Jan 24, 2007

existentialism is not a pessimism

Lately our school counselors have been talking a lot about choices, and a new program they're starting to reach at-risk students by having them examine and role-play several metaphorized methods of approaching responsibility and consequences.

It struck me this morning that it's like a stripped down version of Sartre, fun-size existentialism for the masses. Maybe that's not such a bad thing. As Robert C. Solomon writes, it's what our country needs now.
Why does existentialism have so much trouble shaking its nihilistic and gloomy image? To be sure, its leading promoters are rarely pictured with happy faces, but then how many philosophers in history have ever been depicted as smiling?

Yet few philosophers have displayed such unmitigated joy in their writing as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The latter wrote: "At long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again. Perhaps there has never been such an 'open sea.'"

Even Sartre, not only in his plays and novels but even in his heaviest philosophy, seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself. But when it comes to understanding the content of what they are doing, interpretations of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche seem utterly wedded to the thinkers' supposedly intimate concern with despair and nihilism. A perennial question (students love it for both term papers and doctoral theses) is whether Nietzsche was a nihilist or not.

The answer is a straightforward no. Nietzsche warned Europe of the encroachment of nihilism, which he associated with the Christian denial of life. Nevertheless, the association of Nietzsche and nihilism lingers, despite the fact that his whole philosophical effort is to provide an alternative to nihilistic thinking.

Kierkegaard — dutifully cited as author of The Concept of Dread — is often considered the modern inventor of the Absurd — a century before Camus. However, the ultimate indeterminacy of human existence and the need to make genuine choices (including the decision to believe in God, Kierkegaard's famous "leap of faith") lay at the heart of his whole philosophy, and those concepts were anything but negative. "Christianity is certainly not melancholy; it is, on the contrary, glad tidings — for the melancholy," he wrote. Furthermore, Kierkegaard never lets us forget that it is only through such acts of choice that we make ourselves into authentic "existing individuals." He even talks of "bliss."

So, too, in celebrating "the open sea" of possibilities that greets us after the death of God, Nietzsche aspires to a mood of unmitigated cheerfulness. Even Heidegger and Sartre, the grand old Mr. Cranky and Mr. Grumpy of German and French existentialism, respectively, aim not at despair but at a kind of rejuvenation. Sartre, in particular, claims, in response to a question about despair, that he has never experienced it in his whole life. (That may throw into question his credibility, but it's nonetheless instructive as to his broad philosophical outlook.)

Perhaps the wartime experiences of Mr. Cranky put him beyond the reach of any celebration of life, but Mr. Grumpy insists that existentialism provides an experience of incredible freedom, a feeling of responsibility that is not so much a "burden" as a matter of finding one's true self-identity. If nihilism and despair play any role in this picture, it is only as background against which existentialism is the ecstatic resistance. Responsibility and choice, picking oneself up by the bootstraps, are what this positive version of existentialism is all about.

We hear so much about "the burden of responsibility" that we forget the basic lesson of existentialism: that responsibilities enhance rather than encumber our existence. Call me naïve, but most people take on responsibilities because responsibility puts them in charge of their lives and defines just who they are. Most people who enter public service, for example, do not do so because of a selfish lust for power and wealth. They usually want to change things for the better, make a contribution, and even the most corrupt and vile politicians will confess a lingering hope that that is how they might be remembered. As Sartre constantly reminds us, we are what we do....

[A]s the proto-existentialist Johann Fichte once said: "What system of philosophy you hold depends wholly upon what manner of man you are." And if I am right that existentialism defines an important stream of American life and thought, especially its individualism and insistence on self-reliance, that means that we should become both aware of and critical regarding what that philosophy is and what it portends.
I agree with Solomon that existentialism isn't as dour and pessimistic as commonly conceived. Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism" is combatively optimistic, and refreshing in its tempered idealism.

My students' reaction to existentialism has been both enlightening and troubling: I know that many of them want the responsibility that comes with freedom, to adopt existentialist principles as a sort of virtue ethics. But I don't know if we in the public schools are virtuous enough to lead them to there.

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