Existentialism can be best defined by going straight to the root of the word: exist. The philosophy is about human existence and our choices. It assumes there is no human nature, only what we do with our opportunities in life. Free will is a fact. We can do what we want, but must accept the results.
“Existence Precedes Essence"
This fundamental existentialist statement was coined by Jean-Paul Sartre. It means that first a human exists, then defines what he or she is. There is no underlying force that drives a person along a particular path. The course of life is for the individual to choose.
This idea runs perpendicular to the religious concept of God having a purpose for everyone. In the religious model, essence precedes existence. God had an image for mankind and then crafted each person, just as an architect has a blue-print for a house before construction begins.
Major Existential Writers
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) – Considered to be a major precursor of the movement. Wrote numerous journals and papers, often participating in both sides of a debate through pseudonyms. His Either/Or is a study of aesthetic versus ethical living.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) – Prolific author who influenced Sartre and other existentialists. His Brothers Karamazov presents the debate: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted." His books are filled with characters unable to fit into society and unhappy with the roles they create for themselves.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) – Made famous the phrase “God is dead", meaning that humanity was without a divine guide. His novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra introduces the concept of the Übermensch, which is a human above the need to dream of other-worldliness.
Franz Kafka (1883-1924) – He wrote about alienation and father-son conflict in a surreal style. His Metamorphosis is the story of a traveling salesman who wakes up one day to find he has become a giant bug, causing him great introspection.
Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) – Was the first to use the phrase “existential" to define current and past philosophers. His Existential Background of Human Dignity is a collection of lectures he gave at Harvard.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) – One of the leading figures in existentialism following World War II. He became internationally famous. His Being and Nothingness introduced the phrase “Existence precedes essence". The book is a treatise on free will.
Albert Camus (1913-1960) – Comrade of Sartre's. Founder of the absurdist movement, stating that anything can happen to anyone. It runs contrary to karmic thought believing that good things happen to deserving people. His Myth of Sisyphus documents the struggle of a man doomed to push the same rock up the same hill forever.
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) – Key contributor to the “Theater of the Absurd". His Waiting for Godot is the interaction between two men waiting, but they know not why they wait. It signifies the pointlessness of life.
This school of therapy believes that inner conflict is based on the individual confronting responsibility, freedom and inevitable death. Rollo May (1909-1994) was a pioneer in the field. His Love and Will states that an awareness of death is essential to a happy life.
Irvin Yalom, who was heavily influenced by May, identified four main themes of existential theory: death, freedom and responsibility, isolation, and meaninglessness. They are at the root of all human suffering, Yalom states, yet have no ultimate answers.
"Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level."
~Ernest Becker, 1973, The Denial of Death.
"...hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like the roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made."
~Lu Xun, 1921/1959, "My Old Home".
"...the individual is defined only by his relationship to the world and to other individuals; he exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of himself."
~Simone de Beauvoir, 1948, The Ethics Of Ambiguity.
"I call a lie: wanting not to see something one does see, wanting not to see something as one sees it... The most common lie is the lie one tells to oneself; lying to others is relatively the exception."
~Friedrich Nietzsche, 1894/1990, The Anti-Christ.
"...despair is suffering without meaning."
~Viktor E. Frankl, 2000, Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning.
"The greatest cause of evil included all human motives in one giant paradox. Good and bad were so inextricably mixed that we couldn't make them out; bad seemed to lead to good, and good motives led to bad. The paradox is that evil comes from man's urge to heroic victory over evil."
~Ernest Becker (1975), Escape from Evil.
"There can be no question of holding forth on ethics. I have seen people behave badly with great morality and I note every day that integrity has no need of rules."
~Albert Camus, 1955, The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays.