Existentialism

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", Paramount Pictures, 1972;
image of "The Scream," 1893, by Edvard Munch

Mma Ramotswe had listened to a [BBC] World Service broadcast on her radio one day which had simply taken her breath away. It was about philosophers who called themselves existentialists and who, as far as Mma Ramotswe could ascertain, lived in France. These French people said that you should live in a way which made you feel real, and that the real thing to do was the right thing too. Mma Ramotswe had listened in astonishment. You did not have to go to France to meet existentialists, she reflected; there were many existentialists right here in Botswana. Note Mokoti, for example. She had been married to an existentialist herself, without even knowing it. Note, that 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, nonexistentialist people around one.

Alexander McCall Smith, Morality for Beautiful Girls, Volume 3 of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series [Anchor Books, 2001, p.78]


People who, like the present author, lived through the German occupation of Poland, later read French memoirs of the war years that seemed to describe a fairy-tale world. The French during the war continued to attend theatres, published without inhibition books and journals censored by the Germans, and gave each other literary prizes; high schools and universities functioned. Life was poorer, to be sure, but its continuity was not broken.

Leszek Koakowski (1927-2009), "The Heritage of the Left," Is God Happy? Selected Essays [Basic Books, 2013, p.47; note that the Nazis intended to enslave and ultimately exterminate the Poles and were already engaged in the "decaptiation" of the nation by murdering its intellectual, literary, and merely educated class -- they displayed no such ambition or practice in France.]


Certum est, quia impossibile,
"It is certain, because impossible"

Tertullian, De Carne Christi

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:

NO EXIT

This is an allusion to another story about the afterlife, a play by Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) called, indeed, No Exit (Huis Clos, 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."

Now why is it that "hell is other people"? Well, Jean Paul Sartre was an Existentialist, this is an Existentialist play, and hell being other people is a consequence of Existentialist principles, as we shall see. 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 favorite Existentialist term, absurd.

To be without value and meaning is also to be without standards for behavior. A favorite 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" [note in "Infantile Atheism"]. 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. Dostoevsky, indeed, may be counted as himself a Existentialist, but in a theistic rather than the French atheistic manner, as discussed below (and in the tradition of Orthodox Russian mysticism deriving from Mt. Athôs).

Now, when Existentialism was popular, it struck many people as liberating and enjoyable to think of the world as absurd and behavior without limitations [note]. 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 (as fully quoted in the epigraph). 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.

Now we can answer the question why "hell is other people." If we live our lives just because of the completely free and autonomous decisions that we make, this creates nothing that is common with others. If we adopt something that comes from someone else, which could give us a common basis to make a connection with them, this is inauthentic. If it just happens, by chance, that our own decisions produce something that matches those of someone else, well then we have a connection, but it is likely to be volatile. As we make new decisions, the probability of our connection with others continuing is going to decline. We are isolated by our own autonomy. The values and decision of others, whether authentic or inauthentic, will be foreign and irritating.

This sense of estrangement from others is found in another classic of Existentialism, the novel The Stranger (1942), by Camus. Like many of Camus' stories, this one 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 behavior 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.

The lesson of the story might be that one should never lie, or that even if it is OK to lie to the wicked, one should not make up stories that might be true and might make something bad happen. This, however, makes it sound like Sartre is looking for general moral principles, and that hardly can be the case. "Never lie" would be just the kind of rule that Existentialists are rebelling against, and Sartre certainly wouldn't like "never lie to Fascists." And once we start worrying about what "might" be true or what "might" happen, things are much too vague and problematic to have any clear guidance.

More important is what Sartre's new sense of "responsibility" leaves out. It leaves out, indeed, the original meaning of "responsibility," which was "accountability." It doesn't really matter that you cannot alter your behavior on the basis of consequences that you cannot know, because you are not accountable for your behavior 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" possibily 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."

This morally empty meaning of responsibility has entered deep into popular art and public discourse. A humorous example of it is in the 1978 movie The Big Fix, with Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Anspach, John Lithgow, Bonnie Bedelia, and F. Murray Abraham (quite a cast). Dreyfuss is a divorced detective whose ex (Bedelia) has taken up with a psychobabble guru, whose training program, BEST, is clearly based on the popular EST therapy of the 1970's. Every time Dreyfuss has to meet his wife, over their children or his child support payments, this guru pronounces some absurd chestnut from his therapy program. Dreyfuss starts counting them. Meanwhile, murders have occurred (Anspach), and Dreyfuss has to track down the bad guy, whom he thinks is the former campus radical (Abraham) but seems more likely to be the spoiled rich kid (Lithgow). At one point, an attempt is made on his life by mafia hit men from Nevada. He realizes that they might go after his (ex-) family also, so he goes to warn his ex-wife to go into hiding with their kids. Unfortunately, she has entered the BEST training seminar with her boyfriend, and, like EST, no one is allowed to enter or leave after it has begun. Dreyfuss bursts in anyway, and is indignantly told by the guru that no one has interrupted his program before. Dreyfuss explains that hit men are possibily trying to murder his ex and their children, to which the guru says, "Then they will just have to take responsibility for that." At that, Dreyfuss says he has allowed him enough such sayings and punches him out.

The implication of the guru's saying is that the problem with murder is just that you might not "take responsibility" for it. That one might want to avoid murderers, or that they are evil and the action wrongful, is beside the point. "Taking responsibility" is all that counts and ends the matter. Just such uses of the expression we can see more recently in real world affairs. When a car bomb blew up a U.S. Marine billet in Beirut early in the Reagan administration, there was some discussion about who was responsible for the lapse in security. This ended when President Reagan himself said he would "take responsibility" for it. This did not mean he would resign in disgrace. It simply meant that was the end of the matter and everyone should forget about it, which they did. Then years later, when the attempt to "rescue" the children in the compound of the Branch Davidians at Waco ended in their all being suffocated or burned to death, there was also discussion about who was responsible for ordering a raid that was so thoroughly misconceived. Attorney General Janet Reno immediately said that she would "take full responsibility," and the next day President Clinton offered that he instead would "take responsibility." Again, what this all meant was that no one would actually be accountable for all this supposed "responsibility." Neither Reno nor Clinton resigned and, when pressed, they really blamed David Koresh for everything. He was already dead and so could not dispute the blame. A pliant federal judge was then allowed to lower the boom on the few survivors by using a legal trick to impose long jail sentences for the only minor offenses that a jury found them guilty of.

"Taking responsibilty" has thus 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 have not been above moral reproach. Although Sartre is commonly said to be have been in the French Resistance during World War II, he actually simply lived and wrote in Paris, and staged plays, which had to be submitted to the German censors. Camus suspected, consequently, that Sartre was more involved in collaboration than in resistance -- indeed, the authorization of the censors was likely obtained because Sartre pointed out the debt his ideas owed to a Nazi Party member, the philosopher Martin Heidegger. 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 for years their relationship consisted of her virtually acting as a procuress for him. Indeed, in 1943 a complaint was filed by the parents of Nathalie Sorokine, a student of de Beauvoir, that the girl had been kidnapped to be seduced by Sartre. A criminal conviction was avoided, but de Beauvoir permanently lost her license to teach in France. Later in life, Sartre rotated between different mistresses, supposedly on the understanding that de Beauvoir was first among equals. When he died, however, it turned out that in 1965 he had secretly adopted one of the others, Arlette Elkaïm, who consequently inherited all the rights to his work and property. This final betrayal of de Beauvoir seems to suitably summarize the falseness of whole of the relationship, and of Sartre's own character and moral philosophy.

Camus was also estranged by Sartre's lack of concern for the French colonials in Algeria, a third of the population, who stood to lose their homes and livelihood with the coming of Algerian independence. Sartre's attitude, indeed, owed nothing to Existentialism but to the extremely doctrinaire Marxism that he eventually adopted. Fixing up "responsibility," evidently, was not good enough. The Existential Void of value had to be filled by Dialectical Materialism. How blind and arrogant this became was evident in Sartre's remark on hearing of Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" denouncing Stalin in 1956. Sartre said that it should indeed be kept secret because it might discourage the "working class." The egotism and paternalism of this is typical of leftist intellectuals, but it hardly seems like the kind of thing that would allow the "working class" to "take responsbility" for their own actions. Grafting Marxism onto Existentialism thus simply rendered Sartre's thought incoherent.

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). Both Sartre and Heidegger were disciples of the founder of Phenomenology, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and Sartre himself, somewhat younger, was then influenced by Heidegger. 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. Indeed, until the end of his life, it always sounded like he was unable to distinguish what it was about the Nazis that was bad, and in fact Naziism 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. Heidegger was such an enthusiastic Nazi that he stiffed his graduate students who were Jews, refusing to sign their dissertations, and excised the dedication of Being and Time (1927), which had been to the inconveniently Jewish Edmund Husserl.

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. Although no secret, Heidegger's politics did not begin to embarrass his followers until the 1980's. The response to this has not been to alter any of the essentials, but to change terminology to conceal the continuity, i.e. Derrida's "deconstruction" has become, otherwise unaltered, "post-modernism." Although this now tends to be associated with leftist causes, following Sartre, we should not be surprised to find it hostile to liberal principles and promoting totalitarian rules (e.g. "speech codes" at universities) that would not be unfamiliar to Heidegger.

The Marxism of Sartre and the Naziism 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. Indeed, in June 2011, I found a graffito stenciled on a wall in Montréal, Québec:  "À bas la vie quotidienne!" or "Down with quotidian life!" This sentiment may not have been based on Existentialist ideas, but it does sometimes seem to be the attitude of Existentialists, despite the fact that, after the "Myth of Sisyphus," one might think that any quotidian or mundane task could be valorized into something as important as any other absurd task in life.

The truth may 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, despite the incoherence this introduced into their principles. 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 "uncoverings" 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 aleady seen, with Dostoevsky, that atheistic Existentialist-like ideas were anticipated long before then. Dostoevsky, although articulating the ideas, did not believe them; but there were real atheistic 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 Zarathushtra, 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" (a popular bumper-sticker back in the '60's said, "'God is Dead,' Nietzsche; 'Nietzsche is dead,' God") 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 Übermensch. This was originally translated "Superman" since the Latin super means "over," as does German über. 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, 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 Garry Wills (cf. his recent authoritarian paean, A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government, saying that the Constitutional principle of limited government "...is a tradition that belittles America, that asks us to love our country by hating our government"), 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 industralists 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 this is really less honest than the later fears. 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. How seriously Nietzsche takes the actual metaphysics of this is a good question, since it implies a fatalism that is otherwise contrary to Nietzsche's view of will. But the metaphysics is secondary. 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 perpared 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 [1986], 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.

So far I have been considering atheistic Existentialists, like Sartre and Nietzsche; and the way they formulate their doctrines, it might seem that atheism would be intrinsic to Existentialist ideas. The absence of God implies the loss of value. However, that is not quite right, and as we continue into Existentialists-before-their-time, we cannot avoid encountering such a one, one of the earliest, who also happens to be a theistic Existentialist. Thus, in a sense Existentialism begins as a form of theism and only later appears in atheistic form.

Our theistic Existentialist is Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Kierkegaard is an Existentialist because he accepts, as fully as Sartre or Camus, the absurdity of the world. But he does not begin with the postulate of the non-existence of God, but with the principle that nothing in the world, nothing available to sense or reason, provides any knowledge or reason to believe in God. While traditional Christian theologians, like St. Thomas Aquinas, saw the world as providing evidence of God's existence, and also thought that rational arguments a priori could establish the existence of God, Kierkegaard does not think that this is the case. But Kierkegaard's conclusion about this could just as easily be derived from Sartre's premises. After all, if the world is absurd, and everything we do is absurd anyway, why not do the most absurd thing imaginable? And what could be more absurd than to believe in God? So why not? The atheists don't have any reason to believe in anything else, or really even to disbelieve in that, so we may as well go for it!

This is sometimes compared to Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who said, "The heart has reasons that the mind cannot understand"; but really, if the heart has reasons, then, indeed, there are reasons, and the world is not an absurd place. Pascal is a mystic (like some other mathematicians), not an Existentialist. The precedent for Kierkegaard is really more like the Latin Church Father Tertullian (c.160-220), who, when taunted about the absurdity of Christian doctrine, retorted that he believed it because it was absurd (Credo quia absurdum est -- though this is actually a paraphrase of the genuine statement, cited above, and also may have been taken out of context). Without reasons of heart or mind, Kierkegaard can only get to God by a "leap of faith." This is the equivalent of the acts of will in the classic Existentialists, and equally fragile. A leap of faith attains no reasons it did not have before, and so the position of faith remains irrational. But it does achieve something a little different. A position of faith, however it is attained, does bring with it certain responsibilities. Belief in a real God is going to bring with it the Law, as the moral teachings of one's religion, whichever it is, cannot then just be ignored. This returns one to the complications of traditional morality, the kind of thing that Nietzsche or Sartre or Heidegger would just as soon ignore. In retrospect, however, the three of them should have taken traditional morality a bit, or a lot, more seriously than they did. The project of dumping the whole business did not have edifying results, either personally or politically.

Kierkegaard's moral and religious seriousness offered a more promising basis for the development of Existentialist themes than the basically nihilistic, egocentric, and hopeless approach of Nietzsche, Sartre, and the others. Philosophers who make their own leap of faith to Marxism or Naziism have really discredited their own source of inspiration. Thus, while Sartre achieved for a time a higher profile in the fashionable literary world, theistic Existentialists, like Nikolay Berdyayev (1874-1948), Paul Tillich (1886-1965), and Martin Buber (1878-1965) continued Kierkegaard's work with updated approaches to traditional religions. Atheistic Existentialism really exhausted itself:  The effort of will required for Sisyphus to maintain his enthusiasm is really beyond most human capacity, and better the solace of traditional religion than the vicious pseudo-religions of communism or fascism.

The personal failures of Sartre or Heidegger, however, do demonstrate their seriousness, and the fact that the absurdity of the world for them was not a joke, was not fun, but a terror. Their failure was in the direction of the solution they sought, a solution that could not be bound by some fairly simple and fundamental moral considerations. It wasn't just that they couldn't bring themselves to believe in God. They couldn't bring themselves to believe in right and wrong. But the principle of Dostoevsky's nihilist, that "without God, all is permitted," really represents an impoverished reading of the history of philosophy, and of religion also. Plato's Forms did not depend on God, nor Schopenhauer's sense of justice and compassion (of which Nietzsche cannot have been unaware), while the Buddha Dharma is the moral teaching of a religion that explictly rejects the existence of a God. Thus, Nietzsche and Sartre base their thought on a false inference. It simply does not follow that if there is no God, then all is permitted. It doesn't even follow that there is no religion. Nor does it follow that everything is without meaning. When Beethoven faced his own growing deafness, he knew that he could still create music, create beauty, even if completely deaf. That is what happened. But Plato already pointed out that beauty is a tangible kind of value, something we can see and touch (or hear), and a clue to the reality of all value, even the kind that we cannot see. The Existentialists, even the theistic ones, seem to have overlooked that.

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 travelers, 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 knowlege, 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. But this is not the last word in the movie. In the end, we are back with the Fool and his family. Now he has a vision of Death leading the Knight and all the others away. He and his wife and child, however, will go on living. So who is the Fool? He is the theistic Existentialist. He has neither the aspirations of the Knight nor the disillusionment of the Squire. Gifted with his visions, like Pascal, he has no difficulty finding happiness and meaning -- indeed, he and his wife are the happiest people in the movie. They even find life, which is dramatically denied to the others. Presumably, this is Bergman's own final comment, reflecting a religious seriousness we also see in his The Virgin Spring -- though his public statements lead many to think that the Squire reflects his true sentiments. If that is the case, the Fool, with his happy ending, would not belong in the movie. Religiously serious or not, The Seventh Seal may have given rise to more parodies than any other movie, from Woody Allen's Love and Death [1975] to Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey [1991].

The final word on Existentialism may come from the immortal detective novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett [1929]. In Chapter 7, "G in the Air," the detective Sam Spade tells his client, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a story while they are waiting to meet Joel Cairo. This was left out of the 1941 movie by John Huston. The story was about "A man named Flitcraft" who "had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned." The man vanished completely, and there was never even a hint that there had been any financial trouble, lovers, kidnapping, or anything else understandable. He was just gone. Seven years later, Spade was sent out to check on a man who had been seen in Spokane and identified as Flitcraft. It was him, living as he had in Tacoma, with a family and a successful business. Flitcraft explained that as he was going to lunch years earlier, he had passed a building under construction. A beam had fallen from the building "and smacked the sidewalk alongside him." He was unhurt except for a cut from a bit of concrete that the beam had chipped off on impact. What bothered him was the senselessness of it all. His nice orderly life might have been destroyed by a totally random event. "He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works." He had always felt "in step with his surroundings." Now he saw that "in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life." So he adjusted. He took a boat to San Francisco and began to live a life as random as the falling beam. This lasted for a while, but eventually he drifted back to Washington State and settled down in Spokane.

I don't think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that's the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.

This seems to be what happened to many Existentialists. The empty, meaningless world is ultimately intolerable, and major figures of Existentialism seem to drift towards some tangible source of value and meaning. Thus, Sartre took up Marxism, and Heidegger Naziism. Camus may have been spared this by an early death, at 47. The most vernable and durable form of Existentialism, the theistic, obviously gains the most substantial referent for value and meaning.

There ended up being more than a little of Flitcraft in Dashiell Hammett himself, who was living a conventional life with a family and a job with the Pinkerton's Detective Agency. When he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, he abandoned his wife to devote his last energies to writing. The world of his "Continental Op" detective, and then Sam Spade, is a bleak one, where the only real value seems to be the determination of the detective to do his job. Hammett was unable to sustain this vision in his own life. He got religion by joining the Communist Party. In this company he crossed paths with Lillian Hellman. Their relationship inspired his last published novel, The Thin Man, which featured the only sympathetic woman in his writings. Unfortunately, Hammett's fame and the sophisticated literary circles in which he then lived ruined his career. Hellman and her friends expected him to begin writing "serious" literature, not just popular detective stories. He never made the transition, but also lost his inspiration even for the detective stories. And his devotion to the Party got him some jail time, when he was found in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) [note].

This was a sad end for Hammett, almost worse than Heidegger's Naziism. Neither defeat nor disgrace ever slowed down Heidegger's productivity (I think he was a man without conscience), while both Sartre and Heidegger continued to be celebrated, regardless of the folly or viciousness of their politics. Hammett, in gaining a lover and a reputation, lost his Muse and only managed to martyr himself for Stalinism. Talk about an absurd universe.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy, by Tom Rockmore

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Existentialism, Note 1

A significant variant of Existentialism, especially in the popular culture of the 60's and 70's, has been called the "ludic" version, from Latin ludus, "play." Thus, the absurd world can be seen as ridiculous or ludicrous. If there is no meaning to things, then we may as well laugh about it have some fun. This connected up to other influences of the era. In Hinduism it is believed that the god Shiva created the world merely in play. Therefore we should enter into the same spirit. Taoism regards enlightenment as returning to the state of being a child, while even in Christianity great value has traditionally been put on the innocence of children. If this seems silly, trivial, or infantile, especially in light of the horrors of the world, the 60's "Flower Child" culture could easily make the argument that if everyone returned to child-like innocence and play, then many of the horrors of the world, like war, would disappear. This may have been naive, and was hopeless in addressing natural evils or the malicious, but it had a background and did resonate with many.

Sometimes the many had a rude awakening. After Woodstock there was the December 1969 concert at Altamont, California, where the Rolling Stones, the bad boys of Rock, hired the Hells Angels to police the event -- or at least to help out; accounts vary. The result was a killing, and several other deaths -- which just ruined everyone's day and seemed to mark the end of Sixities' innocence, with the end of the Sixities themselves. The innocence of children also received a hit from William Golding's Lord of the Flies, where we see children in the state of nature as savages. Golding's book had been published in 1954, but awareness of it seemed to grow in step with the Flower Child culture. It was already popular enough to become a movie in 1963.

Nevertheless, a sort of ludic Existentialism persisted well into the 1970's. My favorite example is from my own experience as a graduate student at the University of Texas. I arrived in Austin in 1975. At the time, student government was still dominated, long after the 60's, by crew-cut fraternity types. Austin, however, was pretty much the counter-culture center of Texas, and a challenge arose to student government as usual. An "Absurdist" Party fielded a ticket in the 1976 elections, led by Jay Adkins and Skip Slyfield, for President and Vice-President. They refused to take anything seriously. When the conventional candidates gave their ponderous speeches about the deadly issues confronting student government, Adkins and Slyfield would respond with irrelevancies on the order of Zen Koans. Slyfield, who was Jewish, always sported as a campaign prop the jawbone of an ass -- so as, presumably, to slay the Philistines, like Samson. Slay them they did. Never have I ever seen comparable enthusiasm for a student body election. Of course, a great deal of this, as in much of the humor of the era (or any era, for that matter) was parody and satire. Exploding the empty pretentions of the establishment with humor hardly needed Absurdist Existentialism -- the English were doing it marvelously in the 18th century. To the extent there was a serious subtext to the movement, however, it was not just play. Eventually the Absurdists proposed doing the most sensible thing ever to student government:  abolishing it. This was accomplished in 1978, and for several years the unintentional absurdity of self-important student body Presidents was not a feature of the University of Texas.

As we now know from many horror movies, when the clowns get serious, they can get scary. Thus, when the Flower Children and Absurdists grew up and went to Law School, they often came out with their socialism unmasked by any humor, let alone any morally relevant knowledge. The Anti-Americanism of much of the anti-war movement in the 60's would translate, or perhaps simply continue, with sympathy for any experiment in communist dictatorship all through the 70's, 80's, 90's, and even post-9/11. This continues today, when Fidel Castro is all but revered and Hugo Chavez has taken up the Marxist torch. That this movement is now allied with the Terrorism and mediaevalist misogyny of Islamic Fascism introduces no more doubts than the Fall of Communism did in 1989-1991. Perhaps this is the ultimate refutation of child-like innocence, when it becomes the armored and vicious ignorance of the post-modern Left.

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Existentialism, Note 2

Since it was the way of post-War Communists to dissimulate and to conceal their beliefs and commitments, Hellman lived in a culture of deception. This was probably why Mary McCarthy said of her in 1979, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'" (a comment that may refer specifically to the story that ended up as the 1977 Jane Fonda movie Julia, a memoir of Hellman now thought to be entirely fictional). Hammett, a sincere believer, went to prison for refusing to answer questions about a group to which he belonged that raised bail for convicted Communist Party leaders (he may not have even known who the members were). Having lost his literary inspiration, he nevertheless was able to write pro-Commuinist and pro-Soviet propaganda pieces. Before Joseph McCarthy, he avoided trouble by simply taking the Fifth Amendment. While the Left still loves to portray such people as simply standing up for Free Speech, it was never actually illegal to belong to the Communist Party, but active members of the "underground" Party (as opposed to the public leadership) never announced what they believed or acknowledged their membership. They did not believe, as their political successors do not believe, in Free Speech. They certainly took no advantage of it. Members of the Party, however, were required to register as "agents of a foreign power," since the Party was financed and controlled by Moscow, a truth known, but denied, at the time, and now confirmed from Soviet sources. Members like Hammett eventually began taking the Fifth Amendment rather than either face contempt or admit they had not registered.

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