I am taking a class on the existentialism at the UTC, this is a naive, but sincere essay:
When one lives an authentic life, the set of values one lives by are one’s own. The developmental psychology refers to the values being “interiorised”. For the existentialists, especially for the atheist bunch, like Camus and Sartre, this was a tall order. Without God, with the world being unreasonable, and the life full of absurdity it was difficult to create a system and call it their own.
And yet, the thesis of my paper argues that both of them, Camus and Sartre, were obsessed with moral issues and authenticity. The second part of the thesis (and of the paper) will attempt to make the reader consider the idea that the world is not absurd. Instead, it is tautological, full of bootstrapping (in the good tradition of Baron Munchausen), which might look like absurd.
For Camus the world is absurd. Mr Meursault from “The Stranger’ is perfectly normal, logical, reasonable man. This leads him straight under the guillotine. Even more absurd is the fact that he is not punished for killing a man but for not crying at his mother’s funeral. And if we are not able to figure out the reason for living, the logical solution is to consider suicide. “Does the Absurd dictate death?” Camus asks in the essay “Suicide: the only truly serious philosophical problem”(page 3). This problem “calls for an unjust- in other words, logical-thought” and “it is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end.” (idem, page 3). We live a practical life, as he called it, fairly well, but if we start to ask big questions the meaning of life become elusive and vague. We have to find our happiness in absurd. Whether going every day to the senseless, repetitive work or pushing a big rock up, and up, eternally, it doesn’t matter. Logical, bourgeois Sisyphus is tortured, but by embracing the absurdity of Universe, the life without meaning- this open doors to happiness. “At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.“( Albert Camus. “The myth of Sisyphus” pdf, page 121).
From Camus and Sartre (and yours truly, too) perspective, it seems that living in the twentieth century provided a lot of evidence that all the established rules, myths and morals are to be trampled and destroyed. The Germans, an ancient nation of genius musicians and philosophers go crazy, murder savagely 6 millions of members of another ancient and wise nation, not to mention 8 millions of other less ancient guys. The world unites to defeat them, then immediately splits into two camps working earnestly to annihilate the planet. The old Russia creates communism, heaven on earth at last, then quickly transforms it into one huge concentration camp. Black and brown and yellow people suddenly decided to be equal us, whites, have their rights and have their own, free countries. And the philosophy and science are not far behind: god is dead, but Schrodinger’s cat only maybe dead, atoms are mostly empty, and maybe they are just waves, the relativity and uncertainty are the names of the game.
Our Western civilisation is fiercely individualistic, we have to make our own choice. Camus’ writing shows how these choices, while logical, lead to absurdity, but his style is lighter, more “athletic”, more dealing with the body, the women, the beach.
Sartre is more abstract, artificial and stuck-up. His fighting against the bourgeois philosophy is more fierce, desperate, maybe revealing the ambivalence related to his personal past.
Contradicting oneself and lying to oneself, consciously or subconsciously, seems unavoidable, but Sartre makes out of “bad faith” whole philosophy. “Bad faith then has in appearance the structure of falsehood. Only what changes everything is the fact that in bad faith it is from myself that I am hiding the truth. Thus, the duality of the deceiver and the deceived does not exist here. Bad faith, on the contrary, implies, in essence, the unity of a single consciousness. “ Sartre, “Bad faith” (pdf, page 3). Being sincere which is opposite of bad faith is easier said than done. The more one is trying to figure out who you really are, the weaker are one’s chances to become, to be spontaneous, sincere and authentic. It seems that only the loving and compassionate relationship with the Other can save the day ( and make Sartre flip-up in his coffin) but this is already “ post- existentialistic new-ageism”…
Back in “No exit” Sartre shows that bourgeois social values are deeply absurd , which makes our relationships suspicious and actually a priori a condemned failures. “There is no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is -other people” jeers Garcin (page 45 ).
So , while existentialism is preoccupied with being authentic, in the same time makes it almost unattainable. The traditional values of the “enlightened West” were a really easy target. The religion and capitalism, the materialistic and conservative bourgeoisie went in flames in Camus and Sartre’s writings, and, I would say, good riddance.
But it is much easier to demolish the old values and systems than to build the new ones- ask Nietzsche.
Still, if we’d be up to building an imaginary New Order, I’d respect Camus and Sartre’s rebellion ( and nausea ) and I’d take from each of them at least one valuable lesson. From Camus I would take his humanness. He experienced a terrible fatherless childhood, he was condemned to be a stranger in his native Algeria and a stranger in beloved Paris, even stranger to his own body, with a chronic cough and tuberculosis. And yet, he managed to love the earthly pleasures, had a beautiful smile, played soccer, loved women and wine, naturally counterbalancing the philosophy of absurd and social rebellion.
From Sartre I would take his brilliant insight about being subject and the object in the same time. Being an individual, self, living in the subjective world demanded continuous choices and the desperate search for ultimate freedom. Being seen by other, being and object required sticking to his principles: anti-establishment at all costs, tormenting himself with denouncing the family, the democracy, and common sense as the tainted values of traditional western civilisation.
I grew up in the post-war Poland, where to the previously mentioned list of twentieth-century follies we could add some local ones. “Liberated” from German occupation by (of all possible “liberators”) our eternal nemesis, Russia, Poland falls into 45 years of the twilight zone. Poland is independent, but ruled by Russia, there is no freedom, but people talk freely, sometimes people are arrested, but most often not, there were elections but there was no choice etc, etc. Naturally the intellectual elite, so-called “inteligencja”, was fascinated by the existentialism and absurdism. So I sucked it with the mother’s milk, all the jokes were absurd… “do not worry if one of your legs is shorter: the other one is longer!” But I become a scientist and a doctor instead, or maybe it is why.
My intellectual journey took me from the theories of immunity to the theory of evolution, from Darwin, via Dalai Lama to Varela and Evan Thompson. At the beginning of the essay I defined the authentic life as the life led according to values which are my own. And I was wrong, or at most half right. The term “authentic” comes, I think, from the world of arts. It means true, not fake, but not only that. Nobody would call authentic the real picture made by a 6 years old child. The second, slightly hidden part of the term is “master”. The “authentic “ means “original, by a true master”. So the same, even more hidden, assumed, is the part of the “authentic life” definition. It is assumed, well, I assumed and naively thought that everybody did, that when I’d followed my deep values, my true heart, when I’d be spontaneous, authentic, becoming – I would do good. It is enough to shed off all the pretense, all social anxiety, fears and hypocrisy – and one stands naked, like a sculpture of the Greek god inside the block of marble for the ancient master sculptor. Just chop off these unnecessary stones and one will be beautiful and virtuous. This is where the guys mentioned in the beginning of this extremely long paragraph come in. The Great Myth of the Human Nature.
I do not find this assumption in the writings of Camus and Sartre. Maybe I did not read enough, maybe they just did not have enough optimism. I imagine that they experienced so much evil, saw so much negativity in the world, that the absurd, the” no sense”, nothingness was somewhat an improvement, sensible point to start being.
In the Sartre’s talking about the Other I find an aura of a foreboding distrust and anxiety. “For example, the potentiality of the dark corner becomes a given possibility of hiding in the corner by the sole fact that the Other can pass beyond it toward his possibility of illuminating the corner with his flashlight. This possibility is there, and I apprehend but as absent, as in the Other; I apprehend it through my anguish and through my decision to give up this hiding place which is “too risky” (Sartre, Being and Nothingness, pdf, page 264). A little boy in the evil world of Others.
But, by Jove, this Other is our only hope! We are hypersocial species, every human baby ( I know about babies) builds her world with the pieces of the worlds of Others. First the Mom, then the rest of the family, then the teachers the friends, the society… We take, we soak “the existence” of Others, put it in our brains and hearts as “observations” or “experiences” and then , and only then, they become the pieces of our personal world, “our essence”. This set of data, at first very simple, emotional and primordial, later more sophisticated and complex create our world. Our brain can not heap these experiences “as they come”, randomly dump them in the memory, like we cannot learn the language from the dictionary. As the brain structure develops as the myriads of neurons migrates and connects according to genes and the environment, creating a human being, these experiences, in the similar fashion, create the rules and beliefs and paradigms. This is similar to Chomsky’s language structure- this is genes-led-experience-becoming-knowledge structure. That is the worldview. One’s world and the worldview is being built simultaneously, from the birth to the day one dies.
So, I believe, the existentialist were right, l’existence précède l’essence, but the world is not absurd. We see our world through the prism of human nature, a solid, species-specific brain architecture and its content, our worldview. These are our stories and it is all that is. This includes The Myth of Human Nature. And our darling dance of nature versus nurture, or facticity versus transcendence will always be with us. The trick is to practice being mindful of it.
Camus, Albert. The stranger, First Vintage International Edition, March 1989.
Camus,Albert. Suicide: the only truly serious philosophical problem. (pdf )
Camus,Albert. The myth of Sisyphus (pdf)
Sartre,Jean-Paul. No exit and three other plays, Vintage International Edition, October 1989.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Bad Faith (pdf)
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