UC Berkeley has placed a collection of their course lectures on iTunes for free. Yesterday I listened to two lectures. The first was a Homecoming speech given by an Engineer turned biologist called Life as Beautifully Engineered Systems (iTunes link). The second was the first lecture (iTunes Link) by Professor Hubert Dreyfus for the Philosophy course Existentialism in Literature and Film.
To begin, Professor Dreyfus surprised me by stating that both Camus and Sartre would be absent from the course work. In the case of Camus, he explained that Camus was (by his own admission) a pagan, rather than an existentialist. I’ll return to this in a moment, but first, the omission of Sartre. Here, Dreyfus states that Sartre is “the most derivative and least radical” in a long line of Existential thinkers. In another words, Sartre’s philosophies are “watered-down”. As an arm-chair philosopher, this is the reason why I enjoy Sartre; however, I would replace “watered-down” with “distilled”. Sartre may not have been the most original of the Existentialist, but he has saved me a lot of reading. ;)
So, you might ask, what is existentialism? To which I would answer by quoting Sartre: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” By our actions we define, not only who we are, but what it is to be human. In atheistic existentialism, this essence of Man is forged without the direction of God.
“[I]f 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 by any conception of it. That being is man […]. [M]an first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards. […] Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is.”
Critics charged that this “death of God” would lead to despair, and nihilism. The existentialists believed instead that their philosophy would have Man take responsibility for his own actions, which would lead to a sense of purpose in a supposed meaningless(/Godless) existence. No longer would Man need to live by, and for, the laws and meaning instilled by a Creator. Sartre again:
“[T]he first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men. [… O]f all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. [If] I decide to marry and to have children, even though this decision proceeds simply from my situation, from my passion or my desire, I am thereby committing not only myself, but humanity as a whole, to the practice of monogamy. I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.”
Now, I hadn’t expected this to lead to a long discourse, so I’ll return quickly to Camus. I thought about Camus on the bus this morning. I realized that if he was truly a pagan (i.e. free from Jueduo-Christian influence) he would be missing an element of Forlornness present in most Existential literature. This element stemming from the distressing thought that God does not exist, or as Nietzsche wrote:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it?”
Nietzsche was pre-Existentialist, but shared their distress over the lost of God. He feared, and attempted to prevent, a cultural shift towards nihilism brought about by both the freedoms, and grave responsibilities, of a world without God. (But I digress…)
So was Camus a pagan? I’m not sure, I guess I’ll have to bring my copy of L’Etranger along for the bus ride tomorrow.
I’ll end with a (rather long) quote from Waking Life:
“The reason why I refuse to take existentialism as just another French fashion or historical curiosity is that I think it has something very important to offer us for the new century. I’m afraid we’re losing the real virtues of living life passionately, a sense of taking responsibility for who you are, the ability to make something of yourself and feeling good about life.
Existentialism is often discussed as if it’s a philosophy of despair. But I think the truth is just the opposite. Sartre once interviewed said he never really felt a day of despair in his life. But one thing that comes out from reading these guys is not a sense of anguish about life so much as a real kind of exuberance of feeling on top of it. It’s like your life is yours to create.
I’ve read the postmodernists with some interest, even admiration. But when I read them, I always have this awful nagging feeling that something absolutely essential is getting left out. The more that you talk about a person as a social construction or as a confluence of forces or as fragmented or marginalized, what you do is you open up a whole new world of excuses. And when Sartre talks about responsibility, he’s not talking about something abstract. He’s not talking about the kind of self or soul that theologians would argue about. It’s something very concrete. It’s you and me talking. Making decisions. Doing things and taking the consequences.
It might be true that there are six billion people in the world and counting. Nevertheless, what you do makes a difference. It makes a difference, first of all, in material terms. It makes a difference to other people, and it sets an example. In short, I think the message here is that we should never simply write ourselves off and see ourselves as the victim of various forces. It’s always our decision who we are.”