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An Encounter with Existentialism
Existentialism is a philosophical movement that began in the 1830’s with Soren Kierkegaard. The movement also developed during the period of time between the first and second world wars (1914 – 1950). However, the philosophy of existentialism attained great popularity after the close of World War II, thanks in part to the literary endeavors of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. The movement began, however, a century earlier in Denmark when Soren Kierkegaard first presented existentialist principles through his writing. Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) is “generally considered to be the ‘father’ of the movement."[1] However, it was Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980) who, in modern and post-modern times, contributed largely to the prominence of the movement through his plays and novels which helped to spread existentialist thinking. In addition to Sartre, the following figures are well-known writers also associated with the movement: Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett. These figures have established their ideas broadly and they can be found in their writings, which will be discussed later in this paper. Existentialism deals with interpreting, explaining and espousing beliefs about one’s own existence for one’s self. In less abstract terms, it can be interpreted to mean that it is my decision to give whatever meaning to my life that I wish. Existentialism does not attempt to calculate or quantify human existence, nor does it rely upon the sciences--ironically, it is only after God is declared dead by Nietzsche, and after the nature of empirical inquiry is widely accepted in academia and, to some extent at least, public consciousness, that a philosophy such as this can thrive, so it can be said that existentialism owes something to science. In Kierkegaard, the challenge of existence “is to find a truth that is truth for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”[2] It can be said that this simple statement, intrinsically at least, stands at odds with virtually all known theological doctrine. Yet, Kierkegaard reconciled his existential beliefs with his religious faith. Were he to have consulted a logician, he might have arrived thusly: that the most direct syllogistic rationalization would be that if the best truth for me is the truth that there is indeed a supernatural creator, then, this is the truth for which I can live and die. It is the sort of logic that even Christopher Hitchens might not argue with--then again, he might indeed heap a good deal of scorn upon it. Yet, unlike Hitchens, Kierkegaard is not as concerned with logic in this instance; rather he is content to couch his theological belief as a leap of faith, as we shall discuss later. Existentialism can be considered as a reaction to nihilism, which claims life and the world to have no intrinsic meaning and/or purpose. This belief is pronounced by materialists (again, see the work of the late Christopher Hitchens) who believe that our every atom, from our fingernails to our sense of consciousness is chemical in composition, and that what we are results from the interaction of our constituent elements--which is to say that there is no divine or supernatural process at work. Nihilism, as an outlook, is also pronounced by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 1880’s when he famously claimed that “God is dead.”[3] Born in the eastern part of Germany, in Röcken (now a part of the town of Lützen), Nietzsche was particularly interested in the works and philosophies of Aristotle and Plato. Two of his greatest influences include a German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Charles Darwin with his Theory of Evolution. Nietzsche believes that religion could never be a noble foundation or rationale part of a person’s life – “…I call Christianity the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion."[4] Nietzsche theorizes that Christian values were used by powerful forces to stimulate a kind of “slave...
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