The Existentialism Primer

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The Existentialism Primer

The Metamorphosis & No Exit

AP English

As you may have gathered from the name, existentialists are primarily concerned with existence. They are not interested in what happened before you were born, or what will happen after you die, but are merely concerned with what is going on NOW. How we make choices. How we live with the choices that we have made. And how, when it gets right down to it, wouldn’t we be a lot happier if we had fewer choices to make?
Here are the basic tenets of existentialism (adapted from the “Discussions in Existence” blog):
1. Existence precedes essence.
Basically, this means that humans exist before they have a purpose or meaning. From conception, you did not have a pre-determined goal in life. Whereas the Westminster Confession of Faith (a Christian document) answers the question, "What is the chief duty of man," with, "To enjoy and glorify God forever," existentialists say humans have no prior essence. Although this would seem to suggest that all existentialists were atheists (and many of them were) some were actually able to fit a concept of God into their framework (albeit a very hands off one.)
Now you may reasonably ask, "Does this apply to all things?" Clearly not. As Sartre explained with regards to a paper cutter, a paper cutter has an essence before it exists. When a man needs to cut paper, he sets off to create the proper instrument. He thinks about how to create, what materials to use, and so on and so forth. Then, he creates the paper cutter, and uses it to fulfill its purpose.
For humans, however, existence precedes essence. And lest you think, "So life is meaningless, why should I live it," the existentialist has an immediate answer: You are free to choose your essence or who you want to be. And thus:

2. We are condemned to be free.

Since we as humans ultimately have no pre-set significance, you and I are free to choose what we want to be. That isn't so hard to understand, right?
Sadly, the vast majority of humans hate being free, and that is because with freedom comes responsibility. If you choose to do something, and that freely, then you alone are responsible for the consequences. Many people try to avoid this freedom in numerous ways. For example, a person who loves to eat might say, "I inherited some genes from my parents." Therefore, it isn't their fault that they are obese--blame the parents. Or if a rapist tried to argue, "It's just who I am," they are assuming they have a nature that somehow disposes them to rape. Another attempt to avoid responsibility is to play off environment. If a child fails a test at school, it isn't his fault because he stayed up until midnight, and his dog died the next morning, and his teacher really hates him. If he failed, it's because his environment made him fail, or so he would have you believe. But the existentialist denies all these things. We are free to do almost whatever, whenever we want, if we so choose. But you see, we don't always choose. We just let someone or something else choose for us, and then we have engaged in what is called "bad faith" or "self-deception," both of which are attempts to rid oneself of freedom and therefore responsibility (but ultimately, even if you choose not to decide, you have still made a choice.)

Now this all may sound harsh. What about the lady who had her legs amputated because she got in a tragic car accident? Surely she isn't responsible for that? The existentialist thinks so. She chose to get in the car and go driving, and the car accident was the result. She is responsible for freely getting in the car, and nothing else. Well, maybe she was going to get groceries for her three children. That doesn't absolve her of responsibility for her consequence. She could have chosen to go at 4:30, or 5:00, but she chose 3:00, and that led to the car accident. No one made her choose 3:00 except herself.

But she is still free, even with her legs amputated. She is free to figure out how to move on from this experience. Will she be bitter the rest of her life, or will she use this moment to warn others of the dangers of driving? It's up to her, because she's free to choose, and whichever she does choose, she is responsible for the outcome.
"Wait a minute," you might say. "Am I absolutely free? Does that mean if I were to close my eyes and wish myself to Hawaii, I am free to go there?" No, not necessarily. What the existentialist means by "free" is "free within a certain system." Let's take Sartre's example of the artist: an artist has red, blue, and yellow for her colors. Now, is she free to make a green tree with just the red paint? No, not that kind of free. But she is free to combine blue and yellow to make green for her tree, if she wants to have a green tree. Maybe she wants a purple tree, which is entirely up to her.
3. Life is absurd.
Albert Camus was another French existentialist who lived alongside Jean-Paul Sartre, and "life is absurd" is his major contribution to existentialism. How is life absurd, though? By that, Camus means that we live despite knowing we will die. Have you ever noticed that? If I'm going to die anyway, I might as well commit suicide and get it over with. But Camus rejected that belief, and tried to answer it.

Try holding your breath. Go as long as possible. Is your heart beating faster? Chest pounding? Want to give in? What just happened? Your body wants you to live. Your heart was trying to get oxygen to your body, but if you have no new supply, it pumps harder. Your heart doesn't want you to die, because if it did, it would stop beating. And yet it keeps going, and going, and going, and going. If you held your breath long enough, your brain would have shut down, causing you to pass out and start breathing again for the sheer reason of staying alive. Despite knowing you will die, your body strives to live. Life is absurd. So how are you going to deal with it? Are you going to commit suicide, or are you going to live despite this morbid knowledge? And how are you going to live? You are the author of your life. Write an interesting story while you can.

This carries over into your own life, which, if you think about it, is pretty absurd. Lots of things that you do (and other people do) don’t make any sense, especially when you consider the high possibility of a negative outcome with whatever choice you make.
Existentialism – What It Is and Isn’t
Existentialism takes into consideration these underlying concepts:

  • Human free will

  • Human nature is chosen through life choices

  • A person is best when struggling against their individual nature, fighting for life

  • Decisions are not without stress and consequences

  • There are things that are not rational

  • Personal responsibility and discipline is crucial

  • Society is unnatural and its traditional religious and secular rules are arbitrary

  • Worldly desire is futile

Existentialism is broadly defined in a variety of concepts and there can be no one answer as to what it is, yet it does not support any of the following:

  • wealth, pleasure, or honor make the good life

  • social values and structure control the individual

  • accept what is and that is enough in life

  • science can and will make everything better

  • people are basically good but ruined by society or external forces

  • “I want my way, now!” or “It is not my fault!” mentality

There is a wide variety of philosophical, religious, and political ideologies that make up existentialism, so there is no universal agreement in an arbitrary set of ideals and beliefs. Politics vary, but each seeks the most individual freedom for people within a society.

The existentialist authors we will study explored how humans respond to inevitable setbacks in a couple of ways. First, they placed their characters in intentionally absurd situations that would reduce their nature solely to their response to their plight. In this, the reader witnesses the basest of human reactions to extreme situations. Both The Metamorphosis and No Exit attempt to explain how human beings futilely try to find meaning out of life and deal with their struggles to no avail.

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