WOODY ALLEN: That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn't it?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: Yes it is.
WOODY ALLEN: What does it say to you?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: It restates the negativeness of the universe, the hideous lonely emptiness of existence, nothingness, the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.
WOODY ALLEN: What are you doing Saturday night?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: Committing suicide.
WOODY ALLEN: What about Friday night?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: [leaves silently]
["Play It Again, Sam", 1972]
Existentialists believe you should live in a way which made you feel real, and that the real thing to do was the right thing too. The selfish man who never once put himself out for another -- not even for his wife -- would have approved of existentialists, and they of him. It was very existentialist, perhaps, to go out to bars every night while your pregnant wife stayed at home, and even more existentialist to go off with girls -- young existentialist girls -- you met in bars. It was a good life being an existentialist, although not too good for all the other, non-existentialist people around one.
In the 1988 movie Beetlejuice, we meet a young couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) who have met an untimely death and find themselves involuntarily haunting their own home. They eventually discover that they have access to a kind of administrative center for the afterlife. As they enter the waiting room for the center, through a one-way turnstyle, we notice that a sign over the door says:
This is an allusion to another story about the afterlife, a play by Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) called, indeed, No Exit (1944). The allusion is apt since neither version of the afterlife is very appealing. In Sartre's play, a man and two women find themselves trapped in a hotel room. They have been escorted into the room without knowing how or why they are even in the hotel or what they are supposed to be doing in the room together. Once they are in the room, however, they discover that they cannot get out and that all their efforts to summon help are fruitless. They also discover a rather unpleasant dynamic among themselves. The man is attracted to one of the women, but she happens to be a lesbian and is only attracted to the other woman. The other woman, however, is not a lesbian and is rather attracted to the man -- who, of course, does not find her attractive. Soon they realize that they have died and that this is the afterlife, the wrong kind of afterlife. They are in hell, and the lesson of the play is nicely summed up as, "Hell is other people."
Existentialism proper is a movement of the 1940's and 1950's, literary and artistic as well as philosophical, with Sartre himself as probably the most famous representative. Sartre is also a convenient representative because for a time he actually acknowledged being an Existentialist and offered a definition for the word. It was unusual for Existentialists to identify themselves as such, much less define what it was all about, so Sartre is a convenient place to begin.
What Sartre did was to contrast a divine viewpoint on the world and on human nature with a human viewpoint where there is no divine element. Thus, when God thought about creating the world, he conceived it first -- he had in mind what the world was going to be and what human nature was going to be. These were the "essences" of the world and of humanity, the things that will make them what they are. Then God created everything and gave existence to the essences. Thus, to God, "essence precedes existence." Now, Sartre did not believe in God, so there was no place for the essence of humanity to be before human existence. To us, existence comes first. The essence comes later. Indeed, the essence is whatever we decide it is going to be. So, from our point of view things are just the opposite of what they would be for people who believed in God. Now it is "existence precedes essence." Hence, "Existentialism."
The most important thing there for Sartre is not so much the distinction between essence and existence but the absence of God. For Existentialists like Sartre, the absence of God has a much larger significance than the metaphysics of creation: Without God there is no purpose, no value, and no meaning in the world. That is the foundational proposition for Existentialism. A world without purpose, value, or meaning is literally senseless, worthless, meaningless, empty, and hopeless. It is, to use a favourite Existentialist term, absurd.
To be without value and meaning is also to be without standards for behaviour. A favourite quote in that respect is from Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), a novelist who himself was a Christian but who has characters that often display what later will seem to be Existentialist attitudes and ideas. One of those characters (in The Brothers Karamazov, 1879-1880) says (in effect), "Without God, all is permitted." Indeed, if the loss of God means the loss of all meaning and value, then actions are without meaning or value either, and one cannot say that it matters whether actions are "right" or "wrong," since those words, or the corresponding actions, don't mean anything more than anything else.
Now, when Existentialism was popular, it struck many people as liberating and enjoyable to think of the world as absurd and behaviour without limitations. But the real value of Existentialism as a philosophical thought experiment was to understand the true consequences of such a world. It would be a nightmare. An absurd world, and everything else in it, is actually empty and pointless. There is no reason to do anything, even to continue living. Thus, in Woody Allen's 1972 movie Play It Again Sam, in one scene he is trying to pick up a girl in a museum and asks her about the dark abstract painting that she is looking at. She answers with an Existentialist catalogue -- "void," "emptiness," "horror," etc. When he then asks her out, she answers, "I am committing suicide." That, indeed, would seem to be the obvious response to such a world.
The starkness and hopelessness of this problem is portrayed in an essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus" (1942), by another great French Existentialist, Albert Camus (1913-1960). In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, who had once deceived the gods and cheated death, was condemned for eternity to roll a stone up a hill. Every time he was about to complete his task, the stone would roll free back down to the bottom of the hill. Sisyphus would then have to start over again, even though the same thing would just happen again. Thus, the punishment of Sisyphus is a punishment just because it is an endless exercise in futility. Sisyphus is stuck in an eternally pointless task. Now, if the world and everything in it are also pointless, the lesson is that the task of Sisyphus is identical to every thing that we will ever be doing in life. We are no different from Sisyphus; and if his punishment makes the afterlife a hell for him, we are already living in that hell.
Presumably, Sisyphus is unable to escape his condition through suicide. So if we can, why not? Arguably, there is no reason why not. But suicide is not the typical Existentialist answer. What can Sisyphus do to make his life endurable? Well, he can just decide that it is meaningful. The value and purpose that objectively don't exist in the world can be restored by an act of will. Again, this is what has struck people as liberating about Existentialism. To live one's life, one must exercise the freedom to create a life. Just going along with conventional values and forgetting about the absurdity of the world is not authentic. Authenticity is to exercise one's free will and to choose the activities and goals that will be meaningful for one's self. With this approach, even Sisyphus can be engaged and satisfied with what he is doing.
The novel The Stranger (1942), by Camus, is set in Algeria. It is about a fellow whose mother dies but who can't stand sitting up at her wake. He leaves, and offends the community by his evident disrespect. Later, he kills a local Arab. This is not something that the French colonial judicial system would ordinarily take very seriously, but local French opinion is so unsympathetic with our "stranger," just because he left his mother's wake, that he is condemned for the killing of the Arab. The absurdity of all this is the point of the story. An Existentialist is always a stranger to others and is certainly going to have no patience with conventions like wakes for the dead or, for that matter, laws about murder.
The isolation produced by Existentialist value decisions also explains why few Existentialists are self-identified as such. Calling someone an "Existentialist" imposes an essence on them, telling them what they are. This violates their absolute autonomy and freedom and makes it sound like they actually have something important in common with some other people, other Existentialists. This is intolerable.
Sartre himself felt the moral loss involved in all this. Traditional ideas about moral responsibility disappeared when there was nothing meaningful to be responsible about. Sartre consequently tried to compensate for this by introducing a new, strengthened sense of responsibility. His view was that one is "responsible" for all the consequences of one's action, whether it is possible to know about them or not. He illustrated this in a short story about the Spanish Civil War. A young Republican partisan is captured by the Fascists. He is told that he will be executed unless he betrays some other Republicans who are considered more important. Not knowing, in fact, where they are, he makes up a story that they are hiding in a cemetery on the edge of town. He is then put in a cell. Later, the Fascists return and release him. What happened? Well, it turned out, just by chance, that the Republicans he pretended to betray actually were hiding in the cemetery, and were captured. So it's his fault.
Now, what is the point of this story? The man is, after a fashion, "responsible" for the capture, and probably execution, of the other Republicans; but the problem with this notion of responsibility is that one cannot govern or alter one's behaviour on the basis of things that one cannot know about. You may be "responsible" for all the consequences of your actions, but if you don't know what they all are, then it really doesn't make any difference. This is why traditional morality and law have the category of "negligence," that one is responsible for things that one could know about but didn't bother to find out. Things that one cannot know about cannot impose any obligation.
It leaves out the original meaning of "responsibility," which was "accountability." It doesn't really matter that you cannot alter your behaviour on the basis of consequences that you cannot know, because you are not accountable for your behaviour anyway. The man in the story is not going to be brought to trial before either God or man, much less punished. Being "responsible" for the deaths of the other Republicans just means he will feel bad about what he has made happen. That's it.
This is just a version of what the ordinary meaning of "responsible" has come to be, namely "conscientious." A responsible person is a conscientious person, which means someone who is trying to do the right thing. Now, in Existentialism there is no "right" thing, so what can "conscientious" possibly mean? It just means that one meant to do something and accepts it. One accepts and acknowledges the consequences of one's action, and "accepts responsibility," because one really intended to do the action. The opposite, not accepting one's own actions or just doing something because it is expected, is "bad faith," the only real sin in Existentialism. But this just means that any action is OK, as long as one "accepts" it, not that one should be called to account or punished for it because, after all, "all is permitted."
"Taking responsibility" has become a way of denying accountability, deflecting true responsibility, and diverting blame to others. Sartre thus can be said to have altered the meaning of "responsible" in just the way that he wanted, which is to create a lot of moral sounding talk while actually eliminating morality. This may be been convenient for Sartre himself, whose own actions may not have been above moral reproach. Although Sartre is commonly said to be have been in the French Resistance during World War II, he staged plays, which had to be submitted to the German censors, in Paris. Camus suspected, consequently, that Sartre was more involved in collaboration than in resistance. Again, although Sartre had a famous relationship with the feminist Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), stories persist that he actually treated her very badly, and that the later years of their relationship consisted of her acting as a procuress for him -- then he left his estate to his most recent lover, not to de Beauvoir.
Would Existentialism consistently dictate a certain political attitude? One would hardly think so if "all is permitted," but one need not appeal to logic, only to another conspicuous Existentialist figure, the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976]. The enduring, embarrassing detail about Heidegger, however, is that he enthusiastically joined the Nazi Party and somehow never got around to explaining just why he had made that mistake or why, for that matter, the Nazi Party was really unworthy of his attention. Nazism followed much more coherently from Heidegger's thought than Marxism ever did from Sartre's. That is because, as a true Existentialist, Heidegger did not impose any timeless moral judgments, let alone liberal or democratic ones, on history. Instead, events were supposed to disclose, violently, a new "uncovering" of Being, which would overthrow previous views about justice and order. This is no less than what Hitler was doing.
Although one might think this all would have discredited Heidegger in the post-War world, we have already seen how philosophers like Sartre had been busy undermining the forms of traditional moral judgment. Thus, Heidegger's influence actually grew after the War, even in France, where a celebrated philosopher like Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) said that there is nothing in his thought that was not already in Heidegger.
The Marxism of Sartre and the Nazism of Heidegger are sufficient to prove that Existentialism, which already denies any reality to moral principles, can randomly be associated with any sort of politics. Oddly, what it seems less conspicuously to be associated with is liberal and free market politics, which were despised, not just by Sartre and Heidegger, but by most other Existentialist figures and their spiritual descendants. One might think that this is because intellectuals find private life and hard work boring; but then, after the "Myth of Sisyphus," one might think that any mundane task could be valorised into the most important thing ever. The truth seems to be that Existentialists never really believed that life was as meaningless as the task of Sisyphus. They actually demanded a real world of meaning vast beyond the confines of ordinary life. Thus, Marxism probably appealed to Sartre because of its pretence that it was scientific and about facts, and, as it happens, Heidegger did not really have the classical Existentialist belief in the meaninglessness of the world. The "uncovering" of Being made for real value, however "terrible," which means that Adolf Hitler gave real meaning to the world.
Although the classic forms of Existentialism are characteristic of post-World War II philosophy, literature, and art, we have already seen, with Dostoevsky, that Existentialist-like ideas were anticipated long before then. Dostoevsky, although articulating the ideas, did not believe them; but there were real Existentialists-before-their-time. The most important was certainly Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). There are at least three ways in which Nietzsche qualifies as a classic Existentialist, all of which we can see in what may have been his magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885).
The title itself is a bit of a puzzle. "Zarathustra" is a German rendering of Zarathustra, the name in the language of the Avesta (Avestan), the sacred scripture of Zoroastrianism, of the founder of that religion, the Prophet Zoroaster (his name in Greek). Since Zoroaster preached a great cosmic conflict between Good and Evil, this is perplexing: Nietzsche denies the reality of good and evil. But that may be the point. What Zoroaster started, he has now been brought back to end.
1. Sartre's thought was founded on the non-existence of God as implying the non-existence of all value. Nietzsche expressed precisely this same thing in one of the most famous sayings in the history of philosophy, "God is dead". Since Nietzsche did not believe that there ever was a God, this expresses his view that the effective belief in God was dead, but he has a bit of fun with the metaphor of dying, decay, smell, etc. Unlike Sartre, he is a bit clearer that this is a catastrophe, since it leaves nothing; it leaves, indeed, Nihilism (Latin nihil="nothing"), which is the condition of not believing anything and having nothing to live for. Life cannot be lived like this and it is intolerable. Thus, if Existentialism in general is more profound than the thoughtless souls who think that an absurd world is fun, Nietzsche is a more profound thinker than the Existentialists who think that we can do without a God. Nietzsche's replacement for God is the Ubermensch. This was originally translated "Superman" since the Latin super means "over," as does German uber. In the 30's, however, a comic strip was started about "Superman," who could leap tall buildings in a single bound, etc. This made the philosophers and intellectuals uncomfortable, so later translators of Nietzsche, like the Existentialist Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), started translating Übermensch as "Overman." This does not, however, have nearly the same punch or ring to it. The Superman, indeed, is supposed to be the next evolutionary step beyond mere man -- where we really must say "man," and not "humanity" or any of the politically correct alternatives, since Nietzsche was not very interested in women and clearly despised the sort of liberal culture where equality for women was coming to hand. When Nietzsche says "man" (Mensch), he means it -- someone egotistical, brawling, aggressive, arrogant, and insensitive. The Superman is not vulnerable to taming and domesticity. He has broken free of it entirely.
2. The Superman is free because all his own values flow from his own will. This is the second thing that makes Nietzsche an Existentialist-before-his-time. Value is a matter of decision, a matter of will. Because the Superman is free, he takes what he wants and does what he likes. He is authentic. And since what everyone really wants, if they could have their way, is power, the Superman will seize power without remorse, regret, or apology. The Superman, indeed, is like the Sophist Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic: Justice is what he wants, and he will take it. The "slave morality" of altruism and self-denial, which the weak, miserable, crippled, envious, and resentful have formulated into Judeo-Christian ethics, in an attempt to deceive the strong into being weak like themselves, is contemptuously rejected and ignored by the Superman, in whom we find the triumphant "will to power."
It is astonishing that this nasty and contemptuous philosophy has become the darling of the Left, who actually want a society very precisely of the "slave morality" of altruism and self-denial. Perhaps it is because (1) leftist intellectuals know that ordinary people don't actually read Nietzsche, and (2) that they see everyone else as slaves to them, where the masters' duty, noblesse oblige, is to arrange everyone else's lives in the proper way. This is certainly the most common use of Nietzsche from Adolf Hitler to Bal Thackeray – to imagine one's self as the Superman, floating above others, dispensing justice, or wrathful punishment, to them. Nietzsche's own critique of Christianity, that the doctrine of love of others actually translates into resentful hatred of others, applies with full force to his most ardent devotees, whose talk about freedom and creativity translates into constant assaults on the freedom and preferences of others, and deep resentment for those, the industrialists and inventors (as Ayn Rand understood), who have created the modern world and a better life for all.
What Nietzsche's Superman gets is a little more durable than the decisions of Sisyphus, since Nietzsche always saw systems of value, like traditional religions, as persistent and living, endowing things with real value, if only for a time. The Superman thus need not suffer from the nausea and dread that are characteristic of later Existentialists, who are always poised on the edge of oblivion. But making up values doesn't make them so, and Nietzsche himself made it possible for this to be felt so intensely later. After the Superman has "transvalued" his own values a few times, he may begin to detect an arbitrariness and emptiness in them. As Nietzsche himself said, you stare into the Void long enough and the Void begins to stare back. Thus, by the time we get to Camus, we get the Stranger, not the Superman.
3. The third point, which is advanced as the greatest teaching of the Zarathustra, does the same job as Sartre's redefinition of "responsibility." This is the "Eternal Recurrence." The doctrine is based on a kind of metaphysical parable, that in an eternity of time, all possible things will have happened, which means that in the present, with an eternity of time behind us, everything has already happened, including what is happening now. Since every point where a time like the present has happened, or will happen, itself also has an eternity of time before it, then what is happening now has already happened an infinite number of times and will happen an infinite number of times again. Since actions to Nietzsche are no longer good or evil, he feels the same loss of weight as does Sartre and wants some way to make actions seem more serious than they would be for your ordinary Nihilist. With the Eternal Recurrence, actions become weightier because one must be prepared to do them over and over again for eternity (like, indeed, Sisyphus). This still doesn't, after all, mean that they are right or wrong; it simply means that before you do something, you must determine that you really want to do it. Woody Allen jokes about this in Hannah and Her Sisters  that Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence means that he will have to see the Ice-Capades over and over again. Unfortunately, it is not hard to imagine that the greatest criminals of history, from Jack the Ripper to Adolf Hitler, would be perfectly happy to repeat their crimes endlessly. So, as with Sartre again, Nietzsche's doctrine does little to make up for the loss of real morality, and the Eternal Recurrence has never been as sexy or popular a doctrine as the Superman or the Will to Power.
Existentialism has often been expressed, as we have seen, in art. Probably the supreme Existentialist movie was the 1958 film The Seventh Seal, by the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. At the beginning, we have a Knight and a Squire returning from the Crusades. They find that the Plague is raging. This is anachronistic, since the Crusades ended for most practical purposes in 1270 (Acre itself was lost in 1291, the latest a Crusader would actually have been in the Holy Land), while the Black Death began in Europe in 1346, arriving in Sweden in 1350. Be that as it may, after landing on the beach, the Knight is confronted by Death himself, who informs him that his time is up. Since the Knight does not want to die because he feels he has not found the meaning or purpose of life, he challenges Death to a game of chess. Death accepts, and through most of the rest of the movie, as the Knight and Squire travel back to the Knight's castle, the chess game continues in the evenings, with Death invisible to all others. There is an exception to that, however. The Knight and Squire begin to collect a group of travellers, and among them is a family of Players, a husband and wife (interestingly named Joseph and Mary) and their child. The husband plays the Fool in the performance we see. When we meet them, the Fool has a vision of the Virgin Mary -- as visible to us as to him. This ends up being an important factor in the meaning of the movie. Later, as the group approaches the Knight's castle, the Fool sees Death playing chess with the Knight. He tells his wife that they better get out of there, and they do. Meanwhile, we have been learning about the mentality of the Knight and the Squire. The Knight wants what, in Existentialist terms, he cannot have: A rational understanding of the meaning and purpose of life. The Squire has no such illusions. He is the type of the atheistic Existentialist, who knows that life is meaningless, and the universe empty, with little but horror for us to expect. The very night that the Fool sees Death, the Knight loses the chess game. Death tells him that the next time they meet; he will take the Knight and everyone with him. The next day they arrive at the Knight's castle, where his wife has been waiting for him many years. At dinner that night, there is a knock on the door. No one is there, and everyone now knows that it will be Death. The Knight again prays for knowledge, and the Squire tells him, in some detail, there is none to have. The Knight's wife tells him to be quiet. The Squire will be quiet, but he says he protests. Again, this is the type of the atheistic Existentialist, who recognizes but doesn't have to like the absurdity of the world.