The origins of Existentialism
Soren Kierkegaard was the first philosopher to actually
consider that he wrote about Existentialism. Since his time
existential approaches to philosophy about life have grown very
greatly in influence and also appeared in several forms
influenced by numerous writers and thinkers. In retrospect
several writers who lived before Kierkegaard are seen as having
been concerned with the same subject matter. All these earlier
and later writers works have influenced the modern world - and
perhaps by more than we can know.
Kierkegaard and Sartre
After the Second World War was there was a most notable
upsurgence of enthusuiasm amongst substantial sections of the
rising generation and the intelligentsia for philosophic ideas
concerned with existential approaches to life. The writer
principally looked to during this phase of the popularisation of
an atheistic and humanistic approach to Existentialist philosophy
was Jean Paul Sartre.
Well, what is Existentialism?
Existentialism is philosophical and literary tendency that
typically displays a dismissal of abstract theories that seek to
disguise the untidiness of actual human lives and emphasizes the
subjective realities of individual existence, individual freedom,
and individual choice. It is virtually impossible to define
absolutely as it is now so broad in its approaches but some of
its major strands can be outlined.
There is an emphasis on each person finding their own way
in life, on making choices, (including, in particular, all
serious and momentous life-choices), for oneself as one sees fit
without reliance on external standards or practice. This tendency
to effectively deny that there is an acceptable basis for moral
decision making diverges markedly from an earlier, and often
largely unquestioned faith-related, emphasis that there could be,
and indeed were, moral standards to which all might beneficially
Whereas an acceptance of moral standards could provide an
objective basis for making choices Existentialism's denial of the
existence of moral standards means that the primary basis for the
making of choices has to be subjective. Persons actively engaged
in situations may well make choices that are subjectively valid
in terms of themselves, there and then, but which might seem
questionable to a dispassionate observer.
There is a full acceptance that individuals are free to choose
their own path and an associated declaration that individuals
must accept the risk and responsibility of following their
commitment wherever it leads. Choices made tend to establish the
subsequent pattern of individuals lives and also profoundly
influence the ensuing nature and aspect of the person who makes
them. Even choosing not to make a choice is a form of choice
bringing with it consequences. People are inevitably faced with
choice in very many contexts.
One of the life choices Kierkegaard thought that people
could make, and the one that he chose for himself, was a life
fully aligned with faith.
In contrast to this Nietzsche, who was himself descended
from a recent background of Lutheran, clerical, ancestry
proclaimed that "God is dead" and went on to endorse an, heroic,
The respective approaches of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and
Sartre are considered in more detail on some of our other
The fashion for Existentialism after the Second World War
saw its influence pervading widely and deeply into journalism,
poetry, the playhouse, and the cinema. The outlook of the modern
world has been formed, perhaps more than we readily appreciate,
by Existentialist philosophy as advertised and sponsored from
Existentialist philosophy has developed two main aspects
i.e. "Christian" and "Humanist".
Apart from Kierkegaard's initial impetus the "Christian"
aspect has had such main contributors as the German Protestant
theologians Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann, the French Roman
Catholic theologian Gabriel Marcel, the Russian Orthodox
philosopher Nikolay Berdyayev, and the German Jewish philosopher
Apart from Nietzsche and Sartre the "Humanist" aspect can
claim to find representation in the works of European based
writers such as Jaspers, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Malraux, Camus and
Beckett and also such American based writers as Mailer and
Ralph Waldo Emerson
RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882) was, in his time, the leading voice of intellectual culture in the United States. He remains widely influential
to this day through his essays, lectures, poems, and philosophical writings.
In the later eighteen-twenties Ralph Waldo Emerson read, and was very significantly influenced by, a work by a French philosopher named Victor Cousin.
A key section of Cousin's work reads as follows:
"What is the business of history? What is the stuff of which it is made? Who is the personage of history? Man : evidently man and human nature.
There are many different elements in history. What are they? Evidently again, the elements of human nature. History is therefore the development of humanity,
and of humanity only; for nothing else but humanity develops itself, for nothing else than humanity is free. …
… Moreover, when we have all the elements, I mean all the essential elements, their mutual relations do, as it were, discover themselves. We draw from the
nature of these different elements, if not all their possible relations, at least their general and fundamental relations."
Introduction to the History of Philosophy (1829)
Even before he had first read Cousin, (in 1829), Emerson had expressed views in his private Journals which suggest that he accepted that Human Nature, and Human Beings, tend to display three identifiable aspects and orientations:
Imagine hope to be removed from the human breast & see how Society will sink, how the strong bands of order & improvement will be relaxed & what a deathlike stillness would take the place of the restless energies that now move the world. The scholar will extinguish his midnight lamp, the merchant will furl his white sails & bid them seek the deep no more. The anxious patriot who stood out for his country to the last & devised in the last beleagured citadel, profound schemes for its deliverance and aggrandizement, will sheathe his sword and blot his fame. Remove hope, & the world becomes a blank and rottenness.
(Journal entry made between October and December, 1823)
In all districts of all lands, in all the classes of communities thousands of minds are intently occupied, the merchant in his compting house, the mechanist over his plans, the statesman at his map, his treaty, & his tariff, the scholar in the skilful history & eloquence of antiquity, each stung to the quick with the desire of exalting himself to a hasty & yet unfound height above the level of his peers. Each is absorbed in the prospect of good accruing to himself but each is no less contributing to the utmost of his ability to fix & adorn human civilization.
(Journal entry of December, 1824)
Our neighbours are occupied with employments of infinite diversity. Some are intent on commercial speculations; some engage warmly in political contention; some are found all day long at their books …
(This dates from January - February, 1828)
The quotes from Emerson are reminiscent of a line from another "leading voice of intellectual culture" - William Shakespeare.
There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee.
William Shakespeare: Henry IV (Pt 1), Act I, Scene II
Plato, Socrates and Shakespeare endorse a 'Tripartite Soul' view of Human Nature. Platos' Republic