Burnham). Individualism is one of the most important aspects of Camus’s Existentialism. Individualism includes will to power. Will to power essentially means that one has control over one’s fate to an extent, and whatever control they do not have is completely up to nature’s cruel destiny. Friedrich Nietzsche suffered a complete breakdown in Turin, Italy after “witnessing a horse being flogged by its owner” (Wilkerson). After this breakdown Nietzsche lived out his remaining years in psychiatric clinics and his sisters’ home. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) Jean-Paul Sartre was born in Paris, France. He was the son of a French Navy officer: Jean-Baptiste Sartre and an Alsatian mother. His father died of enterocolitis contracted whilst voyaging in China. These absurd happenings affected Jean-Paul Sartre throughout his childhood and eventually influenced his role as an Existentialist (Onof). Jean-Paul Sartre is known as the most central figure of Existentialism (Thody 8). In 1924 Sartre entered the Ecole Normale Superiuer where he met the most influential woman in his life: Simone de Beauvoir his lover later in life. Jean-Paul Sartre survived the Second World War mentally scarred from his home city being conquered twice. Paris was conquered once by the Nazis and a second time by the Americans during World War II. “I do not believe in God; his existence has been disproved by Science. But in the concentration camp, I learned to believe in men.” (Sartre). The destruction of the Parisian fraternity by the Nazis traumatized all loyalist French. These trepidations gave Sartre enough time to write his most recognized work: Being and Nothingness. Sartre over time became more partisan eventually leading to his and Albert Camus’s very public fragmentation of
ideologies. This public difference of opinion is because of Sartre’s conversion to communism a political system that Camus despised. “What is a rebel? A man who says no” (Camus). Camus was certainly the rebel against communism and all forms of totalitarianism. After his friendship with Camus ended Sartre wrote some of his most defining work including a Critique of Dialectical Reason. Sartre refused the Nobel Peace prize later that decade saying that he feared it would be “Sartre listed his belief that interchange between East and West must take place between men and between cultures without the intervention of institutions. Furthermore, since the conferment of past prizes did not, in his opinion, represent equally writers of all ideologies and nations, he felt that his acceptance might be undesirably and unjustly interpreted” (NobelPrize). Albert Camus (1913-1960) Albert Camus was born in Mondovi, Algeria. He was the son of Pied-Noir parents. His father served in World War One as an infantryman for the French. His father was wounded in battle in September 1914, and died the following month in October 1914. Following his father’s death his mother and he moved to the Belcourt Section of Algiers. This section of Algiers is most well known for being a poor, crowded, working class neighborhood infested with vermin. This section of the city is one of the main dwellings of the Pied-Noirs (Price 134). ‘I think of a child living in a poor district. That neighborhood, that house! There were only two floors, and the stairs were unlit. Even now, long years later, he could go back there on the darkest night. He knows that he could climb the stairs without stumbling once. His very body is impregnated with this house. His legs retain the exact height of the steps; his hand; the instinctive, never-conquered horror of the banister. Because of the cockroaches.’ - Philip Thody
Throughout his childhood he lived in an absurd world. His home included a brother, a harsh and unforgiving grandmother, a partially paralyzed uncle, and an illiterate, deaf mother who had a speech impediment, not to mention the cockroaches that presided within his home (Price 134). This strange world in which Camus was born into is not the world he would create later in his life. He studied throughout his childhood attempting to better his life rather than stay in squalor. His teacher Louis Germain saw his hard work as a dedication to academia and helped Camus gain admittance to a better high school with the hopes that Camus would then be able to attend a University (Price 134). His high school teacher Jean Grenier introduced him to the philosophical works of the ancient Greeks and the new teaching of individualistic philosophy (Price 135). After graduation Camus found himself in the world’s most cultured city he took to writing novels, plays, and essays. “Originally traveling to Paris in hopes of working for the leftist press Camus traveled back to North Africa following the German invasion of France.” (The European Graduate School). After this short reprieve from the Nazis Camus traveled back to the city of light and fought with the French resistance. He edited their newspaper Combat secretly. Until the day before the liberation of Paris when he proudly had “Rédacteur en Chef: Albert Camus” (Price 137) Camus received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. He dedicated his speech to his primary school teacher Louis Germain who helped him get his foot in the door of academia (Price 137). Ironically Albert Camus died in a car accident in 1960. In his pocket was the train ticket he had refused to use earlier in the day. Earlier in his life he had stated that he could not think of a single more meaningless death than a car accident. Camus lived in an absurd world, and he died in an absurd manner (Raimes). These men are the creators and innovators of Existentialism. They created a philosophy that stands out as defining the human condition as an absurd sequence of events. One of them
even went so far as to say “God is Dead” (Price). These men all scarred by some form of tragedy from their father’s dying when they were toddlers to a melancholic guilt about a condemnation to be free (Onof). Existentialism is the philosophy of human liberation. Existentialism asks the questions why do we exist, and Existentialism asks what is being. Existentialism is humanism (Sartre). It is a way to describe the absurdities of the human condition (Camus). It is a philosophy riddled with individualism and universal objectivity (Nietzsche). In short Existentialism is a philosophy that helps humans cope with our menial existence on this speck of dust we call Earth.
Works Cited Price, Joan A. Understanding Philosophy Contemporary Thought. 2nd ed. 1. New York City: Infobase Publishing, 2008. 117-141. Print. <http://www.chelseahouse.com/>. McDonald, William. "Kierkegaard, Soren." Soren Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855). Madgwick: University of New England, Australia, 2002. Web. 22 May 2012. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/kierkega/>. Onof, Christian. "Existentialism, Sartre's." Sartre's Existentialism. London: The University College, 2004. Web. 22 May 2012. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/sartre-ex/ Camus, Albert. Notebooks 1942 - 1951. 1. New York City: Alfred A. Knoff, INC., 1965. Print. Camus, Albert. Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. 1. New York City: Alfred A. Knoff, INC., 1960. Print. Wilkerson, Dale. "Nietzsche, Friedrich." Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900). Denton: University of North Texas, 2009. Web. 23 May 2012. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/nietzsch/>. Thody, Phillip. Print. Simpson, David. "Camus, Albert (1913-1960)." Albert Camus. DePaul University, 2005. Web. 23 May 2012. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/camus/