Existentialism And Meaning in Life
The cornerstone of existentialism is that people exist first and are then responsible for finding or creating a meaning or essence for their lives i.e. existence precedes essence.
Many people are concerned by the
ever increasing impersonal nature of work, the disregard for human life
in wars, the failure of human efforts to prevent them, the doubt cast
on religious faith by science, and the revelations of evolution and
Religion has traditionally provided moral guidance and some sense of worth and meaning to an individuals life but religious doubt has now led many people to conclude that life is worthless and meaningless.
In finding meaning the individual is faced with many different systems of belief and almost the only common feature of so-called existentialist philosophy is its strong individualism and rejection of those systems of belief that are regarded as inadequate and superficial primarily because they have so little relevance to everyday life.
'Nobody has a predetermined place or function within a rational system or can deduce their supposed duty through reasoning… Man is in a condition of anxiety arising from… his ignorance about the future… and the finiteness of an existence that was preceded by and must terminate in nothingness.' (2)
'That man is the product of causes which had no foresight of the end they were achieving; that his origins, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collisions of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system; and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be built.' (3)
According to the philosopher
Albert Camus the only philosophical decision one must make is whether
to live or commit suicide. To choose to live means to live a life full
However, the fact that life is
full of absurdities doesn't mean that it is meaningless. What sometimes
leads to such a depressing conclusion is the confusion of objective
meaning with subjective meaning. It is only the subjective meaning that
we give to our own lives that can determine whether life is meaningless
or not and this is borne out by the fact that many people have created
meaningful lives for themselves.
If we look at the world and the
universe around us and ask the question, 'does it have any meaning?' we
are asking for an objective meaning which implies that there is
something out there that can have meaning independent of our minds and,
more importantly, independent of all those lives before and after us.
|(1) Sheldon Kopp - If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Bantam 1976.|
|(2) Antony Flew - A dictionary of philosophy. Pan 1979.|
|(3) Quoted in 'The presence of the past' by Rupert Sheldrake. Park Street Press 1988.|