When we read about existentialism, we notice at the outset that the existentialist description of how we are in the world has an affinity with how the Buddha describes existence. However, the ways in which existentialists respond to the basic conditions of existence are very different to how the Buddha responds.
So, what is existentialism? Existentialism is a term loosely applied to the views of a cluster of individuals who shared some beliefs and ideas but in other respects were very different to each other. As a topical current of thought existentialism was particularly influential on the arts in the 1940’s, 50’s and early 60’s, and was popularly associated with European ‘beatniks’ (especially the left-bank Parisian café society centred on Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir) and with the development of ‘beat’ culture in the USA. Existentialism appeared in atheist, Jewish & Christian forms.
It is probably no coincidence to find existentialism emerging as a dominant cultural discourse in Europe (especially France) during the 1940’s. In France and other countries occupied by the Nazi-German power, questions of responsibility, freedom, choice and alienation were burning issues. Do we join the resistance, or do we collaborate? How do we cope with an oppressive regime we did not choose? How do we maintain our self-respect, or even our identity, within a state in which law and order has broken down, distrust is rife and ‘truth’ has become so hard to establish? These questions and conditions of life become central to philosophical debate.
Just noting some of the titles of existentialist texts gives a flavour of their contents: ‘Irrational Man’, ‘Being & Nothingness’, ‘Eithor/Or’, ‘Fear & Trembling’, ‘The Courage to Be’. Novels by Sartre (Nausea) and Camus (The Outsider) became best-sellers.
If we go back in our imaginations to the dark smoky bars of Paris in the 50’s, where pale-faced, intense, rather bleak young women exchanged Gauloises and silences with loose-sweatered older men, one phrase succeeds in overcoming both the silence and the smoke for long enough to become well-known: Existence precedes essence. Typically, the phrase appears both technical and precise, while remaining vague and difficult to open out into an explanation. But let’s try.
When we ponder on the concept of a chair, or a triangle or gravity, we have formed in our minds a certain essence or blueprint – characteristics essential to ~ chair, triangle or manifestation of gravity. We can form this essence in our minds even when there is no object or event in the world with this essence. For instance, we can formulate a concept of a unicorn before a unicorn has been observed or otherwise shown to exist.
With regard to almost everything Essence precedes existence. But, in the case of human beings, the situation just outlined is reversed. First a person IS: and WHAT they are is settled in the course of their existence and is not predetermined.
We awake one day to find ourselves in the world. We did not ask to be here. There is no obvious and certain reason for our being here. There is no obvious and certain reason for our remaining here. Nor is there an obvious and certain reason for our departing! And yet, here we are.
The human being, in their every action, defines their own essence. Every man and woman through the manner and course of their existence determines their own essence. Hence the aphorism: Existence precedes essence.
In a way we are
only saying that, of all beings, human being is the being of self-awareness,
self-consciousness. A being without a blueprint. We can hear echoes of Locke’s
doctrine that the mind is a tabula rasa
– a clean slate upon which we write our own identity and define what we are.
In Buddhist practice, the individual is also considered as having no fixed essence or ‘self’. We construct our identity and self from moment to moment. We grow, develop and revise our view of the world as we encounter new experiences. But our freedom is not infinite. We develop who we are in the light of causality (karma) and circumstance. We have freedom within an ever-changing web of conditions and circumstances – our interdependence with all beings and things in the world.
For the existentialists the most fundamental attribute of a human being, the cause of both satisfaction and dissatisfaction, is the capacity for choice. We are most truly human in our acts of choice.
The literature of existentialism reads like an interminable walk over hot coals – each moment of existence presents us with a dilemma: what are are to do? which way are we to go? Much of the humour and pathos of Samuel Beckett’s, Waiting for Godot, stems from the continual problems of decision-making, of wanting to do something but not being sure what to do.
The problem of choosing – of first becoming aware that we have the power, the duty, to choose, and then deciding on what basis to make the choice, and finally the act of choosing itself – becomes both the ultimate blessing of human beings and their lifelong curse. Sartre, particularly, presents us with the constant anguish of existence, the burden of becoming. In much of his writing there is a palpable sense of the enormous weight of our responsibility to choose if we are to remain fully human. Karl Jaspers concludes that a man who makes no decisions has no existence, or at most he exists like a thing rather than a human being. While the existentialist tends to feel the burden of choice, the Buddhist tends to feel the potential of choice – the possibilities for growth and realisation that arise from how we choose.
If choice is fundamental, human values become the subject of endless debate. The basis upon which we choose becomes a perpetual dilemma – for generations as for individuals. Sartre is quite explicit about this: The human being invents values. There are no pre-ordained values, there is no a priori meaning to life – nothing provided by God, state, history or evolution. Each person must choose alone, and through choice invent their values and hence their life’s meaning. No one else can do this for us – and if they did, they would deny us both our freedom and our humanity.
So, the existentialist argument moves from the notion of existence, to choice and to freedom. And from freedom to responsibility – for the freedom to choose places total responsibility on each individual. We each have to take full responsibility for what we are, what we have done, and what we will do. We are each our own invention, we make ourselves. This reinforces our sense of solitude, our anxiety. Sartre wrote: man is condemned to be free. Honesty, integrity, responsibility and authenticity are the highest virtues. Self-deception is the greatest vice. While, the Buddha might go along with this idea – his way of handling freedom and responsibility is very different.
One somewhat unexpected twist of existentialist thought compounds the burden of responsibility still further. In a sense, as human beings we make a choice as a representative of humanity. Not to choose would be to deny our humanity (and let the side down, so to speak). In making choices for ourselves we share a collective responsibility for the choices of everyone. This is not so far from Blake’s position: A robin red breast in a cage / Puts all heaven in a rage. Buddhist notions of interdependence, kinship and compassion are not dissimilar to existentialist ideas.
For a Christian existentialist like Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) the heart of being a Christian is the total absurdity of basing one’s faith (in Jesus and in Christ’s existence as the Son of God) on an event which is not open to scientific enquiry or proof. All our normal powers of reasoning, observation and discrimination fall by the wayside when confronted with such a perplexing mystery – every Christian has to take a leap into faith. Kierkegaard in the l840’s offers us an existential act of choosing as the cornerstone of Christian practice. Kierkegaard could never place the Church or the State above the individual. Day by day he seems to have sought his own path, his own identity, his own authentic existence. In doing so he questioned and renewed the fundamental meanings and beliefs of the Christian church.
Sartre’s novel, Nausea, is particularly concerned with existentialist notions of angst (anxiety) and alienation. Alienation, a sense of separateness from the world, from others, and from ourselves, inevitably arises as a result of dualistic thinking (and feeling). Existentialism tends to exaggerate the sense of self as an independent isolated entity. Existentialists struggle with the question of how to deal with the alienation that arises from this sense of isolation. Is there a way to heal the feeling of separateness, dislocation? How can we develop a more unified understanding and equanimity in the face of life’s difficulties? The Buddha also ponders on these questions, but he comes up with very different responses.
For Marx alienation is mirrored in class-division, hierarchical social orders and conflicts of interest – disputes about wealth, ownership, rights and justice. For Marx alienation can only be ended by a transformation of social conditions (private property, division of labour, class divisions, etc.). No wonder Sartre developed a form of ‘existentialist Marxism’ later in his career!
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir mounts a powerful critique of the ways in which, throughout history, women have been led to passively accept roles assigned to them by men, and thus feel a sense of alienation from their own powers of choice and self-determination.
QUESTIONS, NOT ANSWERS!
Existentialist philosophy does not propose solutions to the major questions posed by life – it uses philosophical analysis to drive home the questions themselves until they engage the whole person and are made personal, urgent and anguished. Abstract generalities are replaced by specific conditions. The clear and vibrant recognition of a human being’s existential solitude; an engaged awareness of ourselves, of others and of the world; our need for individual freedom and the burden of responsibility – are themes which run through all existentialist writing and art – and are themes that are also central to Buddhism, though handled and resolved in very different ways.
Even a brief reading of existentialist texts will present the reader with an abundance of despair, anguish, absurdity, nausea – a sense of pessimism perhaps and an over-emphasis on what could be called negative responses to life. Joy, equanimity, cheerfulness and love of life are not often very evident.
A Buddhist might go along with the tough existentialist analysis of the ‘human condition’ but draw from it, if not different conclusions, then markedly different attitudes to how to live life. For the existentialists, responsibility and choice too often seem like prison walls, rather than the doorways to freedom and growth as they are considered in Buddhism.
Thinkers, writers & artists often regarded as exponents of existentialism: Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), Karl Jaspers (1883-1669), Gabriel Marcel – Roman Catholic (1889-1973), Martin Buber (1878-1965), Miguel de Unamuno (1865-1936). Colin Wilson exemplified a popular and influential existentialist position in ‘The Outsider’. Samuel Beckett is often viewed as dealing with existential ideas and issues (see ‘Waiting for Godot’), as are Albert Camus and even Dostoevsky. Giacometti, Francis Bacon, and the work of Abstract Expressionists like de Kooning and particularly Pollock is often described in existentialist terms.
Barrett, W. (1990) Irrational Man, Anchor Books
Blackham, H.J. (1959) Six Existentialist Thinkers, Harper Torchbooks, 2nd Edn., N.York
Camus, A. (1960) The Outsider, Penguin
Kierkegaard, S. (1974) Either/Or, Princeton University Press
Sartre, J-P. (1986) Nausea, Penguin
Wilson, C. (2001) The Outsider, Phoenix Mass Market