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Existentialism is a philosophy, a theory or point of view about the meaning of things. Like all philosophies, it first states its premise, its assumptions, and then lays out the logical actions for a human being to follow based on that philosophy—how should we live, how should we decide “right” from “wrong”, etc.? Most Westerners have been brought up and taught that “God” made us, and wants us to love Him, obey His commandments, etc.—that we were made by God in a certain way, a pre-determined design of some sort, and that the Bible, or Torah, or Koran, or some other tome contains the “instructions” for carrying out God’s will—His design for us—does he want us to love, honor, and obey Him, to practice free will, to “choose” him? In this philosophy, essence precedes existence; that is, we were “designed” to act a certain way, just like a paper-cutter is designed to cut paper, or a can-opener is designed to open tin cans—those are the “functions” they were “designed” to carry out. Existentialism is so-named because it entertains the notion that “existence” precedes “essence”—that we simply exist, without a designer, and that we define ourselves (our “essence”) by the choices we make. Every action of humanity adds to Humanity’s “essence”—consequently, we are Hitler and Roosevelt and Napoleon and Mother Teresa and you and me—we define ourselves by what choices we make. The literature of existentialism seeks to fictionalize the consequences of taking that view and making such choices. What would be the consequences of not obeying the Ten Commandments, of not “trying to go to heaven”, of not thinking of ourselves as a “creation” with a purpose, a design? One complication: there is such a thing as “Christian Existentialism” (Tielhard de Chardin) which explores the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth was a man who “chose” to do what he did, thereby adding his deeds to our human definition.
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