Mr. Helle/ IB English 12
The Way We Live Our Lives
In our individual routines, each and every one of us strives to be the best that we are capable of being. How peculiar this is; we aim for similar goals, yet the methods we enact are unique. Just as no two people have the same fingerprint, no two have identical theories on how to live life. While some follow religious outlines to aspire to a level of oral excellence, others pursue different approaches. Toward the end of the Nineteenth-Century and on through the mid-Twentieth, a movement followed existentialism, a philosophical theory of life, in order to achieve such a level. Even though the idea of existentialism is complex, individualism, freedom of choice, responsibility, and alienation. Certain themes are common amongst philosophers and authors: moral fundamental to understanding existentialism is the conception of moral individualism. Existentialism rejects traditional ethical endeavors (Barrett, William). Philosophers since the time of Aristotle, circa Third-Century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), have held that everyone should aim for a common peak of ethical achievement. Aristotle argued for the existence of a divine being, described as the Prime Mover, who is responsible for the unity and purposefulness of nature. In order for humanity to attain such a climax, everyone must imitate The Almighty’s perfect profile. Aristotle’s basic philosophy deduces that humanity strives for an identical peak of moral excellence, as judged by a higher being (Aristotle Kemerling, Garth).
Existentialism declares that the individual must choose his way; there is no predetermination. Since the universe is meaningless and absurd, people must set their own ethical standards. The universe does not predetermine moral rules. Each person strives toward a unique moral perfection. The Nineteenth-Century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who was the first writer to call himself existential, reacted against tradition by insisting that the highest good for the individual is to find his uniqueness. His journal reads, ‘I must find a truth that is true for me … the idea for which I can live or die (Kierkegaard Kemerling, Garth). Existentialists believe that morality depends on the individual, rather than a Supreme Being (Rohmann, Chris).
Next to moral individualism, the inevitability of choice is the most prominent existentialist theory. Existentialism asserts that people do not have a fixed nature, as other animals and plants do. Our choices determine who we are. The Twentieth-Century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre proclaimed that the most Important choice is the choice of us. Each character makes choices that create his nature. Existence suggests freedom where mankind is open to a future that is determined by choice and action. Choice is inescapable and central to human existence; the refusal to choose is a choice. Even when a person seems to be acting out a given’ role or following given values — for example, by The Almighty, or by society — he is in fact choosing to do so (Sartre Kemerling, Garth). Individuals are free to choose their own destination. Hence, they must accept the risk and responsibility of following their commitment.
Since man’s choices cannot be universally judged, Existentialists propose a framework for which responsibility can be recognized. This outline does not tell individuals what and how to choose; rather it implies that there are right and wrong ways
of choosing. Usually through situations such as death, struggle, guilt, anxiety, nausea, or anguish, one becomes aware of responsibility (right versus wrong). Kierkegaard mentioned that an individual must experience dread, fear of specific objects such as the Almighty, to recognize responsibility (May, Rollo).
Existentialists regard responsibilities as personal and subjective (existing only in the mind; illusionary), considering people decide morality, not a Supreme Being. Existentialists have insisted that personal experiences and acting on one’s own convictions are essential in arriving at the truth. Accordingly, truth is subjective. Thus, the understanding of a situation by someone involved in that situation Is superior to that of observers. Even though one person may view a situation as immoral, existentialism maintains that only those involved can determine morality (May, Rollo).
Existential novels and short stories include themes of moral individualism, freedom of choice, and responsibility, as well as alienation from the world. Franz Kafka, an existential writer, expressed his views in the short story’ The Metamorphosis. In this tale, the hero, a hardworking insurance agent, awakens to discover that he has turned into an enormous insect, four feet in length. He recognizes his familial rejection as he is left to die alone (Metamorphosis Kafka, Franz). Many Existentialists focus on an absurd nightmare of the world and life.
Another major theme is the world itself specifically what can be known about it. A pre-existentialist writer, the novelist Dostoevski, said that the universe does not make sense. There are no underlying patterns that can be perceived by everyone, on the basis of which everyone agrees: This is what the world is all about. Life, and the world itself, is often unpredictable and capricious (Timur, Gunung).
All attempts to find or impose an order on the world must fail because no single human mind nor all human minds together can adequately perceive all possible facts, make sense of them, and put them into an ordered scheme. If there were such an order or scheme, it would mean that everything is determined as it is for the flower and the fish. Humans would not have free choice but would be fated to whatever course their lives take (Edwards, Paul).
This inability to comprehend the world is compounded by individuals’ inability to gain a thorough understanding of other people or even of themselves. The meanings of their own mental processes, emotions, and motivations are never entirely clear to them as they try to make sense of themselves and the larger and smaller worlds in which they live. If there is a standard of truth outside them, they must select it and commit themselves to it, though they are unable to prove the certainty of such a truth.
Barrett, William. What is Existentialism? New York, 1964.
Edwards, Paul. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York, 1967.
May, Rollo. Existential Psychology. New York, 1969.
Rohmann, Chris. A world of Ideas. New York, 1999
Kemerling, Garth. www.philosophypags.com/ph/aris.htm
Kemerling, Garth. www.philosophypags.com/ph/kier.htm
Kemerling, Garth. www.philosophypags.com/ph/sart.htm
Timur, Gunung. http://home1.swipnet.se/~w-15266/cultur/fyodor/index.htm