Existentialism: Relationships In A World Without God Essay, Research Paper
Relationships in a World without God
In a world in which lives are shaped by irreversible choices and by random events, a world in which everything occurs but once, existence seems to lose is substance. Life in this designless universe raises questions of identity and can cause turmoil between the relationships of the self to others, the self to history, and the self to God. Through the words of existentialist novelists and philosophers Milan Kundera and Jean-Paul Sartre, we witness the philosophical and psychological struggles for identity, existence, and ‘being’ of the characters in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Nausea. In connection with other philosophic writings of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Tillich and Sartre the ideas of existentialism expressed in these two novels become more apparent, and the relationships of the characters in this world-without-God can be explored.
Our principle readings rested in the argument of man’s existence and being. Sartre’s Nausea and Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being both depicted the stories of humans struggling to accept their own realities in a state of what Heidegger referred to as “thrown-ness”. Heidegger’s existential thoughts are concerned with the question of the meaning of Being. Heidegger based his philosophy upon the science of existence. The scientific method was that of phenomenological reduction. Although S?ren Kierkegaard accepted the paradox of being defining itself, as a scientist, Heidegger could not accept this paradox. According to Heidegger, a concept must be defined without using itself as reference. The difficulty of definition was confronted by defining Being as a collection of concepts. In his essay “The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics” the central question he asks is “Why is there anything at all, rather than nothing?” This question leads us to yearn for the explanations of reality, of the universe and of our being here. According to Heidegger, wondering about this basic ontological question opens oneself up to the presence of Being. As stated by Heidegger’s writings, human being, as opposed to human beings, is comprised of four components: concern, being-toward-death, existence, and moods. Dasein is the act of “being there” in essence. Without being something, there is no existence. Concern is the ability to care about the self, in relation to phenomena. Being-toward-death represents the finite nature of life. This belief that death defines life complements S?ren Kierkegaard ’s thought that God does not exist, but is real. Existence represents knowing one is and is changing. Moods are reactions to other beings, further allowing one to define the self.
Dasein requires choices and resulting actions to define the self. These choices allow for an almost unlimited combination of the components of Being. Each choice represents a pivotal point in the individual’s life — every choice, even the seemingly minor ones, contribute to the larger definition of self. Choices occur in relation to a timeline, universal and personal. These points in time became the topic of Heidegger’s Being and Time.
Heidegger, as with Kierkegaard and Sartre, believed the existence of a physical body preceded the essence of self. At some point in the development process, a being becomes aware that it exists. This pivotal point in time is when essence begins to form; the individual decides to acknowledge and embrace an essence at this moment. Because man in the only known being in which essence and existence do not appear simultaneously, man is a unique creature on this planet. All things man creates have essence, or definition, before they exist. In other words, an individual thinks about a creation and its purpose before the creation exists.
Kierkegaard’s existentialism follows a progression from existence to a pursuit of pleasure, to a pursuit of society, and a pursuit of spirituality. Basically, the existence precedes the awareness of self and the essence of self. Sartre embraced this concept of existence in his writings. By concentrating on the individual, Kierkegaard was laying the foundation for future existentialists. The individual was everything to Kierkegaard. He hoped to elevate the individual to a new philosophical level. The self is a series of possibilities; every decision made redefines the individual. Sartre further developed this concept. The knowledge that “I” defines the “self” results in “the dizziness of freedom” and “fear and trembling.” It is a great responsibility to create a person, yet that is exactly what each human does: creates a self. This self is independent from all other knowledge and “truths” defined by other individuals. Kierkegaard also contended that living is the art of the existentialist, while previous philosophies engaged only in thought. Philosophers were studying concepts, but not the individual behind the concepts — that was limited to the nascent realm of psychology. Kierkegaard did not believe in universal truths, only truth as seen by one individual. Existentialism accepts that truth is subjective. Kierkegaard further stated that the highest form of subjectivity was passion. To think like an Existentialist is to contemplate the self, the Creator, and the universe with passion.
Paul Tillich states strong feelings of Existentialism in the passage “The Meaning of Meaninglessness”, from The Courage to Be. Tillich feels that 20th century man has lost a meaningful world, and this man-created world of objects has pulled into itself him who created it and who now loses his bias in it. He goes on to state more about the idea of meaninglessness:
“The courage of despair, the experience of meaninglessness, and the self-affirmation in spite of them are manifest in the Existentialists of the 20th century. Meaninglessness is the problem of all of them. The anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness is, as we have seen, the anxiety of our period…When Heidegger speaks about the anticipation of one’s own death it is not the question of immortality which concerns him but the question of what the anticipation of death means for the human situation. When Kierkegaard deals with the problem of guilt it is not the theological question of sin and forgiveness that moves him but the question of what the possibility of personal existence is in the light of personal guilt. The problem of meaning troubles recent Existentialists even when they speak of finitude and guilt.”
Existentialism as it appeared in the 20th century represents the most vivid and threatening meaning of “existential”. In it the whole development comes to a point beyond which it cannot go. It is expressed in all the realms of man’s spiritual creativity, it penetrates all educated classes. It is the expression of the anxiety of meaninglessness and of the attempt to take this anxiety into the courage to be as oneself.
Finally, we look at the theological works of Sartre before discussing the two novels. Sartre speaks more on the concept that existence precedes essence. From Existentialism and Humanism, he affirms that
“Atheistic existentialism…declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined be any conception of it, That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality… man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world-and defines himself afterwards…Man simply is…Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.”
If it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Every man has possession of himself as he is, and the entire responsibility for his existence is placed squarely upon his own shoulders. This is where Sartre’s ideas of authenticity become relevant. We can judge a man by saying that he deceives himself. “Since we have defined the situation of man as one of free choice, without excuse and without help, any man who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, or by inventing some deterministic doctrine, is a self-deceiver.” Sartre asks why should man not choose to deceive himself.
The character in Nausea is lamenting not so much his responsibility towards other men, but his freedom in the world of thrownness. This freedom, man’s inherent freedom, is a grave responsibility, he is “condemned to be free”. His passions are irrelevant (existentialism leaves no room for them), there are no directions or inherent sighs that influence their actions toward good or evil. We create our own essence. “Every man, without support of help whatever, is condemned at every instant to invent man” (Choice in a World without God, 837). Man’s existence precedes his essence because God is not the diviner of our being. Total freedom is a source of dread, but it is the foundation for out being and the source of man’s authenticity.
Sartre’s anti-novel Nausea details the innermost thoughts and musings of a French artist. Mostly, it describes his disgust for his own being, and his acceptance and actualization of the idea that he creates himself at every moment. For Roquentin, life is agony. He is sickened by himself, and equally so by others. His reflections are negative, always filled with disillusioned bitterness toward the life he leads.
A perfect day to turn back to one’s self: these cold clarities which the sun projects like a judgement shorn of pity…I am illuminated within by a diminishing light. I am sure that fifteen minutes would be enough to reach supreme self-contempt. (p. 14).
Roquentin spends enough time contemplating his own existence that he is able to demonstrate the revelation from self-pity to assumed responsibility. Even at the end of his journals, it seems, he is grappling with his own existence, and with the treatment of history. He looks to have his life become legend, or perhaps, just a piece of fiction. He knows that he can only reflect without abhorrence upon his life, that he can never live without that hatred. “Good God! Is it I who is going to lead this mushroom existence? I pity myself.” (p.173). He can accept himself only in terms of his past. He is in the state of thrownness.
For a less introspective (and less negative) spin on the same question of existence, Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being is a crafted piece of more traditional literature that illuminates the struggles of four relationships and four equally intricate individuals. Kundera attempts to highlight the mentality behind each person’s actions, their motivations, their fears, and their historical context (a vital part of Heidegger’s theory on interaction with the world). The principle character, at least in terms of my interest, was Tereza. She is a model of the world of resemblances. She interprets her like in terms of the effects of her mother’s domineering role in her childhood. Life for Tereza is full of symbolism—a certain musical piece that sparks romantic intuition, the pool around which she marches, preparing to die doing knee bends. She lives with Tomas in a mostly dead marriage, she clinging to the last hope that he will eventually cease with his infidelities and devote his love only to her. Conversely, Franz is the child, na?ve and ignorant, in his relationship with his lover Sabina. I see Sabina as wiser and older. She represents a woman who has come to terms with her being. She is more worldly, more secure in her position, she has accepted her thrownness. Unlike Tereza, she does not look to a man to satisfy her need for acceptance. She does not experience the “eternal return” that Nietzsche speaks of in the same, forlorn way. “Living for Sabina meant seeing. Seeing is limited by two borders, strong light, which blinds, and total darkness. Perhaps that was what motivated her distaste for all extremism.” (p. 94)
She is irritated by Franz, who seems to me to represent a man who has not viewed his life beyond its surface. He likes music, he doesn’t understand why Sabina doesn’t. He can’t look past his own experiences to reach out to her. She resents him for that. Of all the couples, I think perhaps Sabina and Tomas are the best matched. Despite that I believe him shallow and course, self-motivated and insensitive, she counters him well, and he is vulnerable to her strength. That is why, despite the changes in his life and in hers, he continues to be drawn back to her, eternal return.
Throughout everything that we have read this quarter, the issues of self-awareness and historical sensitivity are essential. Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, probably more successfully than the rest, sheds light on the human aspect of being and its implications. In the stories of Tereza, Tomas, Franz, and Sabina, their own histories, their struggles with purpose and meaning, and the plight of their thrownness create a compelling and emotionally engaging novel that resemble the insecurities and consciousness of our own lives. Heidegger states that time only reminds men of how insignificant they are, how endless the universe is, and how all they can really do is seek to accept themselves on their own terms in anticipation of death, to wonder at the meaning of it all. Kierkegaard and Miller address the loathing of the impasse that threatens their lives as a result of historicism (and the absence of God). And Nietzsche claims that we must use history to escape animal-ness, but not so far as to become further imprisoned within our consciousness. Throughout history, and in each man’s life, there is return: to the center, to the same errors, and to that danger and fear of nothingness.