"How to Be an Existentialist" was read and reviewed last year (link). Notes and quotes from the book have been a long time coming because there was so much good stuff to copy out. Indeed, this is a good one to leave up for a couple of weeks before my next blog posting - there's a lot to think about ... also, I'm off on my holidays until the end of the month!
If you are only going to read one book on existentialism, this is the one.
People who reject existentialism tend to do so not because they don’t understand it but because they can’t face it. As Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil: “I do not like it.” – Why? – “I am not up to it” – Has anyone ever answered like this?” … understanding existentialism requires far more intellectual honesty and courage than cleverness and academic ability.
A person can know about existentialism and be convinced of its truth, but they are not a true existentialist if they make no effort to live the life.
To fail to live accordingly is to live in what existentialist philosophers call bad faith.
…it outlines how you can go on to live an honest and worthwhile life in spite of the fact that human existence is ultimately pointless and absurd. The general idea is that you can’t create a genuinely honest and worthwhile life for yourself on the basis of a fairytale. You have to build your life on an understanding and acceptance of things how they really are, otherwise you be fooling and deluding yourself as you hanker after impossibilities like complete happiness and total fulfilment. Ironically, existentialism is saying, if you want to be happy, or at least happier, stop struggling to achieve complete happiness because that way only leads to disappointment.
Some of the most unhappy people in the world are those who hold firmly in the belief …that there is a such a state as ‘happily ever after’. They are constantly hurt and frustrated that they never manage, for example, to transform their life into an endless summer afternoon in a rose filled cottage garden. Such a paradise is unachievable, not only because the price of cottages in the country is beyond most people’s financial reach, but because endless summer afternoons in the real world always turn into evening, because roses have their thorns and flowers wilt and because more than a few days in even the most beautiful garden becomes utterly boring.
The person who chooses to be positive and confident, or at least genuinely tries to be positive and confident, will encounter a very different world from the person who chooses to be negative and timid.
Consciousness is always predisposed to find something lacking because lack is intrinsic to the very meaning of every situation for any particular consciousness. This is why, according to existentialist philosophers, a consciousness, a person, can never be completely satisfied. A person will always interpret a situation in terms of what it lack for him. If he is cooking, the meal lacks being cooked. If he is halfway through a movie, the movie lacks an ending so far. If the movie is poor and he does not care about the ending then his situation is lacking interest. If he is tired he lacks sleeps (tiredness is lack of sleep). If he has just woken up and is ready for the day he lacks the things he hope to achieve that day and so on and so on.
In general a person always lacks the futures toward which is constantly heading, the future which gives meaning to his present actions and beyond which he hopes in vain to be fulfilled and at one with himself. Ever onward, the endless march of time, towards a future that is presently lacking, an absent future that will fall into past as soon as it is reached, a past with its own absent future. It seems that the endless march of time constantly cheats us of what we are, prevents us from becoming one with ourselves, but really, what we are is this endless march forward in time, creatures that can never become one with themselves.
Perhaps this is the harshest of all the existentialist truths of the human condition. You will always experience some conditions that you lack, some boredom, some dissatisfaction. You will always be waiting for some current problem to become a thing of the past, you will always be looking for future fulfilment until death is the only fulfilment, the only possibility, left to you. This is not a bad thing, it is just the way it is, so you would be wrong to get depressed about it, although many people do. A true existentialist doesn’t get depressed about it. He or she says, ‘Okay, so that’s the way it is. Never mind. I’m still going to make the most of my life, my relentless journey to nowhere, my freedom.’
…Sarte insists it is more accurate to refer to the past as a past-future. What is now my past was once my future. Similarly, what is now is in my future, if it comes to pass, will so undoubtedly become part of my past that it is more accurate to refer to my future as my future-past. …consciousness is never in the present, it is only ever present (has presence) as a being endlessly passing on toward the future. Like an object in motion, consciousness is never there or there. Consciousness is constantly not where it was and not yet where it will be.
Something is always lacking, namely the future. The future never satisfies and fulfils us completely because we only fulfil our future intentions for them to become part of our past … and we must again launch ourselves towards a new future …
Existentialism claims that is it fundamental to what we are to want to be at one with ourselves, to be what we are instead of having always to strive to be it, to achieve a future state of total completion in which we no longer lack anything. But we never arrive at this godlike state of total smug self-satisfaction because we never arrive at the future. …For existentialism, it is just the way things are, and the way things are is the price you pay for existing as a conscious being at all. After all, you can’t be conscious without being temporalized … time and consciousness are almost the same thing.
Existentialism recommends bravely accepting that this is how life is and making the most of it. It recommends building your life on the firm basis of hard, uncomfortable truths rather than the shifting sands of soft, comfortable delusions. Ironically perhaps, there is also the suggestion that people will actually be happier and relatively more satisfied if they accept what the endless temporal flight of consciousness towards the future implies, namely, that it is alien for a person to be completely satisfied and contented for any length of time. If people genuinely accept this truth of the human condition and take it to heart they will cease to hanker after complete fulfilment and total happiness, or at least be less disappointed and far more calm and philosophical about life when fulfilment and total happiness are not achieved. Existentialism offers satisfaction of a stoical kind through the acceptance of the inevitability of a certain amount of dissatisfaction.
..the key point to keep in mind for now is that we are free precisely because we are not fixed in the present. Only a temporal being can be free because to be free is to have possibilities and genuine alternatives in the future.
Each person constantly confronts the existence of other people, not simply as objects in his world, but as subjects who see him and judge him and reduce him to an object in their world. To be an object in the world of the Other, to be for the Other, to be in danger of being belittled by the Other, this is the meaning of being-for-others.
A man called John is walking all alone in the wilds down a beautiful valley beside a rushing stream. He drinks in the fresh air and the stunning scenery and feels he is master of all he surveys. …John feels he is at the centre of the world, that it is all arranged for him alone, that it exists only from his point of view. ….John suddenly catches sight of a stranger in the distance walking up the valley towards him. With deep irritation and disappointment John realises it is the dreaded Other. Even tough the Other hasn’t seen John yet, the presence of the Other immediately affects John’s situation. …John was the centre of the world but now the Other has decentralised him.
Even when a person is physically alone, miles from the shops, miles from anywhere and anyone, other people are likely to be in his thoughts. Even if, unlike most of us, he is not particularly paranoid, he may well be plagued by the actual and imagined judgements of others and be unable to stop thinking about what others think of him … The Other makes him into something he feels he is not, something he does not want to recognise or feel responsible for. …other people force him to be what he is for them rather than what he is for himself.
The Other possesses part of what a person is and is free to judge him; free to admire, respect, or despise him. Having aspects of belonging to others, aspects that he is nonetheless responsible for, makes a person uncomfortable. A good deal of most people’s behaviour is directed towards seeking to influence their being-for-others, or even gain complete control over it. People generally desire to impress and certainly go to great lengths to encourage other people to love, respect or fear them. People talk about feeling good in themselves and about setting personal goals, but really they are all shouting, ‘Look at me, I’m so beautiful, so clever, so hard, so cool. Even if I’m not better than you, I’m just as good as you in my own way.’ Those with ability and determination do it by winning Olympic gold medals or qualifying as doctors. Those with less talent do it by learning to juggle, having tattoos or wheel spinning their car at traffic lights. As many great philosophers and religious teachers have noted through the ages, ‘All is vanity.’
It is vital to a proper understanding of the existentialist theory of personal freedom to realise that it is just as much a theory of personal responsibility. Freedom is not freedom from responsibility, freedom is having to make choices and therefore having to take responsibility.
“Not to choose is, in fact, to choose not to choose” – Sartre, Being and Nothingness
Perhaps, in the end, Sartre is not offering us a philosophical theory worked out in every single detail so much as an ideal to aspire to through sheer unrelenting will power and implacable bloody mindedness – a life of maximum responsibility and minimum excuses. Or would you aspire to be a whinging, irresponsible slob. There is a surprisingly large amount of public funding available for people with the latter aspiration.
On bad faith
By far the biggest obstacle or pit fall on the voyage to being a true existentialist is bad faith. …Sartre is obsessed with bad faith because it is so widespread and right at the heart of the way most people behave most of the time.
Bad faith is often described as self-deception, as lying to yourself. Bad faith cannot be self-deception for the simple reason that self-deception, lying to yourself, is impossible. … bad faith is more like an ongoing project of self-distraction or self-evasion…
Being a true existentialist, practising authentic behaviour, can be as simple as … the difference between having your hand held and holding hands. The difficulty with being a true existentialist, however … is keeping it up. The difficulty is producing responsible responses all the time across the widest possible range of circumstances…
To help explain his theory about bad faith and wilful ignorance Sartre takes the example of a woman with tuberculosis. The woman refuses to acknowledge that she has TB despite having all the symptoms – fatigue, weight loss, night sweats…refusing to acknowledge their collective meaning. She engrosses herself in activities that do not afford her time to visit the doctor, activities that distract her from making the time the choices required by her situation. …For Sartre, to dispense with wilful ignorance and irresponsibility and instead to courageously affirm the existential truths of the human condition – abandonment in a Godless universe, freedom, responsibility, mortality and so on – is to overcome bad faith in favour of authenticity.
The truth, according to existentialist philosophers, is that things only have meaning and purpose relative to other things and the whole lot only has the relative meaning and purpose that our ultimate pointless activities give it.
Sartre does not recommend that people should be like Antoine Roquetin in Nausea, always dwelling obsessively on contingency, always striving to live under the aspect of eternity in a meaningless and absurd world. That way madness lies. Sartre himself, like most people most of the time, lived and acted in the world of relative meanings and purposes. …he kept his sanity and sense of perspective by directing his attentions to the task at hand…
He believed, nonetheless, that an occasional or background awareness of contingency is vital if a person is to achieve any degree of authenticity and avoid living a lie. Sartre’s philosophy is characterised by an abiding hatred and distrust of people, usually middle-class (bourgeois) people, who seem totally unaware of life’s contingency; people who once glimpsed life’s contingency and were terrified by it and are now on the run from it. The fundamental project of these people is to evade their own contingency and that of the world by acting in bad faith.
The world, they tell themselves in bad faith, is not contingent but created with humankind as its centrepiece. …They believe the moral and social values they subscribe to are objective, absolute values and that the way things are in society constitutes the only possible reality. …They learn to see themselves only as others see them and avoid thinking about themselves in any kind of philosophical way. Dwelling on the strangeness and contingency of their existence is strictly off limits. As far as possible, they avoid thinking about anything at all, except on the most mundane and clichéd level. You have probably met these people. You can recognise them by their conversation. When you talk to them you feel you are following a script that permits the listing of mundane facts and forbids all discussion, analysis, introspection and flights of the imagination.
…Being an existentialist is not so much about what you do, as your attitude to what you do. As always, the choice is yours.
On authenticity and getting real
Inauthenticity is the denial of the fundamental existential truth that we are free and responsible…
Authenticity involves a person confronting reality and facing up to the hard truth that he is at all times a free being who will never obtain coincidence with himself. The authentic person responds fully to the appeal to get real that pervades existentialism. ....authenticity consists in embracing human reality for what it is and living in accordance with it rather than pretending it is something else: a nice fairy-tale reality where dreams come true without effort, where debts don’t have to be paid back, where knights in shining armour ride to the rescue and we all live happily ever after.
…-it involves accepting that this is his situation… .If he is not imprisoned he can, of course, reject his situation by running away, and often beating a hasty retreat is a wise option, but this still involves a choice. A choice that gives rise to new situations and to new demands to choose. With the exception of suicide – the toughest choice of all – it is not possible to run away from being situated altogether, and every situation is a demand to choose.
Sartre – “To be authentic is to realise fully one’s being-in-situation, whatever this situation may happen to be: with a profound awareness that, through the authentic realisation of the being-in-situation, one brings to full existence the situation on one hand and the human reality on the other. This presupposes a patient study of what the situation requires, and then a way of throwing oneself into it and determining oneself ‘be-for’ this situation.”
To be truly authentic, (one) must fully realise his being-in-situation without regret. Authenticity involves a person coming to terms with the fact that he will never be at one with himself, that he will never become a kind of thing that no longer has to choose what it is. Surprisingly though, authenticity does not involve a person abandoning the desire for one-ness, substantiality and foundation. …In trying to escape his desire for a foundation a person can only aim at being nothing at all.
The project of authenticity is actually more successful at achieving a kind of substantiality than the project of inauthenticity because the project of authenticity reconciles a person to what he really is, an essentially free being…
The substantiality achieved through authenticity is not achieved by consciousness once and for all, it is a substantiality that has to be continually perpetuated and re-assumed. A person cannot simply be authentic, he has to be authentic. That is, he has to constantly strive to be authentic without ever being able to become an authentic-thing. If a person ever thinks he is authentic in the same way that a rock is a rock, he is no longer authentic and has actually slid back onto bad faith. Authenticity is not a permanent foundation that a person choose to establish at a particular time once and for all, but rather what existentialist philosophers call a metstable foundation that a person must constantly maintain by constantly choosing authentic responses to his situation.
Authenticity is not a possession or an essence, it is a way a person responds to his facticity and the way he chooses himself in response to that facticity. Authenticity is the continuous task of choosing responses that affirm freedom and responsibility rather than responses that signify a flight from freedom and responsibility. The authentic person takes on the task of continually resisting the slide into bad faith that threatens every human project.
Considering the world’s endless temptations to slides into bad faith and the difficulties people face resisting them, Sartre takes the example of a family man who is called to war. Prior to his call-up the man was a boring bourgeois who treated his life as though it was on rails with a course dictated by the expectation of his family and his profession. He allowed himself to be what others wanted him to be.
The stark realities of war open his eyes and inspire him to put his life into perspective. He assumes freedom and becomes his own man. Sartre says, ‘He’s led to think about those [past] situations, to make resolutions for the future, and to establish guidelines for keeping authenticity as he moves on to other events’. He has become a warrior and wishes to remain a warrior even after the war. A man who is ready for anything, a man who takes responsibility for himself and does not make excuses. A strong, silent, noble, dignified type who refuses to compromise himself or to say what others want to hear just because they want to hear it.
Resistance to his noble resolution comes not from within him but from the world around him and from his own past.
...His wife, who he still loves, comes to visit him at the front with all the expectations he has always fulfilled for her in the past. Without any effort or intention he behaves differently towards her simple because he is different. Her expectations, however, present him with the image of his former inauthentic self. This is the real test of the newfound authenticity because ‘he can’t revert to his old errors vis-à-vis that woman without, at a stroke, tumbling headlong into inauthenticity.’
The difficulties facing a person striving for sustained authentic existence are enormous. Sartre does not mention, however, why others should achieve what he, of all people, failed to achieve. If the great champion of authenticity, with his vast will power and his superior mental strength cannot achieve authentic existence, what hope is there for the rest of us?
...A quick summary: Authentic existence is a project that has to be continually reassumed. A person is only as authentic as his present act. Even if he has been consistently authentic for a whole week, if he is not authentic right now then he is not authentic. Given the world’s endless temptations to bad faith, the difficulties of resisting regret and imposed inauthenticity, the fact that habit and other people’s expectations shape a person’s life as much as his capacity to choose, it is very difficult for anyone to sustain authenticity for a significant period of time. Most people are only capable of achieving authenticity occasionally. Nevertheless, authenticity is an existentialist ideal worth struggling for.
In most cases, it is not because people lack intelligence that they do not see the existential truths of the human conditions, but because they do not want to see them. The fact that they do not want to see them implies, of course, that they have already seen them. Having already seen them and having been made terribly anxious at the sight of them they desperately want to avoid seeing them again. The way they avoid seeing them is by resorting to bad faith.
Although the pursuit of authenticity need not necessarily be an intellectual project, some people are, nevertheless, inspired to pursue authenticity as a direct result of studying existentialism. Studying existentialism highlights existential truths, exposes bad faith and emphasises the necessity of freedom and responsibility. Studying existentialism can be a process of profound personal enlightenment that influences the very nature of a person’s existence in the world.
Authenticity, it has been suggested, is an heroic ideal.
After WWII showed them how interdependent people are, Sartre and Beauvoir began to acknowledge that authenticity involves conforming to some extent the expectations of others.
People, they argue, are responsible for living up to the expectations that result from their social and historical circumstances. A person who seeks to evade this responsibility by refusing to be a person of his time acts in bad faith. He acts as though he is a fixed and self-sufficient island existing outside society, politics and history, when in truth he is a person rooted in the social and political situation of his day and age who exists only in relation to his day and age. …It is therefore authentic for a person to acknowledge the existence and freedom of other people and the inevitability of having to have relations and dealings with them.
To exercise freedom negatively is to adopt what Nietzsche calls the ascetic ideal. The ascetic ideal values self-repression and self-denial above all else and for their own sake. …Opposite to the ascetic ideal is Nietzsche’s notion of the noble ideal. The noble ideal involves positive affirmation of freedom. A noble person positively affirms himself as a free being. He does not deny and repress his freedom but enjoys it and is constantly aware of it. He does this by acting decisively, overcoming difficulties, taking responsibility, refusing to regret and, most importantly, by choosing his own values.
Sartre’s idea of a radical conversion to authenticity involves a person becoming something like Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. If you’ve come across this German term before it might well evoke images of blond, blue-eyed, jack-booted Nazi Stormtroopers goose-stepping in tight formation through the Brandenburg Gate, but it literally means ‘overman’; the man who had overcome himself. As the creator of his own values the overman creates himself; he is the artist or author of his own life.
Nietzsche on authenticity – regret nothing
Nietzsche holds that the highest affirmation of life is the desire for eternal recurrence.
Nietzsche: “The greatest weight – What if, some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and everything unutterable small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this though gained possession of you , it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become towards yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate confirmation and seal.
Heidegger on authenticity – authentic-being-towards-death
Heidegger holds that that the project of authenticity involves a person affirming the inescapable truths of the human condition.
…what Heidegger recognises is that people can have an authentic or inauthentic attitude towards the fact that they are going to die. …not surprisingly, people tend to acquire and authentic ‘I must die’ attitude as they grow older.
A key character of Nietzsche’s overman is his recognition and acceptance of his own mortality. The overman is a person who, through fully aware of his mortality, is not petrified with fear at the thought of it. He does not allow fear of death to prevent him from taking certain risks and living life to the full. Simone de Beauvoir argues that this attitude towards death is an essential characteristic of the adventurous person who value the affirmation of his freedom above timid self-preservation. ‘Even his death is not an evil since he is only a man so far as he is mortal: he must assume it as a natural limit of his life, as the risk implied by every step.’ Unadventurous people who fail to live life to the full because they fear death, still die. They die, however, never really have lived. This is what Shakespeare meant when he wrote, ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.’ (Julius Ceaser, II, ii)