The Words of the Reinhardt Family

A Perspective on Existentialism

Sara Reinhardt
April 1971

We often hear or use the term "existentialist" today, but not always is the use accurate or understood. Existentialism as a formal philosophy was founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, along with Albert Camus and a few close associates, in France during and immediately following the Second World War.

What is common to existentialists in general is their emphasis on man: that man is personally responsible for what he is and what he does, that there are no values external to man and no given human nature which he is obliged to has free will and chooses his values and makes himself. There is at times a sharp division between the religious and the atheistic existentialists, and it is here, in fact, that Carus and Sartre found differences in their thought, even as they began the formal presentation of the philosophy.

Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish thinker often looked to as the "father" of existentialism, provides us with an understanding of how this way of thought developed and what its original direction looked like. All existentialists have been most concerned about man's present state: the human condition, and man can do in the "here and now". Kierkegaard wrote out of a sense of duty to all Christians and he hoped to make clear and more meaningful the individual's commitment to a way of life that would assert the dignity of man and the primacy of his Creator.

Also common to existentialists in general is the stress of the concept that man is separated from his Creator, and therefore he experiences a desire to continually become what he is not: to move ever on into a future making choices and improving upon his character. Earlier philosophers, including Plato, felt that human nature was definable, and that each man, in order to be a man, had to fulfill that nature in order to have a meaningful life. Existentialists, coming during and after the Renaissance, saw the individuality of each man and the tremendous particularity within nature. In order to account for man's free will and his ability to change direction at any point in his life, existentialism developed a humanism that leaves man with the responsibility for each and every one of his choices.

There are quite important differences between Kierkegaard and Sartre that clearly outlined, would help us to understand the flexibility of the term "existentialist". Sartre, in considering whether there is a God, and whether man has a universal standard of value he derives from God, refuses to admit that man has any inborn sense of ultimate and absolute values. Instead, he claims man is alone in the universe, and faces the continual necessity to make choices involving value, thereby creating as he chooses, what his character shall be. The only describable human nature man has at birth is that of a being with free will "being-for-itself"). There is another type of being in the universe, that of "being-in-itself". The former applies to all human beings, who move ever into the future, toward a completion, a cessation of choice: death. Being-in-itself can last longer, but has no free will, no development of character, or life project: material objects belong to this category.

So, according to Sartre, because we have no universal standard, and we stand alone, separated not only from a Creator, but all other beings-for-themselves, we are forlorn, and face anguish in all our choices, even if it is only momentary anguish. We have responsibility for all that we are and we are obligated to choose wisely, as we choose for all men, in each of our actions. This is to say that we are examples to all other men of what we believe in what we have dedicated ourselves to, and what our character consists of, and that our responsibility is to strive for a higher example.

Kierkegaard, on this point, comes very close to Sartre. He claims that what is universal, eternal and true is different from what is particular, fleeting and false. But man can aspire to the universal when he chooses, and Kierkegaard prescribes this for us.

Being an individual, according to Kierkegaard, is the most difficult and yet the only worthwhile achievement available to man. Man needs a unifying passion by which he expresses his being, be it love, poetry, power, music, evil (as in Genet). Faith is a way of life, and to Kierkegaard this highest passion (faith) permeates a man's choices throughout his life. Choosing and living from faith is one way of being a true m al; for Kierkegaard it is the only way.

He also suggests one should not make decisions that affirm that man is God, but rather decisions that affirm that man is himself non-substantial, that God is truly the only value. Kierkegaard offers us three levels of choice: man can remain a part of the crowd, in which case he may never assert his individuality; he may make choices such that he is involved in affirming the beauty, significance, and primacy of the universal over the particular, in which case he will most likely be considered a devout man, or, he may live according to faith, from which his choices might appall the ordinary man, or worse, go unnoticed, for this way of living requires choosing the particular as it overcomes, and supersedes the universal. It is to this latter category that Kierkegaard addresses the action of Abraham in the sacrifice of Isaac, as told to us in the Bible.

There are important differences among all of the existential philosophers, but they each have contribution to make toward understanding mankind. All writers analyze the freedom of the individual man. Differences occur in their understandings of the implications of this freedom. What kind of response is called for? This has been called the "Existential Age" because our seemingly limitless opportunities and choices have tended to eclipse a basic, universal standard of value.

Existentialism, in its emphasis on mankind, has directed philosophers' attention to more concrete questions concerning the human condition. It is to be welcomed as a trend of thought with possibilities for freeing individuals from obsolete ways of thinking, both secular and religious. Existentialism takes us to the threshold of the questions: life or death? From here on it is up to each of us, as individuals and as mankind. To the extent that we answer the question in our actions, and to the extent that we share that answer, 

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