The Popularity of Existentialism
Posted: 14/10/2015 15:34 BST Updated: 14/10/2015 15:59 BST
Existentialism appears to be everywhere. According to UK Prime Minister David Cameron IS poses an ‘existential threat’ to the West. It is not uncommon to read about Europe being in the midst of an ‘existential crisis’ brought about by the displacement of untold number of people seeking a safe environment. Even the Moors murderer Ian Brady had the audacity to describe his barbarity as an ‘existential exercise’. I expect we will be hearing of New-Old Labour having an existential crisis for quite some time to come now the bearded JC has declared a policy of ‘honest communication’, a Catch-22 for politicians if ever there was one.
But when did all this existentialism come to the forefront of public consciousness? When I was a student in the 70s at Exeter University even bearded professors of jurisprudence would go a little bit pink around the gills using the word ‘existentialism’ as if it was just a tad too pretentious. Or maybe such academics were worried that only those who had read Jean-Paul Sartre in French were entitled to utter such a fearfully loaded philosophical term rooted well outside the grounds of any British tradition.
Whether one traces the concept of existentialism to Sartre, Kant, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Hegel, Kafka, Kierkegaard or even Plato’s simile of the cave, there are not many British ‘fathers’ of existentialism around.
A relatively recent Anglo-Saxon reference point for existentialism was Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’ published to immediate critical acclaim in 1956 at a time when the Suez Canal crisis would not be described in ‘existential’ terms; it was simply a crisis.
There are today literally hundreds of existential-related works in print, many now using the term existential in a therapeutic context, as in ‘existential therapy’. One could argue that both in the USA, across Europe and in the UK there is a whole industry dedicated to and predicated upon ‘existentialism’.
However I wonder whether credit should be placed on the shoulders of R.D. Laing, my much-maligned dad whose first book: ‘The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness’ published in 1960, appears to have had and continues to have significant influence in the popularization of ‘existentialism’.
But what is meant by existentialism? Perhaps the concept of ‘existential thought’ is best captured in a speech by R.D. Laing entitled ‘Practice and Theory’, first delivered at the Sixth International Congress for Psychotherapy held in London, later published as a leading article in The New Society published on the 1st of October 1964:
‘Existential thought is a flame which constantly melts and recasts its own verbal objectifications. It offers no security, no home for the homeless. It addresses no one except you and me. It finds its validation when, across the gulf of our idioms and styles, our mistakes, errings and perversities, we recognize in the other’s communication a certain common experience of relationship that we are seeking to convey, knowing that we shall never entirely succeed.’
Is Individualism Good or Bad?
Posted: 10/07/2013 3:25 pm EDT Updated: 01/23/2014 6:58 pm EST
Whatever the downsides of individualism, there is vastly more to the credit side of its ledger than to the debit side. If you look at paintings before the Renaissance, only Jesus and perhaps the Virgin Mary and a few saints were painted as real people – everyone else was faceless or identical in appearance. From the Renaissance onward, paintings began to be populated by real people, masses of them. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, for example, in The Peasant Wedding, depicts individual, identifiable people having fun. Individualism actually derived from the Christian idea that God could live in individuals, and that each life was therefore precious. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor says, “we naturally think that we have selves the way we have heads or arms, and inner depths the way we have hearts or livers”, but pre-Christian humanity did not have this sense at all. The origin of individuality was religious, and although often ignored or glossed over, in time the idea of human dignity adhering even to the lowest of the low, transformed society from a place of brutality to one in which the relief of suffering has assumed high priority.
The enemies of individualism, such as the communists and the Nazis, had the same view of the mass of humanity as the Romans had – fodder fit only for slavery, sexual and economic exploitation, torture, and execution on the slightest whim or pretext. Whether it was the poor, the Jews, women, homosexuals, or those who lived in other countries, little was expected from the masses and little was given to them. The only bulwark against cruelty, indifference and callousness is individualism, the view that every person has a sacred soul and is in some vital sense the equal of everyone else. There is much wrong with Western society, but it is the most humane and most liberating that has ever existed – by a very wide margin.
The practical result of individualism has been the explosion of wealth that the world has seen since the eighteenth century. Before then, the great majority of people suffered malnutrition and disease, when they did not actually starve to death. Individualism has fuelled invention, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and all the enterprise that has led to cheap necessities and fairly cheap luxuries – decent clothes, affordable housing, abundant food, and the mobility brought by bicycles, cars, trains and planes. None of this was possible before there was a cadre of highly creative inventors, engineers, entrepreneurs, and knowledge-workers, before people were allowed and encouraged to create, and allowed to keep some of the wealth that they generated.
So – it is all well and good to criticize individualism, but a look at the alternatives – ancient and modern – should persuade us that we should be more temperate in our criticism.
My second contention is that individualism has been an enormous success in encouraging ordinary people to realize their potential and their inner depths. This is not self-help claptrap and has taken a long time to arrive, to be a reality for most ordinary people in the West. We can trace the unfolding of inner potential through writers such as Shakespeare – “to thine own self be true” and Michel de Montaigne. In an essay the latter wrote in 1580, he provides a remarkably modern justification of individualism:
Properly conceived, individualism is not at all selfish. Individualism and personalization are moral and social processes. They are nothing less than humanity’s quest for personal freedom and responsible self-expression.
Individualism originated in personal responsibility before God and has evolved into the belief that ethical authority comes from within, from the sacred self. Historically, individualism has always led to higher demands on the person, culminating in the modern Western assumption that everyone has a unique destiny to fulfill.
The answer to individualism’s critics – and to the personal dilemma that many of us feel, that individualism is tbut can feel barren and selfish – is to resolutely insist that individualism develops us in the service of something larger than ourselves. This is what individualism has always meant, and still means. Individualism is not the preserve of the Tea Party or Thatcherites. There is no point in developing ourselves, except to be useful to other people. We do not need to appeal to altruism, but to self-interest. It is no fun to be selfish and self-obsessed. True fine individuals get their kicks from using their talents in a cause in which they believe. We develop ourselves for a higher cause, because that is the route to happiness and meaning.
It doesn’t matter much what the higher cause is, as long as it benefits other people or humanity as a whole. The cause can be art, ideas, a particular community, a club, the creation of products, the service of a team, family, nation, God, or a small group of friends. There is no shortage of causes. There is just a lack of understanding that to be authentic, to be worthwhile, and to be personally rewarding, individualism has to serve a higher cause than the self. So the next time that someone tells you that individualism has shut down the US government, tell them that true individualism would open it up, and make it work infinitely better. Let’s have an end to this carping about individualism, which, properly understood, is the glory and beauty of the West. Instead, let us each reflect on what we can do, individually and personally, to realize our potential and make the world a better place.