"God is Dead", Atheism, Basic Writings of Existentialism, Bob Dylan, Christianity, Communism, Essay, existentialism, Existentialism and Human Emotions, free will, Great Courses, Individual Will, Jean-Paul Sartre, Kapital, Karl Marx, letter, Literary and Philosophical Essays, Margot Robbie, Marxism, No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life, Philosophy, religion, Robert C. Solomon, Totalitarianism, Wolf of WallStreet
I’m am greatly tempted to call myself an existentialist but I’ve never read Kapital by Karl Marx all the way through. I’ve never read Being and Nothingness either though so perhaps my desire for identity is just egomaniacal. This is all an overly distracting way of saying I’m thinking about adding another identity to myself alongside atheist, feminist, bisexual, and democrat, but the angry mob that chases me from place to place is already large enough and I don’t think adding angry philosophy professors and Marxists is really the best idea for this stage of life. Angry mobs are starting to unionize now and I can’t afford to pay for any more benefits, you understand of course.
I’m glad that you found the Nietzsche essay enjoyable, I’m positive that’s the first time that statement’s ever appeared in print, and I’m glad Charlie agrees with me that Margot Robbie is…is…
Ahem. I was uh…saying something.
I was happy to receive your letter, and in fact it was part of my motivation for beginning a new series of letters that we can share. If I understood, you correctly from a previous essay you have some questions about Existentialism. Let me be clear then. As with the atheist letters I am not placing myself as an authority of Existentialism as a movement for as of this writing I’m still learning the implications, ethos, methodology, and overall idea of the movement along with familiarizing myself with the writers who contributed the most to it. Like you, and I’m going off of your letter here, I was mostly taught that Existentialism was about meaninglessness of existence and how life was hollow and pointless and we were all going to die and there was no afterlife and so existence was pointless, the end.
Such is the cartoon character that is existentialism but not the reality. My little sister received the Great Courses audio lecture No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life taught by Robert C. Solomon, and I’m positive that my regular readers are getting sick of hearing his name because I’ve mentioned it in like five to six essays in the last two months. I keep returning to these lectures however B—– because they’ve had a profound, and I don’t use that word lightly here, impact upon me. It’s been a lovely experience for me because despite the popular image of Existentialists flipping coins next to dead horses and screaming “why” to the heavens with a clenched fist, the philosophy I’ve been studying is actually positive and life affirming. The reason I’ve warmed up to Existentialism is because I finally understand what the Philosophy is about and I find a lot of the ideas since with my worldview already.
From this lecture, along with my other readings, I’ve come to the conclusion that Existentialism places responsibility above everything else, upon the individual and the choices they make.
Existentialism can be a bit brusque concerning institutions like Christianity, but the lecturer Robert C. Solomon does an excellent job demonstrating that many of the writings of these philosophers really pushes towards this idea that human life is its own and that people can and should embrace their choices for there is not only their mettle but also their character. This idea of choice is fascinating, and also validating since I have no choice but to believe in free will.
That’s a philosophy joke in case you missed it.
While the series covered Camus, Kierkegaurd, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, the last philosopher that Dr. Solomon discusses is Jean-Paul Sartre and, it should be noted, Solomon dedicates the last three tapes out of twelve to the man and his work. This is understandable seeing as how Sartre was essentially the champion of the Existentialist movement, giving it not only its name but also scores of writings and arguments to support it and, at times, apologize for it. Sartre as a man and writer is interesting, for not only was he awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature he refused the award becoming one of the first, and possibly only writer, to have done so. He spent most of his life writing, and it has been said that he supposedly wrote 20 pages of text a day, and when you remember that he wrote literature, philosophy, newspaper articles, magazine articles this becomes understandable but also incredibly incredible.
It also reminds that I really need to stop getting distracted while I write. I mean I start a review of a biography about Jim Henson or a sermon by Johnathan Edwards, and half an hour later I find myself drooling onto my keyboard while Google has pulled up somewhere around 100-200 pictures of Margot Robbie, and those are just the Harley Quinn Suicide Squad photos.
Solomon’s lecture wasn’t my first encounter with Sartre however. I stumbled across Sartre originally when my wife and I moved into her parents’ garage in a small apartment that had shower and A/C. Along with that was a filing cabinet filled with many of my mother-in-law’s books ranging from The Annals of Imperial Rome to Leaves of Grass to a small yellowed book titled Literary and Philosophical Essays. This was my first taste of Sartre, and while I recognized his talents I was pushed that summer towards Camus’s The Stranger instead and so Sartre went back on the bookshelf. It wasn’t until a few weeks back when my friend Christie mentioned that she and her girlfriend were moving and needed to get rid of some books…and honestly I can’t remember what happened next because I heard the word books and I began to growl and beat my chest making a “hungry” gesture. In the pile was a Modern Library copy titled Basic Writings of Existentialism, and opening the book I spotted the name Sartre again and turned to a passage simply titled Existentialism.
The essay was in fact an excerpt from one of Sartre’s longer works, Existentialism and Human Emotions, and was nothing but an apology, in the more historical sense, for the school of thought. From the beginning he makes his intention and concern clear:
First, it has been charged with inviting people to remain in a kind of desperate quietism because since no solutions are possible, we should have to consider action in this world as quite impossible. We should then end up in a philosophy of contemplation; and since contemplation is a luxury, we come in the end to a bourgeois philosophy. The communists in particular have made these charges. (341).
Sartre is working against a multi-fold front, and not just that dude in your history class who laughs when you tell him you’re majoring in philosophy. That ass-clown aside, Sartre is in a position where he has to defend his philosophical movement from those who either misunderstand his argument, or else his harshest critics which in this moment happen to be the Marxists. From afar it’s easy to understand why someone would look upon Existentialism with its calls to the freedom of the individual and the vital necessary role it places upon the idea of choice, as an elitist philosophy. If you’re working three jobs just to make ends meet, if you have four or five kids to take care of, if you tend to a sick parents or spouse your time is being constantly spent managing and satisfying the needs of others and so contemplation really isn’t a concrete reality. The people who have “time” tend to be rich people and so communists, who tend to despise rich people, would look upon a philosophy that seems to be nothing but air-headed contemplation with contempt.
Sartre however is calling bullshit on this and continuing. By addressing the criticism of his second set of critics, Christians. Once he has he makes the following claim:
In any case, what can be said from the very beginning is that by existentialism we mean a doctrine which makes human life possible and, in addition, declares that every truth and every action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity. (343).
On the next page follows this with:
Can it be that what really scares them in the doctrine I shall try to present here is that it leaves to man a possibility of choice? To answer this question, we must re-examine it on a strictly philosophical plane. What is meant by the term existentialism? (343).
Before I get to that I should probably answer the immediate question put forth by my seasoned contester B——-: who the hell cares? It’s philosophy. It’s a bunch of bullshit that doesn’t really matter except to a few hipsters who listen to Dylan on Vinyl, smoke a hookah, and complain that Camus is so yesterday man.
First of all, kudos to my contester for finally nailing hipsters who smoke hookahs. Seriously puffing one of those is apparently worse than smoking cigarettes yet for some reason people do it. Second, unfortunately you’re wrong, both about philosophy and Dylan on Vinyl. Dylan is sick on Vinyl, and philosophy has more relevance to human existence than most people really recognize. Existentialism is not about Metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the nature of reality. Existentialism relies on the fact that there is a reality and that human beings occupy space within it. From there the life of man is about choices, but a second philosophic concern needs to be addressed.
Jean-Paul Sartre was an atheist, and apart from the Marxists who criticize the philosophy, Sartre spends a fair amount of the essay addressing the concerns of Christians who argue that Existentialism is inherently atheistic. Sartre doesn’t attempt to defend those existentialists who may be Christian, however it important to note B——– that Sartre does try to make sure that Existentialism is not declared nihilism.
In one passage he notes:
The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain kind of secular ethics which would like to abolish God with the least possible expense. About 1880, some French teachers tried to set up a secular ethics which went something like this: God is useless and costly hypothesis; we are discarding it; but, meanwhile, in order for there to be an ethics, a society, a civilization, it is essential that certain values be taken seriously and that they be considered as having a priori existence.
The existentialist, on the contrary, think is it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can be no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoievsky[sic] said, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible.” That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to. He can’t start making excuses for himself. (349).
The first paragraph bothers me terribly and the second paragraph is painfully familiar. I’ll address the first part B—–. I distinctly remember one moment from my Intro to Philosophy class, and not just Dr. Krebs’s Hawaiin shirts and cowboy boots. We were discussing Ethics and at one point, after I had confessed to the class that I was an atheist, I argued that solipsism was a ridiculous position because it violated the basic principle that you should try to avoid being a dick to people. I argued that morality, or at least basic virtue towards other human beings was important. One of the students who I regularly talked to in class immediately asked, “Well what do you care, you’re an atheist.” This comment leads me to the second paragraph. When I was struggling with recognizing that I was an atheist my first thought was “if there’s no god then why should I be a good person?” This idea is not original for the very fact that Dostoyevsky wrote it and he lived at least a hundred years before I did.
Human beings look to god to find morality because god is beyond mortal understanding, as such he is ideal and beyond mortal constraints. The conflict however is that often the model of god that many Christians worship is not a philosophical god, but a purely benevolent creature that is static and does work well with moral grey area. As such whenever Christians hear phrases like “God is Dead,” or “You Don’t need god to be moral,” there is usually a violent reaction. I can attest to this for when I still had my faith I clung to the idea that it because of god that humans, and by extension myself, had to be moral or else all chaos would ensue. The conflict with this is that it is bullshit and reveals painful weakness.
If the reason human beings are moral is because they believe god exists it says a great deal about their so-called morality. I do believe however that Sartre makes a mistake arguing that the absence of god is the start of existentialism for there were some existentialists who believe in god. Despite naysayers Nietzsche believed in some kind of divinity, and Søren Kierkegaard wrote many essays and tracts on Christianity. Sartre pushes atheism because he himself is an atheist, and anyone who assumes that they cannot be an existentialist and someone who believes in god is simply trying to apply a particular brand of existentialism.
Sartre finishes his essay by addressing the absence of god by pointing out that it really doesn’t matter:
It isn’t trying to plunge man into despair at all. But if one calls every attitude of unbelief despair, like the Christians, then the word is not being used in its original sense. Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing. There you’ve got our point of view. Not that we believe God exists, but we think that the problem of His existence is not the issue. (366-7).
Looking at this B—– I return to the image of the man lying in a ditch beside the dead horse and screaming “why” with clenched fist towards the heavens. While this letter has focused mostly on Sartre’s atheism in the essay Existentialism, I do want it to serve as a kind of starting point. Sartre points out that it doesn’t matter ultimately whether or not god exists because it isn’t god that will make an individual person’s life. Existentialism is first and foremost a philosophy that argues that choices are what makes human beings who they are, and in fact those choices create our reality. Living in the age that we do Existentialism seems all the more important to consider since our life is made up of choices:
- Do I vote for Hillary or Trump?
- Do I buy eggs this week or should I try yogurt?
- Should I watch the Deadpool or Labyrynth Honest Trailer?
- Should I watch Pound the Alarm or Telephone?
- Should I look for a job today or help my mother move?
- Should I vacuum or have a beer and watch a movie?
- Should I write, or should I do the dishes?
- Should I pick up cat food now or just wait till Sunday?
- Should I read The Hunger Games, or should I read that essay by Sartre that dude on that website wrote about?
- Should I watch CNN or FOX News?
- Should I be at all?
It may seem trivial or cliché from afar B——, but these little choices assume meaning for who we are, and what we make our life. Sartre’s essay is largely a defense, but it’s also a reminder that free will, or more importantly what we do with free will, is what makes our species unique. By adopting philosophies like Marxism or Christianity, both institutions that tend to usurp individual will, humans are rejecting the most important facet of their reality.
This is just a start B—-, and I’ll continue to try to answer any and all questions you have, and I’ll continue recommending books and essays for you to read. Just remember that personal ideologies and philosophies are never static. They are constantly being updated and altered and changed, and so right now Existentialism is young and flexible. Just keep writing and we’ll keep talking it out.
As the last part of your letter all I can say is, I told you so. Girls like it when you do stuff for them and don’t expect anything in return. For the record it’s kind of sad when you’re the woman I have to be telling you this stuff, but that’s reinforcing bad stereotypes. As per your second question, yes Margot Robbie is in Wolf of Wallstreet so it’s more than likely your girlfriend wants to watch it so she can see her naked, or else lounging seductively in a couch wearing nothing but her underwear and….and…
Anyway, have fun. I’m told it’s a good movie, then again it’s Scorsese so how could it not be? Until next time.
Sincerely, yours in the best of confidence and support,
Joshua “Jammer” Smith
If you were at all interested B—-, I found a blogpost about Sartre refusing the Nobel Prize. If you’re interested follow the link below:
I know I’ve mentioned Margot Robbie a lot in this essay B—–, but here’s a bit of a secret, I actually think Kate Micucci is a lot cuter, but then again I’m a sucker for brunette’s with a sharp sense of humor.