Existentialism in English Literature

Back in prehistoric Greece, Plato and Aristotle assumed that everything had an essence. A certain set of fundamental characteristics that are required for anything to be what it is. That object would be a different thing if those characteristics weren’t present. Now, Plato and Aristotle believed that everything, even ourselves, had an essence and they think that even before we are born, we already contain our essences. Our essence therefore provides us meaning. because our purpose when we are born is predetermined. Essentialism, as it is commonly called, was the dominant worldview until the late 19th century, and many individuals still hold it to this day.

But some intellectuals began to question the notion that humans are endowed with any essence or purpose in the latter half of the nineteenth century. For instance, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche held to nihilism, the idea that existence ultimately has no purpose. But by the middle of the 20th century, a way had been prepared for French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to revisit the issue of essence and pose the hypothetical question: What if we exist first? What if we don’t have a purpose built into us from birth? Then it will be up to us to discover our own essences?

Existence Precedes Essence:

The idea that “existence precedes essence” created the foundation for what is now known as existentialism. In other words, our birth comes first, followed by our existence. The choice of who we are then rests with each of us. Through the way we live, we must create our own essence. However, we lack a concrete goal and a fixed course that we must take. The radicalness of this concept at the time is difficult to describe. Because for thousands of years, we were not required to choose a route or discover our meaning. God did that for us. But it’s crucial to understand that existentialism is not the same as atheism.

Existentialism and atheism:

Many existentialists are atheists, but some of them, like Kierkegaard, are believers in God. Theistic existentialists reject the idea that God created the cosmos, our planet, or ourselves with a specific purpose in mind, which is known as teleology. According to them, God may exist, but he doesn’t give us, our life, or the universe purpose. As a result, we are all born into a cosmos in which there is no actual, intrinsic significance for ourselves, our surroundings, or our activities. This is a cornerstone idea of existentialism.

The main ideas of Existentialism:

Existentialism was first developed by intellectuals like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the late 19th century. But it truly came into its own during and after World War II, as the terrors of the mass killings led many people to give up all the beliefs of this organized world. But Sartre tackled meaninglessness directly, and investigates one of the most distressing facets of existentialism. Not the meaninglessness of the world, but its disgusting abundance of liberty or freedom. Freedom seems quite awesome to the majority of us. Sartre, though, felt that we are disturbingly, shockingly free.

Sartre interpreted this to suggest that humans are “condemned to be free,” which he thought was a terrible fate. The authorities we can think of are all fraudulent, despite the fact that you might believe there is one you can turn to for guidance. You can follow your parents’, church’s, or government’s instructions. But according to Sartre, those in charge are essentially just ordinary people like us. People who lack answers had to find their own means of living.

He came to the conclusion that living a genuine life is the finest thing we can really do. This is how Sartre used it to imply that we must fully acknowledge the absurdity of our freedom. We must understand that we are the one who gives our life purpose and meaning. If we choose to follow a route that someone else has given – whether it’s our parents, governmental authority or religion – then we have what he termed “bad faith”, a reluctance to accept the meaninglessness. Living in “bad faith” is equivalent to hiding your head in the sand and presuming that something out there has meaning – meaning that we didn’t give it. 

Many people would assume that existentialism presents a really hopeless view of the world. The French author and philosopher Albert Camus even pushed so far as to claim that the true purpose of life is whatever you’re doing to avoid yourself from committing suicide. However, the majority of existentialists would caution us that purpose can only be given to the world and our life if we choose to give it. If the world is purposeless by nature, we can choose to assign it any purpose we want. No one can thus tell us that our life is worthless if, for example, we don’t have children, don’t have a successful job, or meet the expectations of our parents. This applies to a global scale as well as an individual one.

Existentialism vs. Theatre of absurd:

Absurdity is typically thought of as something ludicrous or ridiculous. However, absurdity is a technical phrase among existentialists. It is how they explain the pursuit of solutions in a world devoid of solutions. We are animals in need of meaning, yet we are left alone in a meaningless cosmos. We scream in the wilderness but receive no answer. But we don’t stop screaming. For an existentialist, that is the epitome of absurdity. The world was not created for a purpose, and it does not exist for a purpose, as there is no teleology. There is also no absolute to follow since there is no reason for everything that happens, hence there is no cosmic justice, fairness, order, or laws.

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