INTRODUCTION TO PHILOSOPHY
DALLAS M. ROARK
Perhaps more than any other philosophy, existentialism is difficult to define. Calling it the philosophy of existence makes no great progress toward a definition until existence is defined. Moreover, existentialism seems to be associated with a famous name like Sartre and yet "he does not even represent . . . the deepest impulse of this philosophy."1 Definition by identification with well-known names not only does not give content but may mislead because such a variety of names (and disciplines) are connected frequently with existentialism. Sören Kierkegaard (pronounced ker-ke-gor) is considered the father of the movement, but he probably would not claim Nietzsche, Heidegger, or Camus as his intellectual progeny.
Walter Kaufmann says that the common feature drawing the movement together may be its intense individualism.2 But in a sense every philosopher is an intense individual but more particularly those giants of history such as Socrates, Pascal, Marx, and others. Can we legitimately group these under the heading of existentialism?
A thumbnail definition that is frequently given for existentialism is that it is a philosophy stressing human existence as opposed to movements that submerge man's existence. If the emphasis of distinction is placed upon man's existence, how is it different from humanism? It may be looked upon as a form of humanism, but humanism often stresses a rational, scientific attitude toward life. Existentialism, paradoxically, uses reason to denounce reason as well as the scientific enterprise because it depersonalizes humans.
The difficulty of defining existentialism encourages one to explore some
of the themes and emphases. We will do this. It will help us to see
existentialism as a philosophy that stresses one particular set of themes
over against other philosophies stressing different sets of themes. If one
is not too happy with this approach and other definitions, one may be pushed
to say that an existentialist is anyone who says he is an existentialist.
This is yet a problem since some "existentialists" deny the use of the term
for themselves although other philosophers classify them as such.
1. Existence precedes essence.
Jean-Paul Sartre has written: "What is meant hereby saying that existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself."3 Thus man begins as a zero, a nothing, and then only becomes something. Hence man defines the meaning of his existence and beyond man there is no meaning to explain
Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), a Russian born novelist, is considered a precursor of existentialism. He was banished to Siberia for 8 years for being a member of a utopian society. His novels are filled with philosophical and ethical issues. Among the better known are Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov.
existence. Sartre also wrote: "Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life."
The statement that existence precedes essence means that there is no human nature or human prototype to which all men ultimately conform. The word essence is most generally associated with a common element in all humanity. But in Sartre there is no human nature which can be known--this would require the existence of God to know it--and men are all different. Man makes himself and if he doesn't, he does not arrive.
The sentence containing the phrase existence precedes essence has been described by Paul Tillich as "the most despairing and the most courageous sentence in all Existentialist literature."5 It is courageous in that man is the sole director of his destiny. It is despairing in that after all is said and done, life's meaning which I alone have made, may be, after all, meaningless.
But not all existentialists adhere to the idea that existence precedes essence, a fact which complicates the use of the theme in the definition. Gabriel Marcel noted, in his Mystery of Being, that he must diametrically oppose Sartre on the issue of existence preceding essence: "My existence as a living being precedes this discovery of myself as a living being. One might even say that, by a fatal necessity, I pre-exist myself."6 Marcel proceeds to show that man's existence is not an isolated phenomenon, but it is a gift that is developed through participation with other people--hence inter-subjectivity. Instead of the Sartean conclusion that Hell is other people, man cannot be without other people. Hence from Marcel's viewpoint, it is impossible to know oneself without the help of others. He concluded that Sartre's view is inadequate for framing a definition of one man let alone many men.
2. Existentialism is concerned with personality.
Modern existentialists have lived through many diverse attempts to restrict human freedom believed to be necessary for the development of man's personality. Berdyaev was a refugee of the Russian revolution, Sartre and Marcel experienced the occupation of France by the Nazis, Heidegger was for a time a supporter of the Nazi regime in Germany, Jaspers lived through the era also and one may catalogue other men such as Tillich who fled to America. It is not strange that many have written profound works on the development of man as a person.
Berdyaev wrote: "Our conception of man must be founded upon the conception of personality. True anthropology is bound to be personalistic."7 Nietzsche's overman concept reflects his understanding of man's personality and the possibilities of self-transcendence. Kierkegaard's profound work, The Sickness Unto Death, depicts man's personality around the relation of the body to soul and the soul and body to God. Tillich's The Courage to Be analyzes the different personality types and their responses to despair. His basic concern is how man can be truly man.
Many existentialists are interested in man as a person, man in his freedom, man's coming to affirm himself--without coming to accept carte blanche anyone's system of philosophy. Systems of philosophy are particularly denounced because systems are said to emphasize the universal while the individual is frequently overlooked. The savage attack upon "The System" by Kierkegaard indicates something of the salvage activity of existentialism when it insists that it cannot build until the old foundations are torn away. Thus any definition of existentialism that deals with personality must also deal with the negative--those elements in life that negate personality.
Thus concern with man's personality means that Existentialism must move beyond an isolated interest in man's thinking ability. Man does think, but he is a willing creature, a fearing, anxious being, a desiring, imaginative being. The conclusion of Descartes that man exists because he thinks is not the full story. What does it mean to exist as a personality? This requires thinking, but thinking concludes for more than mere thought.
3. Existentialism is concerned with being.
What is Being? Existentialists answer the question differently, but it is a significant theme. Being is more than objective knowledge derived via scientific techniques. Marcel speaks of this as primary and secondary reflection. Primary reflection relates to mere scientific knowledge, but beyond this there is the search for Being which cannot be reached scientifically, yet it is related to experience. The significant experience that a person has, says Marcel, is related to other persons, or involves what he called inter-subjectivity. One begins to know Being in inter-subjective relationships. Marcel noted: "I concern myself with being only in so far as I have more or less distinct consciousness of the underlying unity which ties me to other beings of whose reality I already have a preliminary notion."8 In contrast to Sartre famous dictum "Hell is other people," Marcel asserted that one knows less about being from an egocentric perspective than from a perspective of knowing other persons. Nevertheless, Marcel related being personally to the knowing of one's personal spiritual existence.9 In a yet larger sense, inter-subjectivity may relate to God whereby man in prayer knows the being of God and being which he is himself.
Kierkegaard similarly spoke of man's being in an inter-subjective manner. In Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard spoke of the self as a relation to itself and to the Eternal self. Without both relationships (or inter-subjective experiences, to use Marcel's terms) man is not yet a self.10
Karl Jaspers wrote of being under the term Comprehensive. He noted:
Clearly being as such cannot be an object. Everything that becomes an object for me breaks away from the Comprehensive in confronting me, while I break away from it as subject. For the I, the object is a determinate being. The Comprehensive remains obscure to my consciousness. It becomes clear only through objects, and takes on greater clarity as the objects become more conscious and more clear. The Comprehensive does not itself become an object but is manifested in the dichotomy of I and object. It remains itself
a background, but it is always the Comprehensive.11
Other existentialists, Sartre and Heidegger, for example, get no further than man as the basic concept of being. It may be noted also that a narrow definition of being with reference to man would result in a smaller definition of personality.
4. Existentialism stresses man's bodily existence.
Kierkegaard's definition of man is that he is, among other things, a relation to a body. Generally, existentialists reject the ancient philosophical doctrine of the body as the prison house of the soul whereby escaping from the body is to be desired. For the more pessimistic existentialists escape from the body is an escape to no-where, non-existence, since life after death is rejected. For the optimistic philosophers the body takes on new importance as it relates to the immaterial element in man's existence.
Man confronts other bodies as a body. Man's whole world of feeling and inter-subjectivity is manifested through a body. The primary interest in the body for the existentialist is not on the analytical line in which the body is said to have this or that chemistry, subject to disease and filled with needs. Rather, using what Marcel called secondary reflection, one must speak of the body as my body which is possessive and intimate. "My body" implies a rejection of old-line philosophical questions of the body-soul relationship which were answered on the lines of parallelism or interactionism between two different things. In affirming my body, I lay claim to what cannot be claimed by anyone else.12 By the same token I have responsibility for its sustenance, its discipline, and its self-control. To recognize the body is to recognize personal existence. The personal existence that emerges is that of a non-material sort that possesses or manifests itself in body. Marcel noted: "The self that owns things can never even in thought, be reduced to a completely dematerialized ego."13
The body occupies space in the world as it protrudes itself in space and is a kind of instrument for the self. As long as it is my body the existential view of the self will not degenerate into crass materialism.
It is to be noted that the conclusions reached about the body come from secondary reflection or a phenomenological description of man's everyday experience. Marcel, for one, regards this as vital and necessary for man's existence since living life spontaneously is to live life on a lower level. With secondary reflection, there comes a means of rising from one level of life to another.
This leads naturally to a comment about the quality of life that existentialists have advocated. As a rule it is not impulsively hedonistic; rather it has gone in the direction of self-discipline as can be noted in Marcel, Kierkegaard, and even Nietzche, whose concept of the overman means that man transcends himself. He is in control of his body.
5. Existentialism is an analysis of man's world.
Man lives in a "broken world." His broken existence can be described from the standpoint of alienation. "Alienation is a multi-dimensional phenomenon, psychological, psychopathological, and sociological, for it concerns the individual as well as the group."14 What has brought man to this point? In part, the history of the past one hundred years can offer some help in looking at the matter. During this time the world has seen vast technological changes as seen in space travel, satellite communication, heart transplants, and vast industrial and military complexes. Advancing technology--presumably for man's good--has come at the expense of humanity's personal advancement. Personality became submerged beneath massive production systems, men became alienated from nature in the asphalt culture of the city, men became alienated from one another, from meaningful community units, and meaninglessness of existence has come to the front as manifested in music, art, some philosophies, and the general appeal of the occult.
Alienation also has a specifically religious overtone in some philosophers who view not only the cultural problems that man faces as man, but also his alienation from God which is related to the cultural dilemmas man faces.
In consequence, existentialism raises a mighty protest against collectivism, whether it be in democratic conformism, or marxist collectivism, or a military-industrial complex. It not only protests mass movements that deny or degrade personality but existentialists of all types attempt to show man a way back to his "authentic" self--whatever that may be in the specific philosopher's view. Since the crisis of technology is not in the past, but in the future, man is increasingly threatened with meaninglessness and non-being. Heinemann suggests two alternatives: (l) slavery under bureaucratic control in which man degenerates in brainpower and loses spiritual vitality, or (2) an awakening in man recognizing his spiritual existence as a basis of his struggle against slavery and advocacy of a world in which humanity is treated as human.15
6. Existentialism and the phenomenological method.
If existentialism has a method of investigation, it is in the use of phenomenology. Certain men are committed to the method of phenomenology rather than necessarily the philosophy of phenomenology. Lauer declared concerning phenomenology:
As a method it outlines the steps which must be taken in order to arrive at the pure phenomenon, wherein is revealed the very essence not only of appearances but also of that which appears. As a philosophy it claims to give necessary, essential knowledge of that which is, since contingent existence cannot change what reason has recognized as the very essence of its object.16
Sartre's large work, Being and Nothingness seeks to give a phenomenological description of being. Others like Marcel, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger are good examples of philosophers who employ the method of phenomenology.
7. Existentialism may be termed a literary movement.
Many of the existentialists are popular play-writers. Sartre is perhaps the best known in America as exhibited in his No Exit, The Flies, and The Respectful Prostitute. Lesser known are the plays of Gabriel Marcel.
In addition to the theater, novels and short stories serve as a literary means of conveying philosophical points of view. The simplicity of a play has more far-reaching impacts than an abstract philosophical treatise such as Sartre's Being and Nothingness.
A play or novel arouses reflective thinking in a way that an essay in philosophy would not. Moreover, Marcel says on this: "One might nevertheless say that it is the function proper to drama to arouse secondary reflection in us . . .17
Not all existentialists have been literary people producing for the theater. Other styles such as allegory and journals played an important media for both Kierkegaard and Marcel.
These specialized approaches to communication must not omit the straight-forward direct communication of ideas along traditional philosophical methods of argumentation.
In summary, it is evident that a good definition of existentialism is
difficult to produce because existentialism is, by the nature of the
movement, against narrow, hard-bound classification.
I. Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
Sören Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen where he spent most of his life. Inheritance brought independence for literary activities and he never held an academic post as did so many other philosophers. As the father of modern existentialism, Kierkegaard did not get full recognition until the twentieth century. As a religious existentialist, he attempted to reintroduce Christianity into Christendom. While contemplating at an outdoor cafe in Copenhagen he pondered his vocational calling. He mused that most people attempted to make life easier than it had been. His vocation would be to make life harder. He attempted to shake off the identification of Hegelianism with Christianity. He regarded Hegelianism as a perversion of Christian thought. History has borne out that assessment and many will agree with Copleston's remark over a century later: "I agree with McTaggart, who was not himself a Christian believer, when he points out that as an ally of Christianity Hegelianism is 'an enemy in disguise--the least evident, but the most dangerous.'"18 Kierkegaard was convinced that Hegel's thought was a subversion of Christianity and sought to expose it. He is important for many themes involving concepts of man's despair, dread, and aesthetic, ethical, and religious man, but this would take us beyond the brief survey under our four headings.
Kierkegaard has not left us a metaphysical analysis of existence or reality. Hence what may be put together will constitute conclusions from ideas impending upon such a metaphysic. We can mention certain implications of his thinking. First, in reference to knowing reality. He affirmed a "mild" empiricism, that is, the scientific method was of value in many ways, but its knowledge goes in the direction of impersonal laws and man may be reduced to a "manipulator of scientific instruments, a point of departure in the exploration of the material world."19 When the same method is applied to man and is regarded as the only way of studying man, then human values are lost.
Second, Kierkegaard rejected both naturalism and idealism as wild options in a world view. Naturalism, the idea that nature is the sum total of reality, is rejected because there is Being beyond the phenomena available to man's vision and scientific method. Idealism, the philosophy asserting an Absolute Spirit which is the totality of all, blurs the distinction between man and God. While he did not attempt to develop a metaphysic in actuality, Kierkegaard affirms a Christian realism in which both mind and matter are necessary elements for understanding the universe. Reality has derived its being from God, but matter and God are not interchangeable terms.
Third, reality and transcendence. "All contemporary existentialists agree that human existence is set off from non-human reality by the note of transcendence."20 Even existentialists who deny the existence of God yet affirm man's potential transcendence of himself. But Kierkegaard stresses not just a pagan fulfillment of human capabilities or potentialities. Rather, man can transcend himself and experience the Transcendent. The Transcendent experienced by man aids in the transcendence of humanity's problems wherein man can become a new creature, a transformed rather than a reformed being. Transcendence usually means a casting aside of this world and its values, and there is this truth in Kierkegaard, but there is also a re-affirmation of human life now because the Transcendent has become incarnate in history. This incarnation of God in Jesus Christ declares that God is not unconcerned about human existence, nor is humanity so far beneath him that he is unmoved by it.
Man is one of the most important categories of Kierkegaard. His definition of man, although abstract, is vital to his thinking and is, indeed, related to the matter of transcendence above. "Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite."21 To put it another way, "The self as spirit is the natural synthesis of body and soul become conscious of itself and free with respect to itself."22 It may yet be said another way that man is "a synthesis of soul and body supported by spirit." The definition emphasizes the synthesis which relates man's existence to God.
Kierkegaard rejected the Hegelian definition of man as a being of
possibility and actuality resulting in necessity; rather man is a "synthesis
of possibility and necessity, leading to a novel and inviolable actuality."23
This distinction may seem a matter of words but Kierkegaard sought to keep
man from submerging himself into divinity, and the emphasis on necessity
Man is not defined by the crowd or a cultural stance. Kierkegaard distrusted crowds and he coined a famous saying that the crowd is untruth. Although environment helps to mold man, yet man cannot be defined by environment. Every man has the power to leave the crowd and its influence over him, to become an uncommon man. The uncommon man is the free man and this liberation can come about only as man relates to God who enables this liberation.
Kierkegaard furnished a significant analysis of man's problem and condition. Man is sick unto death. His sickness? Despair!
Whence then comes this despair? From the relation wherein the synthesis relates itself to itself, in that God who made man a relationship lets this go as it were out of his hand, that is, in the fact that the relation relates itself to itself.24
Man's sickness is not man's whole story. Loneliness is not man's original condition. His sickness indicates a drastic change from a past good health. Despair of infinitude reflects a man's desire to become infinite via phantasy but paradoxically the more one commits oneself to phantasy the more one loses of oneself. The despair of finitude reflects indifference to the realm of selfhood. The despair of possibility reflects the lack of necessity or the lack of a stable point of evaluation from which the self can be measured. The despair of necessity reflects the lack of possibility, or reflects the fruit of a fatalistic attitude toward existence. The despair of the sensuous man reflects the lack of willing to be one's real self. The despair over the Eternal admits the need for faith but dwells on the despair of weakness. The most adamant form of despair is that of defiance. Here the self rejects the synthesis, or relation with the Infinite, and seeks to be itself in spite of the Infinite.
Man's problem, or despair, for Kierkegaard, is related to the fact of sin. "Sin is this: before God, or with the conception of God, to be in despair at not willing to be oneself, or in despair at willing to be oneself."25 Sin is not a few well-known vices; rather vices proceed from the spiritlessness of the self. Sin takes three forms: (l) the sin of despairing over one's sin, as seen in the example of the man who despairingly declares: "I can never forgive myself for it."26 (2) The sin of despairing of the forgiveness of sins, meaning that one will not admit the possibility of the forgiveness of sins; (3) the sin of abandoning Christianity or declaring it false. When this is done, Kierkegaard maintains, no hope is left.
Kierkegaard concluded his work on despair by saying that existence is serious. The Incarnation is a serious act of God and as for man, "the seriousness in this seriousness is that everyone shall have an opinion about it."27
Kierkegaard's view of God is crucial for this whole system of thinking. Hence the view of Hegel, his opponent, is important. Hegel regarded the Absolute as the sum total of reality. This Absolute Spirit is a process of self-reflection taking place in man. Thus knowledge of man is a knowledge of God, and the Absolute knows itself in the self-reflection of man. This pantheizing view can hardly be identified with traditional theism, or philosophy of God's existence. But the matter was complicated in that Hegel regarded his philosophy as the absolute philosophy and Christianity as the absolute religion. Moreover Christianity stood or fell with his philosophy.
Kierkegaard rejected both the philosophy of Hegel as well as the identification of Hegelianism with Christianity. For our purposes, we will deal with only two issues in Kierkegaard's thought: religious knowledge and cultural religion.
In his Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard raised the question of knowledge in general and religious knowledge in particular. How can the Truth be known? Under the guise of the Socratic proposal, Kierkegaard elaborated the view of Hegel as a system in which knowledge is innate in man because he has the divine in him, or the Absolute comes to self-reflection in man. The role of a teacher--Socrates--is merely to ask the right questions to trigger the inward response of knowledge. Anyone--philosopher or charwoman--can be a mid-wife of ideas. No fees need be paid for the learner may also be the occasion for teaching the teacher. On Hegel's ground, since man is the self-reflecting process of the Absolute, man need only look within himself to secure a knowledge of the Absolute.
In contrast, Kierkegaard proposes another alternative. Suppose that the learner is ignorant, or is in a state of untruth, what happens then? Or, suppose that man is not the Absolute in a self-reflecting process. What is the role of the Teacher? If this is true, the Teacher becomes all important. Since the learner is in a state of Untruth he must also be given the condition for receiving the truth. But any teacher who can do this is more than an ordinary teacher. In this alternative the teacher is God. How does God appear on the scene? Kierkegaard's answer is found in the Incarnation, or the Christian idea that God took manhood to himself in the person of Jesus, the Christ.
The motivation for the incarnation is love. Love takes the initiative and seeks equality, but man and God are not equals. The incarnation does three things: (l) it makes a meaningful knowledge of God understandable, for God comes himself, (2) it makes redemption or reconciliation of man back to God possible, and (3) it preserves the idea of the holy which was demolished in Hegel's pantheism.
Kierkegaard's story of the anxiety of the king reveals some of these ideas in an allegory. The king was mighty and every nation feared his wrath. He had fallen in love with a commoner, but like all men he was anxious when it came to getting married. The thought that entered his kingly mind was this: "Would she be able to summon confidence enough never to remember what the king wished only to forget that he was a king and that she was a humble maiden?" The king was anxious lest she reflect upon this and rob her of happiness. If the marriage were unequal the beauty of their love would be lost. A number of alternatives could be suggested to the king. First, he could elevate the maiden to his side and forget the inequality. But there was always the possible thought coming into her heart that after all she was a commoner and he was the king. Such a marriage could be consummated but love would never be on the basis of equality. Second, should someone suggest that the king could display his majesty, pomp, and glory she would fall down and worship him, to be humbled by the fact that so great a favor was being bestowed upon her. To this the king would undoubtedly demand the execution of the person suggesting this as high treason against his beloved. The king could not enter into a relationship such as this. The kingly dilemma is solved in the third alternative; the king should descend and thereby give up his throne to become a commoner for the purpose of loving the maiden as an equal.
Kierkegaard then applied this story to the relationship between God and man. God could have elevated man into his presence and transfigured him to fill his life with joy for eternity. But the king, knowing the human heart, would not stand for this, for it would end only in self-deception. To this Kierkegaard said, "No one is so terribly deceived as he who does not suspect it."28 On the other hand, God could have brought worship "causing him to forget himself over divine apparition."29 Such a procedure would have possibly pleased man but it would not have pleased the king "who desired not his own glorification but the maiden's."30 This is an impossible alternative also because of God's holiness. Regarding this Kierkegaard said,
There once lived a people who had a profound understanding of the divine. This people thought that no man could see God and live--who grasps this contradiction of sorrow; not to reveal oneself is the death of love, to reveal oneself is the death of the beloved.31
The holiness of God revealed to sinful man would have brought the destruction of man. Thus the alternative for bringing the union of God and man is the same as for the King.
Since we have found that the union could not be brought about by the elevation it must be attempted by the descent. In order that the union may be brought about God must become the equal of such a one and so he will appear in the lives of the humblest, for the humblest is one who must serve others. God will therefore appear in the form of a servant.32
Thus the Incarnation and its meaning for religious knowledge.
The other item about religion is equally important. Hegelian philosophy permeated the Church of Denmark in Kierkegaard's day. To be born into the state and its church was the same as being born a Christian. A state church was suspect. This made the parsons--a term frequently used by him--royal functionaries. And royal functionaries have nothing to do with Christianity. He rebelled against the identification of religion and Christianity. His Attack Upon Christendom is a sharp polemic upon a watered down version of Christianity. Unlike some existentialists who ignore or attack religion in general or Christianity in particular, he sought to criticize it from within, hoping to restore it to its apostolic, or original quality. In this he was interested in provoking thought on what it means to be a Christian. Does one express the essence of Christianity on the basis of attending the Sunday sermon, and submitting to certain religious rites in the church, i.e., baptism, confirmation, marriage and death? By no means, said Kierkegaard, to be a Christian is to be committed to Christ. Contemporaneity with Christ means that faith involves a living vital relationship with a living Savior. There are no disciples at second-hand, nor is there a cultural species of this religion. Nineteen hundred and some odd years later makes no difference from the perspective of the resurrected, living Christ.
The existential dimension of Christianity floods light upon other problems that concerned Kierkegaard. He rejected the use of "proofs" or arguments for God's existence since an argument loses its I-Thou involvement. The argument ends with an abstract God rather than the living God. By the same token, Jesus is not to be viewed speculatively or aesthetically. An aesthetic or admirer's stance toward Jesus involves no commitment. The demand of a revealed religion is for commitment, not speculation. The demand of revealed religion is for commitment, not admiration. Jesus came to make disciples, not philosophers.
Contemporaneity means that no historical person has the advantage over later generations. St. Peter's vital and important relationship was based upon faith or commitment, and not on the fact that he ate with Jesus upon occasion. A disciple is a committed one, not merely a historian of miscellaneous facts. The twentieth century disciple is on the same footing as the first century disciples--faith, no more, no less.
Kierkegaard can be misunderstood very easily when the area of values is considered. His own positive position is hard enough to understand without wildly interpreting some of his statements. He warned that his work is a "corrective" for the systems of Kant and Hegel and others. For Kierkegaard, values and ethical issues cannot be based upon (l) abstract universal laws, (2) humanistic standards of reason, and (3) social patterns as related to cultural studies. They are inadequate for many reasons which will become obvious in the summary statement below.
Kierkegaard deals with the issue in various books, but one example will point up his thinking. In Fear and Trembling Abraham of the Old Testament is asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah. According to the pagan customs of the day, Abraham could have done this as a religious service. But Hebrew value on human life was different, and Abraham treasured the only son of his old age. Since God commanded it, would Abraham have been regarded as a murderer?
At this point Kierkegaard distinguished between the universal and the absolute. The ethical is the universal and applies to everything, everyone, and every instance. The universal is identified with natural law, law of reason, or dictates of culture. If Abraham is judged on the universal, he should be indicted for murder, rather than to emerge as a hero of faith. Where does the Absolute come in? The Absolute here is not in the sense of the Absolute of Hegel. The absolute is contrasted to the universal and the absolute is higher than the universal. What is the source of the universal? Is the universal personal? What is its authority? These questions point beyond the impersonal universal to the Personal Absolute--God. The authority back of the universal is God. Universals may have usefulness in ethical systems, but must not be separated from the authority of the lawgiver as it became in the ethical system of Kant.
The traditional question of medieval thought emerges here in Kierkegaard: is God the standard of the good, or is there a standard to which God must conform? Kierkegaard answered that God is the standard and could have dictated a different universal law if he so desired. This is the point of his question: is there a theological suspension of the ethical? Or, in other words, had Abraham really sacrificed Isaac at the command of God, would he have been a murderer? The context of this discussion would require a negative answer.
Real danger lurks at this point in misunderstanding Kierkegaard if the conclusion is reached that Kierkegaard is suspending ethical principles. The affirmation of the teleological suspension is to make this point: separation of the universal from the absolute, or the separation of the moral law from the law-giver is to create a new idolatry. The universal is the way it is because it expresses the nature of God. In other ways, it may be said, if man's purpose in life is the pursuit of happiness, or the fulfillment of the moral law, if anything other than God is the final end and goal of man, then a new idolatry is born.
Kierkegaard does not work out the manner in which the universal and the absolute could be related but his central point is that ethics must begin with God.
Kierkegaard is sometimes misused to advance the case for relativism and subjectivism in ethics. But his position is really an affirmation of objectivism--the good is known in the self-revelation of God. The typical options offered as alternatives have their problems. Humanistic ethics as well as cultural ethics are as subjective as their sources. Formalistic ethics--based upon the sense of duty--without the Commander behind the duty is idolatrous even though the system may be worthy of commendation. Kierkegaard would pity the man who pursued the good but lost God.
E. Conclusions and criticisms.
The philosophic mood of Kierkegaard's day has changed so that no longer is idealism the reigning philosophy. Yet he has much to say to the twentieth century that is still needed. His aim of re-introducing Christianity into Christendom was not successful, but many inroads were made. His concern for pressing issues of his day kept him from developing the full implications of his own thought. He did not develop a system, but then, it was system building that posed the problem in the first place.
Kierkegaard, like many others, with the exception of Marcel, stressed the individual at the expense of the community. A sense of community is not the same as the crowd, or the masses. Even the Church as the community of God received less attention in his writings than it deserved, but then a reformer within the church has less good to say about it until the evils are rooted out.
While many existentialists drift toward pessimism, he does not. There is hope for the despairing man, the broken man. The nihilism of Nietzsche, the absurd world of Camus, or the make-shift world of Sartre are in basic contrast to the hope, the wholeness, and the Christian humanism of Kierkegaard.
We now turn to our second example of existentialism which is Friedrich Nietzsche.
II. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Nietzsche was born October 15, 1844 at Rocken, not far from Leipzig. He suffers from many diverse interpretations. He has been used as a "proof-text" for many diverse and contradictory ideas. Our treatment of Nietzsche will reflect that of Walter Kaufmann who, perhaps, has done more to bring integrity to Nietzsche studies than any other person.33
Nietzsche, like many other existentialists, did not approve of system building in philosophy. Adopting a single way of interpreting the world, whether it be Darwinism, idealism, or a religious view, was, for him, a childish and misleading endeavor. Systems usually began with unquestioned premises. In the Germany of Nietzsche's day the elaboration of a complete world view gave the impression of a monopoly on truth.
While rejecting a system, Nietzsche did write about some of the usual questions in metaphysics or a theory of reality. He could not accept the cosmic purpose involved in Hegel's thought, nor did he opt for a purely naturalistic world view related to the rising and increasingly influential theory of evolution espoused by Darwin. He rejected the theory of natural selection allowing that some selection does take place but "natural selection will not generate bigger and better philosophers, artists, or saints, but only bigger and better brutes."34 Not only does natural selection not explain those eminent types as "philosophers, artists, or saints," but it fits into the category of a system, useful and true in some ways, but not meaningful as a whole.
At the time, Darwinism appeared to undermine teleology or purpose in the world, and Nietzsche agreed in this rejection declaring that if there is purpose in nature it needs the help of man to accomplish it.
Nietzsche came closest to a system in his advocacy of the "will to power." Be it noted that a system is a method of creating and explaining harmony, whereas the will to power explains continuing chaos. The "will to power" is not original with Nietzsche, but it has become a hallmark symbol of him. Moreover, it is usually misunderstood. Power--not will to power--first appears in the context of "world power, social success, making friends, and influencing people."35 This power is exercised in an atmosphere of conforming whereby man neglects the cultivation of his own true self for the success of a false self. This category of power Nietzsche rejected as decadent. The kind of power that is reducible to brute force as explained by Hobbes and others is not Nietzsche's idea of power although his would fit into this context. Nietzsche's power is explained in psychological terms as a psychological need which "men will strive to satisfy in direct ways if direct satisfaction is denied them."36 This psychological application of a will to power and its subtlety may be seen in Nietzsche's rewriting of the words of Jesus: "He that humbleth himself wants to be exalted."37 Jesus' words of Luke 18:14 were "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
Nietzsche's phrase, the "will to power" appears first in Thus Spake Zarathustra. He noted: "Where I found the living there I found the will to power; and even in the will of those who serve I found the will to be master."38 The will to power is the underlying driving force for explaining all other activities whether it be will to knowledge (for the purpose of power) or will to acquire money (for power's sake) or any other ambition. Thus
the means of the craving for power have changed, but the same volcano is still growing . . . and what one did formerly "for God's sake" one does now for the sake of money . . . which now gives the highest feeling of power . . . .39
Nietzsche saw the will to power as an explanation for
the diverse actions of man seeking power in different areas. If the concept
were left at this point without important qualifications it leaves the way
open for fascism and other forms of tyranny. Nietzsche did make important
qualifications on it. The will to power must be sublimated and controlled by
reason. Hence, for Nietzsche, philosophy was "the most spiritual will to
power."40 The will to power as a basic ingredient of man's
existence reaches its acme in the rational man who controls himself. It must
be realized that the will to power is vitally related to Nietzsche's concept
of the overman (Übermann); the man who overcomes himself. The will to power
is primarily a concept for explaining man although the concepts can be seen
in other areas of nature.
Nietzsche rejected two important influences of his era: (l) Darwinism and (2) rising nationalism and racism. Darwinism appeared to reject the basic difference between man and animals. Thus if man is merely another primate, where is his essential dignity or worth? There is neither difference between man and the animals, nor between man and man. Since Nietzsche rejected the traditional idea of God's image in man whereby man is of worth, how can Darwin's decimated man return to worth? This was an important issue for Nietzsche since values had lost their anchor in God.
Nietzsche's rejection of Darwinism was based upon his beliefs that no transitional forms had been known and that there are limits in the types or extent of evolution. Moreover, evolution does not bring progress or a higher man. Although man appears last on the evolutionary map, the last is not necessarily the highest. On the basis of evolutionary thinking man could be eclipsed by a "new" man. Nietzsche declared rather that "the goal of humanity cannot lie in the end (Ende) but only in its highest specimens."41 Man is the highest specimen only as he follows his potentiality to "raise himself above the animals."42 This means that not all of mankind is truly human. There is a greater gap between Plato and the common man than between the common man and the Chimpanzee.
There is in Nietzsche the same type of distinctions about man as in Kierkegaard although they differ on the frame of reference. There is man as he is, and man as he can become. There is nothing guaranteeing that man shall become, for Nietzsche, except man himself. The man who becomes his true self is the overman. The German word übermann has been erroneously translated "superman" rather than overman by some translators. The overman is related to the will of power in that the overman is the one who channels the will to power through reason to achieve self-perfection. Two of the key passages from Thus Spake Zarathustra contains these dramatic words:
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?43
Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman . . . .44
Nietzsche gave an example of one who epitomized the overman. Contrary to propaganda and the misuse of his works, it is not the warrior type. His example is Goethe. Here in this man is pictured a:
human being who would be strong, highly educated, skillful in all bodily matters, self-controlled, reverent toward himself, and who might dare to affirm the whole range and wealth of being natural, being strong enough for such freedom; the man of tolerance, not from weakness, but from strength.45
Such a man is free. The man who perfects himself comes into joy. Nevertheless, achieving self-mastery is not only desirable, but it is also very difficult. In this way of self-overcoming man sets himself apart from other animals who have power but cannot achieve power over themselves.
The overman, or the one who overcomes man, concerns the philosopher, artist, and saint. Later he dropped the saints from this lineup. This is hardly the super race of Nazi propaganda which is sometimes twisted out of Nietzsche. Actually, Nietzsche was a vehement opponent of anti-semitism. His master race was composed of a "future, internationally mixed, race of philosophers and artists who cultivate iron self-control."46
The stereotype that the "overman" was ruthless, blood-thirsty, and war-like displays a total injustice to Nietzsche. There is discipline of the will for those who will profit by it, but the overman is not without tenderness and mercy. Nietzsche wrote:
When the exceptional human being treats the mediocre more tenderly than himself and his peers, this is not mere politeness of the heart--it is simply his duty.47
Should a man collapse on the street before Nietzsche or an overman, there is no possible way of rationalizing an excuse for inaction and lack of tenderness. The overman has both duty and compassion.
Perhaps the questionable element in the overman concept is the lack of universality in application of it to all men. Nietzsche believed that the "weak are incapacitated for ultimate happiness. Only the strong attain that happiness which all men want."48
The second problem facing Nietzsche was that of the state. He satirized the rising nationalism as reflected in Bismarck's Reich and regarded the state as the archenemy of man. Nietzsche was not an anarchist, nor an advocate of democracy. Yet the state posed an enormous threat to man. It was urgent in Nietzsche's mind to come up with a new picture of man to replace the old theological one. It was urgent, for without man standing alone in a dignified meaningful state, he would succumb to the lure of idolatry of the state in which men will distrust each other, social structures will give way to the all-embracing control of the state.
Nietzsche, the son of a Lutheran pastor, was confirmed in the Lutheran Church, but soon came to regard religion as "the product of the people's childhood."49 Nietzsche has probably written more caustically about God than anyone else. Hollingdale stated the Nietzsche set forth three hypotheses that "offered naturalistic substitutes for God, divine grace and eternal life; instead of God, the superman, instead of divine grace, the will to power; and instead of eternal life--the eternal recurrence."50
The passage entitled "The Madman" from the Gay Science is one of the widely quoted comments about the demise of God. The God that Nietzsche deals with mostly is the cultural deity. It is absurd to say that the ontological God, the Creator is dead. Rather Nietzsche did not believe in his existence at all. However, the cultural God that man has created can die. Nietzsche's madman declares, "We have killed him--you and I. All of us are his murderers . . . . God is dead."51 The cultural God decomposes. This God remains dead. It is primarily this God that Nietzsche deprecated.
Not only did Nietzsche reject the idea of God, but he was also critical of Christianity as he knew it, as well as of Jesus, whom he admired in some ways (calling him the first and only Christian) and rejected in others. There is much in common between the criticisms of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on the problems of Christendom. Kierkegaard's leap of faith--called for commitment and living, and although Nietzsche criticized faith as he understood it, he criticized the lack of commitment and living on the part of his contemporary Christians.
Nietzsche's view of religion was probably influenced by one of his students and later friend, Paul Ree, who pioneered a psychological approach to issues in philosophy. This may explain Nietzsche's rejection of metaphysics as a discipline born out of man's dreaming. Whatever the explanation, Nietzsche had little use for the traditional metaphysical questions, especially as they related to God and religion. In a letter to his sister who attempted to defend the Christian view, Nietzsche allowed that all religions are infallible in giving the adherent what he wants in a religion, but this gives no proof of its validity or truthfulness. Thus he concluded:
Faith does not offer the least support for a proof of objective truth. Here the ways of man part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; it you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire . . . .52
Nietzsche's understanding of Christianity was probably inadequate, but he was truly perceptive in viewing the significance of Christ to that movement. He wrote to one of his friends, ". . . if you give up Christ, you will have to give up God as well."53 In other words, a significant belief in God involves the implications of the Incarnation which Kierkegaard stressed.
Nietzsche's rejection of the cultural deity was serious and he perceived the involvements long before his contemporaries. In rejecting God he saw that the world was robbed of ultimate meaning. While he boldly took the step of declaring God's death, he sought to retain meaning for man and the overman is the result of his struggle.
As in other areas, Nietzsche has been misunderstood in the values he advocated. His concern was: how can there be values in a valueless world in which the cultural God is no longer alive? Nietzsche did not accept a naturalistic approach to ethics or a nihilistic view that rejected all values.
He was more thorough-going in his criticism and rejection of Christian values than his English or American counterparts who, despite rejecting the Christian theology, did not hesitate to cling parasitically to Christian values. He wrote:
They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality . . . . When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. This morality is by no means self-evident; this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole; nothing necessary remains in one's hands . . . . It has truth only if God is the truth--it stands and falls with faith in God.54
Nietzsche took the step consistent with his conviction and renounced not only all of Christian values but all other attempts in moralizing. "Expressed in a formula, one might say: all the means by which one has so far attempted to make mankind moral were through and through immoral."55
Consequently, he called for a re-valuation of all values. This phrase means, for him, "a war against accepted valuations, not the creation of new ones."56 He wrote:
Revaluation of all values: that is my formula for an act of ultimate self-examination by mankind which in me has become flesh and genius. My lot is that I must be the first decent human being, that I know myself to be in opposition against the medaciousness of millennia.57
But for all his atheism and his call for a revaluation of values, he did not repudiate values. Rather he affirmed them as part of his view of the overman. There are not new revolutionary values. He still praised honesty, intellectual integrity, courage, politeness, and self-discipline. Nietzsche yet agreed with other moralists of the past that self-perfection was the goal of man's moral endeavors. He even agreed with much in the Gospels despite his disdain for the New Testament in general. The ethic of self-realization in a genuinely humanistic sense may be used to describe his positive attitude toward values.
Nietzsche seemed to stake his distinct approach to values around the criterion of whether something is life affirming or life denying. Much of his criticism against contemporary ethical systems came because they were life-denying, and hence decadent. He was interested in the whole of man's existence. Like other self-realizationists he asked the question, what is the Good Life?
The Good Life is the powerful life, the life of those who are in full control of their impulses and need not weaken them, and the good man is for Nietzsche the passionate man who is the master of his passions.58
Man as a passionate creature separated Nietzsche's ethic from the Stoic view and he thought also the Christian ethic. Ironically, there is more in common between biblical Christianity and Nietzsche's ethic than he was aware or willing to grant.
Nietzsche's rejection of contemporary Christendom came because it negated life, in his opinion. When one compares and contrasts cultural Christianity and biblical faith one can find much to agree with in Nietzsche regarding the "decadence" of Christendom. His contrast with Kierkegaard is evident at this point since Nietzsche did not carry on a program like the Dane to re-introduce Christianity into Christendom.
He stressed values that related to life now. While belief in immortality may be meaningful to some, Nietzsche alleged that it deprecated life now as opposed to the future perfection of man. But Nietzsche, as well as Jesus, exhorted a self-perfection now.
The immoralist, as he loved to call himself, is not without his negations although he stressed the affirmation of life in the body. He rejected hedonism, or a purely sensate approach to life. While there are bodily pleasures, they are to be integrated with and controlled by reason.
Like other existentialists, he treasured freedom, knocked conformity, and advocated self-discipline. The power of a state was determined by how well it could make room and allowance for those that did not conform. There must be freedom to question the accepted values on the part of the overman who has succeeded only in terms of self-discipline.
E. Conclusions and criticisms.
Nietzsche had much to say, but admittedly is not always well understood. Critically, there are some questions worth raising. He dealt with some metaphysical problems, but stops where one would like to see him really begin. Life is accepted. Is this all? He insisted upon asking questions about all hidden presuppositions: why not here also. Secondly, the problem with the validity of values still raises its head. Is the problem of relativism adequately dealt with? Is man--the creature capable of self-transcendence--the adequate ground of values? Which cultural man is the model of self-transcendence? Thirdly, now that man has no outside help from God to help achieve self-perfection, and admittedly since few measure up to a Goethe, is Nietzsche's alternative to nihilism a practical one for mankind? Can we all be like Goethe?
Fourth, since Nietzsche was doggedly determined to be empirical in his approach to philosophy, how is it possible to be empirical in advocating a view of man and ethics that has not been achieved? The status of values was not solved satisfactorily by Nietzsche and it is a problem for others also, not only the existentialists.
The following chart may help in sorting out the emphases of our two different examples of existentialism.
A. Reality Includes mind and Rejected
B. Man A synthesis of the Rejected man as
C. God God is the Teacher God is dead
D. Values Values are founded Sought basis
of values in
For Further Reading
Barrett, William. Irrational Man. Garden City: Doubleday, 1958.
1William Barrett, Irrational Man, Garden City: Doubleday, 1958, p. 11.
2Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, New York: The World Publishing co., 1956, p. 11.
3Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism, translated by Bernard Brechtman, New York: Philosophical Library, 1947, p. 18.
4Ibid., pp. 37-38.
5Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952, pp. 149-150.
6Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Vo. I, Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1950, p. 124.
7Nicolas Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, translated by Natalie Duddington, New York: Harper Torchbook, 1960, p. 54.
8Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Vol. II, p. 19.
9Ibid., pp. 36, 38.
10Sören Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, Fear and Trembling, Garden City: Doubleday, 1941.
11Karl Jaspers, Way to Wisdom, translated by Ralph Manheim, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954, p. 30.
12Marcel, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 118.
13Ibid., p. 120.
14Heineman, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, p. 10.
15Ibid., p. 29.
16Quentin Lauer, Phenomenology, New York: Harper Torchbook, 1965, p. 8.
17Marcel, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 74.
18Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 7, Part 1, Garden City: Image books, 1965, p. 286.
19James Collins, The Mind of Kierkegaard, London: Secker and Warburg, 1954, p. 139.
20Ibid., p. 157.
21Kierkegaard, op. cit., p. 146.
22Lewis Mackey, Existential Philosophers, edited by George Schrader, New York: McGraw-Hill Book, Co., p. 81.
23Collins, op. cit., p. 197.
24Kierkegaard, op. cit., p. 148.
25Ibid., p. 208.
26Ibid., p. 242.
27Ibid., p. 261.
28Sören Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, translated by David F. Swenson, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936, p. 22.
31Ibid., p. 23.
32Ibid., p. 24.
33Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, 3rd edition.
34Ibid., p. 174.
35Ibid., p. 180.
36R.J. Hollingdale, Nietzsche, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965, p. 147.
37Ibid., p. 147.
38Walter Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche, New York: The Viking Press, 1954, p. 191.
39Kaufmann, Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 191.
40Ibid., p. 232.
41Ibid., p. 149.
42Ibid., p. 158.
43Kaufmann, Portable Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 124.
44Ibid., p. 126.
45Ibid., p. 554.
46Kaufmann, Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 302.
47Kaufmann, Portable Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 647.
48Kaufmann, Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 384.
49Hollingdale, op. cit., p. 250.
50Ibid., p. 198.
51Kaufmann, Portable Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 95.
52Ibid., p. 30.
53Hollingdale, op. cit., p. 40.
54Kaufmann, Portable Nietzsche, op. cit., pp. 515-16.
55Ibid., p. 505.
56Kaufmann, Nietzsche, op. cit., p. 111.
57Ibid., p. 111.
58Ibid., p. 280.
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