Quick Thoughts on Existentialism

Brief, brief thoughts on, responses to, and analyses of various texts of or relating to existentialism.

The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard

(For ease’s sake I’m simply using “Kierkegaard” as opposed to “Kierkegaard through the mouthpiece of Anti-Climacus” or “Anti-Climacus.” Not sure what the accepted stance on this is anyway.)

Particularly striking in Kierkegaard’s categorization and explanation of despair was his concept of the dichotomy and synthesis of finitude and infinitude. Synthesis itself is an essential category to Kierkegaard’s understanding of the self as he defines selfhood as being the synthesis of two opposing elements in relation to a third element (the “positive third” of the “spirit”). In examining the makeup of the self according to this definition, Kierkegaard puts forward a number of dichotomies, which must, necessarily, be synthesized in the creation of a self. The first of these is finitude/infinitude, a category almost as resistant to interpretation as selfhood itself. Upon first reading, the vague definitions I took away of Kierkegaard’s concepts of “finitude” and “infinitude” were that finitude dealt somehow with the facts of being a human (what a man is in terms of his capacities, abilities, situation, and environment, in the most factual senses) and that these facts were limitations upon man and then that infinitude was essentially the opposite of this: instead of limitations, infinitude meant imagination, possibility, everything that dealt with the non-factual side of man and rather with his hopes and dreams.

All this seemed well and good to me until I read Kierkegaard’s next explanation of a synthesis: that of necessity and possibility. Now this one I felt was explained in clearer terms, equating “necessity” with worldly, earthly concerns—essentially what I had defined finitude as—and “possibility” as dealing with fantasy, imagination, and aspiration—again, essentially what I had understood finitude to mean. This led me to question whether Kierkegaard was saying that infinitude and possibility/imagination are all one and the same? That finitude and necessity are interchangeable? I felt like I was missing something and knowing this was more than likely, I went and reread his explanations of infinitude and finitude and ended up revising my definitions. Where before I had simply equated infinitude with imagination (literally writing infinitude=imagination in the margin), now I realized that, though they are related, they aren’t the same as Kierkegaard says: “as a rule, imagination is the medium for the process of infinitizing” (60). If the imagination is the medium for infinitude, it cannot be infinitude, so what then is infinitude? I found what I think to be the answer in his description of the fate of a man lacking infinitude: “such a person forgets himself, forgets his name divinely understood… finds it … easier and safer to be like the others…” (63). Now, I’m not sure I know what Kierkegaard means by “his name divinely understood,” but there certainly appears to be a direct relation between infinitude and the divine implied here. He even refers to a person lacking in infinitude and too much caught up in finitude as “absorbed in all sorts of secular matters” (63), apparently using secular and finitude as near-synonyms. Therefore, it appears that Kierkegaard defines finitude and infinitude in terms of closeness to the infinity of the divine rather than in terms of facticity/imagination. This definition serves to differentiate infinitude/finitude from necessity/possibility, while still establishing finitude as a limiting factor, and also introduces the idea that we must not only balance our lives between worldly concerns and fantasy, but also between what I’m going to call enough God and not enough God. It’s interesting to note that Kierkegaard believes that some of both is necessary; is the implication then that there can be such a thing as too much divine, in having too much infinitude? It would appear so, though what that would look like, particularly in the modern day, I’m not sure.

“Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor,” The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky

In Dostoevsky’s “Rebellion,” Ivan discusses at length the suffering of innocents and his inability to accept a world in which innocents are made to suffer. As he comes to the end of his argument, he addresses the injustice of the Christian concept of forgiveness, which requires that the tormented embrace and forgive his tormentor, regardless of cause. The purposeless suffering of innocents is one thing for Ivan, but the idea that needless suffering and unduly inflicted pain must be forgiven proves to be entirely another as he asks “Is there in the whole world a being who could and would have the right to forgive?” (245). For Ivan, the power to forgive is something to be earned and particularly, something to be merited. The injustices constituted by the suffering of innocents in no way merit forgiveness; to forgive them, for him, is as much as to condone them. Forgiveness is a form of buying into the system, enforcing it—a tacit approval. “I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation,” (245) he says, rather than become part of a system of forgiveness which allows and condones the suffering of innocents.

Ivan’s interpretation of the Christian concept of forgiveness as contributing to an unjust world in which innocents suffer adds an interesting dimension to the question “Why does God allow the suffering of innocents?” but “Why does God allow such suffering and ask us to forgive it, thereby allowing it to continue?” For Ivan, not only is it inconceivable and repulsive that God allows innocents to suffer, but that he asks us to allow it too. And that, there, is why Ivan wishes to return the ticket: he wishes to have no part in such a cycle. He will not forgive, even if the mothers of suffering children do.

This raises questions about the nature of forgiveness, which resonate still today. In a world where innocents still suffer daily, is it right or just to forgive? In the case of such sufferings as bone cancer (as mentioned by Stephen Fry), who is there to blame and, therefore, forgive? All the sufferings addressed by Ivan are ones inflicted by mankind upon itself—he makes no mention of innocents suffering at the cruel hands of God himself, by nature or sickness—an interesting omission. If God is the one taken to be responsible for such things as bone cancer, must then he be the one to be forgiven? And what would the implications of that forgiveness be for Ivan? The same as those for forgiving a man? It makes one wish Dostoevsky had allowed Ivan to go on some pages longer.

The Death of Ivan Illyich, Tolstoy

I was intrigued by the role of pity in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, particularly in terms of its apparent connection to the ability to live authentically. Over the course of the book, as Ivan Ilyich sinks deeper into his physical and spiritual suffering, all he craves are “a single person to understand and pity him” (72, Bantam Classics) and “to be pitied like a sick child” (87). For the most part, he does not receive that pity (and the reader is not sure he deserves it even from them). However there is one source of empathy and “something approaching [pity]” (88) in the novel in the form of Gerasim, the only character Tolstoy presents as living well and authentically, who is heavily contrasted with the rest of the characters and provides the only comfort to Ivan Ilyich as he dies. What sets Gerasim apart, though, is his ability to empathize with Ilyich, despite everything. All the other characters are completely wrapped up in themselves, just as Ilyich was for most of his life and is up until the very end, but Gerasim is not. Gerasim is the only character in the book who appears to understand the syllogism of Caius, as he appreciates the nonabstract reality of himself and the people around him, recognizing that they all have thoughts and feelings like himself and managing to put himself in their shoes. In his words: “We all have to die someday, so why shouldn’t I help you?” (87). Tolstoy underlines this connection between the ability to pity and empathize with others and living authentically in the moments before Ilyich’s death when he realizes the mistake of his inauthentically lived life and, looking upon his wife and son, sees them as if for the very first time and “grieves” for them. In this moment, his self-absorption melts away and, for the first time since his childhood, he really sees other people and understands them to be as real as he himself is and, in realizing the very real effects of his actions on very real people, he feels remorse and pities them.

It seems then that, according to Tolstoy, to live rightly and authentically is to live a life focused outwards, in which one is constantly putting oneself in the shoes of others and finding in one’s heart space to pity them and not oneself. This pity, though, must not be self-righteous, but artless and authentic in the manner of Gerasim’s “We all have to die someday, so why shouldn’t I help you?” (87). It is an ability to see every man and woman as part of the greater whole of humanity, each equal in importance, and equally deserving of love, help, and pity.

Were Tolstoy alive today and able to see the current state of our society, I think he’d probably worry about the average person’s capacity for pity and empathy. By now, worry about the inherent narcissism of social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, look at me, me, me and what I’m doing 24/7) and its influence on society has become a cliché, but clichés are clichéed for a reason. Are we are a society of self-absorbed egomaniacs endlessly tweeting about our problems in search of pity, without ever considering the reality of the people around us and giving them the authentic pity we crave so much ourselves? Maybe not. One can hope that we aren’t. But even if we aren’t, we’re still too close for comfort, and remembering the plight of Ivan Ilyich and the selfless pity of Gerasim couldn’t possibly hurt.

The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche

Nietzsche’s conception of the soul is not the eternal one we are familiar with, but one that is the result of a long series of historical and cultural conditions; it has been formed over time. Initially, he uses “soul” as a synonym for his concept of the “subject,” a being behind the action of man, possessing the freedom of choice. To Nietzsche, the lie of freedom inherent in the introduction of this idea of the “subject” behind an action is the true genius of the slave rebellion, not its inversion of previous values. Because a “subject” implies a “‘being’ behind the doing” which is “free to express strength or not to do so” (133) that being must be free and therefore can be held responsible for and condemned for his actions. Nietzsche, though, makes clear that this is impossible since man is not truly free to do as he likes, but must, according to his nature, exercise and pursue his “will to power,” meaning that if he has an opportunity to express or gain power, he must take it. This will to power may be driven by an urge toward freedom—the more power gained, the closer to freedom one feels—but Nietzche argues that man cannot truly be free because he does not have the freedom not to express his power should he be powerful or his weakness should he be weak. Even should a powerful being choose not to express his power (say the bird of prey decides to spare the lamb), he is still expressing his power in staying his own hand and showing mercy, which, according to Nietzsche, is only “the privilege of the most powerful man” (162).

So, then, there is no “subject” behind an action and belief in such an idea—or any freedom arising from it—is a self-deception which man indulges in to allow him to embrace his weakness and believe himself to be free.

But if the “subject” does not exist for Nietzsche (because the deed is the thing) and he had said the soul and the subject are one and the same, does the soul exist for Nietzsche or is it a lie, a self-deception, just as freedom is?

Later, in the second essay, he says that “all instincts which do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward—this is … the internalization of man: thus it was that man first developed what was later called his ‘soul’” (174). Is this the same thing as the subject? I don’t think so; it seems, instead, that he is dealing with 2 different conceptions of the soul. One, is the popular conception, the free “subject.” The other—Nietzsche’s conception—is less positive; it is the forces of our unsocial instincts (those instincts forbidden by the community, society, environment we live in) turning in on ourselves for lack of an outlet. Our soul is our own hostility towards ourselves and those parts of ourselves which we do not have the freedom to express outwardly. So then, in contrast to the popular, self-deceptive image of the soul as the source and justification for freedom of choice, the soul is actually symbolic of our lack of freedom and our resulting self-destructive tendencies.

No Exit, Sartre

In “No Exit,” Sartre explores his conception of bad faith through Garcin and Estelle: both characters are completely unable to define themselves, let alone accept their responsibility to do so, and instead seek external validation and definition. For Estelle, this occurs primarily on the physical level:  when she can’t see herself, she “begin[s] to wonder if [she] really and truly exist[s]” (19) and so the lack of mirrors in the room leads her to cede absolutely all of her freedom and autonomy to them as she lets them—and their gazes—define her. This cession of autonomy is perhaps most obvious in the moment where Inez lies to Estelle about a pimple on her face, demonstrating Inez’s power to quite literally define Estelle’s being. Estelle, lacking the strength of character to make her own choices for herself and relying completely on external definition, believes everything Inez says, allowing herself to fall prey to bad faith. Garcin, though he suffers from bad faith as well, manifests it in terms of the psychological, rather than the physical. He is concerned with his identity as a coward, which he cannot decide for himself, but instead relies on others to decide for him: “I’ve left my fate in their hands” (40) he says of the people he’s left among the living, completely forsaking his autonomy. He cannot accept responsibility for his actions or decisions and instead leaves his essence in the hands of others to be shaped. He and Estelle are exemplars of the sort of person Sartre scorns most: he who cannot accept that “you are—your life, and nothing else” (45) as Inez says. When the door opens, Garcin cannot bring himself to leave because he cannot conceive of an existence on his own, without others to define him. In order to avoid having to accept responsibility for the freedom to define himself, he condemns himself instead to the torture of the gazes of the two women.

The Ethics of Ambiguity, De Beauvoir

In lecture on Monday, Prof. Lamberth asked us what on earth de Beauvoir actually meant when she said that “to will oneself free is also to will others free” (73) and at the time I had absolutely no idea. Now, having read the second part of the book, I think I have something of an answer and it lies in de Beauvoir’s conception of the future and the future-freedom relationship.

According to de Beauvoir, the future and our moral freedom are inescapably intertwined because in order to be able to view our actions morally, we must understand that what we do in the present will still matter in the future, which “is why no moral question presents itself to the child as long as he is still incapable of recognizing himself in the past or seeing himself in the future” (27). And so, to counter this and allow ourselves to be morally free, we must not cling to the present, but must accept and affirm our temporality and the temporality of our freedom. This temporality is what gives our current actions because “the future [is] the meaning and substance of all action” (127); so the future allows the meaning of our actions to transcend the present because they are performed with a purpose which is lodged in the future. Thus, the meaning of all action is generated by the future. However, de Beauvoir warns us to be careful here: “those who project themselves towards a Future-Thing and submerge their freedom in it find the tranquility of the serious” (117), the serious being perhaps the worst fate de Beauvoir could imagine for a person. While this sounds sort of like it’s contradicting everything else she’s said about freedom’s relation to the future, it’s not. Here, de Beauvoir denies the existence of the future as a “stationary” (118) thing, something unchanging which we are moving inexorably towards. Of course, we are moving inexorably towards something, but that thing is a future, not the future; it is only one of many possible futures, not one fixed thing.

So, since the future does not exist ahead of us as a fact, but instead as a multiplicity of possibilities created by the current thoughts and plans of many people, it becomes evident that the future is something of a collective construct. Says de Beauvoir in defining the future as something one cannot create on one’s own: “as we have seen, my freedom, in order to fulfill itself, requires that it emerge into an [note her use of “an” not “the”!] open future: it is other men who open the future to me; it is they who, setting up the world of tomorrow, define my future” (82). Our future is inextricably bound up with that of other people: if I have an idea, it does not enter the world a become a possible future reality until I have discussed it with other people. In this way, we rely on other people not only to create a future, but to give meaning to our present actions, since their meaning is generated by the future as discussed above. So then, our moral freedom is linked to the moral freedom of other people and in fact we cannot achieve our moral freedom without interacting with other people who are also seeking their moral freedom because we need them to help us create the future which makes possible our thinking temporally in order to achieve moral freedom. So to will oneself free is to will others free because one needs others with whom to construct a future to give one’s actions a moral dimension and allow one to move towards moral freedom. And saying it like that makes it sound like one big circle.

The Fall, Camus

In The Fall, Camus deals with the character of freedom and mankind’s relation to it. Freedom, Camus believes, is a concept much misunderstood and  far rarer than the amount the word itself is thrown around might imply. Through Jean-Baptiste Clamence’s fall from innocence and awakening to his own hypocrisy (his “bad-faith”), Camus paints a picture of a self-deceptive relationship to freedom, in which man obsesses over freedom and extolls its manifold benefits in order to hide from himself the terrifying truth of freedom and the fact that he himself is not free. Clamence says that “I was always talking of freedom. At breakfast I used to spread it on my toast, I used to chew it all day long, and in company my breath was delightfully redolent of freedom” (132) and clearly this is what Camus believes all mankind guilty of. We never stop talking of our freedom, never stop shoving it in other people’s faces (the “in company” detail is far from incidental), because if ever we did, if ever we slowed down and shut up for a moment, we might realize consciously that what we have is not freedom at all and what is more, the reality of freedom is not something we want at all. Deep down, we know this. Our subconscious fear of freedom is what drives us to speak of it so often, to lie to ourselves and each other about it. For freedom is not an easy thing, not something easily bent to our will and spread on our toast, “not a reward or a decoration… nor yet a gift” (132). Freedom is “a chore… a long distance race, quite solitary and very exhausting. … Freedom is a court sentence” (133) delivered either by one’s self or one’s fellow man. This idea of freedom as a court sentence ties into the novel’s overall theme of judgement, which is very explicitly held to be the thing we most fear. Clamence tells us that man is willing to bear any punishment so long as there is no judgement attached to it. Without a judgement, the punishment can be viewed simply as a misfortune, and its recipient can still be “innocent.” And why do we want to be innocent? Not out of some inner yearning for good, but because we do not want to have to accept the responsibility for what we have done, we do not want to have to wield our own freedom. The man in the block wants grace, Clamence tells us, but grace is nothing more than a nicer word for irresponsibility (82). Mankind is essentially childlike, avoiding his responsibility, and whether he admits it or not, he yearns for the comfort of slavery and a lack of choice, lack of freedom, lack of responsibility. Thus, god is essentially a master of slaves and we—those who believe in him, trust themselves to him, surrender their freedom to him and put themselves at his mercy—are his slaves.  For Clamence, freedom and responsibility are intimately connected and equally terrible. In denying this and pretending to be free and love freedom, we are not only cowards, but we are living essentially in bad-faith with ourselves, lying to ourselves about our true nature and state. Clamence himself, who has realized his bad-faith, is still not free (not that he wants to be, though he seems to think that he is against his better judgement). Because to be free is to be unafraid of accepting responsibility for one’s actions, to be unafraid of judgement. Here, Clamence has got it a bit wrong: escaping judgement does not consist of judging others so that they may not have the power to judge you, but of accepting and becoming unafraid of judgement (and therefore responsibility and freedom)—altogether a much harder and more complicated solution.

The Dynamics of Faith, Tillich

What struck me most about Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith was his understanding of God. According to Tillich, “God is a symbol for God” (53)—which takes a little parsing in order to understand its full significance (or at least they did for me. In saying that God is a symbol for God, Tillich is getting at his idea that God is a symbol for “what concerns us ultimately.” Though the statement at first appears to be circular, since symbols refer to things outside themselves, it isn’t, for Tillich has broken down God into two parts: his concrete element and the element of him which expresses the “ultimate concern.” For Tillich, the concrete idea of God is nothing more nor less than a symbol for this ultimate concern, just as for the pagan who worships a tree, the tree is a concrete symbol of his ultimate concern. Just in the case of “God,” symbol and ultimate concern go by the same name. In this way, “God transcends his own name” (51) because

“no finite reality can express [the ultimate] directly and properly.” Now this is all well and good and seems simple enough (or at least it will in a moment by comparison), but Tillich doesn’t leave it there, but takes his conception of God as nothing more nor less than a symbol to its full extension: if our idea of God is nothing more nor less than a symbol for what ultimately concerns us, then it doesn’t matter whether or not God exists. However, just after Tillich has asserted that the question of the concrete existence of God doesn’t really matter, he comes down pretty hard on the side of the non-existence of God, at least in a concrete sense. Not only is God a symbol for God, but he is only a symbol for God (not in the sense of diminishing the import of this function, but in its being his only function). Tillich tells us that “if “existence” refers to something which can be found within the whole of reality, no divine being exists” and that “the so-called ‘existence of God’” is an “impossible combination of words” (54). God, for Tillich, exists only because man believes in him as a symbol of his ultimate concern, but not beyond that. He is not a concrete being who can act in time and space, as Tillich puts it later (this is the basis for Tillich’s anti-literalism arguments, as well). God, then, is a concept and a universal one whose origins lie in humanity’s need for a symbol of his ultimate concern. In this way, all the Gods of every religion are, for Tillich, essentially the same. Their forms may be different, but each is a symbol for the ultimate concern, whether in one form or many, from Allah to Shiva. Religious conflict then, is not based on a difference in Gods, but in a difference in the medium through which the ultimate concern is experienced and symbolized.

This de-Godded view of religion astounded me at first. I almost want to call it atheism (hence “degodded”), for it certainly appears to be something of the sort. Because the question of God’s existence is not essential to Tillich and because, when pressed, he comes down on the side of God’s nonexistence, his understanding of religion does feel to be, literally, atheistic. However, it’s clear that Tillich does not consider himself an atheist as he defines atheists as people without ultimate concerns (though he also says that every man has an ultimate concern—even atheists in their attempt to not have a concern have one—so it seems a bit of a paradox and perhaps, according to Tillich’s own definition, there are no atheists. But that’s another matter.), and Tillich has an ultimate concern as well as faith. This separation of God and faith is, I think, revolutionary. That one can be religious and have faith without believing in God as anything more than a symbol (though Tillich insists that I should not keep belittling this idea of the symbol) is a completely new approach (at least for me) to religion and one that I find quite attractive.


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