Searching for Meaning
Existentialism, an intellectual movement, emerged in mid-20-century France, starkly contrasting the grim realities of the Second World War, Nazi death camps, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This period, deemed “the existentialist moment,” compelled a generation to grapple with the harsh truths of the human condition: death, freedom, and meaninglessness.
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, 1955
At its core, existentialists assert that existence lacks intrinsic purpose or explanation, placing humans in the pivotal role of defining their own life’s meaning. People are entirely free and must assume responsibility for their actions. This responsibility, however, is often accompanied by angst, a deep sense of dread. Overcoming the inherent absurdity of the human condition, marked by suffering and the certainty of death, requires the rigorous exercise of personal freedom and choice-making.
Key figures like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus became synonymous with this movement, while its conceptual foundations trace back to the 19th-century ideas of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. In literature, existentialism shines in works like Camus’ The Stranger, Sartre’s Nausea, Kafka’s The Trial, and Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Films by Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, and Akira Kurosawa reflect its concepts, while the moods resonate through Edvard Munch’s paintings and Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures.
The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893
Defining “existentialism” is challenging, given its varied manifestations. Although closely associated with many philosophers, they either rejected or refrained from using the term “existentialist.” Even Sartre remarked: “Existentialism? I don’t know what that is.” Introduced by Gabriel Marcel in 1943, the term doesn’t denote a coherent system or philosophical school but encapsulates a set of shared, overlapping ideas.
Existentialists contend that our unique characteristic as humans is our self-consciousness. It means we possess free will and must bear the responsibility for our identities, choices, and actions. As Sartre put it, a coward “makes himself a coward” through his decisions, not through his upbringing or genetics. Every choice we make contributes to our self-concept and shapes our identity. The recognition of our inevitable freedom often brings anxiety, as we understand the weight of our responsibility for the choices we make.
Moreover, existentialists criticize society’s pressure to conform, believing it hinders authenticity. An authentic life, in their view, is one where an individual breaks away from societal norms, embracing freedom and the unpredictability of existence. This way of living is characterized by urgency and a dedication to projects that have personal significance.
The Walking Man I by Alberto Giacometti, 1960
Spanning a spectrum from atheistic to agnostic and even theological beliefs, existentialism embraces a variety of perspectives on faith. Nietzsche declared, “God is dead,” suggesting the idea of God has become outdated. In contrast, Kierkegaard was deeply religious, even if he couldn’t justify his faith. For existentialists, the pivotal element is the freedom to choose belief or disbelief.
While existentialism challenges the idea of universal moral standards, it doesn’t advocate for moral nihilism. Instead, existentialists believe a moral life is attainable when individuals recognize their freedom, accept the responsibility of their choices, and encourage others to realize their own freedom.
Navigating the raw realities of human existence, existentialism guided philosophy from abstract realms to the tangible, gritty aspects of life, leaving an indelible mark on how we perceive and engage with our inherent struggles and the pursuit of life’s meaning.
Existentialism emerged in mid-20th-century France against a backdrop of the Second World War, Nazi death camps, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This philosophical movement asserts that humans, immersed in an intrinsically purposeless existence, craft their own meaning through absolute freedom and responsibility, though often tinged with existential angst. Notable figures like Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus embodied these ideas, while its roots stretch back to 19th-century thinkers like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Consequently, it has significantly influenced our engagement with life’s struggles and search for meaning.
Words of wisdom
“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.” —Jean-Paul Sartre
“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” —Albert Camus
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” —Simone de Beauvoir
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” —Søren Kierkegaard
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” —Friedrich Nietzsche