Saturday, January 23, 2010

9.3 Existentialism and Identity

Previous posts in this chapter have been:
9.1 Biological Machines
9.2 Socially-Constructed Identity

9.3 Existentialism and Identity
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), one of the best known atheists and skeptics of the 1800s, is often quoted for his famous line, “God is dead.”[i] However, Nietzsche’s point in saying it was not so much to argue for the non-existence of God as to show what he thought the implications were.[ii] The twentieth century saw a proliferation of atheism, and we may very well be witnessing a further decline in Christianity in North America already this century as well.[iii] Many of those who adopt an atheist position do so with the same ignorance that Nietzsche himself talked about well over a hundred years ago. In that respect, Nietzsche is sometimes called a prophet of the twentieth century. Popular atheism failed to recognize the potentially disastrous consequences of what a world without God might look like, potentially justifying things like holocausts and world annihilation.

In his 1882 book, The Gay Science, Nietzsche depicts a madman coming to a marketplace where a group of people are more celebratory than anything at the fact that God is dead (125). The madman tries to make them realize what they have done in killing God, but they are uninterested. He finally goes away, concluding that they do not know what the consequences will be. In particular, the madman claims that we will have to become like gods to be worthy of having killed God. What Nietzsche meant is fairly clear from his other writings, not least his novel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

If God is dead, Nietzsche argued, then we are entirely responsible for who we are and what we do.[iv] Echoing Fyodor Dostoevsky, who did believe in God, Nietzsche would write that if God does not exist, “Nothing is true; everything is permissible.”[v] Nietzsche thus developed his understanding of the “superman,” the person who has a strong enough will to create him or herself. Ordinary people, “men” needed God to tell them who they are and what they can and cannot do. If God is dead, then “men” must either become “supermen” and create their own identities, or they must follow and obey those who do have such a “will to power.”[vi]

Nietzsche’s philosophy thus both stood at the end of a long deterioration of theism while also trying to find meaning in a meaningless world.[vii] In chapter 7, we looked at some of the changes in Western culture that led from a world in which almost everyone believed that God existed and was actively involved in the world (theism) to the Enlightenment where many believed God had created the world but was no longer involved (deism) to a worldview in which everything could be explained on a purely natural and scientific basis (naturalism). What Nietzsche effectively predicted was that a world in which God does not exist to give meaning to the world is a nihilistic world, a world that lacks any intrinsic meaning or purpose. If God does not exist as a Guarantor of meaning and right and wrong, then everything is ultimately meaningless.

At the same time, Nietzsche anticipated a twentieth century movement called existentialism. It is a “glass is half empty” view to say that everything is meaningless. The “glass is half full” view that corresponds to it is to consider everything as equally meaningful. If there is no real or intrinsic meaning to the world, then any meaning I adopt and make my own is just as meaningful as anything else. The existentialists of the mid-twentieth century thus taught that we create our own identities. We make ourselves what we are. Therefore, an existentialist would say we are whatever we will ourselves to be. A human person is a creator of identity, and identity is self-constructed.

Probably the best known existentialists of the twentieth century were Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) and Albert Camus (1913-60). Sartre captures existentialism well, particularly atheistic existentialism, in his motto, “Existence precedes essence.” Existence is whether or not we exist, that we are. By contrast, our essence is what we are. Our essential characteristics are the things that, if you changed them, we would be someone different. Sartre himself put it in this way:

"What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man [sic] 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. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism" (“Existence is a Humanism,” 1946).

Sartre is basically saying the same thing as Nietzsche did. Humanity has no objective identity, no “what it really is” and no “what it should be.” We are born; we come into existence. But we are the ones who have to decide what we are, what our essence will be. “Man [sic] is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.”[viii] For Sartre, therefore, none of us have a destiny. We have to determine who we are.

“A man [sic] can live with any how, if he has a why.” Victor Frankl

“One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” Simone de Beauvoir

“Every man [sic] is born as many men and dies as a single one.” Martin Heidegger

At the same time, it does not matter to the atheistic existentialist what we choose to be. One identity is as legitimate as any other. Albert Camus (pronounced Al-BEAR Ca-MOO) is known for saying that, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”[ix] Behind this comment was the idea that life itself has no objective meaning. It does not matter whether we live or die. Camus wrote a number of novels in the genre of the theater of the absurd. In novels like The Stranger, he portrayed matters of life and death taking place by pure chance and happenstance, with matters we experience as incredibly serious treated casually and as insignificant. Things we might consider absurd are really no different from things we consider significant.

The positive is that any reason we find to live, to go on, becomes valid. Why have you not committed suicide? Any reason you have to live is as legitimate as it is absurd. Go with it.
Do you love to help the needy and liberate the oppressed? Wonderful! You have found a reason to live. Do you love collecting rocks or stamps or repeatedly seeing how many times you can hop on one leg? Great! Go for it. You have found a reason to live.

While we might most associate existentialism with atheism, we can also speak of a certain Christian existentialism. Indeed, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55), whom we have met before, has as much claim to be the founder of existentialism as anyone else. As we saw in chapter 2, Kierkegaard is the one that promoted ideas like a “leap of faith” or “blind faith.” For him, we cannot find any compelling rational basis for our faith. Therefore, our faith is a matter of our choice. We take a leap of faith into Christian faith. The problem with Kierkegaard’s approach, of course, is that it gives us no compelling reason not to jump just as well into Islam or atheism.

Nevertheless, some of the imagery of existentialism can fit with certain forms of Christianity. Existentialism emphasizes the importance of identity as a matter of individual choice. While Christians do not believe the nature of this identity is a free-for-all or a matter of individual determination, many Christians do believe that a person can be “born again” as a new person, a new creation by a choice for Christ. The New Testament itself uses the imagery of moving from death to life (e.g., 1 John 3:14). Many Christians might say, thus, that we take on our true identity when we make a choice to have faith.[x]

[i] Nietzsche makes this statement both in The Gay Science (1882) and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85).
[ii] That is to say, Nietzsche concluded early in his life that God did not exist. His writings were not arguments to advance the idea that God did not exist but rather his sense of what the implications of God’s non-existence were for morality and human identity.
[iii] A book to consult here is The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christendom (Oxford: Oxford University, 2007).
[iv] Another key work of Nietzsche here is Beyond Good and Evil (1886).
[v] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part 4, “The Shadow.” Nietzsche and Dostoevsky apparently reached similar conclusions independently about what is true if God does not exist. However, Dostoevsky did so with faith that God actually did exist. His novel Crime and Punishment (1866) is an apt expression of his understanding.
[vi] It is generally argued that Nietzsche would not have thought of Hitler as such a “Superman,” even though Hilter himself did,
[vii] An interesting book that aims at tracing the philosophical deterioration of faith in God over the last few centuries is James Sire’s, The Universe Next Door, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009).
[viii] “Existence is Humanism.”
[ix] The Myth of Sisyphus.
[x] The Zeitgeist or spirit of the age has in fact often taken Christians too far. Historically, Christianity has not believed that I can decide to have faith in my own power. Orthodox Christianity believes that it is only by God’s gracious empowerment that anyone can make a choice for God.


Anonymous said...

That's not a problem with Kierkegaard's approach, but a consequence of it. Kierkegaard himself embraced that people will convert to Atheism, as long as it is honestly how they feel. You have to remember that SK was writing about Christianity only for those who have decided to leap towards Christianity with all its paradoxes. Kierkegaard really is the father of existentialism.

A.H. said...

This comment is also in regard to Kierkegaard. When reading Kierkegaard's works I think one has to keep a couple things in mind: 1. He was a Christian who was trying to serve God through his work. His work is not just intellectual theorization.

2. He uses drama to heighten and underscore ideas... thus pushing them farther than you or I would take them - to make a point.

3. His "leap of faith" was a reaction to the intellectual rejection of God. Kiekegaard rejects their God - reason and proofs. Noting that God is beyond our comprehension and that what Christians have been called, and empowered to do, defies the reason of the world. It is an act of faith (which is contrary to our natures) that we are truly following Christ, taking up our crosses.

We are to die so that we may live - how is that not absurd? Yet it is truth.