[Starting Points]

What Is Existentialism?

Part Three: Historical Antecedents

Back in May, I set out to write a blog post giving readers a basic introduction to existentialism. That turned out to be too big of a project for a single blog post so I limited that one to the key figures of French existentialism: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

I set out to cover the broader range of thinkers associated with existentialism in a July blog post, starting by outlining the sorts of themes that make a thinker “existentialist.” Giving an overview of existentialist themes ended up filling an entire blog post on its own as well.

So here’s my third attempt to say something about existentialist thinkers not named Sartre or Beauvoir. And surprise, surprise, it’s not the last in the series! Before getting into Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and the rest, I thought I should say something about their historical antecedents. Doing that has taken up enough space for one blog post. So I’ll hold off for another couple months before writing about existentialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Setting the Stage

A theme that was central to both of the last two blog posts—arguably the central theme of existentialism—is freedom. A lot of the constraints on my behaviour—what makes it such that I “have to” do this or that—are constraints that I’ve chosen in one way or another. To pretend otherwise—to act as if these constraints are imposed upon me and unchangeable—is to be in what Sartre calls “bad faith.”

What sorts of constraints do I have in mind? Well, what keeps you from living that more perfect life you seem to see just over the horizon, the life you’d live if only you could, if only you weren’t trapped in the dowdy, homespun, dullard of a life you’re leading? A whole manner of things, presumably. There’s family and other relationships. There’s a career and the need to keep yourself housed and fed. There’s the heavy pressure of convention, of wanting to play it safe, of taking your cues from custom.

Existentialist thinkers don’t tell us we have to ditch all these things. What they want us to ditch is that feeling that we can’t or must not ditch them. They want us to ditch that feeling of “have to” that frogmarches us into the future. It doesn’t have to be this way could be the rallying cry of existentialism. You’re free to live otherwise than you do, and if you hew to the life you’re leading, that, too, is your choice, and that choice is your responsibility.

This sort of thinking didn’t burst onto the scene in the nineteenth century. In this post I’ll sketch some precedents in antiquity, as well as one more recent figure who had a direct and decisive impact on subsequent existentialism.

Socrates (Wikimedia Commons)

Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE)

Socrates is one of the most interesting people who lived in 5th century BCE Athens, a time that was uncommonly rich in interesting people. Social graces and refined speech were a big part of Athenian public life and Socrates was stubbornly deficient in both. He was ugly, cantankerous, blunt in speech, and magnetically charismatic. Rather than play by the social rules everyone else followed, he openly questioned them, and often showed up the ignorance of his fellow Athenians by pressing them to justify their opinions.

Socrates stirred the pot a few too many times and his fellow citizens put him on trial for corrupting the youth and undermining traditional religion, found him guilty, and had him sentenced to death. Plato’s Apology presents a possibly fictionalized account of the speech Socrates made at his trial. It’s about 25 pages long and one of the finest pieces of writing in the philosophical tradition. Seriously, it’s worth a read.

You don’t see much apologizing in the Apology (the title derives from the Greek apologia, meaning a speech given in defense). Instead, you get Socrates explaining and defending his choice to live as he has—and his greater readiness to die than to stop philosophizing. Philosophy for him is the relentless pursuit of wisdom and virtue. For Socrates, inquiring into the nature of wisdom and virtue isn’t a means to the end of a good life. The inquiry is itself the central activity of a good life—hence his famous remark that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” To give up this activity of inquiry in order to preserve his life would be to choose to live badly rather than to die well.

As Christ became the model for later Christians (and more on him shortly), Socrates became the model for many later philosophers. His commitment to constant questioning that takes nothing as given and his stubborn refusal to bend to social pressures both figure in the existentialist ideal of authenticity.

Diogenes of Sinope (Wikimedia Commons)

Diogenes of Sinope (412/404–323 BCE)

“A Socrates gone mad” is how Plato described Diogenes. Where Socrates confined his philosophical provocations to dialogues with his fellow citizens, Diogenes made philosophy into a performance art. The anecdotes about Diogenes’ antics could fill a book (in fact they do). There’s the story of how he carried a lantern into the public market in broad daylight, saying he was looking for an honest man. There’s the story of how he masturbated in public, sighing, if only one could relieve one’s hunger by rubbing one’s belly. There’s the story of Alexander the Great seeking him out and ostentatiously granting him whatever he might wish, and Diogenes replying, stand out of my light.

There was a method to Diogenes’ madness. He felt his fellow citizens had become soft and luxurious and had fallen out of touch with basic human nature. Diogenes sought happiness and freedom by dispensing with all but the basic necessities. He lived in a large wine jug, exposed to the elements, and lived off what he could get by begging.

A central theme in existentialist thought is the artificiality and hypocrisy of so much of what passes for social existence. Diogenes has been a model and inspiration for those who want to buck convention and march to their own eccentric drummer.

Jesus of Nazareth (Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus of Nazareth (c. 4 BCE–c. 33 CE)

You may have heard of this fellow. To the Roman authorities, he was an unorthodox rabbi and rabble rouser out in one of their colonial outposts. To those who followed him, he was the incarnation of God who suffered and died to redeem our sins. Unexpectedly, that ragtag band of followers won decisively. In 380, the Emperor Theodosius I declared Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. To say “the rest is history” would be an understatement. Much of the last two thousand years of European history is an extended working out through history of the Christian religion.

What does any of this have to do with existentialism? First, so much of existentialist thought took shape against a Christian background. In my next post (although maybe I shouldn’t make any promises!), I’ll have things to say about Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, both of whom saw themselves as trying to retrieve the truth of Christianity from the corruptions of Christendom. Even Nietzsche, scourge of Christianity and author of a book called The Antichrist, had ambivalent feelings about Jesus himself. “In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross,” Nietzsche writes. And if you read my last blog post on existentialism, you’ll have seen my own attempt to characterize existentialism as a secular religion.

But let’s take some cues from the source. Like a good existentialist, Jesus challenges conventional sources of authority and urges people not to let their social roles constrain them from living a life devoted to the truth. To a would-be follower who first wants to bury his father, Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). In an electrifying passage, he says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34), saying that he will set families against one another because “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). To the familial bonds, social roles, and political imperatives that dictate what people “have to” do, Jesus says, no, you’re free, and you have a higher calling than this.

Epictetus (Wikimedia Commons)

Epictetus (c. 50–135)

Epictetus was not one for indulging bullshit. When his students complained that his strict Stoic doctrines were too demanding, he would berate them as slaves—slaves to custom, slaves to their own fears and desires, slaves to the opinion of others. And Epictetus knew a thing or two about slavery. Born a slave himself, he eventually found freedom and became a philosophy teacher in imperial Rome. He walked with a limp, said to be caused by a beating from a former master. He was perhaps the most charismatic teacher of Roman Stoicism, sternly insisting that we have no control over external events but only over our own will. How we respond to our circumstances is up to us and everything else is a matter of indifference.

Epictetus takes a hard line on freedom that finds resonance in the writings of Sartre and others. Don’t say you aren’t free, says Epictetus. All that “have to” talk is just so much cowardice. You face execution if you follow your conscience? Very well, you can still choose to lose your head rather than lose your self-respect. To complain that you have no choice in the matter is bad faith—Epictetus doesn’t use this Sartrean expression but he anticipates the idea.

Augustine of Hippo (Wikimedia Commons)

Augustine of Hippo (354–430)

Epictetus is often credited with bringing a modern concept of free will into philosophy. The other figure who could claim that honour is Saint Augustine, one of the most influential figures of the early church. Without the idea of freedom you find in Epictetus and Augustine, modern existentialism is scarcely imaginable.

Augustine’s Confessions offers an early template of the conversion narrative. Augustine tells the story of his journey from hardscrabble youth in north Africa to success as a teacher of rhetoric in Milan. Augustine has done very well by all conventional standards and yet he finds himself increasingly plagued by anxiety. It turns out that conventional success is hollow and a meaningful existence eludes him. The dam bursts in a moment of crisis in a garden in Milan where, overhearing a child’s voice, he picks up the Bible and is transformed.

Augustine’s journey sets a template not just for later Christian narratives of conversion but also for existentialist transformation. You have the bad before-times, where one leads an empty life of social respectability. You have the gnawing anxiety that intimates that there’s more to life than this conventional existence. And you have the liberating moment of breaking free from anxiety and finding one’s way to a more authentic life.  

Immanuel Kant (Wikimedia Commons)

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Let’s leave antiquity behind and consider one last thinker who predates the first flowerings of existentialism proper in the 19th century. Kant didn’t live in a wine jug like Diogenes or face execution like Socrates or Jesus. Kant himself lived a quiet, conventional life and he didn’t urge his readers to challenge social convention or march to their own drummer. Quite the contrary, his moral philosophy gives prominent place to duty and he famously urges us only to accept as moral principles those maxims we could will to be universal laws.

Nevertheless, Kant had a profound influence on existentialist thought because of the way he traces the source of moral authority back to the individual will. What would it take, Kant asks, for there to be such a thing as morality at all? A world without humans would be amoral. Earthquakes and volcanoes would rattle the landscape and predators would eat prey but none of this would be morally good or bad. Natural causes have no moral significance—and that goes for our own natural dispositions as well. It’s good if you have a kindly disposition but it’s not morally good any more than it’s morally good that a burst of rain quenches a parched landscape.

What makes an action morally good or bad, says Kant, is the character of the will that produces the action. It’s not what I do that counts but why I do it. And an analysis of why I do the things I do reveals the laws I live by. We’re moral agents because we’re the ultimate source of those laws. If I do whatever my parents tell me, I’m still the source of a law, namely the law that I must do whatever my parents tell me. As Kant puts it, human beings are autonomous: we are both subjects to the moral law and the authors of that law.

In effect, Kant says that the source of morality is to be found not in the world or in some divine authority but in the human will. We are the source of our own laws. Kant takes the idea of autonomy in a very different direction from the existentialist thinkers that came after him. But he prepares the intellectual ground for what comes later.

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