Existentialism in a Time of Existential Threat

Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus

The philosophy of existentialism, especially in its French forms as represented by 20th Century thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus, is perhaps most well known for its central claim that “existence precedes essence.” What is generally meant by this claim is that when we are born, when we come into existence, we do not possess a ready-made Jeanhuman essence that we then somehow need to live into or develop into. There is not a given objective or universal answer to the question of what it means to be a human being that applies to all of humanity and for all time. There is not an objective set of values that applies to a human being as a human being. Rather we are each our own persons, we develop our own identities, we create our own meaning, and we determine our own values – at least this is what we do if we live authentically as free persons who are not defined by entities outside of ourselves and who live into an open future that is not dictated by fate or destiny forced upon us by outside factors.

In contrast to the objects in the world of being, the existentialists view the person as a subject, who is a kind “no thing” and who is able in the “nothing-ness” of subjectivity to disclose things about the being of our world. Persons are radically free subjects, makers of our own meaning, creators of our own values. This is both a kind of blessing and a kind of curse. We are radically free, but our radical freedom is scary, ambiguous, and anxiety provoking; and we often are tempted to escape this freedom and flee into the arms of the ready-made templates of meaning and value provided by society, culture, and religion. This escape from freedom leads to a loss of autonomy as we willingly become adherents to a cause or a meaning or a value system outside of our ourselves in which we lose our subjectivity and operate more like objects being controlled from without rather than living from the genuine freedom within. 

To live in a genuine or authentic way is to express a mature freedom that also accepts and takes responsibility for the effects of our freedom on others. Non-genuine or inauthentic forms of existence are those in which we allow ourselves to become objects rather than living as free subjects. When we allow others to define who we are and dictate to us the meaning of our life and the values that we hold, we become less than authentically free persons.

As persons, we are radically free, but we often express our freedom in ways that are not responsible and do not take into consideration the effects our actions have on other persons. We often give ourselves to causes, political movements, religions, and other external groups; and we tend lose ourselves to a cause in such a way that we allow it to usurp our freedom. When we lose ourselves to these external causes and forces and allow them to choose our meaning and value for us, we become prone to give up the responsibility that comes with genuine freedom and simply do what we are told to do. This can be extremely dangerous as history is littered with the atrocities committed by persons who have lost themselves to a cause in such a way that they justify the oppression of others and simply do what they are told to do, even if what they are told to do is evil.  These are the persons who become putty in the hands of ruthless authoritarian political and religious leaders and who often become willing to do great harm to themselves and others for the sake of the cause. 

This is why the existentialists remind us that true freedom comes with responsibility. As Simone de Beauvoir puts it, “We will ourselves to be free while also willing others to be free” (Ethics of Ambiguity). We freely create our own meaning and values while willing others to have the same opportunity. This means that we ought never to oppress others and that we ought to actively participate in bringing about the liberation of others when they experience oppression. Authentic freedom is expressed through the liberation of persons who have been cut off from their own freedom by the oppressive actions of others. 

As we live in a world of crisis and existential threat caused by authoritarianism, militarism, racism, poverty, and environmental destruction – all of which limit our freedom and lead to the oppression of others; existentialists call on us to live in freedom in active rebellion against the oppressive forces that keep people from being able to live in responsible freedom in our world. Actively living out responsible freedom in a world of existential threats requires actively working for the liberation of others, especially those who are the most vulnerable to the oppression of dehumanizing systems within our societies, but we must do so in such a way that we do not lose ourselves to some external entity but rather continue to will our own genuine freedom in the midst of a community of equal persons who also will their freedom. 

Perhaps if we heed this existentialist wisdom and live in authentic freedom for the sake of the liberation of all who are oppressed, we might be able to creatively, cooperatively, lovingly, and justly overcome the many existential threats facing our human and ecological communities. It certainly would be an improvement over the individualistic, selfish, and irresponsible notions of freedom that seem so prevalent in our society today. May we live in the radical freedom that expresses itself in radical responsibility so that all others may also be free. 


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