Existentialism vs. Absurdism — A Cure for Angst
Which philosophy is the antidote to nihilistic anxiety?
“God is dead,” and “all things are permitted”. These dictums, given to us by Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, express the decline of the belief in a higher power, and of traditional sources of meaning and morality. In the 1880s, these words beckoned the birth of a new era of attitude in the West – the era of nihilism.
Nietzsche saw that the rise of modern science, and a new mechanistic view of the world, during the Enlightenment period, signaled the beginning of a crisis of meaning, as traditional theological and anthropological perspectives failed. Martin Heidegger saw it as the death of metaphysics and philosophy altogether.
If there is no authoritative source of value in the world, then how can we justify our religious and metaphysical beliefs? And how do we justify the existence of meaning at all? Nietzsche’s view was that we must begin to rely on our own individual notions of value, for as long as it takes for our trust in a new, authoritative, source of moral truth to gain dominion within the world.
During World War II, the Nazis appropriated and exploited several Nietzschean concepts for their agenda of racial discrimination and supremacy. Nietzsche had actively argued against nationalism and pessimism. However, after the devastation of the war, the entire world was left to grapple with the question of the meaninglessness of the immense suffering inflicted on humankind. A response to nihilism was desperately needed.
Existentialism begins from a position of nihilism, and the recognition of a meaningless world. Yet, rather than surrendering itself to despair and pessimism, it instead seeks to address the question of how the human condition can be liberated in light of this. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Man is condemned to be free,” and his freedom from a predetermined essence is precisely that which hands him ownership of his own life and values.
Nevertheless, freedom begets responsibility, and responsibility can be a burden. The goal of the existentialist philosophy is to explain, through an emphasis on subjective, individual experience, how freedom can be utilized as a force for self-realization, and the establishment of a sense of meaning and purpose.
By living a life that is true to oneself, by focusing one’s attention on the here and now, and by making the most of our time on earth, existentialists concur that to live and be free, in spite of life’s meaninglessness, is something to be enjoyed.
Martin Heidegger is one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, and one of the most well-respected thinkers of all time. His seminal work, Being and Time, explores the fundamental question of human existence, and played an instrumental role in the development of existentialist thought.
Heidegger argued that human experience is characterized by a sense of being “thrown” into the world without a predetermined purpose. Heidegger also argued that the Cartesian idea of a separation between the mind and the body reduces human life to an object to be analyzed. He argues that our experience cannot be fully objectified, or thus explained by science and reason, because subject and object are inseparable.
Heidegger’s concept of “Dasein” then refers to the peculiar characteristic of being a self-conscious entity that is capable of questioning the nature of existence, and of recognising one’s inevitable mortality. As a remedy for the angst engendered by being, Heidegger urges individuals to take responsibility for their existence, by not allowing external factors to dictate their lives.
“Authenticity” is achieved when we cease in conforming to the societally constructed standards of what it means to be human and in our preoccupation with the frivolous distractions of modern life. Through authentically connecting with the world, we are thus capable of undergoing a re-encounter with the deeper layers of Being and overcoming our alienation.
Following the Second World War, existentialism rapidly developed into a bona fide cultural movement, and leading the charge was Jean-Paul Sartre, who read and was inspired by Heidegger’s Being and Time whilst imprisoned by the Nazis in 1940.
Sartre thus wrote Being and Nothingness, as a nod to Heidegger, in which he developed a comprehensive account of the existentialist philosophy. For Sartre, human nature can only be defined by the actions we take, and therefore individuals must take responsibility for their freedom, confront the reality of their mortality, and forge their own values and purpose in life. He would later surmise his philosophy in his famous dictum: “existence precedes essence”.
However, Sartre was not convinced that humans were capable of Heidegger’s “re-encounter with Being”, for he did not believe that humans had any predetermined purpose. He therefore saw human experience as being characterized by a sense of incompleteness, and that this sense was the cause for our positing of religious concepts such as “God”.
Life, for Sartre, is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because we are free to shape our lives in any way we want; it is a curse because this means that a sense of completion and wholeness is impossible to find. Moreover, we are forced to take full ownership of the consequences of our choices, and this is naturally a great source of anxiety and discomfort.
Nevertheless, Sartre goes on to express, in an aptly named essay, that “Existentialism is a Humanism”. His reasoning is that individuals are free to choose what they, as a human, should be and do, which is implicitly a choice as to what others, as humans, should be and do. The act of choice, and of acting on one’s choices, therefore implies the responsibility to not only oneself but also to the whole of humankind.
Close friend and collaborator of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, expanded on the ethical dimension of existentialism in her book, The Ethics of Ambiguity. Beauvoir theorized that humans exist in a state of being simultaneously free (due to the “nothingness” of their innate nature) and limited (due to the expectations of other people). She termed the tension between these two states “ambiguity”.
This ambiguity is a fundamental aspect of human existence and therefore must be accepted and navigated. That means that we must recognise, and take responsibility for, the impact of our actions on others, and work to create conditions that permit all individuals in a society to exercise their freedom to the fullest possible extent. “To will oneself free is also to will others free,” and, therefore, “To will oneself moral and to will oneself free are one and the same decision.”
Absurdism, as a philosophy, gained popularity during the 1950s and 60s, though absurdist themes had been explored considerably earlier. Like existentialism, absurdism denies the existence of inherent meaning for human life; but unlike it, absurdism does not concern itself with the creation of meaning or purpose. Instead, it surrenders to the idea that such attempts are ultimately futile.
Nevertheless, absurdism is not simply nihilism, as it does not posit that it is necessarily impossible to create meaning. Absurdists are merely unsure about both the ability and inability to create meaning, and they question the value of any created meaning, if it is possible, within a world that has no meaning in itself.
Underlying the absurdist worldview is a belief that life is innately irrational, and that human beings are flawed in their ability to try to understand it. Yet, as we shall see shortly, this does not necessarily mean that all hope is lost for the absurdist.
Early examples of absurdist literature can be found pervasively in the novels of Franz Kafka, who is sometimes referred to as the “King of Absurdism”. For instance, in his 1912 The Metamorphosis, Kafka tells the story of a man who wakes up to find that he has been transformed into a giant insect. Overwhelmed by a sense of alienation, the character struggles to come to terms with the impact his new form has on his daily life.
Characteristic of the absurdist genre, this, along with Kafka’s other works, conveys the futility in our efforts to forge our own meaning, as the existentialists would have us do, in the face of a deeply confounding world.
Yet, the fruitlessness in the attempt to understand one’s circumstances demands the introspection of Kafka’s characters, and this presents to them the opportunity to gain insights into the human condition, and even the nature of existence.
The first explicit philosophical treatment of absurdism is usually attributed to Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which seeks to answer the question as to whether life has any value. Camus employs the story of Sisyphus, who in Greek mythology was doomed to repeatedly push a boulder up a hill, before it rolled back down again, for eternity.
The story of Sisyphus is a metaphor for the laborious futility of human existence, in which humans are caught in an endless cycle of striving for significance, and disappointment in the face of their inevitable and perpetual failure.
Yet, the moral of The Myth of Sisyphus is not one of despair, for the fact that the human struggle is absurd is not equal to the claim that human life has no value. As Camus explains, individuals are able to gain a sense of satisfaction in life, in spite of its meaninglessness.
Whereas existentialism accepts the possibility that we might create our own meaning through our goals and achievements, the absurdists deny that meaning can be found at the outcome of any rational endeavor. The “absurd” itself is the tension between our desire to use reason to forge a path to meaning, and the impossibility of that task. It is in the very acceptance of the absurd that some semblance of meaning might legitimately be gained.
In the case of Sisyphus, by accepting the absurdity in endlessly rolling a boulder up a hill, he achieves a sense of freedom. As Camus concludes, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
The key difference between existentialism and absurdism is thus one of attitude. Existentialists see the tension between the world’s innate lack of meaning, and our desire for meaning, as a challenge to be overcome, through the exercise of the will and acts of self-expression.
Absurdists, conversely, see this tension as a fundamental component of human existence that cannot be overcome in principle. It is only via the internal acceptance of this fact that meaning might be acquired, and not through any externalized quest.
This is certainly an important distinction if we wish to know how to act, but on a deeper level, both are grounded on the same metaphysical postulates. That is to say, both philosophies are responses to the assumption of existential nihilism – the idea that there is no intrinsic meaning or purpose to life – and neither are solutions to the problem of nihilism.
Existentialism emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility, as a means of creating a sense of meaning in life, while absurdism emphasizes the acceptance of the inherent absurdity of life, as a means of acquiring a subjective and relative form of meaning.
Given that existentialism and absurdism are responses to the problem of meaninglessness, it is natural that the philosophical theme of each has been incorporated into a variety of forms of artistic expression.
Over 80 years before Sartre and Camus presented their seminal works, Fyodor Dostoyevsky was exploring themes of angst and the search for meaning in stories such as Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground. In the former, the protagonist must grapple with the trauma of committing murder, as his moral justifications begin to fall apart. In the latter, an alienated and disillusioned narrator battles with the absurd existential dilemma of finding meaning in a meaningless world.
Such themes remain increasingly popular in modern storytelling. In the television series Breaking Bad, Walter White turns to a life of crime when faced with the inevitability of his death. In the animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion, the protagonist, who suffers from a severe lack of self-worth, is forced to confront, explicitly, the possibility of the destruction of the earth, and, implicitly, his own identity. And in the film Fight Club, the protagonist seeks to break free from the monotony of his corporate life, creating a secret club at which men meet to vent their frustrations about modern society.
All of these examples illustrate the existentialist emphasis on personal responsibility, freedom, and rebellion against social norms. The protagonists must make important decisions that will impact the course of their lives, and these decisions are often in defiance of traditional systems of meaning and morality.
More absurdist treatments of the problem of existential nihilism are also common. In the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a man undergoes a procedure to erase all his memories of a former partner. As he starts to realise that he is also erasing that which gives him a sense of meaning and purpose, he decides to end the procedure in spite of the pain that the memories cause him. In the animated series Rick and Morty, a mad genius travels with his grandson through different dimensions, dealing overtly with a gross conflict between his absurd adventures and normal life. And in the film The Lobster, single persons are sent to a hotel and given 45 days to find a romantic partner. If they fail, they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing.
These examples illustrate the absurdist emphasis on the irrational nature of human existence and the paradoxical juxtaposition between tragedy and comedy. In each case, the protagonist is faced with surreal circumstances that question the value of memory, intelligence, and love, respectively.
Of course, it’s not just in television and film that existentialism continues to exert its influence. For instance, in the arenas of politics and personal development, existentialism has become an implicit assumption.
As we have moved progressively away from monarchical systems of governance, towards more democratic societies, individualism and the freedom for self-determination have increased, reflecting the existentialist demand for responsibility. So too has the absurdist defiance of our focus on striving for superiority, and with it the emergence of new counter-cultural and alternative forms of value creation.
In personal development, existentialism stresses the importance of taking ownership of one’s life and choices, and of forging one’s own identity and values. The philosophy has also been carried over to the field of psychotherapy, where existential-humanistic therapies encourage individuals to live authentically, by embracing their uniqueness; and mindfulness practices encourage individuals to become more accepting of the absurdities of life.
At the beginning of this article, we discussed how nihilism arose as a consequence of the decline of religious belief in the West. Existentialism, and absurdism by extension, are responses to the charge that there is no divine providence or purpose. As Sartre put it, “Existentialism is nothing else than an attempt to draw all the consequences of a coherent atheistic position.”
However, insofar as existentialism also involves a recognition of the breakdown of metaphysics, how coherent can this atheistic position be? The fundamental premise that existentialism relies on is not simply that “God is dead,” but rather that, if God really is dead, then that would be deeply distressing. Yet, despite the decline of religious faith, it is not at all clear that alternative sources of meaning and morality have remained elusive.
The angst begotten by the fall of Western religion is surely in part a consequence of the bias and ignorance engendered by the same culture that birthed it. Eastern traditions, conversely, such as Buddhism and Daoism, do not rely on a belief in a transcendent deity, but are nevertheless profound sources of meaning to their followers.
So too, Buddhism and Daoism contradict the emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility that is found in existentialist thought, instead stressing the interconnectedness of all things and the impermanence of the individual self. In so far as all things are united, there is no need to conquer the other.
Of course, existentialists also proclaim that the self is void of essential being, but the “nothingness” grounding the existentialist ego is not the same as the “emptiness” found in Buddhism. The former is more like a void at the core of our being, while the latter can be thought of as an absence of inherent existence in all phenomena, not just the self.
The existentialist “nothingness” becomes an actual object of angst, insofar as the ego becomes aware of its own lack of suchness. Thus, it is something to be fought against through an individualistic struggle for prominence, as we encounter an alien world.
Conversely, the Buddhist concept of “sunyata” refers to the liberating state of being free from objecthood altogether. As they see it, attachment to objects and beliefs is the cause of suffering, not a way out of it. Detachment from particulars means connection to the universal, which begets the compassionate awareness of all things.
Thus, if the nihilist believes that “God is dead, and we are independent of everything”, then the Buddhists might say that “The ego is empty, and we are dependent on everything”. On this view, we are not “thrown” into the world, and so do not need to conquer it. Rather, we are an integral part of the world, and the essence of life is inseparable from existence itself.