Authenticity & Your Self: “The Existentialist’s Survival Guide” (Book Summary)

Oct 27, 2018 · 10 min read

“He who studies with a philosopher should take home with him some good thing every day; he should daily return home a sounder man, or on the way to becoming sounder.” — Seneca (4BC–AD65)

I’m a fan of philosophy and have been a “student of life” for years. The Seneca quote above from The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age by Gordon Marino reminds me of a couple other similar quotes I love:

Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive. For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that have passed before them are added to their own. Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepared for us a way of life. By the toil of others we are led into the presence of things which have been brought from darkness into light. — Seneca

Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. — Epictetus

Philosophy is an interesting subject — there are many perspectives and opinions, agreements and disagreements, and never-ending debates. Even the philosophers under the category of “existentialists” don’t agree on everything.

The Existentialist’s Survival Guide covers all the key areas of life: anxiety, depression, despair, death, authenticity, faith, morality, and love. Needless to say, it has something for everyone. Each person who reads it will resonate with different parts, and your aha moments and insights will likely differ from mine.

Even my own mindset reading this book in 2018 was likely very different than how I would have read this book three years ago during my existential crisis. Today, I’m more interested in an optimistic outlook on life, and I was specifically interested in the book’s content around authenticity. Keep that in mind as you read this summary because you’ll notice that my notes definitely favor some areas more than others. All quotes are from the author unless stated otherwise.

The Purpose of The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age

  • “My aim in this book is to articulate the life-enhancing insights of the existentialists.”
  • “This survival guide is designed to help you get over…stumbling blocks.”
  • “As the subtitle of this book indicates, authenticity is a common theme. Thanks, to some degree, to the ever-presence of and pandemic addiction to social media, we live in an era in which appearances seem more important than reality. Today, there is little premium placed on being authentic.”
  • “The how-to in this book is one of how to lead an authentic life in an inauthentic world.”

What is Existentialism?

  • “Existentialism is a state in the union of philosophy, and philosophy is the love of wisdom — as opposed to knowledge — where wisdom might be understood as a pretheoretical understanding of how to live.”
  • “It has been argued that the roots of existentialism were planted as science began to displace faith in what Max Weber termed ‘the disenchantment of nature.’”
  • “Existentialism became popular in America during this post–World War II period, christened by the poet W. H. Auden (1907–1973) ‘the age of anxiety.’”

Who are the Existentialists?

  • “For the most part, the reflections in this book keep company with Kierkegaard, Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881), Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936), Camus, and other literary exponents of the existential tradition.”
  • “Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and other existentialist thinkers faced life unblinkered and were nevertheless able to lead authentic lives and keep their heads and hearts intact.”
  • “Existentialists have been perennially concerned with questions about the very meaning of life, questions that tend to come to the fore when we have become unmoored from our everyday anchorage.” (Note: Ah yes, an existential crisis.)
  • “I was attracted to the existentialists because, more than any other assemblage of authors, they recognized and addressed the hard fact that life is not a romantic journey but a daunting trek, or maybe, as Schopenhauer writes, ‘a task to be worked off.’”

Knowledge, Wisdom, & Truth:

  • “Kierkegaard believed that when it came to the essentials in life — say, how to be a righteous and faithful individual — we have all the knowledge we need. Integrity demands many things, but it does not depend on acquiring new knowledge.”
  • “Going back to the pre-Socratics (and still much alive in the dialogues of Plato), there has been an ongoing debate among the lovers of wisdom as to whether wisdom is best transmitted in the form of mythos, stories and poems, or in the form of logos, explanations and reason. As the reader will witness, the existentialists who inhabit the following pages delightfully combine elements of both poetry and reason. Most of the writers who have helped me to continue putting one foot in front of the other are logical enough, but tend to rely on stories to transmit their insights about how to live.”
  • “Much of the wisdom found in Western philosophy is faceted to the task of forming an inner compass, of finding something that will keep us constant and steady as the outer and inner world continuously shifts.”
  • “I repeat, the love that philosophy refers to is not a love of knowledge but a love of wisdom, an understanding of how to live a moral and good life.”
  • “The hunger for truth ought to be something more than intellectual curiosity; it ought to be a hunger for truths that build you up, that make you a better human being, if not necessarily a happier individual.”

What Makes Humanity Unique:

  • “For Kierkegaard, humans are uniquely paradoxical creatures, walking and talking contradictions. We are a synthesis of the temporal and eternal, the finite and the infinite, necessity and possibility.”
  • “Nagel explains that the experience of the absurd derives from the simple fact that we humans are unique in our capacity to take two different perspectives on our lives — the everyday view in which we go about our business, and another objective vantage point from which we can look at our lives sub specie aeternitatis.”
  • “Camus contends that we are creatures with an innate, esurient desire for meaning pitched into a universe devoid of meaning. Camus’s existential prescription is that we accept the futility of our innermost desires and remain faithful to that recognition of the absurd.” (Note: Personally, I disagree that the universe is devoid of meaning. I’m in the camp of Duane Elgin, author of Voluntary Simplicity, who believes we live in a living universe.)

On Authenticity:

  • “Is the litmus test of authenticity the gap between who we feel we are and who we present ourselves to be?” (Note: YES! I believe this to be to the case. Much of life can be explained by the gaps between expectations and reality, like how to be happy.)
  • “It is not surprising that in the late fifties and sixties authenticity and existentialism would become terms married to each other. After all, existentialists of almost every ilk stressed honesty with oneself, walking your talk, becoming your true self…Americans felt as though Big Brother was watching over them in a disguised but powerful demand for conformity. For all our professed individualism, there was a persistent worry about being a phony, about selling your soul so you could land a job with a company that would put your body in the right kind of car.” (Note: Could help explain the history of American busyness.)
  • “The view of the virtues embedded in existentialism often returns to the requirement to be honest with oneself. And authenticity requires that we be candid with ourselves as to whether or not we have truly appropriated the opinions that we might be slapped on the back for espousing.”
  • “In his measured defense of an ‘ethic of authenticity,’ renowned philosopher Charles Taylor quotes Gail Sheehy’s bestseller Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life as an example of the authenticity/individual self-fulfillment equation. Sheehy homilizes: ‘You can’t take everything with you when you leave on the midlife journey. You are moving away. Away from institutional claims and other people’s agenda. Away from external valuations and accreditations. You are moving out of roles and into the self. If I could give everyone a gift for the send-off on this journey, it would be a tent. A tent for tentativeness. The gift of portable roots. . . . For each of us there is an opportunity to emerge reborn, authentically unique. . . . The delights of self-discovery are always available.’”
  • “Taylor writes: ‘If authenticity is being true to ourselves, is recovering our own ‘sentiment de l’existence,’ then perhaps we can only achieve it integrally if we recognize that this sentiment connects us to a wider whole. It was perhaps not an accident that in the Romantic period the self-feeling and the feeling of belonging to nature were linked.’”

On Being & Discovering/Creating Yourself (or Your Self):

  • “Authenticity came to be seen as a matter of being as opposed to having.”
  • “Kierkegaard suspects that people who fulfill their ideal selves will be inclined to think that they have hit the bull’s-eye of life.” (Note: I agree! Maybe even the bull’s-eye of Ikigai.)
  • “Other than Nietzsche, the existentialists associated authenticity with becoming your true self. The line of fracture that we walk in this book is one between thinking of your ‘true self’ as a creation or as a discovery. Is there a deeper self that we were meant to discover and actualize, or is becoming yourself akin to an artistic creation, with the palette consisting of your culture, talents, feelings?” (Note: I believe your true self is both: a process of discovering who you are and creating who you want to be.)
  • “To become authentic is to become yourself. When Nietzsche implores, ‘Become who you are,’ like Heidegger he is prodding us to create ourselves. For Nietzsche, Sartre, and Heidegger, we are a witch’s brew of culture, feelings, experiences, and evaluations, and we create ourselves out of this mélange, as though our lives were an artwork.” (Note: Your life is a masterpiece, but you only get to paint a tiny part of it each day.)
  • “A student of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Tolstoy, Heidegger abstains from referring to people in the traditional terms of subjects and objects. Instead, he refers to humans using the neologism Dasein, which translates to ‘being there.’ Make of this what you will, but for Heidegger a human being is essentially an opening in being itself — an opening in which being questions the meaning of being.”
  • “Philosophers from Hume onward regard the very idea of the self as bordering on a fiction. In sharp contrast, Kierkegaard is a true believer in the self as an entity and as a task. It is, Kierkegaard claimed, no surprise that there is no universal definition of the self because the self is a particular, and ‘no science can say what the self is without again stating it quite generally. And this is the wonder of life, that each man who is mindful of himself knows what no science knows, since he knows who he himself is.’ It is our sacred and appointed duty ‘to become our true self,’ which the Kierkegaard of The Sickness unto Death equates with becoming a true human being, a spirit. Again, the little word if, but if Kierkegaard is correct, we can’t wait for a nice, tidy definition of the self before taking up the task of trying to become ourselves. Take heed, says he, ‘The first thing to keep in mind is that every human being is an individual human being and is to become conscious of being an individual human being.’”
  • “A sentence that encapsulates the leitmotif of this book: ‘The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation.’” (Kierkegaard)

Choices, Challenges, & Change:

  • “With regard to faith and everything else Kierkegaardian, the accent is on passion and action.”
  • “For Sartre, we are who we choose to be. We define ourselves by our choices, which, along with freedom, is another theme unifying the existentialists.” (Note: Your Beliefs → Your Behaviors → What You Become.)
  • “Kierkegaard describes anxiety as ‘the dizziness of freedom.’ In anxiety I can come to understand that I am free, that I am a creature fraught through and through with possibilities. That freedom, the necessity to constantly make choices, to realize this possibility and close down another, is a font of anxiety.” (Note: Choice is a good thing, to a point. Turns out too much choice is a bad thing.)
  • “From Kierkegaard to Camus, the existentialists are profoundly aware that life is an incomparable gift, albeit a gift that is also a challenge.”
  • “The existentialists who make up the conversations in this book recognized that things don’t always work out for the best. They address life as it is.” (Note: We could all practice a little more non-judgment.)
  • “The thinkers between these covers do not offer a step-by-step plan for coping with our feelings of inadequacy, or a checklist of behaviors to avoid. Instead of detailing some strategy for assuaging our depression, they might tender advice on how to keep our moral and spiritual bearings when it feels as though we are going under.”
  • “Whether it be from Kierkegaard or the existential psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl, one of the gospel messages to be garnered from existentialism is that suffering can break a person or turn him or her into a rock, but suffering can also provide the impetus for spiritual movement.”
  • “Yet the Tolstoy of Ivan Ilych wanted his readers to understand that, with its lack of authenticity and brotherly love, modern life is spiritual death.”

Death & Peace:

  • “One day and again, who knows when, all will be over. You won’t be able to change a sentence of the story of your life.” (Note: Your life is only 1% of recorded history.)
  • “There will come a time when there will be no more time, when ‘all is over.’”
  • “Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Camus, Heidegger, and other existentialists were always walking back and forth over their graves, always thinking about the meaning of death in life.” (Note: Write your own eulogy now to get the rest of your life.)
  • “Socrates was the patron saint of the Stoics. Buddhist-like, the Stoics took ataraxy, or peace of mind, to be of supreme value. They were convinced that there is no greater threat to inner tranquility than the dread of death.”
  • “Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)…remarked that if human beings could only learn to sit still with themselves, there would be peace on earth.”

Interested in more book summaries? You can view all my book summaries here.


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