(I enjoy writing on topics of philosophy from time to time – if this kind of thing isn’t your bag, I won’t be offended if you don’t finish reading this post – LOL!)
One of the primary foci for existentialist writers is the concept of human experience. They lead us to ask the questions, “Where is meaning in life found?” and “What does it mean for us to experience the world as a subject?” In delving into how we might answer such questions, we discover that there are many themes that the existentialists use as angles from which to approach these questions. In this short post, I will outline three of these notions: “freedom,” “absurdity,” and the “leap of faith.” Reflecting on how each of these notions might look in a concrete, real-life experience, I hope we might glean a basic understanding of the implications behind the original questions above as we hope to cultivate an appetite for further study of the existentialist writers.
The first notion to be considered is that of “absurdity.” While the concept of “the absurd” is dealt with by many philosophers, our focus will be that of Albert Camus and his work, The Myth of Sisyphus. Written about the same time as The Stranger, Sisyphus is a work that is perhaps meant by Camus to complement the darker view of the world of The Stranger. Whereas The Stranger is presented as a philosophy narrative form, Sisyphus takes the form a philosophical theory.
Overall, Camus’ philosophy, and the philosophy of existentialists in general, could be summed in the belief that “life is the point of life.” While the classical worldview and its overtones of objectivity would tend to evaluate the possibility of life’s meaning based upon some external standard or set of standards, an existentialist like Camus would reject such an exterior perspective. To illustrate this point, Camus turns to the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, the story about a man who is eternally condemned by the gods to a futile task. Sisyphus’ daily routine involved rolling a large and heavy rock up a hill each day, only to have the rock roll back down the hill. This eternal task was futile and absurd. Why? Each day Sisyphus would toil and labor to perform a task that would ultimately be undone at day’s end. There was no point. His existence, therefore, was absurd. However, Camus would suggest that the life of Sisyphus was only absurd because we are viewing it from our perspective and not from the perspective of Sisyphus. In other words, we are viewing the situation from the outside, much like we would view a person who is screaming into the receiver while inside a soundproof telephone booth. Neither situation makes sense to us, and both are absurd because we are not the subject of either experience.
To Sisyphus, however, the experience may not seem so absurd. It may very well be that in his years of pushing the rock up the hill, he has come to love – and love passionately – his task. He has come to love being outside and near the mountains. He has come to appreciate the contours and the beauty of the rock. All in all, Sisyphus may have found meaning in the experience itself even though such meaning is unavailable to the external observer. Similarly, there is meaning in the phone booth even though it, at least to us on the outside, seems absurd. If this is the case, then what are we to make of this concept of “absurdity?” Is its value isolated merely to that of an obscure philosophical theory? Or does it somewhere contain an element of wisdom that may enrich the quality our lives? The answer lies, most likely, somewhere in between.
Even though Camus was an atheist, he believed that God’s existence, were it to be proven, would be irrelevant to the fact that “death makes life absurd.” Any way you look at it, life is boring, futile and pointless. The fact that we die and leave nothing of significance is illustrative of such. Furthermore, as I will discuss in the next section, death can even be seen as a blessing in the sense that it provides us a way of escape from such eternal boredom – an escape that Sisyphus never had the opportunity to enjoy.
This brings us back to Camus’ primary belief that “life is the point of life.” If, viewed from the outside, our completed lives were meaningless, then we are pressed to find meaning within our own personal and subjective experiences. The meaning for which we search, rather than being found in the relation of our lives to some external and objective standard, is to be found within ourselves and within our own lives. If so, how then might Camus’ philosophy be seen in a contemporary example?
Imagine a university economics professor who is passionate about capitalism. All his life has been devoted to the advancement of the capitalist ideology in the minds and lives of his students. After a “successful” career of over forty years teaching at the university, the professor dies. He has certainly left a legacy of capitalist ideology, but the year after his death witnesses a communist revolution and the eradication of any capitalist ideas from society. Ten years after his death, there is not even a whisper of capitalistic thought anywhere in the country. His best students have either been killed or forced to “convert” to communism. As a result of these events, we look back at all the hard work and toil in which he was engaged during life and are forced to confess that his life was futile and absurd. From the present and external point of view, his life had little or no meaning. However, if we were to go back several years and walk through his life in his shoes and experience what he experienced from his own perspective, we might find a life full of rich meaning indeed. This is the heart of Camus’ message and the existentialist message in general: life is the point of life. As long as you are looking outside your own perspective and outside your own experience in an effort to find meaning, you will miss where meaning truly resides, which is in your own subjective experience.
The next notion I will address is related to the first. In the concept of absurdity, we found Camus positing the idea that “death makes life absurd.” In this section of the post, I will explore the existentialist notion of how death, or at least one’s acceptance of the reality of his or her own future death, brings freedom.
In Durrenmatt’s The Tunnel, we are invited to participate in an experience that is headed toward disaster. A student boards a train and finds, after entering a tunnel, that the train is beginning to travel faster and faster, and is beginning to point downward. Ultimately, the train is headed straight down in a type of nosedive from which there is obviously no hope of recovery. The train continues downward, gaining speed, while the prospect of any hope that the situation will be safely resolved rapidly deteriorates. This story is, among other things, illustrative of the immanency of death. Like the passengers on the train, people board life expecting to arrive at some destination which will provide fulfillment, only to discover that the final stop is the end of existence itself.
The existentialists seem to suggest that many people fail to experience life to its fullest capacity because they have yet to accept the reality of their own death. These people falsely believe that the meaning of their lives will be found in some objective destination when, in actuality, such fulfillment is to be found in the journey itself. Because such people mistakenly believe this, they are kept from experiencing the life that is found in the journey. This is where the concept of “death as freedom” comes into play.
In The Tunnel, the student and the conductor experience various stages of coping as their train races toward the darkness and as the situation grows more horrifying. Similarly, people go through many stages in life when confronted with the reality of their own mortality. Some block it, some ignore it, and others rationalize it while still others deny it. In any case, all such options fall short of acceptance of death, which, for existentialists, is the point that must be reached if freedom is to be achieved. At the point a person can embrace, acknowledge, and take hold of the fact that he is going to die, he can then begin to truly live. Now that he understands that “life is the point of life,” he has the freedom to experience that life. He is no longer under the illusion that the train will one day arrive at some desired destination, but that the train’s end is the very end of existence itself. The absence of such an illusion now brings clarity and color to the ride itself. Hence, for existentialists, the reality of death brings the possibility and even realization of freedom.
The final pertinent notion is that of the “leap of faith.” This notion relates primarily to the writings of Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher who attributed situations regarding ethics and religion to the realm of subjectivity. According to Kierkegaards’s thinking, there are certain questions that arise in one’s consideration of religion that simply cannot be verified objectively. When such a question arises, one must make a decision as to whether or not to commit. If a commitment is made, it should be followed with passionate action. This is referred to as a “leap of faith.”
The name, “Billy Graham,” is a familiar one to many from the evangelical tradition in America. One of the most well-known Christian evangelists, Graham has communicated his message to multiplied millions of people over the past sixty plus years. As a matter of fact, he is a figure to whom many Christians look as the example of man who is “full of faith.” However, many people are not familiar with an interesting aspect of his faith journey regarding his position on the Bible. In his autobiography, Graham reflects upon when he was a young man searching for the truths about God and His Word. He was familiar with many of the criticisms of Scripture and realized that certain passages seemed to present some difficulty. In telling this story, Graham acknowledges that there was a point in which he had to make a decision and commit to the Bible being God’s inspired and infallible Word. After making that decision, Graham says he never went back to considering critical questions about the Bible.
Now, with the example of Billy Graham, we see what looks like a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith.” Many evangelicals, myself included, would choose to deal more extensively with the criticisms aimed at the Bible. We would point to the objective truth of the Bible and assert that all criticisms of Scripture can be plausibly and effectively defended. In essence, we would not agree that a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” is required to believe in the absolute truth of Scripture. Graham, however, did seem to make such a leap of faith. His acknowledgement of the possibility of alleged biblical inconsistencies put forth by certain scholars of the early 1900’s thrust the young minister into something of an existential crisis. Graham reacted by taking a leap of faith and never turning back. As a result of his passionate and inward commitment, the kind of commitment Kierkegaard calls us to, Graham’s ministry has continued to gain momentum and has ultimately become one of the most successful in the history of the modern Christian Church.
There are many other existentialist themes that can be explored including issues such as the paradox of subjectivity, trans-valuation of values, authenticity and even self-deception. However, this brief post has focused on freedom, absurdity, and the leap of faith. In these themes we can begin to form a general understanding of the existentialists’ message and can use the themes as a springboard for further study and reflection.