“A Primer of Existentialism” by Gordon E. Bigelow

College English, December 1961


Existentialism is much like Transcendentalism and  Feminism – there are several kinds of existentialism and what one says of one kind may not be true of another.  There are almost as many varieties of these –isms as there are individual writers to whom the word is applied.  However, there should be an area of agreement.  Existentialism is a loose term for the reaction, led by Kierkegaard, against the abstract rationalism of Hegel’s philosophy.  Kierkegaard insisted on the irreducibility of the subjective, personal dimension of human life.


Today we have existential Marxism, existential sociology, existential psychoanalysis, existential theology…the general feature of these hybrids is an emphasis on the irreducibility of the perspective of human agents, whose activities, emotions, and thoughts are understood  in terms of their aspiration to become an individual.


Six major themes of Existentialism – Some group the existentialists into two major camps: the ungodly and the godly.


Ungodly (These French writers had significant experience in the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France in WW II.  Out of the despair which came with the collapse of their nation they found unexpected strength in the single indomitable human spirit.  Even under severe torture, they maintained the spirit of resistance, the un-extinguishable ability to say, “No.”  “I can say No, therefore I exist.”                          



Simone de Beauvoir (She brought to existentialist morality, which exalted freedom, awareness of the importance of the social context of choice, and in particular of the pwer relations between the sexes.




Marcel and Maritain (Catholic)

Tillich and Berdyaev (Protestant)

Buber (Jewish)


Other Extentialists:  Pascal, Nietzsche (“God is dead.”  Theme of spiritual barrenness is commonplace in literature of the 20th century.  Spiritual emptiness appears in Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Anderson.  Anderson argued that Puritanism and the industrialism which was its offspring had sterilized modern life, and proposed that men return to a healthful animal vigor by renewed contact with simple things of the earth, among them untrammeled sexual expression.), Bergson, Heidegger, Tolstoy and Dostoievsky


1.      Existence Before Essence. 


·        Human life is understandable only in terms of an individual man’s existence, his particular experience of life.  A man lives rather than is, and every man’s experience is unique, radically different from everyone else’s and can be understood truly only in terms of his involvement in life or commitment to it.

·        There is no Platonic ideal of man—there is no universal of human nature of which each man is only one example.  Don’t ask “What is mankind?”  Ask: “Who am I?”

·        The existentialist insists that each person is unique.  He is an entire universe—the center of infinity.


2.      Reason is impotent to deal with the depths of human life.


·        Human reason is relatively weak and imperfect and there are dark places in human life which are “non-reason” and to which reason scarcely penetrates.

·        Myth of Phaedrus—Plato describes the psyche in the myth of the chariot which is drawn by the white steeds of the emotions and the black unruly steeds of the appetites.   The driver of the chariot is Reason who holds the reins which control the horses and the whip to subdue the surging black steeds of passion.  Only the driver, the rational nature, is given human form; the rest of the psyche, the non-rational part, is given a lower, animal form.  This separation and exaltation of reason is carried further in the allegory of the cave in the Republic.

·        Existentialism insists upon reuniting the lower or irrational parts of the psyche with the higher.  It insists that man must be taken in his wholeness and not in some divided state, that whole man contains not only intellect but also anxiety, guilt, and the will to power—which modify and sometimes overwhelm the reason.  A man seen in this light is fundamentally ambiguous, if not mysterious, full of contradictions and tensions which cannot be dissolved simply by taking thought.


3.      Alienation or Estrangement


·        Because of the dissociation of reason from the rest of the psyche, we have SCIENCE, a hallmark of Western civilization.  Since the Renaissance we have progressively separated man from concrete earthy existence, and forced him to live at a high level of abstraction.  We have collectivized individual man out of existence, driven God from the heavens or from the hearts of men.  Man lives in alienation from God, from nature, from other men, from his own true self.  Man’s estrangement from nature has been a major theme in literature since Rousseau and the Romantic movement, and is not really exclusive property of the existentialists.  But the existentialists worry about the walls of industry and technology which shut us off from nature and from one another.


Ø      Crowding of people into cities

Ø      Subdivision of labor

Ø      Burgeoning of centralized government

Ø      Growth of advertising, propaganda and the mass media of entertainment and communication


These things drive us asunder by destroying individuality and making us live on the surface of life, content to deal with things rather than people.


Man’s estrangement from his own true self – Hawthorne illustrates this in Ethan Brand, Dr. Rappaccini, and Roger Chillingworth – dislocation in human nature which results when an overdeveloped or misapplied intellect severs the magnetic chain of human sympathy.  Sanctity of the individual human soul—preoccupation with sin which illustrates the dark side of human nature which must be seen in part as his attempt to build back some fullness to the flattened image of man bequeathed to him by the Enlightenment.


Whitman – added flesh and bone and sex to a spiritualized image of man.


Kierkegaard says that the good life for a person is one that fulfills the requirement that that person live as an individual.  To make sense of one’s life as a whole only through personal conduct and relationships with others that manifest virtues.


4.      Fear and Trembling Anxiety


·        “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.  There are no longer problems of the spirit.  There is only one question: When will I be blown up?” –William Faulkner at his Nobel Prize

·        Lost optimism from the Age of Enlightenment that problems can be solved through reason, science.  Nature can be “conquered.”


Ø      WW I

Ø      Great Depression

Ø      WW II and Holocaust

Ø      Nuclear threat

Ø      Environmental crises

Ø      Terrorism


·        Too many moral choices!  We cannot resolve ethical questions by subjecting our moral consciousness to an impersonal deliberative perspective.  Ethical questions are essentially first-person.


5.      The Encounter with Nothingness


·        If man is alienated from nature, God, neighbors, and self…what is left?

·        People who seemingly have “everything” feel empty, uneasy, discontented.


6.      Freedom


·        Existentialists write about the loss of freedom or the threat to it, or the enlargement of the range of human freedoms.

·        Freedom means human autonomy.  Sartre said that we are condemned to freedom.  Because there is no God, we must accept individual responsibility for our own becoming.  Nothing explicitly implies that in becoming a free individual one becomes a virtuous person.

·        The religious existentialists include God as a factor.  They stress the man of faith rather than the man of will.  Man’s essential nature is God-like – and we should not alienate ourselves from it.  We should heal the chasm between the two, that is, to find salvation.  Tillich says salvation is “the act in which the cleavage between the essential being and the existential situation is overcome.”

·        “Man bears within himself the image which is both the image of man and the image of God, and is the image of man as far as the image of God is actualized.” –Berdyaev. 

·        Freedom is the acceptance of responsibility for choice and a commitment to one’s choice.


Authors are not necessarily conscious existentialist theorizers or even know the writings of such theorizers.  Some of the most striking expressions of existentialism in literature and the arts come to us by indirection, often through symbols or through innovations in conventional form.