Very broadly speaking, all philosophy contains within it dialectical tensions: some ideas seem ennobling and consoling, others unsettling and alienating. Every school, movement, and individual thinker deals in some measure of both. Sometimes we feel unsettled because of historical and cultural distance. When Socrates talks about slavery or censorship in matter-of-fact ways, for example, we might be startled, but his audience didn’t see things the way we do. When it comes, however, to the Existentialists, the cultural and political milieu of these thinkers may resemble our own closely enough that statements which shocked their readers still shock most people today.
Take one of the bigger questions like, oh, the meaning of life. “We understand our lives as being meaningful,” says Hank Green above—brother of John Green, the other half of the Crash Course educational team. We might find purpose and fulfillment in a number of things, from religion to art, sports, careers, and politics.
Existentialists, Green tells us, would say that “any or all of these things can give your life meaning.” Consoling, eh? “But at the same time,” and here comes the downer, “they say none of them can.” These thinkers may be spread out over time and space—from the 19th century Denmark and Germany of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to the 1950s France of Sartre, De Beauvoir, and Camus. But Existentialist thinkers share at least one common trait: anti-essentialism.
As Green explains, classical philosophy offered the comforting explanation that everything contained an essence: “a certain set of core principles that are necessary or essential for a thing to be what it is.” Not only do chairs and tables have essences but so do human beings, they thought, and “your essence gives you a purpose.” Still a very widespread and commonplace belief, we can probably agree, and one people rarely think about critically unless they’re having… well, an existential crisis. So far so good when it comes to grasping the essence (sorry) of Existentialist thinking.
Green goes astray however, when he gets to Nietzsche, whom he claims embraced Nihilism, “the belief in the ultimate meaninglessness of life.” Not only did Nietzsche vehemently oppose nihilism as self-defeating, but he feared the consequences of its spread, even if he sometimes saw it as an inevitable product of modernity. Another important consideration when studying so-called Existentialist thinkers is that they themselves were deeply troubled by their troubling insights. Kierkegaard turned to a radical form of Christianity, Camus to an introspective individualism… and perhaps the most famous Existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, came to embrace doctrinaire Marxism.
But first, he formulated the most quotable maxim of Existentialist thought: “Existence precedes Essence.” From this, he drew a conclusion both troubling and consoling: “It’s up to each of us to determine who we are. We have to write our own essence through the way we choose to live.” But this liberated condition is absurd: it means we are ultimately responsible for everything we do, even when we have no idea what’s going to happen when we do it, or any larger purpose for doing it at all. Whether ardently religious like Kierkegaard or ardently atheist like Nietzsche and Sartre, Existentialist philosophers who stared into the void found there all of the boundless freedom and terrifying vertigo we came to associate with the neurosis of the modern human condition.