Philosophies are meant to capture the truth, and so there are likely to be traces of any philosophy at any time throughout history. For example, traces of Existentialism can be found in the life of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who in the fourth century B.C.E. founded the Cynics, who distrusted civilization’s artifice. existential ideas also appear at various times throughout the world’s literature, such as when Job in the Old Testament questioned whether his concept of God was truly relevant to his troubles, or when Shakespeare had Hamlet question the purpose of his own existence by asking, “To be, or not to be?”
The first philosopher to touch upon existential themes was the French writer Blaise Pascal, who, in the seventeenth century, rejected the idea that rational humans could explain God. Like the later existentialists, Pascal accepted life as a series of irrational paradoxes.
As a formal philosophy, Existentialism began to take form in the 1800s, with the writings of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard thought of life as an impossible choice between two conflicting attitudes: the aesthetic, which is based on immediate experience, or existence, and the ethical, which is based on ideals. He presented the ethical life as false, based upon imaginary concepts, but the aesthetic life was not satisfying either. In fact, for Kierkegaard, the aesthetic life led only to despair, because human consciousness is not satisfied with the sheer, raw experience that might be enough to distract an unconscious being. His writings, particularly his book Either/Or, were not essays or treatises. They had a literary style to them, presenting his ideas as character sketches, dialogs, and imaginary correspondences.
Unlike Kierkegaard, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was an atheist who believed that religious belief was a sign of weakness, which would leave society vulnerable to destruction by those who held no such illusions. Nietzsche’s completely unsentimental atheism paved the way for the existential view that life is based on nothingness.
The most immediate antecedent to Existentialism was the twentieth-century philosophy of phenomenology, especially as practiced by the German writer Martin Heidegger. Phenomenology raised questions about how humans could ever know the world that they encounter outside of their own consciousness. As with Existentialism, phenomenology relied heavily on examples from literature for understanding, giving the imagined world nearly as much credibility as the experienced world.
Although earlier philosophers and writers had ideas upon which this philosophy was based, it was Jean-Paul Sartre who gave it the name Existentialism. In school, Sartre studied the works of German philosophers, wrote his exit exam on Nietzsche, and he studied in his postgraduate years under Edward Husserl, who is widely considered a founder of phenomenology, a philosophy similar to Existentialism. In 1928, at the age of 23, he met Simone de Beauvoir. The two fell in love and spent most of the next fifty years living together on and off, although they never married. In 1938, one of the major texts of existentialist literature, Sartre’s novel Nausea, was published, giving the world its first sense of the moral despair of the philosophy and the cold, unsentimental intellect of the fiction.
The year after Nausea was published, Adolph Hitler gave up any pretense of peace by attacking Poland. France went to war against Germany, and was captured in 1940. While France was occupied by Germany, the new existential movement flourished. The principle figures if the movement were acquaintances in Paris, including Sartre, Beauvoir, and Albert Camus (although Camus would come to resent being called an existentialist when hostilities formed between himself and the others). Their ideas were spread by a magazine that Sartre edited, Les Times Moderne (“Modern Times ”), and through their plays and...
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