Existentialism is an attempt to find meaning in life when there is cause to despair.
Why would anyone believe that there is cause to despair? The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism refers to reasons, as it interacts with the thoughts of such existentialists as Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Reasons for despair can include arriving at the conclusion that God is dead, the inevitability of death, life not going as one believes it should, the absurdity or apparent meaninglessness of life, the feeling that one’s limitations hinder one from improving his or her situation, or fear of being judged by others. Existentialist solutions to this despair include having goals, creativity, and making a conscious decision to accept life as it is. Christian existentialists, such as Kierkegaard, regard faith in God as a solution: a person takes a risk by committing his or her only life to God.
My stereotype of existentialists was that they were moody and depressed, felt alienated from the world around them, and were more interested in the individual search for meaning than the well-being of society. I wanted to read about existentialism because I was hoping that I would find in it a kindred spirit: yes, I am concerned about the well-being of society, but I am also moody and brooding, and I have often felt alienated.
While my stereotype of existentialism is not totally off the mark, there is more to the story. Some existentialists are more hopeful than others. Sartre, for example, was rather pessimistic about human beings, thinking that they used others for their own ends. And yet, Sartre was very concerned about the well-being of society: Sartre leaned towards Communism, yet he became disillusioned with it on account of Soviet oppression. Sartre also was critical of racism and colonialism. I remember an episode of Family Ties in which Stephen Keaton was debating with his daughter Jennifer about whether or not Kierkegaard addressed the social problems of his day: Jennifer’s stance (which the show implied was correct) was that Kierkegaard believed that concern for politics detracted from one’s spirituality. Stephen told Jennifer to go to her room! Jennifer may have been correct about Kierkegaard, but it does not surprise me that there were existentialists who believed that politics were important, for existentialists believe in human freedom, and political systems do have an impact on that, for good or for ill.
In addition, it seemed to me as I read The Cambridge Companion to Existentialism that many existentialists valued community. Yes, Nietzsche placed a value on non-conformity. Yes, Sartre said that hell is other people! Yet, there seemed to be an acknowledgement among many existentialists that who we are is based, at least in part, on our community—-where we are. There also appears to be some hope that community can be a solution to one’s existential crises, on some level.